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 Longlist 2018: the Debut Novelists

I’m still pretty amazed finding six of the longlisted novels for the Women’s Prize for Fiction are debuts. Six of sixteen. That’s a big chunk, nearly half.

I can do math!

These women are incredible, each one. I may normally quibble and grumble about first-time novelists snagging such a prestigious longlist nomination, but after reading more about them I’m not just impressed, I hate my own guts.

What have I been doing? SPOILER: Sure as hell not translating my life and experiences into award-nominated books.

Elif Batuman (American)

The Idiot, Penguin

 

Elife Batuman, photo: The Irish Times

 

Elif Batuman has been a staff writer for The New Yorker roughly eight years. The author of The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, she’s won the Whiting Writer’s Award, Rona Jaffe Foundation Award and Terry Southern Prize for Humor. Earning her PhD in comparative lit from Stanford, she’s your classic underachiever.

I really want to hate her. But then, I remember I’m the one who’s opted to sit on my ass watching bad reality television instead of, I don’t know, writing?

In college I was one of two students in a Russian literature course, taught by an actual Russian. Yes, an actual Russian! I know, right? Funny thing, because of the low interest, she’d only agree to teach if I’d run her home after the evening class. The buses stopped relatively early, and she didn’t drive. Funny, at the time I didn’t think much about it, but why did she even schedule that time at all, if this was the case? Took me long enough, didn’t it.

We read and watched the film of The Overcoat and several other short stories, and explored Crime and Punishment in-depth. Hell, there were only two of us. There was no excuse not to cover everything in-depth. Those once a week trips to her house, I don’t even recall what we talked about. Books, I would presume. It’s just a weird footnote in my life.

I love Russian literature, and love that Batuman pays it homage in the titles of her books. I bought a copy, and covet her first book on the topic of one of my favorite literary nationalities.

We know it’ll be on my shelves, eventually. I mean, please.

Imogen Hermes Gowar  (British)

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, Harvill Secker

 

Imogen Hermes Gowar, photo: thetimes.co.uk

 

Now this woman, she really makes me realize how I’ve frittered my life. An archaeology, anthropology and art history scholar, her writing inspired by artefacts earned her the 2013 Malcolm Bradbury Memorial Scholarship funding an MA in Creative Writing.

Writing about artefacts, freaking genius. As a kid, one of the things I dreamed of was being an archaeologist. I was nuts about the Egyptians, the Romans, Druids…  When I had the chance to actually visit Europe, it filled my heart to bursting. I was that nerdy kid taking notes on the bus.

Picked as a ‘MOST ANTICIPATED BOOK OF 2018’ by Vogue, Sunday Times, Observer, The Times, Sunday Mirror, Daily Express, BBC Arts, Red Magazine, Stylist, The Pool, Emerald Street, Independent, The Herald, Irish Times, Irish Tatler, The Journal and Irish Independent. ‘A brilliantly plotted story of mermaids, madams and intrigue in 1780s London and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it become the Essex Serpent of 2018’ – The Pool ‘Imogen Hermes Gowar is a soon-to-be literary star’ – Sunday Times THIS VOYAGE IS SPECIAL. IT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING.
  • Amazon.com

 

It never occurred to me to approach fiction from the angle of a single, historical object, and how I love that premise. I wasn’t going to buy this book. Now I don’t see how I cannot. It reminds me of the nonfiction book The Bronte Cabinet by Deborah Lutz, a book about eight objects owned by the siblings. An absolutely fascinating book, one I cannot recommend too highly.

 

Jessie Greengrass  (British)

Sight, Harvill Secker

 

Jessie Greengrass, photo: theshortstory.com

 

A student of philosophy at Cambridge and London, Jessie Greengrass’s first collection of short stories, An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It, won two prizes, including the Somerset Maugham. That is colossal.

Sight is narrated by a nameless young woman who, pregnant with her second child, meditates on her mother’s death and its aftermath, her relationship with her psychoanalyst grandmother, and how difficult it was to decide to have her first baby. The narrative brushes back and forth in time, bringing unexpected connections to the surface.

 

A book about familial relationships is a harder sell for me. I’m not generally a fan of this sort of novel. Might Sight be an exception? Possibly, and I certainly esteem the author’s credentials. It’s on the second string of Women’s Fiction titles I’m considering buying.

A few more reviews may sway me one way or the other.

 

Gail Honeyman  (British)

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, HarperCollins

 

Gail Honeyman, photo: amazon.co.uk

 

I wasn’t able to find as much about Gail Honeyman, aside from the fact she’s a graduate of both Edinburgh and Glasgow Universities. Perhaps I could dig a bit deeper, but despite her Costa win I’m a bit hesitant to spend a lot of time.

That sounds more rude than I mean it to be. A tremendously popular writer of a universally loved book, Gail Honeyman will have a legion of fans. I don’t mean to disparage, just use my time wisely.

 

“If someone asks you how you are, you are meant to say FINE. You are not meant to say that you cried yourself to sleep last night because you hadn’t spoken to another person for two consecutive days. FINE is what you say.”
  • Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

 

 

I disliked this book. Rather, I disliked the second half, after main character Eleanor made her about-face. I don’t like treacle-y endings. The first part  was so well-written. It had all the elements of a superbly dark story, then sold out. The first and last halves could have been from completely different books. It jarred, ending on an almost Bridget Jones note.

I half wonder if she didn’t originally write a much different book, but some misguided editor put it in her mind that it would sell better if it ended happily. She’s tremendously talented; the first half had me riveted. By the end, I was angry I’d wasted time on it.

No figs are given for popular opinion on Bluestalking. Moving on.

 

Fiona Mozley (British)

Elmet, Algonquin

 

Fiona Mozley, photo: thenational.ae

 

An employee in a bookshop, Fiona Mozley may be even more mysterious than Gail Honeyman. I found this on her website, and precious little else:

 

I grew up in York and later lived in London, Cambridge and Buenos Aires. I am now back in York, where I am writing a PhD thesis on the concept of decay in the later Middle Ages, as well as writing fiction.
I work part-time at The Little Apple Bookshop.

 

 

Little Apple Bookshop

 

An unassuming biography for a 29-year old woman who’s written a book both Booker shortlisted and on this longlist. A brilliant book, at that. I’ll let my review say the rest, but thus far it’s a favorite for the prize.

 

Sarah Schmidt (Australian)

 

 

See What I Have Done, Atlantic Monthly

 

Sarah Schmidt, photo: pinterest.co.uk

 

Sarah Schmidt is a reading and literacy librarian residing in Melbourne. She holds a B.A. in professional writing and editing, as well as an M.A. in creative writing. She’s also a history buff, judging from her dogged pursuit of all things Lizzie Borden, and resulting novel getting rave reviews.

 

On the morning of August 4, 1892, Lizzie Borden calls out to her maid: Someone’s killed Father. The brutal ax-murder of Andrew and Abby Borden in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts, leaves little evidence and many unanswered questions. While neighbors struggle to understand why anyone would want to harm the respected Bordens, those close to the family have a different tale to tell―of a father with an explosive temper; a spiteful stepmother; and two spinster sisters, with a bond even stronger than blood, desperate for their independence.
  • Amazon.com

 

I have this book on order, expecting its arrival within the next week or two. I ordered a used copy to save a few dollars, considering the considerable expenditure involved in buying so dratted many books at once.

I, too, find the Lizzie Borden case transfixing, and can’t imagine there was no child abuse involved. My own theory, aided by all but zero research but empathy based on my childhood experience, is she one day snapped under the strain. The rest is morbid history.

Can’t wait to get my hands on this one.

 

Will one of these first-timers beat out the rest for a Women’s Prize for Fiction win? I have to tell you, from the bit of investigation I’ve done I wouldn’t be shocked. I plan to take a closer look at the other writers; I just wanted a special post devoted to the relative newbies.

But what a crop of newbies.

 

 

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.