March in Review: Much more reading, many more books. That’s more like it.

I had faith March wouldn’t let me down, unlike my crappy January and February. Lie: I had no such faith, but told myself things could hardly go further south. And there were no Olympics, no television distracting me. The TV reverted to its usual function: background noise for napping and covering the surface of my TV stand, while looking impressively large.

Size matters, friends.

Of course, March brings out my Irish. It’s also my birth month, meaning I have an excuse to binge buy books. This year, March threw in a nasty virus, gratis, getting me three days off work in which I was too sick even to read.

Still, I managed to fit in a few.

I’d hoped to take a short vacation in March. SPOILER: that didn’t happen. I was too ill, no desire to leave the warmth of my home and comfort of my sofa. It’s still cold here in Chicago. Distressingly so. On this April 1, it’s the coldest it’s been in years, hovering around freezing.

Will spring ever come. I’m beginning to wonder.

Books Read March 2018:
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (for library classics book group)

I’ve been putting off reading this one since the upset wrought by the first few minutes of the Kubrick film. Not a fan of random violence and rape, I wrote this off as not for me.

It’s about a young man literally addicted to violence, the leader of a pack which wreaks nightly havoc on an English town. The first part was difficult to read, partly for the made-up language Burgess creates (which wore on me) and constant, gratuitous violence. The second part is much more interesting, once main character Alex is finally arrested for his crimes, and re-programmed, for lack of a better term.

The best thing I can say about ACO is I finished it. Not a fan.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (Women’s Prize for Fiction, longlist)

The lovely Jesmyn Ward has written another moving story set in Mississippi, this one about a family ripped apart by the slow death of the matriarch from cancer. Told from shifting perspectives, including that of the ghost of a young black boy lynched decades ago, it’s a short and rich novel.

It deserves to be shortlisted.

Ruby by Cynthia Bond

This one, good God. Absolute brilliance, beginning to end. It’s been a while since I’ve read a modern book I believe has the staying power to become a modern classic. Ruby is it and then some.

The story, the brilliant and sensuous language, the characterization and use of magical realism… It’s huge in scope, so difficult to summarize.

The title character is born a beautiful young girl, her life of poverty dooming her to prostitution starting from a very early age. Having escaped the South for a privileged life with a relative in New York City, upon the death of a woman she’d loved she makes the fatal mistake of returning home. Ruby loses her mind, becoming feral, as she’s again pulled back into sexual abuse and violence.

Love enters, and Ruby resists, unable to believe anyone could truly love such a damaged, broken woman.

I can’t recall the last time I finished a book and wanted to turn back around and re-read it immediately. If I weren’t engaged in other projects, I’d have done so.

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt (Women’s Prize for Fiction, longlist)

Schmidt’s book is a novelization of the story of possible murderess Lizzie Borden, she of the axe murders of her father and step-mother.  Generally, I don’t care for historical fiction, but this was an exception. What bothers me about it is the inability to know what’s true and what’s imagination. I’d far rather read non-fiction, getting to the truth of the matter.

 

The Notorious LB

 

I enjoyed Schmidt’s approach, telling the story from different perspectives. And while the case remains unsolved, she lets the reader know what she believes truly happened. It’s what I’ve always believed, as well, minus a few suspicions on the details.

Though an enjoyable read, I’d be surprised if this one makes the shortlist.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar (Women’s Prize for Fiction, longlist)

Merchant shipman Jonah Hancock, one of his ships lost on a voyage, is handed a small, shrivelled “mermaid” as recompense. His only choice to help re-coup some of his losses is to display it as a curiosity, in PT Barnum fashion.

In the course of its travels, it lands in an upper class whorehouse, at which Mr Hancock meets the lovely courtesan and former mistress of a nobleman: Angelica Neal. Struck by her beauty, he’s lost.

Later, in order to win her love, she demands he bring her another mermaid, this one genuine. Believing it impossible, she believes she’s seen the last of him. When her fortunes change, however, Mr Hancock becomes much more desirable.

Ultimately, the creature Mr Hancock presents her with induces a terrible melancholy on everyone associated with it, begging the question what is the price to be paid when you get everything you think you want.

Not a candidate to win the Women’s Prize by any means, it’s an overly long book I nearly gave up at the 3/4 point. It meanders, interesting lesser characters never fully fleshed out. I finished it to find out what happens, and because I’d ordered it from Ireland and paid enough in shipping I didn’t want that to be for naught.

 

Books Bought March 2018:

In addition to a couple from the Books Read in March list (See What I Have Done and The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock), there were these:

Happy by Nicola Barker (Women’s Prize for Fiction, longlist)

The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Mallory Ortberg (for review)

And these:

And, for my birthday:

 

Nothing new read for the Muriel Spark project, unfortunately, but I’ll resume that in April. I thought I owned a copy of The Bachelors – next up chronologically – but can’t find it anywhere. Hesitant to buy more books after my slutty indulgence this month, I may have to skip over it for the next, bite the bullet and order it, then read it out of sequence.

I hate doing that, but needs must. One last search of my library, then I’ll do what must be done.

 

Such was my March. I’m happy with what I managed to read, definitely happy with the stream of new books. April needs to be a less expensive month. I went a little crazy, and need to re-coup. Still searching for that elusive sugar daddy to support my habit. Ah, but rare as mermaids are they.

April will hopefully herald spring, lifting my mood. I’d be lying if I said the first quarter of the year hasn’t brought me down. Still too early to plant flowers in the Chicago area – we’ve had frost as distressingly late as May, in years past – a warm-up, at the least, would be more than welcome. At least the days are lengthening, so there’s that. Sorry not to be more perky. I just don’t have it in me at the moment.

Spring’s hope’s eternal.

 

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018: It’s Early Yet

 

Welcome to the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist, formerly Baileys Prize, formerly Orange Prize. Quite the crop this year, including six debut novels.

Six!

I’ve had the Longlist date on my calendar for weeks. I just got very busy and had no time to post before now.

 

 

I’ve read a grand total of one of the longlisted books, Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Unlike the rest of the world, I’m not a huge fan. I own three others: Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan, Fiona Mozley’s Elmet and Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. Had I the money, I’d buy them all. Not because I believe they’re all great, but to support this prize and female writers in general. I’d also like to stack and re-stack them, take photos of and with them, and gloat.

Mostly, gloat.

Eight authors are Brits, four American, one Australian, one Pakistani/British and two Indian. Diversity? Meh. Not so much.

 

I’ve checked Amazon re: availability. It’s astonishingly good, though not all can be had via my beloved Prime. Only one – Imogen Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock – is unavailable in the States. It’s on pre-order, expected to be published September 11.

That does me no damn good, does it.

 

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 Longlisted Authors
(first novels highlighted in red)

 

  • Nicola Barker, British, H(A)PPY, her 12th novel (William Heinemann)
  • Elif Batuman, American, The Idiot, her first novel (Jonathan Cape)
  • Joanna Cannon, British, Three Things About Elsie, her second novel (The Borough Press)
  • Charmaine Craig, American, Miss Burma, her second novel (Grove Press)
  • Jennifer Egan, American, Manhattan Beach, fifth novel (Corair)
  • Imogen Hermes Gowar, British, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, her first novel (Harvill Secker)
  • Jessie Greengrass, British, Sight, her first novel (John Murray)
  • Gail Honeyman, British, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, her first novel (HarperCollins)
  • Meena Kandasamy, Indian, When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife, her second novel (Atlantic Books)
  • Fiona Mozley, British, Elmet, her first novel (JM Originals)
  • Arundhati Roy, Indian, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, her second novel (Hamish Hamilton)
  • Sarah Schmidt, Australian, See What I Have Done, her first novel (Tinder Press)
  • Rachel Seiffert, British, A Boy in Winter, her fourth novel (Virago)
  • Kamila Shamsie, Pakistani/British, Home Fire, her seventh novel (Bloomsbury Circus)
  • Kit de Waal, British, The Trick to Time, her second novel (Viking)
  • Jesmyn WardAmerican Sing, Unburied, Sing, third novel, (Boomsbury Circus)

 

Repeated from my Man Booker rants of the past, being a novice should grant a writer no special privilege. Any judging panel worried about offending the masses is going to pepper a longlist with several Redshirts (Star Trek reference), and what better way than neophyte authors. Some are there from merit, others as place fillers. I’ve already sniffed out a place filler or two, but I’ll keep my own counsel for now.

Conversely, past reputation should bring no assurance, either. Even the big writers stumble. But – and this is a big but – experience will out. A writer who’s been honing her craft 20 years is going to be more sophisticated and nuanced than a newbie. Again, unless she should stumble.

So. The 2018 list. I’ll yoink off Eleanor Oliphant first thing. Too popular, and the ending was a sell-out.

And then there were 15.

Longlisted books I’ll try to finish before the Shortlist is announced (April 23):

Jennifer Egan Manhattan Beach

Fiona Mozley Elmet

Jesmyn Ward Sing, Unburied, Sing

 

Second Tier Longlisted books I’ll finish if there’s still time before the Shortlist: *

Elif Batuman The Idiot

Sarah Schmidt See What I Have Done

* Books I’m buying because they sound like great reads, and to support the longlisted authors, not necessarily books I think will win the prize.

 

I won’t get serious about predictions until the Shortlist’s announced. I’m not familiar enough with lots of these writers. I’ll read more about them and their books, scan some reviews, and keep an ear to the ground.

As with the Man Bookers, I won’t let the fact I haven’t read all the books stop me from opining.

 

First up will be Elmet. I’ve heard nothing but wonderful things. Once I’ve cleared off Ruby, my second read of The Ballad of Peckham Rye and A Clockwork Orange, it’s right on to Fiona Mozley.

So much to do. Back asap.

Book Review: Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn West

 

Salvagebones

 

Few things get my attention as quickly as a come-from-behind award win by a new or not widely known author. And the 2011 National Book Award was won by a come-from-behind, not widely known author: Jesmyn Ward, author of the previous novel Where the Line Bleeds.

Ward is assistant professor of Creative Writing at the University of South Alabama. For 2010 – 2011 she was the John and Renée Grisham Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi. From 2008 – 2010 she had a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.

Need I say it? She is a writer of exceptional talent and potential. And – Hello World! – now everyone knows it.

Salvage the Bones is set in the Mississippi Gulf hamlet of Bois Sauvage, in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina. The patriarch of the Batiste family is attuned to the impending disaster,   smelling danger in the air. Having delivered his family through the furor of Camille, preparation is his obsession:

 

"Makes my bones hurt," Daddy said. "I can feel them coming."

 

Meanwhile, China – veteran dog-fight winning pit bull – is preparing to give birth to her first litter of puppies. And Esch, the fifteen-year old daughter is coming to a realization: she's pregnant by one of her brothers' friends. Juxtaposed with both of these events is the memory of their mother's death after giving birth:

 

"Maybe you need to help her [China] push," I [Esch] say. Sometime I think that is what killed Mama. I can see her, chin to chest, straining to push Junior out, and Junior snagging on her insides, grabbing hold of what he caught on to try to stay inside her, but instead he pulled it out with him when he was born."

 

The Batistes are a close family whose love and loyalty to one another are central to the story, stronger than the Job-like challenges they face and stare down. The father is an alcoholic who sometimes flies into drunken rages – mostly taken out on his son Skeetah – but even that doesn't diminish their cohesive family unit. They are as attuned to one another as their father to the oncoming storm, as China the pit bull to her owner, Skeetah. Their love, unconditional.

As the oppressive heat pushed ahead of Katrina bears down on them, Esch, Skeetah and their father face the personal trials of their lives. Esch – filled with the story of Medea she's been reading – is trying to conceal her pregnancy from her family, while dreaming the father of the child will love her as she loves him. Skeetah fights for the survival of first China's puppies and then China, the two as intertwined as lovers. And their father, a widower fighting to raise his family alone, goes from strong family leader to an injured, helpless man reliant on his children to take on his role for the protection of them all.

The layers in this story could be analyzed, the references to mythology traced, but frankly how many readers really want to? Never mind all that; leave it to the professors to note the themes of love, water, blood and violence and tie them up neatly. The story is urgent. The characters burrow themselves under your skin. Then comes Katrina, the off-stage character waiting three quarters of the book to make her appearance. Teeth bared and sharpened, She furiously slams down Her fist as they huddle together, realizing with growing horror She is no Camille.

The final quarter of the novel is a nerve-wracking race to the finish, life vs. death, Katrina the god  orchestrating the maelstrom. The water rises, the wind howls and ultimately it's up to Skeetah – most clairvoyant of them all – to make the decision that will save or undo them.

And the writing is gorgeous:

 

"It is terrible. It is the flailing wing that lashes like an extension cord used as a beating belt. It is the rain, which stings like stones, which drives into our eyes and bids them shut. It is the water, swirling and gathering and spreading on all sides, brown with an undercurrent of red to it, the clay of the Pit like a cut that won't stop leaking. It is the remains of the yard, the refrigerators and lawn mowers and the RV and mattresses, floating like a fleet. It is trees and branching breaking, popping like Black Cat firecrackers in an endless crackle of explosions, over and over and again and again. It is us huddling together on the roof, shaking against the plastic. It is everywhere. Daddy kneels behind us, tries to gather all of us to him. Skeetah hugs China, and she howls. Daddy's truck careens slowly in the yard."

 

So much talent in such a young writer. So much to look forward to.

 

 

Jesmynward

 

 

Brava, Jesmyn Ward.

 

At the ripe old age of 35, Jesmyn Ward is at work on a memoir. Let's hope she has another novel in mind, too. In progress would be better. Finished? I don't dare dream.