Book haul

Yesterday was my birthday, and although it might have been wiser to stay home, since life has been crazy lately and there was plenty I needed to do, including most especially sleep and try to recover from the cold that might one of these days kill me (it feels like it will at any rate), I instead took a train to Manhattan to visit some new-to-me bookstores and buy books. Here’s my haul:

I stopped first at Albertine, which specializes in books in French, although it has books in English as well. It’s the kind of store that is small (even smaller for me since I don’t read French) but makes up for that by having extremely well-chosen books, including many small-press titles you won’t find elsewhere. It’s here that I bought Anne Garréta’s Sphinx. The space was beautiful, worth stopping by for the calm, contemplative atmosphere alone. It’s across the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, pretty much, and so worth taking a look at after a day in the museum next time you are there.

Then I went on to Rizzoli Bookstore, another beautiful space filled with carefully-selected volumes. Here I bought Sarah Ruhl’s 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write, a book I have almost bought several times but always put back on the shelves. Finally I was ready to commit, and felt vindicated when the bookseller who helped me pay told me she loved the book. I love getting bookseller approval.

Then I went to the Strand and headed straight downstairs to the literary nonfiction section, which is the best of its kind anywhere I’ve ever been. They have shelf after shelf after shelf of memoirs, essays, biographies, autobiographies, other kinds of nonfiction, and it’s my idea of bookish heaven. There I found Close to the Knives by David Wojnarowicz, Shame and Wonder by David Searcy, Poor Your Soul by Mira Ptacin, The Two Kind of Decay by Sarah Manguso, Hammer Head, by Nina MacLaughlin, Savage Park and Eight by Amy Fusselman, and Minor Characters, by Joyce Johnson. I could have gotten so much more, but my arms were starting to get tired and my cold was getting bad, so I thought it was time to stop. All in all, it was a good trip, but I made sure to get home in time to have a comfy evening on the couch to do a little reading. I have so, so much of it to do!


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Oreo vs. Man Tiger

As I’ve described in earlier posts, I’ve been participating in an “Alternative Tournament of Books” on Goodreads — “Alternative” meaning something like “celebration of” and “we can’t wait for the real TOB to start, so let’s do one right now!” Today I got to be the judge. It was fun to write up a decision like the real TOB judges do, and I got to read two fabulous books to do it. Below is the text of my decision. (You can find all the other decisions here.)

Oreo vs. Man Tiger


Following the Tournament of Books the last few years – and being a reader, a reviewer, a person who likes to talk about books, a person who teaches English – has taught me the many ways that our tastes are subjective; I’ve seen that the opinions that strike us as so very fair, so carefully-reasoned, so obvious, are actually idiosyncratic and personal. So I’ll be upfront with my biases. I like many kinds of novels, but I love novels that attempt to do something new with the form. Plot can be awesome, good characters are essential, well-crafted sentences are great, but the novel that really knocks my socks off is the one that makes me think, “I don’t think I’ve read anything like this before.”

Now, Oreo vs. Man Tiger. I’m already in trouble making this decision because both of these books twist the novel form into new shapes. First, let’s look at Eka Kurniawan’s Man Tiger. This is the more traditional of the two books: it has no mathematical formulas or charts and graphs; it offers the kinds of details about scene and event that we are used to; the writing is straightforward and accessible. But, and this is a big “but,” the main character, Margio, has a tiger living inside him, and we are offered no explanation for this. We are told that this tiger was passed down to Margio from his grandfather, but otherwise, it’s an impossible situation we are asked to accept – or perhaps it’s more accurate to say Kurniawan simply assumes we will accept it.

This, in my case, was a good assumption. Kurniawan describes the presence of this tiger in such clear, convincing detail that I didn’t balk at the absurdity. Of course, the title prepares us for the presence of a tiger, but I would have guessed that “Man Tiger” was meant as a metaphor, not as something “real.” But it’s actually a tiger living inside a human, and one that – prepare for some gruesomeness – makes Margio kill a man by biting through his neck. This scene is captured in such gory detail, I was both sickened and compelled to read on. This is the most grittily realistic of magical realism:

The idea came to him all of a sudden, as a burst of light in his brain. He spoke of hosting something inside his body, something other than guts and entrails. It poured out and steered him, encouraging him to kill. That thing was so strong, he told the police, he didn’t need a weapon of any kind. He held Anwar Sadat tight. The man was startled and struggled, but the pressure holding his arms was intense. He sank his teeth into the left side of Anwar Sadat’s neck, like a man roughly kissing the skin below his lover’s ear, complete with grunts and passionate warmth.

That “Man Tiger” Margio becomes (through a simile) Sadat’s lover is horrifying and brilliant.

Kurniawan’s combination of realism and absurdity was enough to capture my heart and mind, but I found the novel’s structure intriguing as well. It tells basically the whole story in the first chapter, minus some key details. It’s a story of bad fathers, disillusioned wives, and disobedient children, of pregnancy and murder and circuses and swords. The first chapter is a marvel of both scene-setting and action. And then the rest of the novel is back story, filling in the details of why Anwar Sadat died and why Margio killed him. I wasn’t expecting this. In a more traditionally-written narrative, the story might have ended with the murder, or moved on from the murder to explore its consequences. Instead, the bulk of the novel is filling in the gaps in the first chapter, and the marvel is that this gap-filling is so compelling.

But then there is Oreo, originally published in 1974 and reissued in 2015. Oreo has charts, lists, mathematical formulas, a several-page menu, and a quiz to test one’s knowledge of Jesus’ qualities as a manual laborer. It has this unbelievable opening sentence:

When Frieda Schwartz heard from her Shmuel that he was (a) marrying a black girl, the blood soughed and staggered in all her conduits as she pictured the chiaroscuro of the white-satin chuppa and the shvartze’s skin; when he told her that he was (b) dropping out of school and would therefore never become a certified public accountant – Riboyne Shel O’lem! – she let out a great geschrei and dropped dead of a racist/my-son-the-bum coronary.

And so you can see that the racism on display is equal-opportunity, here is Oreo’s second sentence:

When James Clark heard from the sweet lips of Helen (Honeychile) Clark that she was going to wed a Jew-boy and would soon be Helen (Honeychile) Schwartz, he managed to croak one anti-Semitic “Goldberg!” before he turned to stone, as it were, in his straight-backed chair, his body a rigid half swastika, discounting, of course, head, hands, and feet.

Included in the novel but not here is the three-lined half swastika that illustrates the shape James Clark’s body has taken.

The concerns of Oreo are (clearly!) not with realistic characters or setting; in fact, Ross tells us upfront that “there is no weather per se in this book.” She does not want to describe people “taking off and putting on overcoats.” Instead her concerns are with social satire, humor, and voice. It’s a viciously witty novel about race, and despite its age, it fits well with other 2015 books that brilliantly use humor, sharp or gentle, to discuss America’s racial pathologies (see especially Paul Beatty’s The Sellout and Mat Johnson’s Loving Day). Ross’s contribution to this flourishing sub-genre is a playful one, and one that works hard to turn novelistic conventions upside down.

The book is not without plot, though. In fact, without stretching the point too far, one might say that in some ways it’s a conventional story about warring families, unsuccessful marriages, and unhappy children. Crucially, it is also a retelling of the classical story of Theseus, who goes on a quest to find his father and must overcome obstacles and prove his abilities along the way. Oreo is a wonderful modern-day Theseus, young and inexperienced, but confident and ready to both follow in the footsteps of the white, male journeyers who precede her and, when the time comes, to forge her own path. The classical underpinnings of Oreo provide a structure that helps contain the novel’s zaniness and that clarifies what must have been one of Ross’s goals: to write her way into the canon and turn it upside down at the same time.

Man Tiger and Oreo are both good novels that deserve a wide readership. They are ambitious and daring. They both have moments that will make your jaw drop (if for very different reasons!). But Oreo is the book that captured my imagination and that made me excited about all the strange and wonderful things fiction can do, so it’s my winner for this round.


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Reading Round-Up, 1/18/2016

This is my last week before the spring semester begins, and since my classes are all set to go already, I’m enjoying not working on school things for a while. But it’s funny, with an almost-three-year-old around, winter break isn’t very much like vacation. Somehow the hours seem as full as ever.

I’m finishing up a review/essay about memoir that inspired me to investigate nontraditional, experimental memoirs and to order a few, which arrived today. They include The Suicide Index by Joan Wickersham, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir by D.J. Waldie, and Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. This last one I started today and am 50 pages into. It’s fun, certainly not experimental in the heavy, ponderous sense experimental books sometimes can be (or we expect them to be this way sometimes, at any rate). It’s basically a series of very short essays — sometimes only a line or two — about topics coming from her life, arranged in alphabetical order. It’s playful and is making me laugh.

I’m interested in a whole range of experimental nonfiction, especially of the personal sort, serious and not, so if anyone has any recommendations, please let me know.

On the more serious end of things, I finished Terry Tempest Williams’s book When Women Were Birds, which I’d call an experimental memoir. There’s much that I liked about it, including an intriguing premise, which is that when Williams’s mother was on her deathbed, she told her she was leaving her years of her personal journals. But when Williams went to look through them, she found they were all blank. The book is an effort to understand what message her mother might have been communicating through this legacy. Much of the book is beautifully written, and the meaning she finds in those blank journals is extraordinary. I did find that the writing veered too far in the lyrical direction now and then and became ponderous and vague. It’s a little bit too sincere and earnest now and then. And in some sections she wrote about women in ways that seemed overly generalized and limiting. So, not a perfect book, but one worth reading and pondering.

Just today I began Kent Haruf’s novel Our Souls at Night in an effort to read more of the Tournament of Books short list. I most certainly won’t get through the whole list, but I’ve read seven of them already (!), and adding another one or two seems like fun. I’ve heard such good things about the Haruf novel, and it has begun well.

Have a great week everyone!


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Reading Round-Up, 1/10/2016

For a while, I was posting a round-up post on Sundays discussing my reading from the previous week, and I’d like to return to that whenever I can. The truth is that when I’m both in the swing of the semester and working on formal reviews for other sites, devoting even a half hour to writing this kind of post becomes very difficult. But I’m going to do it as much as I can, so the books I’m reading get some attention here, even if only a little.

So, current reading. I’m feeling a little allergic to novels right now. Perhaps trying to read a bunch of them quickly for both the Booker read-along last August and September and the alternative Tournament of Books reading I did in November and December has left me tired of fiction for a while. Last week I finished a memoir, Lynn Darling’s Out of the Woods: A Memoir of Wayfinding. This was well-written and about subjects that interest me (learning one’s way through the woods, weathering changes that mid-life brings) and about a place that interests me (Vermont). But it left me a little cold. It was a thoroughly traditional memoir — person changes life with high hopes, is disappointed, recovers, learns — and written in a familiar style. Perhaps my problem right now is not that I’m allergic to novels per se, but that I’m allergic to books that fit comfortably in their genre, whatever it is, rather than challenging it or trying to break through it.

I’m having better luck with a very slow reread of Heidi Julavits’s The Folded Clock, probably my favorite book from last year. I’m reading an entry every evening before sleep, and I’m loving it once again. This is the kind of writing I want.

I’m also slowly reading my way through Emma, which, yes, is a novel and a traditional one, but it’s an old novel, and not one I find tiresome in my current state. Rereading seems to be going better for me these days than reading for the first time, and perhaps I should do more of it.

I’m also halfway through a forthcoming book on memoir, but I won’t discuss that in detail here, since I’m writing a formal review of it. Let’s just say that … current writing on memoir as a genre has NOT been satisfactory. I want another book like Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story. Or maybe I should just reread that one.

Speaking of formal reviews, I had one come out last week at Full Stop Magazine, of Susana Moreira Marques’s book Now and at the Hour of Our Death. I admired this book very much.

Have a great week everyone!


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Best of 2015

Before we get too far into 2016, I’d like to post my best-of lists from last year. It was a year, once again, where I read a lot of great novels, but the books I thought about the most and remember the most fondly are nonfiction. I should, perhaps, take this as a sign to read more nonfiction in the future. But I wonder sometimes whether reading more nonfiction might make it less memorable. If I go on a memoir-reading binge, or personal-essay-reading binge, perhaps they will start to blur together as novels sometimes do. I don’t know. I think I’m mostly feeling dissatisfied these days with realistic fiction and need less of it in my reading diet. So bring on the experimental fiction and the unclassifiable nonfiction in 2016 (recommendations appreciated)!

Best fiction:

  • Elisa Albert, After Birth
  • Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings
  • Fran Ross, Oreo
  • Paul Beatty, The Sellout
  • Valeria Luiselli, The Story of My Teeth
  • James Hanaham, Delicious Foods

Best nonfiction:

  • Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
  • Elizabeth McCracken, An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination: A Memoir (also wins for least-memorable title — I can’t keep it in my brain)
  • Heidi Julavits, The Folded Clock
  • Helen McDonald, H is for Hawk
  • Margo Jefferson, Negroland: A Memoir
  • Sarah Manguso, Ongoingness: The End of a Diary
  • Meghan Daum, The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion
  • Alison Bechdel, Fun Home

Books that frustrated me the most:

  • Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir (Many people loved this but I thought it was sloppy)
  • Kate Bolick, Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own (incoherent project, uninspiring writing)
  • Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist (I liked the ideas but couldn’t stand the writing. This may be my most unpopular opinion of the year, but so be it.)

Books that made my head spin after reading what felt like thousands of conflicting opinions about them (although I enjoyed the experience of reading them very much):

  • Hanya Yanigihara, A Little Life
  • Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, Book One

Here’s to great reads in 2016 for everyone!


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My 2015 in Reading

Time for the year-end stats post. Here’s my reading from 2015:

  • Books read: 88. I was hoping to get up to 90 — but in the end, who cares? 88 is a great number.
  • Audiobooks: 15. Up from the 10 I listened to last year. Using Scribd has made the difference here (although now they give you only one audiobook a month, so my number for next year may be only 12).
  • eBooks: 12. Down from the 18 I read last year. I’m discovering that I definitely prefer print, although I continue to read ebooks for various uninteresting reasons. I just read them more slowly than I used to.
  • From library: 14. All print books. Because of Scribd, I’ve stopped borrowing ebooks and audiobooks from the library.
  • Fiction: 60. About the same percentage of the whole as last year.
  • Nonfiction: 26
  • Poetry: 2. Same as last year.
  • Essay collections: 6
  • Biography/autobiography: 13
  • Theory/criticism: 4
  • Short story collections: 1 (that’s it?)
  • Mysteries: 7
  • Graphic Novels: 2
  • Books in translation: 9 (up quite a bit — good!)
  • Books by writers of color: 30 (doubled what I did last year and reached more than 1/3 of total reading)

Gender breakdown:

  • Women: 57
  • Men: 27
  • Collections with men and women: 4


  • Americans: 56 (a lower percentage than last year — but still high)
  • British: 13
  • French: 3
  • Australian: 2
  • Indonesian: 2
  • One each by authors from Canada, Ethiopia, India, Ireland, Jamaica, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, and Portugal.

Year of publication:

  • 19th century: 1 (although I’m currently in the middle of Emma)
  • First half of 20th century: 1 (really??)
  • Second half of 20th century: 7
  • 2000-2009: 8
  • 2010-2015: 71

The number of recent releases has gone up steadily in recent years, for a number of reasons. One is that I’m reviewing more, so of course I read new releases for those reviews. I also participated in a Booker long-list read through this year, which added 13 new releases to the list. And I’m also currently reading new books for a Goodreads group that is doing an “alternative Tournament of Books” that will take place in January, in anticipation of the real one coming up in March (it’s been super fun — check it out if you want to). All of this reading has been great and I don’t regret it. I just wish I could also read older works as well. But until I figure out how to fit more reading in, that may not happen.

All in all, it was a good reading year, with lots of good books (more on that later!) and, in particular, lots of great bookish company, here on this blog, on Twitter, and on Goodreads. Thanks to everyone who reads here and chats with me in various places online. Happy new year!


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My 2015 in writing

It’s year-end wrap-up time, and I’ll be back, probably in early January, to write about my 2015 reading. But I thought I’d post on my writing as well, of which I have done a fair amount this year. I published 17 reviews in various places that aren’t this blog. That includes some pieces that I wrote in 2014, but I can’t remember what I wrote when, so I’ll just go with publication date. I’m happy with that number, but particularly with the fact that several of those pieces appeared in new-to-me publications, including Bookslut, Open Letters Monthly, and The Seattle Review of Books. I’m also happy that of those 17 pieces, 15 were reviews of books written by women and 7 were of books written by people of color, 6 of those by women of color. Vida won’t be counting anything I wrote, but my own personal Vida count looks pretty good. You can see my entire list of reviews here, but here are some of my favorites from the year:

As for writing on this blog? I managed to write something here almost every month! Ah, well. That’s good enough.


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Emma Read-along

Yesterday I pulled down my new copy of Jane Austen’s Emma in preparation for Bellezza’s read-along this December and read the introductory material. It’s the new Penguin edition edited by Juliette Wells. The introduction itself is fine — basic information about Austen and the publication and reception of the novel aimed at a general reader — but that is followed by a section called “Tips for reading Emma” that I found most unsatisfactory. It seems to assume that readers would struggle with the novel, instead of assuming they would enjoy it. The section includes tips such as “Pace yourself,” “Read passages out loud,” and “Try an audiobook,” all of which is okay, I suppose, but condescending in the way it assumes the reader is inexperienced at … reading.

More troubling is the suggestion that “If you’re feeling frustrated or bored because nothing much seems to be happening, remember that Austen’s own contemporaries commented on how little plot Emma contains and how ordinary its characters and events are.” Why presuppose the reader is going to be bored? That feels insulting and it also very much undersells the novel. Perhaps Austen’s contemporaries noted the ordinary characters for reasons different than we might note them today — that novels in Austen’s time often contained characters anything but ordinary — but aren’t we used to characters who are like people we know in the world around us?

Worst, though, is this sentence: “Long novels such as Austen’s are a workout for our attention spans and memories.” Please. People read long, long novels all the time these days, not to mention entire series of long, long novels, and they seem to enjoy themselves greatly.

To be fair, I think a large of part of the audience the editor is writing for here is high school or college students who will be assigned this novel for a class and who may not be experienced readers. She says this is advice she gives to her students (as well as her friends), and it makes sense that Penguin would want to market this edition to schools and colleges.

But still, this strikes me as a great way to inspire dread and not eagerness in potential new readers of the novel. It implies the entire endeavor will be a chore, work instead of pleasure. I’m not entirely sure how I would write my own “tips” if I had to, but I think I would try my best to avoid the condescending tone I found here.


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Updates 10/21/2015

I’m very late following up with my response to the Man Booker news, but Marlon James won it for A Brief History of Seven Killings, and I’m thrilled for him! The judges made the right choice. I think it was the best book by far from the long list. It’s not the book everyone wanted to win, but many were rooting for him and it was fun to see the celebration happening on Twitter after the announcement was made.

Looking over my list of reviews published elsewhere, it appears that I have published seven (seven!) of them since I last blogged about my review writing, which was in June. I won’t mention them all here, because if you are curious you can hop over to the “Other Writing” section of this blog to see the full list. But I will highlight a few. I’m proud to have had my first review in the Seattle Review of Books where I wrote about Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir. I didn’t like the book much, but it was an enjoyable review to write and I include some thoughts about books that try to offer writing advice.

I’ve been on a memoir kick lately and also reviewed Margo Jefferson’s fantastic book Negroland over at Bookslut and Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City at Open Letters Monthly. I also had fun participating in a Bestseller List feature at Open Letters Monthly, where OLM writers reviewed the fiction bestseller list from the New York Times. I tackled Jennifer Weiner’s Who Do You Love. You can find the first part of the feature here and my piece is #8 on this page. I tried hard to review the book honestly (I didn’t love it) without getting snotty or snobby about it, and I’m happy with how it turned out.

As for recent (non-Booker) reading, here are some highlights:

  • I finally got around to reading Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. What took me so long? It was amazing.
  • Some other amazing — amazing!!!! — books I read over the summer before the Man Booker madness: Heidi Julavits’s The Folded Clock and Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of a Diary. Both books are innovative takes on diaries and I fell in love with the voices in both. I resonated with their material on motherhood the most, but they cover much else as well. Another great book as far as experiences of motherhood go is Elisa Albert’s After Birth. I loved the book’s fury. So good.
  • I read the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle and was mesmerized. I’m eager to get to volume two (but you know how it is — it may be a while anyway). This is a book that should totally be boring, but it’s not.
  • Paul Beatty’s The Sellout — so good! Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk — so good!

I read some books that weren’t so good, but I’m going to dwell on the positive in this short post. I hope to be back before too long!


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The (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel Shortlist

The results are in! We have argued and deliberated and made what compromises we had to, and it’s all over. Here is our (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel shortlist:

  1. Bill Clegg, Did You Ever Have a Family
  2. Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings
  3. Sunjeev Sahota, The Year of the Runaways
  4. Anuradha Roy, Sleeping on Jupiter
  5. Tom McCarthy, Satin Island
  6. Marilynne Robinson, Lila

If you compare this list to my personal shortlist, you’ll see that they are almost the same. The one change is that Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life isn’t there and Anuradha Roy’s Sleeping on Jupiter is. I would have liked to see A Little Life on our group shortlist, but Sleeping on Jupiter was my seventh choice and just barely didn’t make the cut, so at least there’s nothing on the group shortlist that I disliked. This isn’t true for everyone on the panel!

As for the absence of A Little Life, well, it’s a controversial book. My guess is that it will make it on the official shortlist and may have a chance at winning (although I don’t think it should win). But this whole exercise has shown just how personal reading is. Some readers bought into the world of the book and others didn’t, and that was true for just about every book on the list. I’m not implying that there aren’t solid, logical arguments to make about why one book is better than another, but inevitably there are arguments to be made on both sides — or several sides — and people from all the different sides will think their solid, logical arguments are the most convincing. Before you even get to those solid, logical arguments, though, there is the reader’s immediate response, and there’s no arguing about that. A lot of our conversations were about trying to account for those immediate responses and to try to understand why they varied so much.

And the conversations were so fun! It was a great pleasure to participate on this panel, and I want to thank Frances profusely for organizing it. Thank you, Frances!

And now to see what the official judges have to say. I’ll try to come back and write up my thoughts on their list. I can’t wait to see.


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My Personal Shortlist for the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel

The (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel has finished its deliberations and reached a verdict — which we will share tomorrow! Today, I will give my own personal shortlist. I didn’t quite finish all the reading, although I was very close. I finished 11 of the 13 longlisted books, and I made it over 50 pages into the last two before it was time to decide on my list. I am very happy with this, considering that I was trying to do all this reading while also writing three reviews of non-Booker books, reading for my book group, getting ready for school, caring for a toddler, and generally living life. I finished all the long books, too, including two books around 700 pages and one that was nearly 500. And, as it turns out, my two unfinished books are not ones I would want on my shortlist. Even if they both end much better than they begin, that won’t be enough, as I’m not getting on with them very well.

As I wrote in my previous post, I was much quicker to want to shortlist books that experimented in some way and that did something other than realistic family drama. But the longlist was heavy on realistic family dramas. If I had been responsible for creating a longlist, I’m sure mine would have looked very different from the one we ended up with. Many of the books were very good, but too many of them were just okay, not really different or new. I was glad to be able to listen to two of the just-okay ones on audio (Anne Tyler and Anne Enright), which probably made me enjoy them more.

SO, here is my personal shortlist, roughly in order of preference:

  1. Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings. This is my choice for the overall winner. It was … well, bring out all your reviewer cliches: stunning, a tour-de-force, etc., etc. The language was amazing, the ambition impressive. The characters, the voices, the historical insights, everything about it worked.
  2. Marilynne Robinson’s LilaThis book couldn’t be much more different from the James, but I still loved it. It’s much shorter and smaller in scope. But Lila is a lively character, and I loved looking at the world through her eyes. And the book is large in scope when you consider all the spiritual and existential questions it considers. And the writing is beautiful.
  3. Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little LifeSome members of our group very much did not like this one, but it worked for me. I was caught up in the story; I loved diving deep into the characters and their lives. The story, extreme as it was, felt real to me. Yes, there were infelicities of language, but I didn’t even notice until others pointed them out to me. Yes, it was long, but I didn’t want it to end. The book, for me, was powerful.
  4. Tom McCarthy’s Satin IslandI love a philosophical novel where nothing happens, and this one is exactly that. It’s a meditation on work, on technology, on the shadowy forces that shape our lives, and on how art and creativity can fit in this world. The atmosphere of the book is cold, but this fits its ideas perfectly. It’s not a fun book, exactly, but it’s exactly right for our times.
  5. Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways. I was caught up in this novel’s story about immigrants from India into England, each with uncertain or questionable immigration status. Their never-ending quest for work was tense, and reading about them as their hopes for a better life took beating after beating was sometimes heartbreaking. I felt like I got a glimpse of a world I don’t know much about, and I’m glad I did.
  6. Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family. This is the only straight-forward family drama I included on my list. I could have exchanged it for one or two others, but this is the one that moved me the most. It also covered the most territory with the most emotional heft of all the family dramas while being the shortest of the group. I liked its suggestiveness.

So that’s it. A close runner-up was Anuradha Roy’s Sleeping on Jupiter, which got better and better the more I thought about it, but didn’t make my list because I didn’t enjoy the reading experience as much as I did with Bill Clegg’s book. Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread was better by the end of the novel but didn’t make the list because it wasn’t doing much that was new or interesting. Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen didn’t stand out to me — I don’t remember much from it, in fact. Anne Enright’s The Green Road was a structural mess, and I found Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account not particularly new and not particularly exciting to read. I’m still in the middle of the last two: Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations and Anna Smaill’s The Chimes. Both of these books, although very different each other, are uninspiring, and, frankly, a little boring. But I want to finish the entire list, so I’m going to keep plugging along.

So, stay tuned for the announcement tomorrow, Monday, September 14th, of the Shadow Panel shortlist, and then Tuesday the 15th, for the official shortlist (but should those people really have the final say? I’m not sure. I think our Shadow Panel should get the deciding vote, to be honest).

Lists from the other Shadow Panel participants: Teresa at Shelf Love, Frances at Nonsuch Book, and Bellezza from Dolce Bellezza.


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(Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel updates

I’m having a great time doing the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel with my fellow readers. The only frustration is that I don’t have enough time to post about my reading here and comment/respond to comments on other people’s posts. I’m too busy reading (and dealing with the rest of life) to blog about my reading properly. But since the last time I posted here, I’ve finished three more books, for a total of seven completed, six to go. I finished The Green Road on audio, and it definitely won’t be making my short list. I lump it in my mind with the Anne Tyler novel, except it’s not as good as that one. They are similar in their focus on family drama and in their straightforward realism. But I found the Tyler to be richer and more complex. I’m not sure that Tyler will make my short list — in fact she probably won’t. One of the things I’m discovering from this reading is that I value books that are something other than straightforwardly realistic family dramas. These books are valuable in their own way, but something in me doesn’t want to give them prizes. This is something I’ll be thinking about further.

I also finished Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family, and I also lump it in my mind with the Tyler and Enright as being another realistic family drama. But this one is the best of the lot. In fact if “realistic family drama” is a category I decide should be represented on my short list (not sure about this), then Clegg would get the spot. His novel is the sparest and most evocative of them all. He tells his story through many different perspectives, and the voices work alongside and against each other to add up to a complex whole. He touches on race, class, and sexuality in a manner that is both light and deep at the same time.

But then there is Marlon James’s Brief History of Seven Killings, which is another creature entirely. This one is definitely getting on my short list. It’s a large novel in multiple senses — long and ambitious. It’s about Jamaica in the 1970s and beyond, about politics, drugs, violence, gangs, music, and yes, family drama. The language is what stands out to me the most; we get many different voices and each one is unique. I felt like I was living in the minds of these characters, and I loved it, even when the characters were terrible, terrible people. It was a hard novel to take a lot of the time — it’s full of horrible violence and cruelty and definitely not for the faint of heart. It’s confusing at times. But James has control of the plotting as well as the language, and it all comes together beautifully.

It’s so hard to compare these very different books! James’s originality and scope stand out to me, and how could Tyler’s novel stand up to it? But Tyler has great facility with language and insight into human nature in her own way, even if it doesn’t stand out in the way James’s work does. But this process is making clear to me how much more I value attempts at ambitious newness than more familiar novelistic styles, even if they are done particularly well.


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A Spool of Blue Thread and The Moor’s Account

I have now finished books #3 and #4 in the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel, Lalai Lalami’s The Moor’s Account and Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, which I listened to on audio. As a side note, the only way I’m making it through the 13-book list if I make it at all is by listening to some of them on audio, although I would prefer to read them in print. On the one hand, it’s hard to compare the experience of an audio book with sitting down with the printed text, but on the other hand I can squeeze audio book listening into parts of my day where the reading of a book or ebook is impossible. So I’ll be listening to Anne Enright’s and (most likely) Marilynne Robinson’s novels on audio as well.

I think audio book listening may have improved the experience of reading Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, which I liked more than I expected. This is generally the case with audio books, that I’m less likely to be critical of them than print books, as the experience is more immersive and emotional with an actual person telling me the story. I’ve read a couple other Tyler novels and thought they were fine but nothing special, and I feel that way about this novel as well. Her prose is especially well-suited for listening, as it’s crystal clear, easy to follow, and never draws attention to itself. It’s always in the service of the story. I generally look for the opposite in novels — I like it when the language is interesting and new and even when it calls attention to itself, at least in certain ways. I’m not likely to be impressed by a novel that is a straight-forward story without anything interesting going on stylistically. I’m guessing that Tyler-like prose is much more difficult to write than it seems, but even so, I don’t think I’d choose it to win an award.

But Tyler can certainly tell a family story well. This is a multi-generational story, focusing particularly on Abby and Red Whitshank and their four children. It’s very much a story about their house, longed for and finally bought by Red’s father and now lovingly cared for by Red. There are the kind of rivalries, secrets, betrayals, and family lore that one expects from a family saga and it’s all insightful and true to human nature. The plot lagged a little in the middle, but the last quarter or so, which took the novel in surprising directions that I won’t spoil here, were satisfying.

It’s all fine, but nothing I get excited about. I felt the same way about The Moor’s Account, although I liked it less than the Tyler. Lalai Lalami’s novel is historical fiction, telling the story of Mustafa al-Zamori, called Estebanico by others, who is sold into slavery and sails from Spain to the Gulf of Mexico. The expedition is in search of conquest and gold, and Estebanico is in a complex position as a member of the (supposedly) conquering party but only a member as a slave. The expedition fails spectacularly and the process of things falling apart is compelling, at least for a while. The history was interesting and I enjoyed getting a glimpse of what life in that time and place might have been like. The novel’s writing was fine, although, like Tyler’s, not particularly noteworthy. I enjoyed the first half or so, and then my energy and attention flagged. When it comes down to it, historical fiction is not really my thing. I like imagining the past, but if there comes a point — as there did in this book — where the described world is pretty well established and all that remains is the unwinding of the plot, I begin to lose interest. By the end, I just didn’t care what happened to the characters. I agree with Teresa’s assessment that this is not the kind of book I’d expect to see on the long list of a major prize.

Now I turn to Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family and Anne Enright’s The Green Road on audio. As things stand now, I would put A Little Life on my short list and maybe The Fishermen, but definitely not The Moor’s Account and A Spool of Blue Thread only if the others were no good at all. Which I know is not the case!


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A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

My second book for the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel was Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. I figured I should get one of the super-long books out of the way, particularly since this one is bound to be a subject of much discussion when the Shadow Panel gets its deliberations underway. And what a reading experience it was. I’m still sorting out my thoughts about the book; it strikes me as the kind of novel I might feel differently about a month or a year or a decade from now. We’ll see. But I was thoroughly absorbed in the story, all 700+ pages of it. I kept happily reading even as I noticed some awkward things about it — strange point of view shifts, repetitions, sections that went on too long, odd descriptions. But for me, the story retained its power, even though I started to feel itchy reading about so much wealth and privilege, so much about huge New York City lofts, about jaunts around the world, about fabulously expensive apartment remodels. There is so much suffering alongside the wealth; the central drama of the novel is the slow uncovering of the main character Jude’s horrific abuse as a child and the effects this has on himself and his circle of friends. Jude lives in constant pain, both physical and mental, and his three best friends, whose lives the novel follows through the decades, only gradually discover this. A Little Life is a novel about pain and suffering but equally about friendship, the various types of friendship and how they can change and develop over time. It’s about the pleasures and the limitations of friendship, and about the unfortunate way our society doesn’t take the relationship seriously enough (close friendships can never, ever be as good as marriage, supposedly). It’s about the extent to which it’s possible to recover from trauma and how much other people can and can’t help the victim.

The novel is probably too long, but I stayed under its power the entire way through. I liked the way Yanagihara slowly revealed the characters’ histories. I appreciated her willingness to take her time with the characters’ lives, even when they followed the same pattern again and again. The novel made me think more deeply about what it’s like to suffer from chronic pain. This is something a long novel is particularly well-suited to do, to really get into someone’s mind and show us what it’s like to live there. The experience of living in Jude’s mind over the course of an intense week of reading made me feel compassion for him in a way I might not have otherwise.

I don’t think I’d want to reread this book, though. It seems like the kind of novel that is something to experience — whether you like it or not! — just one time. I wonder whether it has staying power, whether the rewards make the book’s length worth while. But, at any rate, I feel under this book’s spell. I’m not sure how hard I would fight to get it on a prize short list, but it seems worthy of serious consideration. But where I stand on this depends on the quality of the other books I’m about to read. Up next is Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account, as well as further listening to Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread on audio.


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The Fishermen, by Chigozie Obioma

I’ve finished my first book for the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel: The Fishermen, by Chigozie Obioma. I’m going to follow Frances’s example and keep my posts on these books short, mostly because of my normal time constraints, which are now compounded by this reading project. I didn’t fall under the spell of this book, which I was hoping to do, especially since I suspect it casts a spell on some of, maybe many of, its readers. I admired it, didn’t love it. It’s self-consciously working in the tradition of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, so much so that the book becomes a plot point. This means, of course, that I can’t help but compare it to Achebe’s masterpiece and it’s not surprising that it doesn’t live up to it.

The novel tells the story of a family in Nigeria, specifically about four brothers in that family and what happens after they hear a prophecy from a local wandering mad man. The novel can be read as the story of what happens when the father-figure moves away, so about the loss of patriarchal power — the removal of their father leads the boys towards greater and greater rebellion against their mother and against the family rules generally. I’m guessing it’s possible to read the novel as a political fable as well, as a story that gives insight into Nigeria’s history, but I don’t know enough about the subject to say for sure. It’s also about the power of prophecy and of superstitions and folk beliefs and the relationship of these things to Christianity.

I admired how the author handled the point of view, which is from the perspective of the youngest of the four brothers, Benjamin. Seeing the story through his eyes increases the sense of dread and powerlessness that pervades the narrative. The novel has emotional power — there were scenes that made me gasp — but there were also enough moments that seemed awkward or meandering or with unnecessary detail that I kept a certain amount of distance from it as I read. Perhaps it’s unfair to expect the tightness of the storytelling in Things Fall Apart, but that’s what happened to me. Still, there’s lots to think about here. Perhaps enough to justify its inclusion in the Booker long list.

And so now it’s time to start my next read, which I think will be A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. I’m concerned about taking on such a long novel, but as soon as I finish my current audiobook read, I can start listening to some of the books on the long list, including the Anne Tyler and Anne Enright. That way I’ll be able to read two books from the list at once.


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Better get reading…

So it appears I’m doing this? Craziness.

Yes, I’m going to try to read the Booker long list in the next six weeks and be a part of the (Wo)Man Booker shadow panel. I’m almost certainly going to fail to get all the reading done, but I’m going to have fun trying, and I’ll be in good company, with Frances, Teresa, Nicole, and Bellezza.

I’ll be posting here about my reading, although only very briefly, because I have lots of books to read as well as other reviews to write.

And now back to the books!


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Reviews and podcasts

First of all, I’ve had some reviews published elsewhere that I haven’t yet linked to here. I had two reviews appear at Full Stop: Samantha Harvey’s amazing novel Dear Thief and Virginie Despentes’s feminist take on crime fiction Apocalypse Baby. At Bookslut I reviewed Helen Garner’s This House of Grief, a rivetting account of a Australian murder trial. And, finally, I’m proud to make my first appearance in Open Letters Monthly with a review of Jill Alexander Essbaum’s dark, troubling novel Hausfrau. Check them out!

I’ve written about podcasts here before, but not since the success of the amazing podcast Serial. I was hooked on Serial, as were so many, many other people. Last night I had the chance to see the host and producer, Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder, at an event in Hartford, Connecticut. It was really great. Koenig and Snyder told their story in a casual but polished way, keeping it light with their jokes — I was surprised at how much I laughed — but giving a good sense of how tremendously strange, difficult, and anxiety-inducing the whole experience was. They had no idea how popular the podcast would get and how strong people’s responses would be. They couldn’t have anticipated how other people would pick up the investigation they began and take it in different directions, often without their careful journalistic standards. They seemed distressed that personal information about the people involved in their story became public and their lives were changed. But they made a strong argument for the importance of what they were doing and are now hard at work on Seasons 2 and 3.

All that was great, but the evening will also be memorable for another event. As I watched people enter the auditorium and take their seats, I noticed a woman who looked vaguely familiar. It occurred to me that she might be Julia Pistell, one of the hosts of my favorite bookish podcasts, Literary Disco, and someone I know from listening to the podcast lives in the area. After I heard her very distinctive laugh, I was almost certain it was her. So afterwards I mustered up the courage to ask if she is indeed Julia. I always agonize about this sort of thing. I like meeting people but worry about saying the wrong thing or looking silly, or bothering someone who doesn’t want to be bothered. This situation was particularly odd, since Sarah Koenig had just talked about the experience of being recognized by her listeners and how it can make her feel uncomfortable. The whole thing was just a little too meta — I wanted to introduce myself to a podcaster at an event about podcasting in which the podcaster talked about people introducing themselves to her. Strange! But I did it, and Julia Pistell was lovely. In fact, she was super-excited and thought it was hilarious that I recognized her by her laugh. So thank God, I hadn’t made an ass of myself and instead have a fun podcasting experience tucked inside another podcasting experience to remember.


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Books I want to read NOW…

…except I don’t own them and don’t have much time to read them in. But if I did have the time and felt like going on a book-buying binge, I’d buy:

  • Heidi Julavits’s The Folded Clock. I loved this interview with Julavits on a new podcast called Lit Up, and her book sounds fascinating — a diary of sorts, with a unique structure.
  • Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. Yanagihara appeared on the Lit Up podcast as well, and that conversation was great (the podcast is excellent so far — and run entirely by women. I love it). The truth is I own a copy of her first novel The People in the Trees that I need to read first, but ideally that would be followed by reading her second book in short order.
  • Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. Nelson is just the best. I’ve read two of her books so far (Bluets and Jane: A Murder). Both are amazing.
  • Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk. I’ve read lots of grief memoirs (for no particular reason — probably just because I read a lot of memoirs and memoirs are often about grief), but this one sounds particularly good.
  • Elisa Albert’s After Birth. A novel about childbirth and motherhood? I’m in.
  • Patricia Park’s Re Jane: A Novel. This is a retelling of Jane Eyre set in Queens. Sounds like it could be fun.

Well, maybe this summer I’ll get to these…


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Eugenie Grandet

I should admit before writing about Honoré de Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet that this is my second Balzac novel, and I didn’t get along with my first, Cousin Bette. Fortunately, I liked Eugénie Grandet much better. Those of you in the know, is Eugénie Grandet simply a better book than Cousin Bette? Or have I changed somehow, or am I simply in a different mood this time? I found Cousin Bette unsatisfying because I missed the depth of character I love in 19th-century novels. The characters were either perfectly good or completely awful and without some complex, interesting character to latch onto, I lose interest. I should confess, also, that I don’t remember a thing about Cousin Bette and am basing these remarks on a paragraph I wrote in an old blog post. The book just didn’t stick with me.

I’m not sure how much longer Eugénie Grandet will stick with me, but I did enjoy the reading experience much more [lots of spoilers ahead!]. Like Cousin Bette, it’s a critique of society’s obsession with money and the way the hunger for money corrupts and ruins lives. But perhaps Eugénie as a character is more memorable than anybody in Cousin Bette. Yes, she is drawn in broad strokes and the very large changes she makes throughout the course of her life are described quickly, but I think the shortness of the book and the relative brevity with which many of the events are described work well. We can see the larger point Balzac is making about greed, enjoy the satirical way he portrays many of his characters, feel pity and horror at Monsieur Grandet’s miserliness, and even suffer a little at Eugénie’s fate, all in a book that’s only about 200 pages. I like long novels very much, but perhaps I don’t like long novels by Balzac.

I seem to be confessing a lot in this post, so let me keep going: I had a hard time with the novel’s opening pages, the description of the town of Saumur and the Grandet home. I read and reread those pages, and I couldn’t pin down the details in my mind. I also couldn’t keep many of the minor characters straight, those Cruchots and des Grassins. It didn’t seem to matter much as I read along that I couldn’t remember who was who and what their relationships were. Those characters are there to make a point collectively, to illustrate the greediness of the town generally and the atmosphere in which Eugénie lives — one in which everyone is after the Grandet money but everyone generally loses their money to the Grandets instead. These characters spend their whole lives trying to ingratiate themselves into the Grandet family, hoping Eugénie will marry one of them, or her parents will marry her to one of them, and it doesn’t seem to matter to them that they are spending decades in this one pursuit.

The heart of this book seems to be the relationship between Eugénie and her father Grandet, and then the ways that Grandet haunts her even when he is gone. Through the influence of her mother, most likely, or just through strength of character, Eugénie passively resists her father’s greed and miserliness, keeping a freshness and innocence throughout her young life. When her cousin Charles appears on the scene, she finds a reason to actively resist her father: romantic love. She wants to provide for Charles, to give him the comforts she has grown accustomed to living without herself, and she doesn’t care about the money involved. And then she commits the act that her father finds it nearly impossible to forgive, giving away money itself.

But what does she get in return for her generosity and love? She gets to do the thing so many women get to do in novels: wait. And she is waiting for a man who fell in love with her, yes, but who is not worthy of her. He was a young dandy when they first met, vain and foolish, but after his father’s bankruptcy and his desperate need to make money, he becomes truly corrupt, making that money through slavery and wanting only to reappear in Paris a fabulously wealthy man. Poor Eugénie keeps believing in him as long as she can, but her faithfulness gains her nothing. Or perhaps it does gain her something — it seems to insulate her from corruption herself. She stays true to idea of love, even though she doesn’t ever experience it again herself.

Ultimately, the book seems to be exploring what greed does to the emotions, the way it shrivels them up and kills them. Or if it doesn’t kill them, it turns them against the one feeling them, becoming a burden:

and yet that noble heart, beating only with tenderest emotions, has been, from first to last, subjected to the calculations of human selfishness; money has cast its frigid influence upon that hallowed life and taught distrust of feelings to a woman who is all feeling.

This is a melancholy tale, but it is kept lively by Balzac’s wonderful descriptions, like this one of Grandet:

Financially speaking, Monsieur Grandet was something between a tiger and a boa-constrictor. He could crouch and lie low, watch his prey a long while, spring upon it, open his jaws, swallow a mass of louis, and then rest tranquilly like a snake in process of digestion, impassible, methodical, and cold.

Or this one of the Cruchots and des Grassins:

All three took snuff, and had long ceased to repress the habit of snivelling or to remove the brown blotches which strewed the frills of their dingy shirts and the yellowing creases of their crumpled collars. Their flabby cravats were twisted into ropes as soon as they wound them about their throats. The enormous quantity of linen which allowed these people to have their clothing washed only once in six months, and to keep it during that time in the depths of their closets, also enabled time to lay its grimy and decaying stains upon it. There was perfect unison of ill-grace and senility about them; their faces, as faded as their threadbare coats, as creased as their trousers, were worn-out, shrivelled-up, and puckered … A horror of fashion was the only point on which the Grassinists and the Cruchotines agreed.

These people are just horrible. Balzac is wonderful as describing horrible people! This seems to be where much of the book’s energy lies: in capturing just how truly terrible people can be.

This novel was the latest choice of the Slaves of Golconda group, so make sure to check out other posts there.


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Writers in Person: Stalking the Essay

Unspeakable Sometimes it seems a little silly to get so excited about seeing authors I love in person. They are just people, right? They are just people who put words on a page. But whatever, I get excited about it. And today was a particularly great day. My husband agreed to watch our toddler so I could head into New York City to Columbia University, which hosted a conference called Stalking the Essay. They had a similar conference two years ago, which I got to go to and which was amazing. This time around, it was even better. It started off with an all-women panel (which is something that makes me happy even though it shouldn’t be a big deal — but it is a big deal) including Leslie Jamison, of The Empathy Exams, and Meghan Daum of The Unspeakable, a book I fell in love with and am recommending to everyone I know. Also on the panel was a new-to-me writer Lia Purpura. Their topic was the “new essay,” a concept everyone seemed rightly skeptical of. Daum was the star of the panel; the other talks were very good, but Daum’s was very good plus very funny, which is always a plus when you’re at a conference on the essay. She made an argument against calling writers “brave” for revealing personal things in their writing or making controversial arguments. It’s the writer’s job to be honest and to write something worthy of the time the reader puts into it, and if that involves revealing personal things about oneself, well, then that’s just part of the job. If it involves saying something that might be unpopular, then so be it. Also part of the job.

The next panel included Geoff Dyer, which was, after seeing Daum, the highlight of the day. I’ve been wanting to see Dyer — who is one of my most important writers — for ages. Ages! He does events in NYC fairly regularly, but I’d never been able to make one before. This time, though, I wasn’t going to miss it. Also on the panel were Wayne Koestenbaum and Laura Kipnis, whose book Against Love is another favorite. All the speakers this time around were both smart and funny, and I didn’t want it to end. Their topic was the book-length essay, so they talked a lot about genre distinctions, which is something people always do when they get on panels about the essay. No one knows what it is exactly. Dyer’s definition was pretty good, though: what makes a book-length work an essay is that the writer can never be definitive on the subject and that his or her essay-book doesn’t replace previous books on the subject, nor does it rule out future books. Regular book-books, though, tend to be definitive, as in a definitive biography, which, if it’s good enough, replaces all previous biographies and remains the final word, until someone digs up new information and there is a need for a new definitive biography.

White Girls The last panel was kind of strange, although it was hard to tell if it really wasn’t as successful as the others or if I was just getting tired. It had some big names, though: Marilynne Robinson, Jonathan Lethem, and Hilton Als. I liked Als’s talk very much, although I was too tired to take notes so I could remember it. Lethem’s, though, was disjointed and wandering, and a little too long. Robinson’s was interesting, but not at all on the topic of the day. She talked at length about the disturbing habit that Americans have of forgetting their own history, and I fully agreed with her, but kept wondering when she was going to talk about the essay. It never really happened. Still, she’s a hugely important figure in American literature, so I guess she can talk about whatever she wants to. There was no formal book signing time, but during that period after the panels where everyone mills around talking to people they know, I worked up the courage to ask both Daum and Dyer if they would sign their books for me, which they did. And I’m so excited about it! The whole thing was free and open to the public; all I had to do was register beforehand. Really, does it get any better than that?


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