Booker Prize and Birthday Goings-On

The Booker Prize was announced last night in a live feed I watched over a glass of wine between my yoga class and birthday dessert. As chair of judges Peter Florence recapped each book, he said the most, and most effusively, about Ducks, Newburyport, so I thought Ellmann had it in the bag. Then, when it became clear there would be joint winners, I thought maybe Ellmann and Evaristo would share the Prize. But that’s not how things panned out…

I don’t have much to add to the conversation after yesterday’s Twitter storm; I remain entirely uninterested in reading The Testaments, an unnecessary sequel and, by all accounts, subpar Atwood work that didn’t need more buzz than it’s already attracted. Atwood won the Booker in 2000 for a brilliant novel, The Blind Assassin, one of my absolute favorites, and while she’s enough of a legend to be among the few authors to have won the Prize twice (along with Peter Carey, J.M. Coetzee and Hilary Mantel), maybe not for this book?

I am, however, delighted for Evaristo. If you haven’t yet picked up Girl, Woman, Other, I’d urge you to give it a try. I’m 1/3 into it now. Through a giveaway on Eric’s blog I won a copy plus two tickets to see Evaristo in conversation with Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (author of Manchester Happened, which I’ll be covering for the Ake Book Festival blog tour later this month) at the London Literature Festival on the 20th, but I couldn’t wait until I pick up my copy from the Southbank Centre so have been reading a library copy in the meantime.

You probably know that Girl, Woman, Other is a linked short story collection about 12 characters (mostly Black women) navigating twentieth-century and contemporary Britain, balancing external and internal expectations and different interpretations of feminism to build lives of their own. I’ve been surprised by the structure and style, however. It’s in four long chapters, each divided between three characters. These are almost like musical suites, with the three stories interlocking (I’m not in far enough to know if there is overlap between the suites). The prose is mostly uncapitalized and unpunctuated, with only a handful of full stops closing sections. This makes it more like poetry: a wry, radical stream of consciousness. I’d compare it, content-wise, to Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi and The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer.

This is the third tie in Booker history – though after a 1992 tie the rules were changed so that it shouldn’t have happened again. As Gaby Wood, literary director of the Booker Prize Foundation, puts it, “The thinking was it just doesn’t work—it sort of detracts attention from both, rather than drawing attention to either.” So while it’s wonderful that Evaristo is the first Black woman to win the Booker, there is something almost sinister about the fact that, due to the tie, she gets just £25,000 in prize money rather than the full £50,000. However, both she and Atwood were extremely graceful in their acceptance speeches (Atwood sheepish and apologetic at the same time), so I will try to be as well. It’s a turn-up for the books, anyway!


Yesterday was also my 36th birthday. A dismally wet Monday may not be ideal for a birthday, but I’d had the whole previous weekend for celebrating so can’t really complain. Saturday was a very Newbury day of volunteer gardening in the drizzle; an excellent lunch at Henry & Joe’s, a reasonably new restaurant with small plates of seasonal food, exquisitely presented – on the way to Michelin star quality; an early evening showing of Downton Abbey in the intimate upstairs theatre at the Corn Exchange; and a wander around the Fire Garden art installation, which features giant candles and automata. On Sunday I helped out at a fun and chaotic pet blessing service at church, followed by cake, presents and a homemade feast.

One of the best parts of preparing for my birthday is finding recipes for my husband to make for me. This year I picked a Chocolate Orange Truffle Cake from Perfect Chocolate Desserts (which includes photographs of every step), a veganized Chicken Jackfruit Mole with Red Cabbage Slaw and flatbreads from Pip & Nut: The Nut Butter Cookbook, and A Rum of One’s Own (aka hot buttered rum) from the Tequila Mockingbird literary cocktails book. All amazingly rich and delicious; by nightcap time, I could only manage a sip or two of the rum.

I gave myself the Monday off work (the nice thing about being a freelancer, even if I don’t get paid) and spent much of it reading in comfy spots around the house and looking out at the rain. I also picked out a pile of books I’ve been meaning to reread, but only got around to starting the Thomas. I hadn’t read it since it came out in 2006 yet I remember it so well, even particular phrasing. It was one of the first memoirs to make a really big impression on me.

It won’t surprise you that my wish list contained only books this year, so with the exception of a mug mat, puffin socks and notecards, a couple of CDs, some chocolate and the perfect pin badge (“Bookish”), I received 14 books as presents: two novels and the rest nonfiction, mostly memoirs. I get much of my fiction from the library or from NetGalley/Edelweiss (particularly the American releases I can’t find elsewhere), but there are lots of nonfiction authors whose work I can’t find other than secondhand. I know where I’ll start with this pile: the Houston and McCracken are 2019 releases, so I want to read them before the end of the year in case they make a Best Of list. After that, I’ll let whimsy be my guide. A great haul!

Any additional Booker thoughts?

What caught your eye from my birthday stacks?

41 thoughts on “Booker Prize and Birthday Goings-On

  1. Happy birthday for yesterday! As you’ll have seen from my comments on Twitter, I am CROSS about the Booker tie. I’ve not read The Testaments but nothing I’ve heard about it has convinced me it’s anything special. I will definitely be reading it now to see if my suspicions are confirmed. And as you say, it’s awful that the first black woman to win the Booker has to share it, and I’ve seen publicists voicing concerns that the ‘story’ will now be the broken rules rather than either of the novels, which will have a far bigger impact on Evaristo’s sales/profile than on Atwood’s. I really thought Evaristo would win it outright (though I also caught the effusiveness about Ducks at the last minute!).

    Atwood handled it very well, though – obviously not her fault.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The judges must have felt they were doing the ‘right’ thing, perhaps in highlighting current women’s issues across two worthwhile books. But I would have been happiest if Evaristo had won outright, and slightly taken aback but more content for it to have been shared with Ellmann, since at least that is a small press book and a less known author who deserves the attention (though I think she’s gotten plenty just from her shortlisting; it almost feels like Ducks has gotten more discussion than any other shortlisted book). So I guess I’m not cross, just a bit disappointed. And this has made me even less interested in reading The Testaments, if that was possible!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I would have felt a bit better about an Ellmann/Evaristo win, though the race issue remains. I can see what the judges thought they were doing but personally I think it was tone deaf. Anyway I will now desist from complaining about it 🙂 Glad you are also enjoying Girl Woman Other so much.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh man. I’m so enraged. Glad that Atwood’s acceptance speech was gracious and focused pretty much entirely on Evaristo, but so frustrating that the historical moment has been undermined by the drama around the split win. (And how dare they make them split the prize money! Honestly.)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m not familiar with Makumbi’s work, though I have a copy of her new short story collection on its way to me. I think you’ve read her Kintu? I’ll have to see if I’m brave enough to get anything signed after the talk 🙂


  3. Happy birthday, Rebecca! It seems like you had a lovely day (also your haul looks amazing).

    I can’t believe the mess that was this year’s Booker Prize. Jeez. I’m quite excited to pick up Girl, Woman, Other, but it’s sad she had to share the prize with the money-grab that is The Testaments. Especially since Evaristo is, apparently, the first black woman to win the prize, it is really sad that she didn’t get the spotlight all to herself.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m quite pleased with my haul, and I think a few more books might arrive by next weekend!

      It’s been quite the kerfuffle, all because the judges ‘couldn’t decide’ (which is their job!). It’s true that Evaristo’s accomplishment feels diminished by it.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Happy BIrthday! Sounds like a fine way to spend your birthday weekend and those recipes do sound special. As for your birthday book stash – Sleeping with Cats leaps out at me. And I note that it’s balanced by a canine title too!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Happy Bookish Birthday for yesterday. I also find myself annoyed at the Booker, (and the Nobel) – do you think the former judges were influenced by the latter in their rule-breaking? Although one of the Nobels was supposedly for last year’s non-event (I’d had a bet on Atwood for that!).The only thing I can say about all the books in your photos is that I must read the Evaristo soon!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Belated birthday greetings! I find my eye drawn to ‘My Berlin kitchen’. Compared with France, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, the East generally, German kitchens don’t usually get a look in. Intrigued.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Love all your birthday pictures and I think a life with evenings comprised of yoga and cake and wine sounds very lovely and lucky indeed (let alone a nice stack of good reading). The Piercy memoir jumped out at me because I have it and it’s one that I have kept for many years. (Warning: there is a sad bit, but I think it’s early on and describing something that has already transpired.) There are a lot of good books there! They’ll keep your shelves warm this winter.

    All the furor of the prize news is so interesting. I like how you’ve included a ? at the end of your sentence about whether she should have won for this particular book, which seems only fair, given that you’ve said you’ve not read it, so, really, how could you have a statement there rather than a question.

    But, then, so many people seem perfectly pleased to weigh in on the matter, even though they’ve not read the winners or the shortlist. Simply based on ideas about what they think should (have) happen(ed). When, if it was the other way ’round, and jurors awarded the prize without reading the books, only based on ideas, you can bet all these same people would have their knickers in a right twist. Myself, I’m biggest on longlists, which nearly always add to my list of favourite writers and I’m pleased for those writers who have the additional bonus to their careers for shortlistings and winnings. This year, I’ve not read any of the Booker shortlist but am interested in reading all of them!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d read a collection of Piercy’s poetry before and, just spotting the title of this one, knew I had to read it too!

      We bloggers love to have our opinions on prize lists, whether we’ve read the books or not 😉 I’ve read extensively about the Atwood and Ellmann, including many broadsheet reviews, though of course that is not the same as reading the books themselves. It’s possible my feelings would change after having read one or more of the shortlisted works besides the Evaristo. I know you’ll be reading The Testaments for your Giller project, or just because it’s Atwood; I’d be very surprised indeed if you concluded that it was the (joint) best book published in English over the past year, though.


      1. I like the simplicity of its cover too. Which book of her poetry did you enjoy particularly?

        Yes, I’ll read the Atwood, and before the Evaristo because that’s how the availability works for me. But first I’m going to reread Handmaid’s. Rereading the earlier Maddaddam books before the final one was published made that a more rewarding reading experience and I’d like to try that approach again.

        While I love discussing books and the idea that prizelist nominees generate bookish conversations, when the discussions are more about feelings and less about the literature, I wonder what would happen if everyone who’s complaining simply spent that time reading instead?


  8. I totally agree with your Booker summation. In general I love Atwood but have no interest on The Testaments at all. I feel like Girl, Woman, Other deserved the prize on its own and will now probably be referred to as a footnote.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Nancy Pearl!! And also I am after that Bumblebee one, but I am so full of books at the moment it’s just on my look-out-for list.

    I was a bit nonplussed at the Booker win – I did enjoy The Testatments and it does have a lot to say about human history and events now, but it seemed a shame to share it. I am keen to get my hands on Girl, Woman, Other now I’ve seen a copy and seen it’s not “In poetry” as such, just poetic. Ali will be lending me her copy.

    Oh and happy birthday. I usually celebrate mine with a day off work, too, even though also a freelancer of course.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think I’ve managed to give myself the day off or at least a very light day for a number of the last few years. It’s helped that my birthday was on a weekend day the past two years.

      I own three others from Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust series; this is the one on YA, which I read less of than most genres (apart from sci-fi and crime), but maybe I’ll get some good ideas of authors to try.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I’ve heard some glowing reviews of The Testaments, including most recently at an author talk by Ann Patchett, who seems like a tough woman to impress, so having not read it, I’m not willing to write it off. That said, I am still kind of sorry to see the prize split between a white author who is already so incredibly well known and a less well known (at least to me) black author whose book sounds like it deserves the attention.

    Your birthday sounds like it was really lovely 🙂 Happy 36th!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m sure The Testaments is timely, which partially accounts for its Booker win — it and Girl, Woman, Other feel like important books for our time. However, the fact remains that Atwood seems to have won for her entire career — an article written by one of the judges specifically makes this sound like a lifetime achievement award rather than a fair consideration of this particular book in comparison to five others.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s really interesting! I did wonder if the judges felt like they couldn’t not give the award to Atwood because of her reputation. I’ll have to look up what the judges had to say about it.


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