I’ve managed to whittle my favorite releases of 2019 down to 20 in total: 12 nonfiction (that’s for tomorrow), 5 fiction and 3 poetry. It felt like a particular achievement to limit myself to five top novels, though plenty more turn up on my runners-up list, due Saturday.
Let the countdown begin!
Bloomland by John Englehardt: Subtle and finely crafted literary fiction about a mass shooting at a fictional Arkansas university. The second-person narration draws the reader into the action, inviting ‘you’ to extend sympathy to three very different characters: Rose, a student who becomes romantically involved with one of the injured; Eddie, a professor whose wife dies in the massacre; and Eli, the shooter. Englehardt writes a gorgeous sentence, too.
Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler: Autofiction in fragments, like a pure stream of memory and experience. Navigating between two cultures and languages, being young and adrift, and sometimes seeing her mother in herself: there’s a lot to sympathize with in the Brazilian–English main character. What a hip, fresh approach to fiction. I’d hoped to see Fowler on the Women’s Prize longlist and winning the Young Writer of the Year Award.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo: A terrific linked short story collection about 12 black women in twentieth-century and contemporary Britain balancing external and internal expectations and different interpretations of feminism to build lives of their own. It’s a warm, funny book, never strident in its aims yet unabashedly obvious about them. It’s timely and elegantly constructed – and, it goes without saying, a worthy Booker Prize winner.
The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer: Every day the Emergency Rescue Committee in Marseille interviews 60 refugees and chooses 10 to recommend to the command center in New York City. Varian Fry and his staff arrange bribes, fake passports, and exit visas to get celebrated Jewish artists and writers out of the country via the Pyrenees or various sea routes. The story of an accidental hero torn between impossible choices is utterly compelling. This is richly detailed historical fiction at its best.
Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout: Crosby, Maine feels like a microcosm of modern society, with Olive as our Everywoman guide. She hasn’t lost her faculties or her spirit, but the approach of death lends added poignancy to her story. Strout is a master of psychological acuity and mixing hope with the darkness. Those who are wary of sequels need not fear: Olive, Again is even better than Olive Kitteridge. (I revisited the book for BookBrowse, whose subscribers likewise voted it the 2019 Best Fiction Award Winner.)
Reckless Paper Birds by John McCullough: From the Costa Awards shortlist. I was struck by the hard-hitting, never-obvious verbs, and the repeating imagery. Flashes of nature burst into a footloose life in Brighton. The poems are by turns randy, neurotic, playful and nostalgic. In “Flock of Paper Birds,” one of my favorites, the poet tries to reconcile the faith he grew up in with his unabashed sexuality.
A Kingdom of Love by Rachel Mann: The Anglican priest’s poetry is full of snippets of scripture and liturgy (both English and Latin), and the cadence is often psalm-like. This is beautiful, incantatory free verse that sparkles with alliteration and allusions that those of a religious background will be sure to recognize. It’s sensual as well as headily intellectual. Doubt, prayer and love fuel many of my favorite lines.
Flèche by Mary Jean Chan: Exquisite poems of love and longing, with the speaker’s loyalties always split between head and heart, flesh and spirit. Over it all presides the figure of a mother – not just Chan’s mother, who had difficulty accepting that her daughter was a lesbian, but also the relationship to the mother tongue (Chinese) and the mother country (Hong Kong). Fencing terms are used for structure. I was impressed by how clearly Chan sees how others perceive her, and by how generously she imagines herself into her mother’s experience. I’ve read 3.5 of the 4 nominees now and this is my pick to win the Costa Award.
What were some of your top fiction (or poetry) reads of the year?
Tomorrow I’ll be naming my favorite nonfiction of 2019.
Through a giveaway on Eric’s blog, I won tickets to see Bernardine Evaristo and Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi speak about their latest books at the London Literature Festival (this year’s theme: “Once Upon Our Times”) at the Southbank Centre yesterday. It was great to meet up with fellow bloggers Eric and Eleanor to hear these two black women writers read from their recent work and discuss feminism, the political landscape for writers of African descent, and their experiments with form.
Frustrated by the lack of black women in British literature, Evaristo started writing Girl, Woman, Other in 2013. She began with Carole (Anglo-Nigerian, like herself), who has to change to fit in, first at Oxford and then as a City banker. Next she moved on to the stories of Carole’s mother and school friend, and the book grew from there. All told, there are four mother–daughter pairs. Evaristo believes her background as an actress (in her twenties) allowed her to almost become these characters and write them from the inside, so that even though the chapters are written in the third person they feel like first-person narratives. The 12 flawed, complex main characters are “equal protagonists,” she insisted. Her aim was “to explore multiplicity to address our invisibility.” She characterizes the book’s style as “fusion fiction”: an accessible take on the experimental novel, with unorthodox, free-flowing language that allows readers to move easily between the different characters’ storylines.
Both Evaristo and Makumbi admitted to having a complicated relationship with feminism, Evaristo because the feminism of the 1980s did not seem to include black women and Makumbi because the fight for equality is still ongoing in patriarchal African societies like her native Uganda’s. Evaristo feels that feminism is now more inclusive and, also thanks to the #MeToo movement, there has been a place for her book that may not have been there five or 10 years ago. (The same goes for Makumbi, who has only now found a publisher for her very feminist first novel, which was rejected in the 2000s.) Both authors spoke of the ways in which people are made to feel “Other”: through sex, race and class. Makumbi pointed out that Africans experience a specific racism separate from other blacks in Britain. “I’m not racist, but I draw the line at Africans” is how she caricatured this view.
Makumbi’s novel Kintu is a sprawling family saga that has been compared to Roots, but she has recently released a collection of short stories that focus on Ugandan immigration to Britain between the 1950s and today. She envisioned Manchester Happened as “a letter back home” to tell people what it’s really like to settle in a new country, as well as a chance to reflect on the underrepresented East African immigration experience. Much of the book is drawn from her life, such as working as an airport security officer to fund her creative writing degree. Her mentor recommended that she start writing stories as a way to counterbalance the intensity of Kintu – a chance to see the beginning, middle and end as a simple arc. She assumed short stories would be easier than a novel, yet her first story took her four years to write. It is as if she can only look into her past for brief moments, anyway, she explained, so the story form has been perfect. She has deliberately avoided the negativity of many migration narratives, she said: Things have in fact gone well for her, and we’ve heard about things going wrong many times before.
I’m over halfway through Girl, Woman, Other now, and enjoying it very much – but wondering if its breadth sacrifices some depth. Evaristo acknowledged that she felt a bit less attached to these characters than she has in novels where she followed just one or two characters all the way through. Still, she feels that she knows and understands these women, even if she doesn’t like or approve of all of them. She read excerpts from the sections about Yazz, a feisty and opinionated young woman waiting for her mother’s play to start, and Hattie, a strong-willed 93-year-old from a Northumberland farming family. Makumbi read from two stories, one about a Ugandan couple arriving in Manchester in 1950 and the other set in the airport security area. In the latter the protagonist confiscates a whip from a priest, a funny moment that seems to represent Makumbi’s style – moderator Irenosen Okojie, a Nigerian author, mentioned another notable story from the perspective of a Ugandan street dog newly pampered in Britain.
I hope to read Manchester Happened soon, and should be featuring an extract from it next week as part of the Ake Book Festival blog tour. I’ll also finish the Evaristo this week and expect it to be on my Best of 2019 fiction list.
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.
Weimaraner eyes parrot
‘The dog ate my service sheet…’
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.
Birthday reading stack
Imminent rereading stack
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!
A week from today, on the 14th (my birthday, as well as Susan’s – be sure to wish her a happy one!), this year’s Booker Prize will be announced. The Prize’s longlist didn’t contain much that piqued my interest this time around; I read one book from it and didn’t get on with it well at all, and I also DNFed another three.
Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson
Winterson does her darndest to write like Ali Smith here (no speech marks, short chapters and sections, random pop culture references). Cross Smith’s Seasons quartet with the vague aims of the Hogarth Shakespeare project and Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last and you get this odd jumble of a novel that tries to combine the themes and composition of Frankenstein with the modern possibilities of transcending bodily limitations. Her contemporary narrator is Ry Shelley, a transgender doctor sponsored by the Wellcome Trust who supplies researcher Victor Stein with body parts for his experiments in Manchester. In Memphis for a tech expo, Ry meets Ron Lord, a tactless purveyor of sexbots.
Their interactions alternate with chapters narrated by Mary Shelley in the 1810s; I found this strand much more engaging and original, perhaps because I haven’t read that much about Shelley and her milieu, whereas it feels like I’ve read a lot about machine intelligence and transhumanism recently (To Be a Machine, Murmur, Machines Like Me). I think Winterson’s aim was to link the two time periods through notions of hybridness and resistance to death. It never really came together for me.
Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry – I read the first 76 pages. The other week two grizzled Welsh guys came to deliver my new fridge. Their barely comprehensible banter reminded me of that between Maurice and Charlie, two ageing Irish gangsters. The long first chapter is terrific. At first these fellas seem like harmless drunks, but gradually you come to realize just how dangerous they are. Maurice’s daughter Dilly is missing, and they’ll do whatever is necessary to find her. Threatening to decapitate someone’s dog is just the beginning – and you know they could do it. “I don’t know if you’re getting the sense of this yet, Ben. But you’re dealing with truly dreadful fucken men here,” Charlie warns at one point. I loved the voices; if this was just a short story it would have gotten a top rating, but I found I had no interest in the backstory of how these men got involved in heroin smuggling.
The Wall by John Lanchester – I lost interest in it and wasn’t drawn in by the first pages.
The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy – I read the first 35 pages. There’s a lot of repetition; random details seem deliberately placed as clues. I’m sure there’s a clever story in here somewhere, but apart from a few intriguing anachronisms (in 1988 a smartphone is just “A small, flat, rectangular object … lying in the road. … The object was speaking. There was definitely a voice inside it”) there is not much plot or character to latch onto. I suspect there will be many readers who, like me, can’t be bothered to follow Saul Adler from London’s Abbey Road, where he’s hit by a car in the first paragraph, to East Berlin.
There’s only one title from the Booker shortlist that I’m interested in reading: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. I’ll be reviewing it later this month as part of a blog tour celebrating the Aké Book Festival, but as a copy hasn’t yet arrived from either the publisher or the library I won’t have gotten far into it before the Prize announcement.
As for the other five on the shortlist…
I’m a conscientious objector to Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. I haven’t appreciated her previous dystopian sequels, and I’ve never really understood all the hype around The Handmaid’s Tale.
I don’t plan on reading Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport – unless some enterprising soul produces an abridged version of no more than 250 pages.*
I didn’t rate The Fishermen highly enough to give Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities a try.
I forced myself through Midnight’s Children some years back. What a pointless slog! Lukewarm reviews of his recent work mean I’m now doubly determined to avoid Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte.
Although the setup appeals to me (a prostitute’s whole life spooling out in front of her in the moments before her death) and I enjoyed her previous novel well enough, I’ve not heard enough good things to pick up Elif Shafak’s10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World.
*However, I was delighted to find a copy of her 1991 novel, Varying Degrees of Hopelessness (just 182 pages, with short chapters often no longer than a paragraph and pithy sentences) in a 3-for-£1 sale at our local charity warehouse. Isabel, a 31-year-old virgin whose ideas of love come straight from the romance novels of ‘Babs Cartwheel’, hopes to find Mr. Right while studying art history at the Catafalque Institute in London (a thinly veiled Courtauld, where Ellmann studied). She’s immediately taken with one of her professors, Lionel Syms, whom she dubs “The Splendid Young Man.” Isabel’s desperately unsexy description of him had me snorting into my tea:
He had a masculinity.
His broad shoulders and narrow hips gave him a distinctive physique.
He held seminars and wore red socks.
To hold seminars seemed to indicate a wish to develop a rapport with his students.
The red socks seemed to indicate testosterone.
I swooned in admiration of him.
Unfortunately, the Splendid Young Man is more interested in Isabel’s portly flatmate, Pol. There’s a screwball charm to this campus novel full of love triangles and preposterous minor characters. I laughed at many of Ellmann’s deadpan lines, and would recommend this to fans of David Lodge’s academic comedies. But if you wish to, you could read this as a cautionary tale about the dangers of romantic fantasies. Ellmann even offers two alternate endings, one melodramatic and one more prosaic but believable. I’ll seek out the rest of her back catalogue – so thanks to the Booker for putting her on my radar.
In the meantime, I did a bit better with the “Not the Booker Prize” (administered by the Guardian) shortlist, reading three out of their six:
Flames by Robbie Arnott
This strange and somewhat entrancing debut novel is set in Arnott’s native Tasmania. The women of the McAllister family are known to return to life – even after a cremation, as happened briefly with Charlotte and Levi’s mother. Levi is determined to stop this from happening again, and decides to have a coffin built to ensure his 23-year-old sister can’t ever come back from the flames once she’s dead. The letters that pass between him and the ill-tempered woodworker he hires to do the job were my favorite part of the book. In other strands, we see Charlotte traveling down to work at a wombat farm in Melaleuca, a female investigator lighting out after her, and Karl forming a close relationship with a seal. This reminded me somewhat of The Bus on Thursday by Shirley Barrett and Orkney by Amy Sackville. At times I had trouble following the POV and setting shifts involved in this work of magic realism, though Arnott’s writing is certainly striking.
A favorite passage:
“The Midlands droned on, denuded hill after denuded hill, until I rolled into sprawling suburbs around noon. Here’s a list of the places I’d choose to visit before the capital: hell, anywhere tropical, the Mariana Trench, a deeper pit of hell, my mother’s house.”
My thanks to Atlantic Books for the free paperback copy for review.
The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas by Daniel James: A twisty, clever meta novel about “Daniel James” trying to write a biography of Ezra Maas, an enigmatic artist who grew up a child prodigy in Oxford and attracted a cult following in 1960s New York City, where he was a friend of Warhol et al. (See my full review.)
Supper Club by Lara Williams: A great debut novel with strong themes of female friendship and food. The Supper Club Roberta and Stevie create is performance art, but it’s also about creating personal meaning when family and romance have failed you. (See my full review.)
The other three books on the shortlist are:
Skin by Liam Brown: A dystopian novel in which people become allergic to human contact. I think I’ll pass on this one.
Please Read This Leaflet Carefully by Karen Havelin: A debut novel by a Norwegian author that proceeds backwards to examine the life of a woman struggling with endometriosis and raising a young daughter. I’m very keen to read this one.
Spring by Ali Smith: I’ve basically given up on Ali Smith – and certainly on the Seasons quartet, after DNFing Winter.
(The Not the Booker Prize will be announced on the Guardian website this Friday the 11th.)
Have you read something from the (Not the) Booker shortlist(s)? Any predictions for next week?