Another in an ongoing series as I catch up on the current and previous year releases I’ve been sent for review. Today I have four books by women: a poetry collection about living between countries and languages, a magic realist novel about vengeful spirits in Vietnam, a memoir in verse about the disabled body and queer parenting, and a novel set in gentrifying Puerto Rican neighbourhoods of New York City.
From the Jhalak Prize longlist:
Honorifics by Cynthia Miller (2021)
Miller is a Malaysian American poet currently living in Edinburgh. Honorifics was also shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. Its themes resonate with poetry I’ve read by other Asian women like Romalyn Ante and Jenny Xie and with the works of mixed-race authors such as Jessica J. Lee and Nina Mingya Powles: living between two or more countries and feeling like an exile versus finding a sense of home.
Nightly, you rosary American synonyms for success learned the hard way: suburb – 10-year visa – promotion – carpool – mortgage – parent-teacher conference – nuclear family – assimilation … Homecoming is the last, hardest thing you’ll ask yourself to do.
“Loving v. Virginia” celebrates interracial love: “Look at us, improper. Look at us, indecent. Look at us, incandescent and loving.” Food is a vehicle for memory, as are home videos. Like Ante, Miller has a poem based on her mother’s voicemail messages. “Glitch honorifics” gives the characters for different family relationships, comparing Chinese and Hokkien. The imagery is full of colour and light, plants and paintings. A terrific central section called “Bloom” contains 10 jellyfish poems (“We bloom like nuclear hydrangea … I’m an unwound chandelier, / a 150-foot-long coil of cilia, // made up of a million gelatinous foxgloves.”).
Miller incorporates a lot of unusual structures, some of them traditional forms (“Sonnet with lighthouses,” “Moon goddess ghazal,” “Persimmon abecedarian”) and others freer forms like a numbered list, columns, dictionary definitions or prose paragraphs. Six of the poems cite an inspiration; I could particularly see the influence in “The Home Office after Caroline Bird” – an absurdist take on government immigration policy.
There’s much variety here, and so many beautiful lines and evocative images. “Malaysiana,” a tour through everything she loves about the country of her birth, was my single favourite poem, and a couple more passages I loved were “the heart measuring breaths like levelling sugar / for a batter, the heart saying / why don’t you come in from the cold.” (from “The impossible physiology of the free diver”) and the last two stanzas of “Lupins”: “Some days / their purple spines // are the only things / holding me up.” Flora and fauna references plus a consideration of the expat life meant this was custom made for me, but I’d recommend it to anyone looking to try out different styles of contemporary poetry.
With thanks to Nine Arches Press for the free copy for review.
From the Women’s Prize longlist:
Build Your House around My Body by Violet Kupersmith (2021)
Back in 2014, I reviewed Kupersmith’s debut collection, The Frangipani Hotel, for BookBrowse. I was held rapt by its ghostly stories of Vietnam, so I was delighted to hear that she had written a debut novel, and it was one of my few correct predictions for the Women’s Prize nominees. The main action takes place between when Winnie – half white and half Vietnamese – arrives in Saigon to teach English in 2010, and when she disappears from the house she shared with her boyfriend of three months, Long, in March 2011. But the timeline darts about to tell a much more expansive story, starting with the Japanese invasion of Vietnam in the 1940s. Each date is given as the number of months or years before or after Winnie’s disappearance.
Winnie starts off living with a great-aunt and cousins, and meets a family friend, Dr. Sang, who’s been experimenting on a hallucinogenic drug made from cobra venom. Long and his brother, Tan, a policeman, were childhood friends with a fearless young woman named Binh – now a vengeful ghost haunting them both. Meanwhile, the Saigon Spirit Eradication Company, led by the Fortune Teller, is called upon to eradicate a ghost – which from time to time seems to inhabit a small dog – from a snake-infested highland estate. These strands are bound to meet, and smoke and snakes wind their way through them all.
I enjoyed Kupersmith’s energetic writing, which reminded me by turns of Nicola Barker, Ned Beauman, Elaine Castillo and Naoise Dolan, and the glimpses of Cambodia and Vietnam we get through meals and motorbike rides. What happens with Belly the dog towards the end is fantastic. But the chronology feels needlessly complex, with the flashbacks to colonial history and even to Binh’s story not adding enough to the narrative. While I’d still like to see Kupersmith make the shortlist, I can recommend her short stories that bit more highly.
With thanks to Oneworld for the free copy for review.
Handbook for the Newly Disabled: A Lyric Memoir by Allison Blevins (2022)
Allison Blevins, a poet, has published five chapbooks or collections and has another forthcoming. Based in Missouri and the director of an indie press, she tells her story of chronic illness and queer parenting in 10 “chapters” composed of multi-part poems. She moves through brain fog and commemorates pain and desire, which cannot always coexist (as in “How to F**k a Disabled Body”).
ride a bike again, hike, carry my children. I’m learning to number what I’ve lost.
Because of the pills, I no longer fall into sleep, I stop. I used to hate queer at 19
when I was a dyke. I can’t be disabled. I need a better word. I need a body that floats—
translucent and liquid—to my daughter’s bed, to cover her like cotton-red quilted stars.
(from “Brain Fog”)
Sometimes the title is enough: “My Neurologist (Who Doesn’t Have MS) Explains Pain Is Not a Symptom of MS.” Other times, what is left out, or erased (as in “Five by Five”) is what matters the most. For instance, the Photo Illustrations promised in the titles of two chapters are replaced by Accessibility Notes. That strategy reminded me of one Raymond Antrobus has used. Alliteration, synesthesia and the language of the body express the complexities of a friend’s cancer, having a trans partner, and coming to terms with sexuality (“I think now that being queer was easy, easy as forgetting / being born”). A really interesting work and an author I’d like to read more from.
Published by BlazeVOX [books] on 22 March. With thanks to the author for the e-copy for review.
Olga Dies Dreaming by Xóchitl González (2022)
This was on my radar thanks to a starred Kirkus review. It would have been a good choice for the Women’s Prize longlist, with its bold heroine, Latinx and gay characters, and blend of literary and women’s fiction. The Puerto Rican immigrant community and gentrifying neighbourhoods of New York City are appealing locales, and Olga is a clever, gutsy protagonist. As the novel opens in 2017, she’s working out how best to fleece the rich families whose progeny’s weddings she plans. Today it’s embezzling napkins for her cousin Mabel’s wedding. Next: stockpiling cut-price champagne. Olga’s brother Prieto, a slick congressman inevitably nicknamed the “Latino Obama,” is a closeted gay man. Their late father was a drug addict; their mother left to be part of a revolutionary movement back in PR and sends her children occasional chiding letters when they appear to be selling out.
The aftermath of Hurricane Maria coincides with upheaval in Olga’s and Prieto’s personal and professional lives. The ins and outs of Puerto Rican politics went over my head somewhat, and the various schemes and conspiracy theories get slightly silly. The thread that most engaged me was Olga’s relationship with Matteo, a hoarder. I hoped that, following the satire of earlier parts (“Olga realized she’d allowed herself to become distracted from the true American dream—accumulating money—by its phantom cousin, accumulating fame. She would never make that mistake again”), there might be a message about the emptiness of the pursuit of wealth. So I ended up a little disappointed by a late revelation about Matteo.
However, I did appreciate the picture of how Olga is up against it as both a woman and a person of colour (“no person of color serious about being taken seriously was ever late to meet white people”). This debut was perhaps a little unsure of what it wanted to be, but the novelty of the main elements was enough to make it worth reading.
With thanks to Fleet for the free copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
Naomi has been reading a variety of books from the library, including middle grade fiction and Indigenous poetry. Rosemary and Laura posted photos of the books they’ve borrowed from their local libraries recently.
Like Laura, I’ve been sourcing prize nominees from various places. In April I hope to read two nonfiction books from the Jhalak Prize longlist (Things I Have Withheld by Kei Miller and Brown Baby by Nikesh Shukla) and two more novels from the Women’s Prize longlist (The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller and The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak), and I’ve just started Colm Tóibín’s Folio Prize-winning The Magician.
All from the library: a great way to read new and critically acclaimed books without having to buy them!
I’ve joined Kay, Lynn and Naomi for the Literary Wives online book club and our first read, coming up in June, will be The Sentence by Louise Erdrich, which will be doing double duty as part of the Women’s Prize longlist. I’m in the library holds queue and my copy should come in soon. My only other Erdrich so far, Love Medicine, was a 5-star read, so I have high hopes even though the premise for this one sounds a little iffy. (A bookshop ghost – magic realism being a common denominator on this year’s list – and a Covid lockdown setting.)
For those of you who like to plan ahead, here’s our schedule thereafter. I’ll be rereading two of them (Hornby and O’Farrell) and getting four out from the library (Feito, Hurston, Medie, O’Farrell). One I’ll request as a review copy (Lee), one was 99p on Kindle (Brown), and two more remain to be found secondhand (Gaige and Hunter). Maybe there’s one or more you’d like to join in with?
September 2022 Red Island House by Andrea Lee
December 2022 State of the Union by Nick Hornby
March 2023 His Only Wife by Peace Adzo Medie
June 2023 The Harpy by Megan Hunter
September 2023 Sea Wife by Amity Gaige
December 2023 Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
March 2024 Mrs. March by Virginia Feito
June 2024 Recipe for a Perfect Marriage by Karma Brown
September 2024 Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
What have you been reading or reviewing from the library recently?
Do share a link to your own post in the comments, and feel free to use the above image. I’ve co-opted a hashtag that is already popular on Twitter and Instagram: #LoveYourLibrary.
Here’s a reminder of my ideas of what you might choose to post (this list will stay up on the project page):
- Photos or a list of your latest library book haul
- An account of a visit to a new-to-you library
- Full-length or mini reviews of some recent library reads
- A description of a particular feature of your local library
- A screenshot of the state of play of your online account
- An opinion piece about library policies (e.g. Covid procedures or fines amnesties)
- A write-up of a library event you attended, such as an author reading or book club.
If it’s related to libraries, I want to hear about it!
Adapting a Mary Trump title there for a feeling I’m sure many of us have periodically. House hunting and purchasing have taken up a lot of time over the last six months. Now that we finally have keys to the new place, the work has only begun. The old chap who lived there as a tenant for decades before moving to a care home had been existing in some squalor (e.g., no shower or central heating). This past weekend we did a basic clean, including clearing out all the rubbish left in the outdoor bins. It almost felt like trauma cleaning. We haven’t yet had the fortitude to tackle the kitchen and bathroom, which are so greasy and grimy we might hire someone to clean them for us.
Much more fun has been the garden: we’ve transplanted some hedge plants from our rental garden, planted some trees, pruned the rose bushes, and made a plan for path, meadow and pond.
In the six weeks or so before we actually move in, there is so much to think about. We have a couple of tradespeople already booked, but there are lots of other renovations to research and get quotes for. So much to book, order, buy … we’re going to be bleeding money for the rest of this year. We will take on a few smaller projects ourselves, with neighbours’ help, but it is a very daunting prospect for people with no DIY skills. (And I just want to read instead.)
I should be ecstatic to own a home for the first time, and I do know how lucky I am to have somewhere to live and spare cash for improvements, but right now it all feels overwhelming. I’ve also been glum because I was denied the life insurance we applied for at the same time as a mortgage. I knew my genetic kidney disease would make a policy more expensive, but I wasn’t expecting to be declined outright – especially after the company strung me along for four months. The doctor’s reports they requested said only positive things about how stable my health was, how good my renal function, blood pressure under control. In the end they just looked at the condition name and said no. And that has made me feel a little worthless.
Still, chin up. It’s turned into a beautiful spring with fun outings such as a tour and tasting at a gin factory and folk gigs, including one by living legend Peggy Seeger.
I’m also genuinely enjoying the packing and culling process. Look at this vintage tech I found in a drawer! The Discman and Texas Instruments calculator still work, so I will continue using them.
Will I ever finish another book again?
Work has taken a slight backseat these days. I also feel like I’ll never finish another book again (though, actually, I’ll probably finish a poetry volume later today). It’s not that I’m in a slump. It’s that I’m currently reading 36 books, though the number I actually spend time with on a daily basis is more like 15–20. The rest languish in a pile next to the coffee table, or on my bedside stack. I’m working towards various projects, but my progress is at a slow crawl:
Requested after me at the library: The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez, If Not for You by Georgina Lucas, Wahala by Nikki May
March releases: You Tell the Stories You Need to Believe by Rebecca Brown, Ghosts of Spring by Luis Carrasco, Groundskeeping by Lee Cole, Brainspotting by A.J. Lees
Reading Ireland Month: Dance Move by Wendy Erskine, After You’d Gone by Maggie O’Farrell, Vinegar Hill by Colm Tóibín
April’s book club books: Paradise by Toni Morrison & Mr Pye by Mervyn Peake
Spring titles: Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson, The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald, Spring by Karl Ove Knausgaard, Sowing by Leonard Woolf
Jhalak Prize longlist: Honorifics by Cynthia Miller (with two more to start in April)
Women’s Prize longlist: Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith, The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton (with two more to start in April)
And so on.
That doesn’t count review books I’m trying to catch up on, a buddy read with my husband, a couple of e-books, and two other low-key thematic challenges I have in mind.
I’m inching towards my end-of-March targets for the current-month releases and Irish books. But most of my reading time has gone to one book I’ve been trying to read since January. By forcing myself to read a big chunk of Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradise every day – first 40 pages, then 50, now 60 – I have finally passed the 500-page point and hope to finish and review it this weekend. Then I’ll rip up some nasty old carpets!
“People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading.”
~Logan Pearsall Smith
Has there been more reading, or living, for you lately?
Literary prize season is in full swing! The Women’s Prize longlist, revealed on the 10th, contained its usual mixture of the predictable and the unexpected. I correctly predicted six of the nominees, and happened to have already read seven of them, including Claire Fuller’s Unsettled Ground (more on this below). I’m currently reading another from the longlist, Luster by Raven Leilani, and I have four on order from the library. There are only four that I don’t plan to read, so I’ll be in a fairly good place to predict the shortlist (due out on April 28th). Laura and Rachel wrote detailed reaction posts on which there has been much chat.
Rathbones Folio Prize
This year I read almost the entire Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist because I was lucky enough to be sent the whole list to feature on my blog. The winner, which the Rathbones CEO said would stand as the “best work of literature for the year” out of 80 nominees, was announced on Wednesday in a very nicely put together half-hour online ceremony hosted by Razia Iqbal from the British Library. The Folio scheme also supports writers at all stages of their careers via a mentorship scheme.
It was fun to listen in as the three judges discussed their experience. “Now nonfiction to me seems like rock ‘n’ roll,” Roger Robinson said, “far more innovative than fiction and poetry.” (Though Sinéad Gleeson and Jon McGregor then stood up for the poetry and fiction, respectively.) But I think that was my first clue that the night was going to go as I’d hoped. McGregor spoke of the delight of getting “to read above the categories, looking for freshness, for excitement.” Gleeson said that in the end they had to choose “the book that moved us, that enthralled us.”
All eight authors had recorded short interview clips about their experience of lockdown and how they experiment with genre and form, and seven (all but Doireann Ní Ghríofa) were on screen for the live announcement. The winner of the £30,000 prize, author of an “exceptional, important” book and teller of “a story that had to be told,” was Carmen Maria Machado for In the Dream House. I was delighted with this result: it was my first choice and is one of the most remarkable memoirs I’ve read. I remember reading it on my Kindle on the way to and from Hungerford for a bookshop event in early March 2020 – my last live event and last train ride in over a year and counting, which only made the reading experience more memorable.
I like what McGregor had to say about the book in the media release: “In the Dream House has changed me – expanded me – as a reader and a person, and I’m not sure how much more we can ask of the books that we choose to celebrate.”
There are now only two previous Folio winners that I haven’t read, the memoir The Return by Hisham Matar and the novel Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli, so I’d like to get those two out from the library soon and complete the set.
Other literary prizes
The following day, the Dylan Thomas Prize shortlist was announced. Still in the running are two novels I’ve read and enjoyed, Pew by Catherine Lacey and My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell, and one I’m currently reading (Luster). Of the rest, I’m particularly keen on Kingdomtide by Rye Curtis, and I would also like to read Alligator and Other Stories by Dima Alzayat. I’d love to see Russell win the whole thing. The announcement will be on May 13th. I hope to participate in a shortlist blog tour leading up to it.
I also tuned into the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards ceremony (on YouTube), which was unfortunately marred by sound issues. This year’s three awards went to women: Dervla Murphy (Edward Stanford Outstanding Contribution to Travel Writing), Anita King (Bradt Travel Guides New Travel Writer of the Year; you can read her personal piece on Syria here), and Taran N. Khan for Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul (Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year in association with the Authors’ Club).
Other prize races currently in progress that are worth keeping an eye on:
- The Jhalak Prize for writers of colour in Britain (I’ve read four from the longlist and would be interested in several others if I could get hold of them)
- The Republic of Consciousness Prize for work from small presses (I’ve read two; Doireann Ní Ghríofa gets another chance – fingers crossed for her)
- The Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction (next up for me: The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams, to review for BookBrowse)
Yesterday evening, I attended the digital book launch for Claire Fuller’s Unsettled Ground (my review will be coming soon). I’ve read all four of her novels and count her among my favorite contemporary writers. I spotted Eric Anderson and Ella Berthoud among the 200+ attendees, and Claire’s agent quoted from Susan’s review – “A new novel from Fuller is always something to celebrate”! Claire read a passage from the start of the novel that introduces the characters just as Dot starts to feel unwell. Uniquely for online events I’ve attended, we got a tour of the author’s writing room, with Alan the (female) cat asleep on the daybed behind her, and her librarian husband Tim helped keep an eye on the chat.
After each novel, as a treat to self, she buys a piece of art. This time, she commissioned a ceramic plate from Sophie Wilson with lines and images from the book painted on it. Live music was provided by her son Henry Ayling, who played acoustic guitar and sang “We Roamed through the Garden,” which, along with traditional folk song “Polly Vaughn,” are quoted in the novel and were Claire’s earworms for two years. There was also a competition to win a chocolate Easter egg, given to whoever came closest to guessing the length of the new novel in words. (It was somewhere around 89,000.)
Good news – she’s over halfway through Book 5!