Tag: literary fiction

2018: The reading year in numbers

For the last few years I’ve maintained a file of spreadsheets that track my reading challenges and overall reading for the year, categorizing books by obvious and maybe not so obvious characteristics.

Total books read: 120. This is the most I’ve read since … well, at least since I was mainlining Betty Neels, Mary Burchell, and other Harlequins quite a while ago.

Total books written by women: 60/120. Reading half women pleased me because I was afraid that reading more lit fic would mean reading far fewer women. Obviously it’s fewer than when I read primarily romance, but it’s still a good number. My non-romance TBR is probably skewed toward men, but my romance TBR is overwhelmingly by women, so this proportion shouldn’t change much in 2019.

Total books written by new-to-me authors: 74/120. This is more than I expected. It’s probably a consequence of reading awards longlists and also “it” books, since they’re often by authors I’ve heard of but not read. I’m glad to have found a lot of new authors, and my TBR has grown as a result (of course!).

Own voices authors: 30/120. This is OK but not great. I struggled with this category in terms of how to define it. Last year I used AOC, but I wanted to capture how many authors I read who were writing about their own cultures and experiences. I only had a handful of non-white authors writing about non-white cultures that were not their own, and I didn’t include those; it would have raised the number by a few but not significantly. I also had a handful (more than a handful, maybe?) of white authors writing POC, and breaking out own voices allowed me to get a better handle on that distinction.

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Review: Godsend by John Wray

This is a recent release in the US and will be published in January 2019 in the UK. It has received rave reviews from two critics I respect and frequently agree with, Dwight Garner at the New York Times and James Wood at The New Yorker. I wasn’t familiar with the author, but it is his fifth novel and he’s won various writing awards. I was intrigued by the book because I’ve been doing research and writing on why young women are attracted to Islamic extremist organizations like ISIS. I co-authored and presented a conference paper with an undergraduate student and we’re trying to figure out what direction to take it for revision and then submission to a journal. It’s a difficult topic to research because what systematic data exist are usually proprietary, and the topic combines psychology, sociology, and political science. I thought a novel could shed some interesting light on individual motivations and help me think about the project in a different way. Sometimes fiction can illuminate in ways social science can’t, and this seemed like one of those times. 

Godsend cover

Godsend is a relatively short book in terms of word and page count. The print version is 240 pages. The story is inspired by John Walker Lindh, the young American from California who converted to Islam, went to fight with the Taliban, and was captured, tried, and sentenced to prison in the years after 9/11. Wray was commissioned by Esquire to write a story about Lindh and went to Afghanistan in 2016 or thereabouts to find people who knew him. (This background should have been a red flag for me. As someone who does qualitative research, interviewing people 15 years after the time you’re interested in is not likely to get you factually accurate information, especially about a notorious individual.) While Wray was there, he heard a rumor about a girl who had also joined the insurgents. He was never able to pin down concrete information about her, even whether she really existed, and she was variously described as American, Dutch, or English (he doesn’t say she was white and/or non-Muslim, but that’s implied by the comparison to Lindh). He abandoned the feature story and decided to write a book about a girl using some of Lindh’s backstory.

The novel opens in late 2000 or early 2001 and introduces us to Aden Sawyer, an 18-year-old who lives in Santa Rosa, California. Aden is preparing to leave home and fly to Pakistan to study Islam at a madrassa. She is leaving behind a life she is completely alienated from: her parents are separated, her mother is an alcoholic, and she has no friends. Her father, an Islamic Studies professor, mentions that he can get her a deferment, presumably for her college admission, but she is determined to go. Aden is accompanied by her friend-with-benefits, Dexter Yousufzai, whose family is from Pakistan via Dubai and who has found the madrassa through his connections. 

You might be asking how a young woman can attend an all-male madrassa in rural northwest Pakistan, and you’d be right to do so. Aden has this all figured out: she has shaved her head, acquired native garb and will be binding her breasts with an Ace bandage. As a romance reader I felt right at home. Aden has also been studying Arabic since she found the local mosque and converted to Islam, but she doesn’t speak Urdu or Pashto. She’s also very recognizably Western, given her fair skin, cultural ignorance, basic Arabic, and non-exist vernacular skills.

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Recent Reading: Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

I still have three Booker novels to finish and review, but in the meantime I thought I’d post about other books I’ve been reading (yes, I do read books that are not on awards longlists!). I read this one because it was in my TBR from last year and it seemed helpful to read it before going on to Normal People. I liked it better than the latter, although I think Normal People is probably the better book in terms of execution.

Rooney’s debut novel has been wildly praised and hyped. She has been called the voice of her generation, and her agent’s coining of the phrase “Salinger of the Snapchat generation” has been repeated approvingly. With the praise and hype has come the inevitable backlash. When I sat down with the novel I tried to shut out the noise and concentrate on the pages in front of me. And mostly it worked. It’s very much a debut novel, but it’s quite assured, and Rooney definitely has a distinctive voice.

The plot/storyline is very basic: Undergraduates Frances (our narrator) and her best friend (and ex-girlfriend) Bobbi fall in with a rich, glamorous married couple in their 30s. Nick is an actor, Melissa is a journalist and writer. Bobbi is drawn to Melissa, Frances to Nick. They socialize , run into each other at professional and art events, and spend time in France together. Nick and Melissa’s marriage is complicated, and so are the four characters’ relationships with each other (in pairs and multiples).

The novel is made up of extremely familiar themes and characters:

  1. The older man-younger woman relationship, with the older man being married. Points for Nick not being a professor, even though this is set at college.
  2. The intense female friendship (IFF), which has become a thematic cottage industry for women writers in the last couple of decades.
  3. The coming-of-age novel, set at university. This never ever gets old, apparently, because every cohort comes of age and many of them either do it at college or find college interesting. And enough older cohorts want to read about it across the ages.
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The Man Booker shortlist

I woke up knowing that the Booker shortlist had been announced while I was asleep (10am BST). My first intimation that it was not what I and some other readers were expecting came when I read Rosario’s and Theresa’s tweets. Whoa. There were three I expected and three I didn’t, two choices that I agreed with and multiple omissions I didn’t. So, I suppose, a normal Booker year? Here’s the list:

  • 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster
  • The History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
  • Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
  • Elmet by Fiona Mozely
  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
  • Autumn by Ali Smith

What was different for me this year was that I had read over half the list, which is far and away the most, and I’d been so sure, along with a few other people, that some of the books were slam dunks. In that category were the Ali Smith , which made it, and Reservoir 13, which didn’t. In the next category (probably but not a slam dunk) were Solar Bones, Lincoln in the Bardo, and Home Fire. I thought Days Without End and The Underground Railroad might suffer from the “too many awards already” problem, but the Barry certainly deserved to be there on quality grounds in my opinion, and the bookies and the rest of the literary world thought the Whitehead did too.

This year’s longlist was really strong, and there were always going to be worthy books left off. I’m still kind of stunned, though. I shouldn’t be; after years of reviewing genre novels I certainly know the importance of taste, and when you have a high quality threshold like you do here, taste is going to play a key role.

Of my choices that didn’t make it, the one I feel most strongly about is Reservoir 13. It’s a terrific accomplishment, it’s innovative while still being accessible, and McGregor is a long way from a household name. McCormack has already won awards for Solar Bones, and I’m guessing Home Fire will do well in upcoming award competitions.

Right now my first choice on this list is Autumn, but I plan to read the Fridlund and the Mozely before the announcement, and I’ll see how much headway I can make on the Auster. My taste-wise least favorite is the Saunders; I can see why it was chosen, and lots of smart thoughtful readers love it, but if it wins I’ll know how the anti-Sellout people felt last year. 🙂

The winner is announced on October 17.

How about you? What do you think? Are you surprised, pleased, befuddled, or some other emotion completely? Which ones are you going to read (or not)?

Booker longlist reading: Books-in-progress update

I was hoping to have a couple of more Booker books finished, but instead I have two on the go and two to start and finish. So here’s an update in the meantime.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. I have been switching between audio and ebook and neither is working for me. I see a lot of rave reviews but I’m more on the 1- and 2-star side of the ledger (there are quite a few  of these ratings as well). It feels less like a novel and more like a collage which started as a play, not because of the lack of plot, but because of the cacophony of voices and the lack of a clear through line. I’m fine with no plot (see my review of Autumn, among others), and I’m fine with multiple voices and an experimental style. I just can’t figure out what the author is trying to do here, and there’s not enough in the text itself to draw me in so that I don’t care that I don’t know. It also doesn’t help that David Sedaris always sounds like David Sedaris to me and the narrations feel overacted and/or self-consciously “historical.”

Three-quarters of the way through, I’m trying to figure out what on earth the use of “Bardo” in the title has to do with anything, since it doesn’t resemble the Buddhist bardo(s) with which I’m familiar. The African-American characters are introduced in discomfiting ways, and I’m still not sure why Lincoln’s pain is foregrounded in the title and blurb when the bulk of the book is about other characters. Maybe it all becomes clear in the last quarter.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy. This was a complete surprise to me. I borrowed it from the library on a whim, started reading, and just loved it. It has received a lot of mixed reviews, with the Booker reading group at The Reading Room ranking it at the absolute bottom of their list so far. I can see how the book could fail for readers, especially readers who are unfamiliar with India’s past and present sociopolitical contexts, as well as readers who prefer less political ranting and a more linear plot. But from where I sit, this is the book I’m so glad someone as talented as Roy has chosen to write about contemporary India. The BJP motto of India Shining, emerging superpower, etc. has dominated a lot of western (and Indian) discourse, which buries the enormous costs of the country’s economic gains of the last 25 years. Income and wealth inequality is higher than it’s been in decades (certainly since Independence), and Hindu nationalism is dominant (if you want to see how far white nationalism can go in a country and what it can do, this is your analogy).

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Reading the Man Booker longlist

I know, I’m surprised too. I’ve followed the Booker Prize awards for decades, and I’ve read quite a few of the winners and nominees, but until a couple of years ago it wouldn’t even have occurred to me to read the long and shortlist nominees in real time. But I’ve really enjoyed Liz McC’s and Rosario’s posts on their reading experiences, as well as a few other readers I learned about. Last year I bought a number of the books but of course failed to read most of them before the prize announcement in October (I’d only read the eventual winner, which I loved and admired almost unreservedly).

This year, since I’ve been reading a lot this summer and following various litfic conversations and challenges, a number of the books were familiar to me and/or ones I’d been considering reading. I sincerely doubt I could read all of them by the time the shortlist is announced in early September, but here’s the full list and how they stack up in terms of my interests:

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster. This was available at the library so I picked it up, but it’s 800+ pages of bildungsroman and seems to be based on the author’s life. I’m already in the middle of two 700+ page books about Men of Privilege and they are more interesting to me than the premise of Auster’s novel, so I doubt I’ll get to this one.

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry. I’m a sucker for dark literary westerns, so I almost bought this at the beginning of the summer. And it’s not long! It’s definitely on the must-read list.

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Recent reading: Head v. heart (AKA the litfic edition)

I’ve been reading across various genres this year, with a lot of literary fiction mixed in. Reading litfic requires mental muscles that I don’t exercise as much in genre, not because genre doesn’t require brain power, but because I’ll happily read a genre novel for its emotional payoffs or comfort-read benefits. If it’s not technically strong, I can live with that. Case in point: the Expanse series book I read earlier this summer. The writing was workmanlike at best and the plot meandered, but it was an interesting world and I was happy to fall into it.

With lit fic, I’ve been having the opposite reaction: the reading experience itself may not be great, but once I’m done and writing up my reactions, I realize the book’s strengths and have to give the author credit for them. Case in point: Ill Will by Dan Chaon. I put this on hold at the library when The Morning News announced its Rooster summer reading challenge.

a separation coverI was excited enough about the challenge to buy the first book, A Separation by Katie Kitamura, but that one turned out to be a major disappointment. As I ranted at my LibraryThing page:

I loathed this book, and that doesn’t happen often. I could live with the stream of consciousness and the lack of quotation marks. I was fine being in her head as a writing approach. I just found her, the narrator, deplorable. I don’t know WHY I was in her head. The book is marinated in privilege, and the occasional line of self-awareness doesn’t excuse the overall treatment of Greece and the Greeks as backdrop to Aimless Rich One-Percenters. But even that I could have put up with, if I hadn’t been so revolted by the narrator, especially in the 2nd half. I was OK with her in the first half, but she really went off the rails for me in the second. In real life you would find this person appalling, so what am I supposed to get from her as a fictional character? What does she illuminate?

Also, I now hate comma splices with the heat of a thousand suns. I didn’t hate them before this book, but I’m transformed.

Nevertheless, I gave the book 3 stars because I thought it was trying to do something interesting and worthwhile, and I could see how the approach might work for a different reader.

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