Booker Longlist 2022: Claire Keegan’s ‘Small Things Like These’

Many of them were raped by family members. Impregnated, unwed women were locked away in institutions of slave labor by the Catholic Church and with the full knowledge of the Irish government, forced to work in hellishly hot virtual torture chambers behind bars, as if they were convicts. Nuns stood over these women and children morning and night to hit them and pull their hair if they didn’t fold the sheets right or dared speak to each other. Their birth names taken away, the women were given saints’ names and warned never to speak of their former lives.

To this day, traumatized survivors don’t know who they were imprisoned with because they never once heard their real names.

These institutions were called Magdalene Laundries, or Magdalene Asylums, and it’s estimated 30,000 women and children spent time in them from the 18th Century to the 20th. In 1993, unmarked mass graves of women and children were discovered, their bodies thrown in the ground unceremoniously, some in soil soaked in sewer water.

The Irish government admitted these atrocities in 2001, 236 years after the first Magdalene Asylum was opened.

Magdalene Laundry, c. early 1900s

Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These opens in October 1985, as the damp days of autumn are setting in. Bill Furlong is a coal and timber merchant, living with his raven-haired wife Eileen and their five lovely daughters. Furlong is a kind, hard-working man whose sole purpose is caring for his family. They are the lucky ones, not wealthy by any means but also not starving at a time when jobs were hard to find, many people forced to emigrate to the UK and America for the promise of a better life. Well-liked by the villagers, as long as he maintained his reputation as a fair and honest man, the Furlongs were as financially safe as it was possible to be.

Furlong never knew his mother. Raised by a kind woman named Mrs. Wilson, he wasn’t told who his father was, either. He didn’t dare ask. But he grew up happily enough with loving adults in his life, growing into a kind and compassionate man.

On Christmas Eve 1985, Bill Furlong rose extra early to deliver coal to the local convent, his last stop before attending Mass with his family. What happened that brutally cold morning would force him to choose between following either his head or his heart, knowing the path he took could place his family’s stability in peril. His decision would put his courage and strength of character to the ultimate test.

Small Things Like These is a short book, at 114 pages the shortest ever to be nominated for the Booker Prize. Because of its brevity, I hesitate to say too much about it to avoid spoilers. It’s a beautiful novel, written in celebrated Irish novelist Claire Keegan’s distinctive spare prose, interwoven with the kind of spirituality that doesn’t involve churches. It’s about kindness and goodness and empathy, told without a trace of sentimentality.

While this novel is a little gem, I don’t think it will win the Booker. The judges are giving Keegan a nod, acknowledging her quiet power. But ultimately, the prize will be given to a bigger novel with a story more suited to a sweeping canvas. But then, in 2011 I said the same thing and Julian Barnes waltzed out the door with his A Sense of An Ending, another shorter book. It’s fantastic and I love and admire it, but I loved Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side just a little bit better.

It occasionally happens that I’m wrong, but I don’t think so in this case. If I use A Sense of An Ending as a gauge, its focus was much wider, the story more satisfyingly dense. Small Things Like These touches on a very weighty subject that absolutely deserves more exposure, but ultimately I don’t think it will prevail against the competition. It will appeal strongly to readers who complain Booker winners are far too obscure and too highly literary; this is the quietest longlisted novel I’ve ever read and one of the most accessible.

One thing I do know is unequivocably true, I’d better move my arse if I’m going to get through the longlisted novels I mean to.

For more about the Magdalene Laundries:

Ireland’s Magadalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment

Plus loads of YouTube videos – give it a Google

See Wikipedia for this excellent article

May all of them, living and dead, find their peace.

And may the guilty find Karma.

Booker Longlist 2022 – early thoughts

The 13: Booker Longlist 2022

First it was the Booker Prize for Fiction, then the Man Booker, finally, the plain old Booker Prize. I found them in the early 2000s, followed them religiously, and joined the other zealots attempting to predict the winners. Either I was very good at it or very lucky, but I crushed it for a string of years – not to brag.

Well, kind of to brag.

Okay, completely to brag. Humility will get you nowhere, do not hide your light.

I had a system. First, I grouped them into categories. Before they became a political statement, the Bookers had a formula of sorts; it was possible to crack the code with a fair degree of accuracy simply by reading a few, then researching the hell out of the others. The judges chose a certain number of established writers, a handful of up and comers who’d garnered a bit of fame (some of whom had been previously nominated for this or other prizes), then one or two debut novelists.

For a debut novelist to sweep the field, they had to be phenomenal. These were somewhat of a wild card, though their traditional role was as virtual cannon fodder. For all intents and purposes, they were chosen to be weeded out when it came time for the shortlist, in exchange for raising their visibility. For an established writer, they needed to perform at the top of their game. While I don’t have the statistics, the winners tended to lie somewhere in between (not counting the two Hilary Mantel years, and what the hell was up with that).

The years politics prevailed were dark days for literature. I am all for writers who make strong statements, but when the point is how loudly they speak out against that year’s pet issue over the quality of writing, that’s a problem. If you want a book prize centered solely on political issues, all well and good – develop that prize. If the point is to honor the best writing, the filter of political correctness needs to be muted. Judging from the past couple of years, and the books that made it for 2022, I’m tentatively hopeful the political years may be over.

Cross fingers.

This year’s longlist is dominated by Americans, taking up six of the thirteen spots: Elizabeth Strout, Karen Joy Fowler, Leila Mottley, Hernan Diaz, Selby Wynn Schwartz, and Percival Everett. I have nothing against them, they just don’t belong here. The US has so many prizes the rest of the world is excluded from, and the UK and Commonwealth produce brilliant literature that ought to stand on its own. It makes no sense Americans are allowed to be nominated for the Booker Prize.

End rant.

I purchased four books from the list: Small Things Like These, The Trees, Case Study, and The Colony. Honestly, if money were no object, I’d have bought them all just to have thirteen books show up on my doorstep. They could keep company with the books I’ve bought and not read from longlists of the past. In the end I went with the titles I thought I’d enjoy most, weighing that with how many I could get from the library. Not all of them are worth buying.

From the library, I have Oh William! checked out and I’m on the waiting list for Booth. I’m planning to request Glory next, since NoViolet Bulawayo has a very good reputation in the middle-of-the-road category. Actually, all these writers are middle of the road, aren’t they. There’s no huge, iconic writer overshadowing the rest. Oh, damn. That makes my prediction a million times harder.

I haven’t fully researched the others, as much for lack of time as the fact some just don’t appeal to me at all. I watched a few YouTube videos made by booktubers and I may have taken on some of their negative prejudices, but that’s the price I had to pay for my crash course. Shrug. I’m in a lot more of a rush these days.

As of the publication of this post, I’ve finished one of the longlisted titles and I’m almost halfway through another. I’ll talk about that next time.

Spoiler: the book I finished was lovely, but it’s not the winner. I’ll tell you why, never fear.

The shortlist will be announced on September 6. The winner of the Booker Prize 2022 will announced the 17th of October.


Slumber, Awakening, and Sylvia Plath

I don’t know what snapped within me, but I’ve undergone a sea change over the past week or two. Approaching the one-year anniversary of this pandemic shite raising its ugly head, looking back over almost 365 of the worst days of all our lives, there’s finally light at the end of the tunnel. The vaccine is here, it appears to be working. Is that precipitating the seismic shift?


Could also be running out of Xanax.

The phase I’m in is decidedly hypomanic: a period of increased interest and activity following a Disney-princess slumber – the duration of which I don’t even know, truthfully. I don’t keep track of moods. Maybe I should. I don’t.

When did books last provoke a lustful response beyond “that sounds mildly interesting, perhaps one day I’ll care enough to read it,” I have no answer. When was my last big Amazon book binge? Half Price Books trip?

Before this week, no idea. I haven’t given a shit in the longest time.

American poet Sylvia Plath with that absolute dick of an English poet, Ted Hughes.

Could be Sylvia Plath what done it. I picked up a bio of her at random and started reading. Astonished by the extent of her outrageously out-sized battles with mental illness, suddenly there was a spark where there hadn’t been in so, so long. I felt for her, in her crushing depression and suicidal ideation, her dark nights of the soul leading to multiple and nearly-successful attempts at self-destruction.

Her story resonates.


Sylvia Plath lead, if not a wild life, at least one filled with love affairs and experimentation. While pursuing her education and building her CV, she swung from man to man looking for an appropriate husband. The one thing she held sacred in her soul was writing.

Then, god help her, Ted Hughes. I’m not sure I mentioned he was a bit of a prick? Because he was a bit of a prick. A genius poet, but a bit of a prick.

Who doesn’t know Plath committed suicide by asphyxiation, sticking her head in a gas oven? Distraught over that prick Ted Hughes (fight me) and his inability to keep his pants zipped, the blatant flaunting of his affair shattered whatever sanity she had in reserve. Left back in England with two small children to care for, while Ted was off in Spain screwing German poet Assia Wevill (who, and this is supremely ironic if you don’t already know, in turn committed suicide the exact same way Sylvia had, tragically taking their four-year-old daughter with her) Sylvia cracked in half for the last time.

Of course, this is all gross simplification of Sylva Plath’s life, influence, and what shoved her off the cliff. The point is, she made me care. Her life was short and she suffered terribly. But she left behind so much beauty, didn’t she?

I’m going to finish this biography, dip into her journals and poetry, and most likely read another recently-released biography of Sylvia Plath recommended by a friend. Then, if I’m still in the mood, read The Bell Jar, her thinly-fictionalized novel about a suicidal woman gone mad.

Then, I may read something else.

Good morning.

Sylvia Plath Quotes On Death. QuotesGram

Okay, you have my full inattention.

I can hardly read. My focus just isn’t there.

True, I’ve been busy putting up with a series of minor health issues, but it isn’t just that. Most of it’s innocuous stuff; only one detail looms larger. It takes a lot of energy pretending that’s not so.

I’m not sleeping well. All day I’m yawning, chugging the coffee, pulling my own hair to keep myself awake. Yip, you read that right: Pulling my own hair.

The only way to break the cycle is to stay up, to force myself not to fall asleep before my head hits the pillow. That’s a lot tougher than it sounds. My sofa’s like a seductive siren. I hear it calling on the drive home…


Shut up, upholstered whore.

I unwind with the Olympics, rather than reading, because it takes no concentration watching pretty people twirling on ice. I’m on the last few pages of Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye. I barely remember what I’ve already read. I’ll push to finish the last ten or fifteen  pages, but I’m going to have to turn right back around and at least skim back through the book. I don’t remember who all the characters are anymore.

This evening was the Great Books discussion of Jack London’s Martin Eden, the book I abandoned last week. As so often happens, after the discussion I second-guessed my original negative opinion. Turns out I missed the point. Who knew?

Part of the blame lies in reading it on my phone’s Kindle app. It’s okay in a pinch, but I really hate reading on such a small screen. I hate reading on a screen, period, but the book’s not that readily available, and I was in a hurry.

Funny, but the uber-romantic first third of Martin Eden, the part that put me off, wasn’t a problem for the men in the group. I was the only female that showed tonight, the only member who didn’t like it, and the one complaining loudest about the sappy plot.

Do I regret not finishing Martin Eden? Kind of. But then, I’m working very hard on finishing nothing lately. Give me points for consistency.



The next read for that group is A Clockwork Orange. The Kubrick adaptation put me off reading the book; I didn’t make it past the rape scene. I picked it up at Barnes & Noble, read the first few pages, and the book seems a lot different than the film, thank the gods.


In matters not-books, I have to give my daughter credit for a brilliant idea regarding journaling. She knows I’m having all kinds of problems keeping a personal journal. So, she suggested this:


1 – Buy a Page-a-Day calendar
2 – Jot down a few notes every day
3 – If you want to write more, have time and energy, expand in a proper journal
4 – Otherwise, what you have is better than nothing


Reader, it works! Vast, open spaces are intimidating right now, but page-a-day calendars are manageable.

See, I am managing something. My next goal: finding my attention span.

I can do this.

Wait… Do what?

Screw it. I’m heading for the sofa.

A Sunday Commonplace

Books mentioned in this post:

Review copies:

The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan – finished

Notwithstanding by Louis de Bernieres

The Past by Tessa Hadley

The Marches: A Borderland Journey between England and Scotland by Rory Stewart

Mercury by Margot Livesey

The Black Notebook by Patrick Modiano (transl: Mark Polizzotti)


Victorian Bloomsbury by Rosemary Ashton

Every Single Minute by Hugo Hamilton

Current reading:

A Tree or a Person or a Wall by Matt Bell

Recently finished:

The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe by DG Compton

The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan – review to come


As autumn rolls in, I imagine reading in front of a roaring fire, while orange and red and yellow leaves drift languidly to the ground outside my picture window framed by heavy velvet drapes, a bottomless cup of coffee at my elbow, a loyal dog at my slipper-clad feet. The unfortunate reality is I live in an 80s vintage apartment building sans fireplace, count myself lucky when I have clean clothes – not daring to dream anything matches – and the closest I get to open flame is candles I own but seldom burn, partly because I have two cats with not enough sense between them to avoid setting themselves – and my apartment – on fire.

And the dream goes *POOF*

No leather armchairs reeking of wealth indenting oriental rugs, no polished mahogany bookshelves crammed with leather bindings, no crackling and popping of exploding sap, no scent of seasoned logs licked by fire… Just a suburban apartment  furnished half by The Room Place, half by Target (which sells serviceable books shelves at really great prices, by the way).

One does what one must, which doesn’t stop one from bitching about it the whole time.

Fall is my favorite season. Fleeting though it is, I hope to make some time to enjoy it: shuffling through the leaves, carving pumpkins, feeling the crisp air that reddens the cheeks, the annual pulling out of the sweaters. I’ve always loved the colors most, then the smells of what I know is actually decay in preparation for the hibernation of winter, but still it’s the best and most glorious time of year.

I look forward to it all as October arrives.


At no other time (than autumn) does the earth let itself be inhaled in one smell, the ripe earth; in a smell that is in no way inferior to the smell of the sea, bitter where it borders on taste, and more honeysweet where you feel it touching the first sounds. Containing depth within itself, darkness, something of the grave almost. – Rainer Maria Rilke


Before I go any further, I have to admit a most embarrassing truth: I’ve purchased and received several – okay many, many – books over the course of the past two weeks that I’d love to list here for posterity, however, in the process of quick-cleaning my apartment I tossed them onto random shelves and can scarcely tell what’s new and what’s been here for years. I’m sitting here looking at the fruits of my labor, semi-pleased with myself for having made the place look remotely habitable, and though I could perhaps paw through the stacks and stacks and stacks in order to locate every recent book purchase or advance copy, I’ve scattered them to the extent it would be a challenge.

This is when you know – in case it hadn’t already dawned – you own an awful lot of books. And by awful, I mean tremendously wonderful, mind-blowingly awesome numbers of them.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a serious discrepancy between numbers of books arriving and those making the “finished” list. Of late, both my credit card and the review fairy have been rather generous, which I assume to mean I’ve been extraordinarily deserving, as what other explanation could there be?

Victorian Bloomsbury

Victorian Bloomsbury

Today, Bloomsbury means Virginia Woolf and her coevals but, as Ashton shows so vividly, it was the district’s reputation as a centre of intellectual life that in reality drew the “Bloomsberries”: they didn’t create the area, the area created them. – Judith Flanders



Also with the onset of fall comes a certain desire for a bit of more planned, structured reading, possibly because it’s the start of the academic year, which in my formative days meant assigned books and syllabi. Tossing around a few ideas, one I’ve settled upon is a planned reading of a mystery series. An embarrassing number of hours frittered away spent Amazon researching later, I decided to go with a series suggested by one of my favorite Scots, Chris of Morse, Lewis and Endeavour,  who tipped me off about Scottish mystery writer Christopher Brookmyre.


Christopher Brookmyer

Christopher Brookmyre

The best source for Brookmyre’s books – price and availability-wise – is a shop in the UK,  so I placed an Amazon order for the first three titles to make sure I like them well enough before buying the full series:

Quite Ugly One Morning

Country of the Blind

Not the End of the World

I considered lots of series mysteries before making my decision, including: works of Ngaio Marsh, the Maisie Dobbs series, Lee Childs’ Jack Reacher novels, all the popular Scandinavian noir writers, among loads of others. What lead me to go with Brookmyre was the promise of a rather off-beat and quirky style, different from the sort of grim mysteries I normally gravitate toward – though no promises I won’t turn back to those before winter snows thaw.

It was partly to counter the grim nature of the frozen winter that I chose this series, which sounds quirky in a way that’s not cringe-inducingly precious. Because I despise cloying prose.

Quite Ugly One Morning is the book that made Christopher Brookmyre a star in his native Britain, establishing his distinctive, scabrously humorous style and breakneck, hell-for-leather narrative pacing … Quite Ugly One Morning introduces Brookmyre’s signature protagonist, the hard-partying, wisecracking investigative journalist Jack Parlabane, who is not afraid to bend the laws of the land (or even the laws of gravity) to get to the truth … Laced with acerbic wit and crackling dialogue, Quite Ugly One Morning is a wickedly entertaining and vivacious thriller.  – Amazon blurb

I’d like to decide on another course of planned reading, though what I don’t know. It’s a delicate balance as I read and review advance copies, sneaking in a few titles from my own collection in between. And always the postman brings more.

Though he doesn’t ring twice. It’s a myth.

In reading, I’ve just finished Jenni Fagan’s The Sunlight Pilgrims, for review later this week. Current advance copy reading is Matt Bell’s A Tree or a Person or a Wall, a thick book of short stories, and one of several half-started volumes lying on the bed next to me or on the table beside the bed.

I’m between books for the most part, too overwhelmed by the wealth of riches to have settled on anything outside Bell’s book. No wonder, considering the tide coming in, but by the end of this evening I should have a clearer picture of my reading week, and what’s to come through the rest of the month.

In the not too distant future, it will be time to wrap up My Reading Year, 2016. But that gives me a headache. I think I have enough to keep my hands from becoming too idle in the meantime.

Among other things, I can search for my new books to name in my next round up. Yes, I think that’s the goal I’ll set for myself. Big enough without being too overwhelming.

And a very happy October to all.


The Brontes, Don DeLillo and Roald Dahl, and other semi-lunatic ravings

Books mentioned in this post:

Various biographies of the Brontes

Someone Like You by Roald Dahl

White Noise by Don DeLillo


What passes for literary criticism these days are underlined or bracketed passages, words penned in the margins of books I’m reading. Occasionally, I’ll take a picture of a particularly striking passage, or the front cover of a book I’m reading or came across and needed to hold just to feel its heft, and I’ll post that on Instagram. Once upon a time, I thought and wrote deeply about literature almost every day.  I miss that luxury, never imagined it one day wouldn’t be.

On normal weeks I work 9.5 hour days – and half-day Saturdays, ugh – in life insurance/finance, which stretches my brain in directions liberal arts majors just don’t go. Numbers hurt my head. Talking to people about their medical histories and financial needs, empathizing and occasionally de-escalating situations, drains me. I can hardly form sentences by the time I get home. I talk and talk, listen and interpret, advise and analyze, for hours and hours. My life is mentally exhausting.

Of necessity, most of my reading time comes when I’m exhausted, at night before sleep, or on my precious and all too rare days off. My bed is scattered with books. Some women have men in their beds; right now I don’t even have sheets on my mattress (I’m lucky they made it through the washer and dryer, much less back where they belong) but I do have six or seven books, most of them open face down on the side I suppose a significant other would occupy, if I were a girl who said yes. In place of a human bed warmer, there are pens and notebooks. They don’t steal my blankets or snore, demand I turn off the light and get to sleep, or comment how every night I leave my day clothes where they fall on the floor, looking like I’ve been Raptured right out of them.

Laundry is what Sundays are for.

Of my current reading, my interest in all things Brontë continues, my bed straining to suport huge, fat biographies and collections of their letters. Funny, none of their novels have made it under the duvet. I’ve read them all, and they’re due for re-reads, but it’s the lives of this family I’m obsessed with at the moment: Charlotte the sensible and serious intellectual, Emily the turbulent wild child, Anne the gentle aesthete, Branwell the Byronic un-hero and dramatic alcoholic, plus  Patrick the glue that binds.

I love them to distraction.


“If men could see us as we really are, they would be a little amazed; but the cleverest, the acutest men are often under an illusion about women: they do not read them in a true light: they misapprehend them, both for good and evil: their good woman is a queer thing, half doll, half angel; their bad woman almost always a fiend.”

― Charlotte Brontë, Shirley


In short bursts, I’m reading a collection of Roald Dahl’s stories, with varying degrees of success. Some have power, but others honestly don’t impress me. The 21st century leaves a person jaded; we have enough real horror every day to beat the fictional imaginings of several decades ago, when life was in many ways so innocent.

Not all fiction holds up well. I read Dahl’s stories with the anticipation something big will happen before the end, waiting for that twist I hope will come. When it doesn’t, the let down is exasperating. Yet, I’m left wanting more, the potential of the next story’s promise keeps me reading. So he can’t be doing everything wrong.




On a totally different front, there’s Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise, a damned brilliant, very American novel and a work that couldn’t be more different from the Brontës and Roald Dahl. I started it while on the StairMaster, of all places, just about the least reading-friendly activity there is, but a necessity preparation since I’m planning an all-night round-trip drive to Cleveland, just to hear him speak for maybe an hour at most. No signing, no meet and greet, chance to touch hands or lock eyes. No, just a talk by an iconic, somewhat reclusive American man of letters.

Yes, you read that correctly, and I’ve done the math. It’s twelve hours of driving for a one-hour talk given by a writer whose work I’ve read very little of, though what I’ve read impresses me to the core. Like you, I find that completely and utterly irrational and insane. It’s impulsive and impractical – rather wonderful, if you want my opinion. Life doesn’t give you a lot of second chances. Sometimes opportunity whispers and you turn a deaf ear. At others, you tilt your head toward it and listen, really hearing what it has to say. I’ve regretted turning the deaf ear, but almost never the listening.


“Sometimes I see something so moving I know I’m not supposed to linger. See it and leave. If you stay too long, you wear out the wordless shock. Love it and trust it and leave.”

― Don DeLillo, Underworld


I learned about this literary event serendipitously, realizing immediately it’s a rare, one-off opportunity. Don DeLillo doesn’t speak in public, hasn’t for ages, but he’ll be in Cleveland on Tuesday, September 13. And Tuesdays happen to be my days off. It’s a 6-hour drive to Cleveland, so if I leave Chicago early on Tuesday I’ll easily make it before his evening presentation at around 7 or 7:30. The place will be swept and cleared, his discarded water bottle at room temperature in the trash can before 9:00 strikes. By that time I’ll be back in the car, headed home. If the wind’s with me, by 4:00 a.m. I’ll be back home in my bed. And at 10:30 the same morning, I’ll be back in my cubicle, on the phone, talking to people about planning for their eventual deaths.

This, friends, is why I’m unmarriageable. Because I’m impulsive and a little crazy, inclined to listen to that little voice of unreason. Yes, I’m a responsible adult, but I pledge never, ever to grow up.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a bed to crawl into, and worlds to explore before I sleep.


“I began to realize how important it was to be an enthusiast in life. He taught me that if you are interested in something, no matter what it is, go at it at full speed ahead. Embrace it with both arms, hug it, love it and above all become passionate about it. Lukewarm is no good. Hot is no good either. White hot and passionate is the only thing to be.”

― Roald Dahl, My Uncle Oswald



2015: a year in (interrupted and chaotic) reading

Bluestalking does not tell anywhere near the full tale of my 2015 reading, a secret shame for any book reviewer, not to mention generally voracious reader. My blog should reflect all I’ve read in any given year, not just the smattering I was able to pull it together enough to write about. It should be my go-to place, where I share all my thoughts about books and writers and the reading and writing life, instead of a mostly quiet wasteland I’ve sort of half-assed for the past twelve full months.

In my defense, it was a rough year. My divorce was finalized in June, the months before and up to the writing of this post fraught with anxiety. This would be enough in its own right, without the fact  my ex is all but married again so soon, having started dating the woman he’s since grown very serious with before the judge had even dropped his gavel. Before the soul of our marriage had departed its body. And yeah, I’m public with my life, my social media accounts open and honest. I have little doubt the new Mrs- to-be isn’t reading this, putting her own spin on things courtesy of the half-story she’s heard, her own gospel truth.  The thing is, the person she’s dating is not the person I was with for 30 years: the kid I met at 18, married at 23, had three children with and shared  25 toxic years. But then, she isn’t the person I am, either. So maybe she’s in the clear. Best of luck.

And while I have been reading through it all, I’ve largely failed in finding the level of concentration required to think all that deeply about what’s passed before my eyes. Most of my reading has been conducted in my tiny, cramped apartment-sized bathtub this year, amongst buckets and buckets of bubbles. The warmth of the water soothes, the extravagance of “premium” lavender bubbles – i.e., not the cheap crap you buy at Walmart but the good stuff from Lush or Bath and Body Works – a luxurious treat I more than deserve right now, even if more than one book has met its soapy demise right alongside me.

What I’ve read for review doesn’t always garner mention on Bluestalking, nor does it always make the rounds of venues like Goodreads or Amazon. Yet, I hesitate to call my blogging behavior lazy. It isn’t that. My outside life has consumed the bulk of my time and energy, sapping most of my creativity, even the energy it takes to lift my head off the pillow many mornings, much less reading critically then writing cogently about it. Still and all, I’ve read some remarkable books this year, truly stellar stuff offering more than enough “best of 2015” material.

My intentions at the beginning of the year were good, my disappointment with myself for not having achieved nearly as much as I’d hoped, coming to the conclusion of 2015, a heavier weight on my shoulders than I should have allowed. Regardless, I will write that list, short though it will be. I’ll write it as tribute to having gotten through any reviews at all, for reading what I managed to despite having suffered deeply through the course of this year. Because reading has always lifted me, always made so much of life bearable, from a despicable childhood through today. When things get awful, the thought of having books to read comforts me beyond any other single factor in my life.

So, what’s the best of my 2015 reading? Damn near all of it’s been impressive but in looking back one book screams out, a book I read and reviewed here. That one book is Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, the dystopian marvel I haven’t gotten out of my head. No matter the number of books I’ve read since, this book has managed to stay surprisingly fresh. Triggers have popped the book back into my mind more times than I can count. There’s something about it, some quality of dark deliciousness I can’t shake and have no desire to. By no means am I alone in this; Station Eleven was one of the undisputed great novels of 2015.


Yes, other books blew me away, books I read before and since choosing this one favorite. A very close second came a few days after I’d drafted the beginnings of this post, Kevin Barry’s Beatlebone, a fantastic gem of a book framed by John Lennon’s connection to an island off the coast of Ireland, one he bought for its association with his Irish ancestral past and then came back to visit after a lapse of decades, just before his murder. There was Matt Bell’s Scrapper, as well, another great dystopia of 2015,  written with Detroit as its backdrop, a gorgeous staccato testament to the continued relevance of its darkly violent theme of despair.

With 2016 newly arrived, I once again vow to do better, to keep closer track of my reading and review everything I read here on Bluestalking. Honestly, I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep that promise. Life’s been hard on me, each year managing to blindside with events I didn’t see coming – and some I did, like the divorce – knocking out my breath. But I’ll try. All I can do is set goals and strive my hardest to reach them.

Here’s hoping 2016 proves less traumatic and cheers to all who stopped by in 2015. I cannot express the depth of my appreciation and hope I’ll bring more to the table from here on out. As always, I bring my best hopes.


man booker 2015: i’m fucked

Things were going along well, so tidy, so well-kempt, all picket fences and Sunday afternoon lawnmowers pushed by men in white shirts with cut-off jeans, baseball caps protecting dear, shiny heads. All signs pointed to Marilynne Robinson for the Man Booker 2015 win. God was in his heaven. I sat on the front porch sipping lemonade and waiting for autumn to bring the Shortlist so I could laugh my knowing laugh, toss my head back and sneer at the world with my smug I may be a bitch but I’m a correct bitch face.

Bitch face. Suits me.

Assuming the judges weren’t planning to go to the dark side and be all let’s not give the prize to the writer who deserves it but, rather, to some unknown writer who’s produced a book whose politics are timely, themes ripped from the liberal headlines of the moment, it was a shoo-in. I could get away with skimming the other books, reading reviews and crunching the numbers with my patented prize winner crunch-u-lator. Because come on. Marilynne Robinson, writer of prose the angels sing while lounging languidly on fluffy while clouds. And pitted against what that could even come close?

Well, fuck and blast. Pitted against this:

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Jesus Holy Granola Christ on Greek yogurt.

Encamped at Barnes & Noble for the duration, computer open, headphone and charger wires sticking out like nasty, nasty spider legs in all directions and hogging all available outlets I wasn’t going anywhere, Jack.  Armloads of books plopped on chairs I’d screeched across the floor to my cave like a magpie gathers shiny things to her nest, a token coffee purchased to justify my whole-hoggishness, I read the first few pages of what I presumed would be an oh so lovely book.

It would be a good read. I knew that. People liked it, Amazon reviews were effusive, critics waved their arms above their heads, spittle flying in their hurry to get out pretty words about a pretty book before their peers could get anything in edgewise. I’d read a few chapters, smiling smugly as I put it back on the shelf for the next person to buy, a perfectly enlightened person who’d read a good thing or two on Goodreads, no idea it had nearly swiped the Booker.

Propped on the table in front of me, it hit like a typhoon bitch-slapping me with a palm leaf, causing me to laugh and feel all sadly desolate and empty and what’s the point of life within the space of half an hour’s read. My hands started to itch. Then my face. I scratched where imaginary feathers tickled me, like I was allergic to incredible prose.  I was there in Barnes & Noble without adult supervision and I had my debit card. Like a sex addict stuck in a hotel room with a ready whore, pockets bulging with money and happy-to-see-you, I was sunk.

I bought it – along with a few others but that’s not important right now. I bought it.

I took it home, resumed reading it in bed, sinking feeling triggering the realization this isn’t going to be a book I can merrily skip through, finish and pronounce upon with my usual speed and cocky know-it-all manner. (My once upon a time speed, I mean, since I haven’t done anything quickly in months but that’s not quite the point.)

Like Marilynne Robinson’s novels, the book’s packed with prose you can’t rush. It’s beautiful, at times reaches poetic but with a cast of characters bigger than Lila, another thing slowing me down.  I need to catch the nuances of each, dig into his or her motivations, separate one from the other despite their fierce desire to cling together.

This is a very long novel, 736 pages densely packed with small print and those slick, thinner pages I can’t turn very quickly without having to lick my finger, and I hate when people lick their fingers. Thick, textured paper tends to have a larger font, is quickly read, turning pages eased by deckle edges giving something to grasp. The reader feels accomplishment much more quickly, these thick pages forcing the left hand to secure more and more strongly as the balance tips from pages to read to have read, left to right left to right in rapid succession.

A Little Life was designed differently, to keep it from weighing 20 lbs. and saving the wrists of its readers. Because did you read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Morrell?   The wrist snapper? Who didn’t learn a lesson from that? Yanagihara’s novel is heavy but looks so innocent, what with its thin, slick pages.  It’s frustrating, the left hand sitting there all hurry up stupid while the right hand flips and flips, getting nowhere fast.

All this to say holy god, this book has a shot. IT HAS A SHOT! It doesn’t espouse an irritatingly liberal agenda that’s all politics, no substance. It shows how one life is important, how all the little life things add up to one Very Big Thing, indeed. Seven hundred thirty-six very big things. Lila‘s no slouch but

A Little Life




Right now, I could use a shot.

Unravel all I said about how easy this was, how eye-rollingly stupid, guttural expression of disgust stupid, the idea of putting anyone above or on par with Marilynne Robinson. Because

A Little Life




Fuck me, it does.

‘Twas the week of Thanksgiving




Welcome to the week of Thanksgiving, a time when we Colonials observe the gratitude our ancestors felt for having produced a bumper crop of food to sustain them through the upcoming winter, thanks largely to the help and advice of the Native Americans, without whom we’d have been screwed. As some versions of history have it, we invited our Indian allies to the feast. At least those we didn’t kill by disease or violence or whatever.

Sorry, just being a curmudgeon. Truth is, all great civilizations were built on the backs of indigenous people, who were overtaken by the stronger and more advanced, just as they took over the civilization before. It’s how we got where we are today. We can choose to see that as positive or negative but this most basic explanation of history is neither. It just is.

If you’re observing Thanksgiving, I hope you have a fan-wonder-fattening day. I know I will: turkey, stuffing (mother in law’s HEAVENLY recipe), cranberries, sweet potatoes with marshmallows, mashed potatoes with gravy, something green and nutritious and other miscellany. Then dessert. God Bless America!

Wait, that sounded curmudgeonly, too. Thanksgiving’s true intent is to celebrate things we’re thankful for, above and beyond the craptacular nature of everyday life. If you look hard enough, there must be something you’re grateful for in your life. Keep looking. Check behind that door. In the back yard, maybe? Could be it fell behind the dresser.

Need more time? Take all you need. You have until Thursday. If you go beyond that I can’t be responsible for the consequences.

What am I thankful for? Kind of a personal question, isn’t it?

Well, since you asked:

* Aside from a few joint issues, all my major muscle groups appear to be operating normally.

* Ditto my organs, minus the joints. Organs don’t have joints.

Do they?

* Though I’m still out of work, every interview gets me that much closer to my next job. Theoretically, at least.

*  Doctor Who’s latest episode and David Tenant’s guest appearance on same. THANK YOU, GOD.

* Doctor Who will make its next appearance THIS CHRISTMAS! Calloo! Callay!

* Featuring David Tennant. THANK YOU, GOD.

* Sebastian Barry’s novel The Secret Scripture is BEING MADE INTO A FREAKING MOVIE! You are a genius, Mr. Barry. More of the world needs to know that.

* Books. Glorious books and the fact they exist.

* A roof above my head, food in my kitchen and clothing on my body. That last one is a source of gratitude to many.

* Health and all that. Whatever.

* Another year on its way out, the prospect of a fresh, new year to come. In which I’ll make avowals so I can break them in the first quarter of the year. Wait. That’s not so good.

* Other stuff. I’ve lost interest.

Let’s talk books:


patanddick I recently finished Will Swift’s biography of Pat and Richard Nixon, an intimate and revealing portrait of the relationship between the controversial president and his wife.

The media painted the Nixons as a cold, distant political couple, essentially two mannequins living together for the sole purpose of representing a nuclear family. What they didn’t realize was  Pat was the backbone of the marriage, the matriarch who knew when to push her naturally introverted husband and when to back off. I question if there would have been a President Richard M. Nixon if not for his discerning choice of Pat as his wife. It’s one thing he got right. One of the only.

I reviewed the book for Library Journal and it will be published in early January, 2014. If you’re into American presidential history, the Watergate scandal or just curious about the private lives of the Nixons you cannot, trust me, go wrong.

I had no particular interest in the couple or the era but wound up riveted. All this took place before my time, or before my awareness, and nothing about the scandal interested me all that much. It’s not quite like the Kennedy family, which has been beaten to death so thoroughly I have no desire to read anything about them, but it was close.

My knowledge of Nixon consisted of the cartoonish “I am not a crook!” But it’s all so much more compelling than I knew. If I read no other book about Nixon, I’m satisfied with this one. And I probably won’t read another one.


Have you read works by novelist Jesse Ball? If not, you need to. I recommend The Curfew to get you started.


I’m getting into Silence Once Begun, for review at New York Journal of Books. Ball’s an experimental writer who’s not too “out there” for the average reader of literary fiction. It’s easy to compare him with Murakami, since everyone knows him, but Jesse Ball is less surreal. He’s Murakami light, more appealing to general readers, who may get overwhelmed by Murakami.

The plot of this new novel is promising. A bland Everyman falls in with the wrong sort of people, one of whom is a man who dares him to sign his name to a confession of a crime. He, believing it’s a joke, agrees. Little does he realize, the crime in question is very real.

Release date: January 28, 2014.


The number of review and freebie copies I’ve received of late is staggering and unprecedented. I’ve gotten some every week for years but never this many in such a short period. Among them, Alain de Botton and John Armstrong’s Art as Therapy. The book’s huge and gorgeous. Huge as in over-sized, more than thick. Good stuff.




What is art’s purpose? In this engaging, lively, and controversial new book, bestselling philosopher Alain de Botton and art historian John Armstrong propose a new way of looking at familiar masterpieces, suggesting that they can be useful, relevant, and – above all else – therapeutic for their viewers. De Botton argues that certain great works offer clues on managing the tensions and confusions of everyday life. Chapters on Love, Nature, Money, and Politics outline how art can help with these common difficulties – for example, Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter helps us focus on what we want to be loved for; Serra’s Fernando Pessoa reminds us of the importance of dignity in suffering; and Manet’s Bunch of Asparagus teaches us how to preserve and value our long-term partners. Art as Therapy offers an unconventional perspective, demonstrating how art can guide us, console us, and help us better understand ourselves.




The NBAs. I knew I wouldn’t have time to read them; more’s the pity I made the effort acquiring all the fiction. Though, in my favor, two were review copies. I was able to buy The Flame Throwers when it was a cheap Kindle special and paid Amazon prices for The Good Lord Bird (the winner) and Bleeding Edge.

And actually read none of them, yet.

Congrats to James McBride on his win!




For the nonfiction, I never made it beyond Jill Lepore’s wonderful bio of Jane Franklin. And congrats to George Packer for his nonfiction award win!


On my Kindle I’m reading The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking by Olivia Laing.



Reviews for it are stellar and well deserved. Laing analyzes alcohol usage by Hemingway, Cheever, Tennessee Williams, Raymond Carver, John Berryman and F. Scott Fitzgerald, both explaining the causes and effects of dependency as well as how their writings – journals and letters as well as fiction – reflect their addiction.

Very revealing and I’ll have more to say about this soon. Right now it’s keeping me up nights, one of the more riveting works of literary criticism I’ve read in a while. I know… Riveting and literary criticism in the same sentence?


A few years ago I swore off reading literary criticism, my rationale being I barely have time to read primary texts, much less criticism. I’ve exempted books like this, about the authors and their works, in the context of a shared experience. I’m just not one for reading a whole book about one, single book. That’s kind of a lot of work and, with few exceptions, not worth it. I ain’t exactly getting my doctorate.

It will be published December 31, 2013. Thanks so much to NetGalley for my review copy.






Reading Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore




  • Hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (October 1, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307958345
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307958341


Jane Franklin and brother Benjamin were so close they were called “Benny and Jenny.” Unlike her famous and learned brother, Jane Franklin could not even spell correctly, though she loved to read, probably making her way through all her brother’s works and those books he sent to her. At any rate, she appreciated books but somehow never bothered learning to spell, herself. What’s the explanation? We’ll never know.

Whereas Ben was arguably the most famous and beloved man in the Colonies, a world traveler who spent his time rubbing elbows with the elite, Jane was a wife and mother struggling to make ends meet for her husband and houseful of children. Adding to her stresses, her husband was a less than reliable provider. There could hardly be a greater difference between these two siblings.

Though they didn’t see each other often, brother and sister kept up a regular correspondence, Jane’s missives mispelled disgracefully, her brother’s letters witty and well-written, lifting the heart of his impoverished, overworked sister. To her brother’s credit, he pulled the family from the brink of bankruptcy more than once. Unfortunately, he wasn’t in a position to help the day to day quality of their lives or be there in person to give his sister support. But he did what he could, from a distance, without crossing the boundary into sacrificing himself and his own ambition, even for his beloved Jenny.

Beset by illness in the Colonies, Jane lost child after child. Two of her older sons were severely problematic. Though helped out by their Uncle Ben, who set up various apprenticeships for them, it’s suspected both had mental impairments of some kind, resulting in their losing position after position – to the chagrin of their uncle and mother, both. Exactly what afflicted them isn’t known but their behavior was often erratic, outside the bounds of normally rambunctious young men.

Needless to say, life was grueling for Jane Franklin, both physically and mentally, her situation mirroring that of most Colonial wives and mothers. Her one advantage was having a wealthy brother with endless connections, though the bed she made with her inadequate husband and passel of twelve children was of her own making. Yet, she managed to stay relatively upbeat, trusting in God’s providence, somewhat frustrated by her brother’s state of unbelief. In any case, it helped buoy her up from the often grim realities of life.

Jill Lepore’s book is one of those nominated for the 2013 National Book Award, in the category of Nonfiction. Remember I was going to see if I could get through any of these before the winner was announced? Well, Lepore’s is the first, the one I know I’ll have finished before the deadline – God willin’ and the creek don’t rise. Though I now own all the fiction, uncharacteristically it’s the nonfiction I’m after first. Curious.

There is precious little information about Jane Franklin. Only her brother’s letters to her, plus a scant few which were saved (she wasn’t famous, so her missives weren’t valued) and a very short, four page record she kept – which she called her Book of Ages, in which she wrote in birth and death dates of family members – survive. We know which books were in her library and bits of what was said about her. For the rest, Lepore extrapolates from her brother’s life, what is known of her children and common life in the Colonies. The result is a fascinating glimpse into the life of a woman frustratingly obscure, whom it would seem would be next to impossible to research. Yet, Lepore has done just that. Based on very scant data, she’s managed to bring Jane Franklin to life in a manner I find terribly impressive. It gives me a frustrating feeling of “I want to do that!” Now, I just need a subject… And a lot more writing skill. Aside from that, I’m ready to step into Lepore’s tracks.

I’m just over halfway through the book, which is equal amounts text and bibliography/appendices. The length of the book, 464 pages, is deceiving. If you’re considering giving this one a read, allow for its being only half the stated length. If you want to go through the supporting and additional materials, that’s another thing. Of course, I plan to get through all that, as well, out of my love for Colonial history. It doesn’t have to be now, though. I can put it aside, getting back to the extra stuff whenever. This is a historical period near and dear to my heart. I’ll put it with the other books in my Colonial collection.

Having no knowledge of the other Nonfiction nominees, I can’t say if I’d predict Lepore as the winner. She’s done a great job with sparse material but I’m not sure how universal the appeal of the book really is. Tough to say. In other words, I don’t want to say I have reservations she’ll win but I do have reservations. Not to say this isn’t a great read. It is that.

Never mind her chances for an award. I recommend the book, based on its deeply thoughtful account of Colonial life, told from the unique perspective of the previously unknown sister of a great thinker, writer, politician and inventor, who is herself one step above illiterate. It’s a unique take on Colonial history and beautifully written.