Book Serendipity, January to February 2022
This is a bimonthly feature of mine. I call it Book Serendipity when two or more books that I read at the same time or in quick succession have something in common – the more bizarre, the better. Because I usually 20–30 books on the go at once, I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents. (I’ve realized that, of course, synchronicity is really the more apt word, but this branding has stuck.) I always like hearing about your bookish coincidences, too!
The following are in roughly chronological order.
- The author takes Valium to cope with fear of flying in two memoirs I read at the same time, I Came All This Way to Meet You by Jami Attenberg and This Boy We Made by Taylor Harris.
- The fact that the Spanish brought wild horses to the USA is mentioned in the story “The Team” by Tommy Orange (in The Decameron Project) and the poetry collection Rise and Float by Brian Tierney – this also links back to a book I reread in late 2021, Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry.
- There are roaches in a New York City apartment in I Came All This Way to Meet You by Jami Attenberg and the story “Other People’s Lives” in Loss of Memory Is Only Temporary by Johanna Kaplan.
- The same Dostoevsky passage from The Brothers Karamazov, about loving everything (“Love all the earth, every ray of God’s light, every grain of sand or blade of grass, every living thing. If you love the earth enough, you will know the divine mystery” and so on), is quoted in Faith after Doubt by Brian McLaren and Reflections from the North Country by Sigurd Olson.
- A description of nicotine-stained yellow fingers in What I Wish People Knew About Dementia by Wendy Mitchell, The Cure for Sleep by Tanya Shadrick, and Free by Lea Ypi.
- Joni Mitchell’s music is mentioned in The Reactor by Nick Blackburn and The Cure for Sleep by Tanya Shadrick, two memoirs I was reading at the same time.
- From one summer camp story to another … I happened to follow up The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer with Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash.
- Audre Lorde’s definition of the erotic is quoted in Body Work by Melissa Febos and Heaven Is a Place on Earth by Adrian Shirk, both of which are March 15, 2022 nonfiction releases I’ve reviewed for Shelf Awareness.
- The 2017 white supremacist terrorist attack in Charlottesville, Virginia is mentioned in This Boy We Made by Taylor Harris (who lives there), Faith after Doubt by Brian McLaren (who was part of the clergy counterprotest group that day), and Heaven Is a Place on Earth by Adrian Shirk (she went there for a literary event a few months later).
- The Salvador Dalí painting The Persistence of Memory (that’s the one with the melting clock) is described in The Reactor by Nick Blackburn and This Boy We Made by Taylor Harris.
- On the same day, I came across the fact that Mary Shelley was pregnant while she wrote Frankenstein in two books: Linea Nigra by Jazmina Barrera and Smile by Sarah Ruhl.
- The fact that cysts in female organs can contain teeth comes up in Heaven Is a Place on Earth by Adrian Shirk and I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins.
- Reading two novels by Japanese-American authors who grew up in Hawaii at the same time: How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu and To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara.
- Twins are everywhere! Including, just in a recent reading pile, in Hands by Lauren Brown (she’s a twin, so fair enough), Birth Notes by Jessica Cornwell, The Snow Collectors by Tina May Hall, Smile by Sarah Ruhl (this and the Cornwell are memoirs about birthing twins, so also fair enough), Ordinary Love by Jane Smiley, and The Priory by Dorothy Whipple. For as uncommon as they are in real life, they turn up way too often in fiction.
- Bell’s palsy AND giving birth to twins are elements in Birth Notes by Jessica Cornwell and Smile by Sarah Ruhl.
- There’s a no-nonsense maternity nurse in Birth Notes by Jessica Cornwell and The Priory by Dorothy Whipple.
- U.S. West Coast wolves (a particular one in each case, known by a tracking number) are the subject of a poem in Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz and The Necessity of Wildfire by Caitlin Scarano.
- Herons appear and/or have metaphorical/symbolic meaning in Thorpeness by Alison Brackenbury, What Willow Says by Lynn Buckle, Maggie Blue and the Dark World by Anna Goodall, and The Priory by Dorothy Whipple.
- There’s a character named Edwin in Booth by Karen Joy Fowler and Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel.
- The use of “hoard” where it should be “horde” in Maggie Blue and the Dark World by Anna Goodall and Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan – both errors were encountered in the same evening.
- I read about Lindisfarne in Jini Reddy’s essay in Women on Nature (ed. Katharine Norbury) and The Interior Silence by Sarah Sands in the same evening.
- “Flitting” as a synonym for moving house in Thorpeness by Alison Brackenbury and Nature Cure by Richard Mabey.
- A brother named Paul in Tides by Sara Freeman and Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel.
- A woman knows her lover is on the phone with his ex by his tone of voice in Tides by Sara Freeman and Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan.
- In two novels I’ve read so far this year – but I won’t say which ones as it’s a spoiler – the big reveal, towards the very end, is that a woman was caught breastfeeding someone who was not her baby and it caused a relationship-destroying rupture.
- Reading a second memoir this year where the chapters are titled after pop songs: Dear Queer Self by Jonathan Alexander (for a Foreword review) and now This Will Only Hurt a Little by Busy Philipps.
- A second short novel entitled The Swimmers this year: the first was Julie Otsuka’s, recently reviewed for Shiny New Books; a proof copy is on the way to me of Chloe Lane’s, coming out from Gallic Books in May.
- Reading a second memoir this year whose author grew up in the Chicago suburbs of Illinois (Arlington Heights/Buffalo Grove vs. Oak Park): I Came All This Way to Meet You by Jami Attenberg and This Will Only Hurt a Little by Busy Philipps.
- The linea nigra (a stripe of dark hair down a pregnant woman’s belly) provides the title for Linea Nigra by Jazmina Barrera and is also mentioned in Birth Notes by Jessica Cornwell.
- The famous feminist text Our Bodies, Ourselves is mentioned in Birth Notes by Jessica Cornwell and I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins.
- Childbirth brings back traumatic memories of rape in Birth Notes by Jessica Cornwell and This Will Only Hurt a Little by Busy Philipps.
What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?
Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan
I read this after its shortlisting for the Charlotte Aitken Trust/Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, as well as its longlisting for the Dylan Thomas Prize. It is a truth universally acknowledged that any novel by a young Irish woman will only and ever be compared to Sally Rooney … but that works in Nolan’s favour. I would certainly call this a readalike to Rooney’s first two books, but there’s an added psychological intensity here.
A young woman reflects on an obsessive affair that she began in Dublin in April 2012. Was it love at first sight for her with Ciaran? No, actually, it was more like pity: “The first time I saw him, I pitied him terribly,” the novel opens. “I stood in that gallery and felt not only sexual attraction (which I was aware of, dimly, as background noise) but what I can only describe as grave and troubling pity.” That doesn’t bode well now, does it?
Ciaran is an insecure, hot-tempered magazine writer. He’s also still half in love with his ex-girlfriend, Freja, whom he left behind in Copenhagen, and our narrator (an underemployed would-be writer) feels she has to fight for his attention and affections. She has body issues and drinks too much, but she’s addicted to love, and sex specifically, as much as to alcohol.
A central on-again, off-again relationship is hardly a new subject for fiction, but I admired Nolan’s work for its sharp insights into the psyche of an emotionally fragile young woman whose frantic search for someone to value her leads her into masochistic behaviours. Brief looks back at the events of 2012–14 from a present storyline set in Athens in 2019 create helpful hindsight yet reveal how much she still struggles to affirm her self-worth.
The short chapters are like freeze-frames, concentrated bursts of passion that will resonate even if the characters’ specific situations do not. And it’s not all despair and damage; there are beautiful moments here, too, like the sweet habit they had of buying an apple each and then just walking around town for a cheap outing – the source of the cover image. I marked passage after passage, but will share just a couple:
How impoverished my internal life had become, the scrabbling for a token of love from somebody who didn’t want to offer it.
I was taking away his ability to live without me easily. I subbed his rent, I cooked his food, I cleaned his clothes, so that one day soon there would come a time when he could no longer remember how he had ever done without me, and could not imagine doing so ever again.
Even if you’re burnt out on what pace amore libri blogger Rachel dubs “disaster woman” books, make an exception for this potent story of self-sabotage and -recovery. Especially if you’re a fan of Emma Jane Unsworth, The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts, and, yes, Sally Rooney. (Also reviewed by Annabel.)
With thanks to FMcM Associates and Jonathan Cape for the free copy for review.
The rest of the shortlist:
After about 50 pages I DNFed Here Comes the Miracle by Anna Beecher, which had MA-course writing-by-numbers and seemed to be building towards When God Was a Rabbit mawkishness (how on earth did it get shortlisted?!).
See my mini reviews of the other three nominees here.
I am still rooting for Cal Flyn to win for her excellent and perennially relevant travel book, Islands of Abandonment.
Tonight there’s a shortlist readings event taking place in London. If anyone goes, do share photos! The award will be given tomorrow, the 24th. I’ll look out for the announcement.
Thoughts on Literary Prizes, Sequels, and Finishing Books
I feel like my blogging is all over the place so far this month, but I’ll get back on track in the next couple of weeks with a few thematic roundups. Today, some disparate thoughts.
Literary prize season will soon be in full swing, and can be overwhelming. I’m currently reading Megan Nolan’s Acts of Desperation, doing double duty from the Dylan Thomas Prize longlist and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist, and enjoying it more than expected given the inevitable Sally Rooney comparisons and messed-up young female tropes. However, I abandoned Here Comes the Miracle (from the latter) after 46 pages because it was just as When God Was a Rabbit as I feared.
Today the second Barbellion Prize winner was announced: Lynn Buckle for What Willow Says, her lyrical novella about communication between a terminally ill woman, her deaf granddaughter, and the natural world. My choice from the shortlist would have been Josie George’s A Still Life, but I can see how the judges might have felt, in an early year when precedents are still being set, that it was important to recognize fiction as being just as valid a way of writing about disability and chronic illness.
Earlier in the week, the Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist was announced. Everyone remarked on the attractive mint green colour scheme! I found myself slightly disappointed; the Prize is usually more various since it includes nonfiction and poetry as well as fiction. Only one nonfiction title here: Philip Hoare going on (again) about whales. I’ve read another of poet Selima Hill’s collections so would gladly read this, too. I’ve already read the Brown and Keegan novellas and Sahota’s novel; I DNFed the Riley. Galgut has already won the Booker Prize. I’m awaiting a library hold of The Magician but I rather doubt my staying power with a 500-page biographical novel. My vote would, overwhelmingly, be for China Room.
I’m more tempted by the Fiction with a Sense of Place shortlist, announced as part of the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards early this month. What an intriguing and non-obvious set of nominees! Elena Knows was on the Barbellion longlist and the Greengrass and Shafak novels were previously shortlisted for the Costa Prize. I plan to try the Heller again this summer.
I’m also delighted to see that Small Bodies of Water by Nina Mingya Powles is shortlisted for the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year Award.
I’ve been pondering my predictions and wishes (entirely separate things) for the Women’s Prize longlist and will post them early next month; for now, check out Laura’s.
I believe books should be self-contained and I struggle to engage with ANY series. Unpopular opinion alert: sequels are almost always indulgent and/or money-grubbing on the part of the author. Here are four high-profile literary fiction sequels I plan on skipping this year (in all the cases, I just didn’t like the original enough to continue the story):
- Either/Or by Elif Batuman – The Idiot was bizarre, deadpan and slightly entertaining, but I have no need to spend any more time with Selin.)
- The Candy House by Jennifer Egan – A Visit from the Goon Squad didn’t stand up to a reread.
- Less Is Lost by Andrew Sean Greer – Less, only mildly funny, was hugely overrated by critics.
- Tracy Flick Can’t Win by Tom Perrotta – I read, and saw the Reese Witherspoon-starring movie version of, Election ages ago; this is the one I’d be most likely to change my mind about, if I read good reviews.
I learned via a friend’s Instagram post that there is such a thing as #FinishItFebruary and felt seen. My goal had been to clear my set-aside shelf by the end of January; of course that didn’t happen, but I have been making some progress, reducing it from about 40 to more like 25. I try to reintroduce a part-finished book into my stack every few days. Sometimes it ‘takes’ and I finish it shortly; other times it languishes again, just in a different location. I’ll see how many more I can get to before the end of February.
Following any literary prize races this year?
Do you also avoid sequels, and leave books part-read?
The 2022 Dylan Thomas Prize Longlist
The Swansea University International Dylan Thomas Prize recognizes the best published work in the English language written by an author aged 39 or under. The 12-strong longlist for the 2022 prize, announced this morning, features lots of women and diverse voices. All literary genres are eligible. There are eight novels, two poetry collections and two short story collections in the running:
- A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam (Granta)
- What Noise Against the Cane by Desiree Bailey (Yale University Press)
- Keeping the House by Tice Cin (And Other Stories)
- Auguries of a Minor God by Nidhi Zak/Aria Eipe (Faber)
- The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris (Tinder Press/Headline)
- No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood (Bloomsbury Circus)
- Milk Blood Heat by Dantiel W. Moniz (Atlantic Books)
- Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley (John Murray Press)
- Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson (Viking, Penguin General)
- Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan (Jonathan Cape)
- Peaces by Helen Oyeyemi (Faber)
- Filthy Animals by Brandon Taylor (Daunt Books Publishing)
Coming just a week and a half after the Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist news, the longlist repeats two of its titles, Open Water and Acts of Desperation. No One Is Talking About This was shortlisted for the Booker and Women’s Prizes last year. A Passage North was also Booker shortlisted, while The Sweetness of Water was on the longlist.
I happen to have already read and reviewed No One Is Talking About This, Open Water, and Filthy Animals; I DNFed Hot Stew (some thoughts here). I am being sent a copy of Acts of Desperation for my Young Writer of the Year Award reading.
Of the rest, I’m most interested in reading the short story collection Milk Blood Heat and the two poetry nominees, What Noise Against the Cane and Auguries of a Minor God. I’m hoping that review copies of these few, perhaps as part of a longlist blog tour, will be a possibility.
Looking at the longlist, Brandon Taylor immediately jumps out to me as a deserving winner. I feel like his debut novel and follow-up story collection establish him as a confident writer with a mature voice and style that will be with us for the long haul.
This year’s judges are novelist and Swansea University lecturer Alan Bilton, Jaipur Literature Festival founder and director Namita Gokhale (chair), poet Luke Kennard, and novelists Irenosen Okojie and Rachel Trezise.
The shortlist will be announced on 31 March and the winner on 12 May.
(My previous Dylan Thomas Prize coverage: I reviewed a few nominees for the blog tours in 2019 and 2020, and introduced the shortlist in 2021.)
Have you read any of the nominated titles? Which ones appeal to you?
Young Writer of the Year Award 2021 Shortlist: Reactions and Prediction
Being on the shadow panel for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award was a bookish highlight of 2017 for me and, looking back, still one of the best things I’ve achieved in my time as a book blogger. Each year I eagerly keep an eye out for the award shortlist to see how many I’ve read and who I think the judges will choose as the winner. The prize has a higher profile and cash fund this year thanks to new sponsorship from the Charlotte Aitken Trust and partnership with Waterstones.
Last May I started a list of books and authors I expected would be eligible, and continued updating it throughout the year. I was certainly expecting Open Water to make the cut, but I had a lot of other wishes that didn’t come true, particularly Charlie Gilmour for Featherhood, Daisy Johnson for Sisters, Will McPhail for In, Merlin Sheldrake for Entangled Life, and Eley Williams for The Liar’s Dictionary.
Yesterday the five nominees – three debut novels, one work of nonfiction, and one poetry collection – were announced in the Sunday Times and on the website. I happen to have already read three of them. I was vaguely interested in Megan Nolan’s novel already so will get it out from the library to read soon; I had not heard of Anna Beecher’s at all but would be willing to read a review copy if one came my way.
Here Comes the Miracle by Anna Beecher: Sounds potentially mawkish in a Jodi Picoult or Sarah Winman way. Publisher’s blurb: “It begins with a miracle: a baby born too small and too early, but defiantly alive. This is Joe. Decades before, another miracle. In a patch of nettle-infested wilderness, a seventeen-year-old boy falls in love with his best friend, Jack. This is Edward. Joe gains a sister, Emily. From the outset, her life is framed by his. She watches him grow into a young man who plays the violin magnificently and longs for a boyfriend. A young man who is ready to begin. Edward, after being separated from Jack, builds a life with Eleanor. They start a family and he finds himself a grandfather to Joe and Emily. When Joe is diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, Emily and the rest of the family are left waiting for a miracle.”
Islands of Abandonment by Cal Flyn: One of my top nonfiction books of 2021, but I’ll confess I hadn’t realized Flyn was eligible. (Now that I’m, ahem, a few years past the cutoff age myself, I can find it difficult to gauge the difference between early 30s and late 30s in appearance.) Flyn travels to neglected and derelict places, looking for the traces of human impact and noting how landscapes restore themselves – how life goes on without us. Places like a wasteland where there was once mining, nuclear exclusion zones, the depopulated city of Detroit, and areas that have been altered by natural disasters and conflict. The writing is literary and evocative, at times reminiscent of Peter Matthiessen’s. It’s a nature/travel book with a difference, and the poetic eye helps you to see things anew.
My Darling from the Lions by Rachel Long: I read this when it was shortlisted for last year’s Costa Awards and reviewed it when it was shortlisted for the Folio Prize. It’s had a lot of critical attention now, but wasn’t my cup of tea. Race, sex, and religion come into play, but the focus is on memories of coming of age, with the voice sometimes a girl’s and sometimes a grown woman’s. Her course veers between innocence and hazard. She must make her way beyond the world’s either/or distinctions and figure out how to be multiple people at once (biracial, bisexual). Her Black mother is a forceful presence; “Red Hoover” is a funny account of trying to date a Nigerian man to please her mother. Much of the rest of the book failed to click with me, but the experience of poetry is so subjective that I find it hard to give any specific reasons why that’s the case.
Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson: I always enjoy the use of second person narration. It works pretty well in this love story between two young Black British people in South London. The title is a metaphor for the possibilities and fear of intimacy. The protagonist, a photographer, doesn’t know what to do with his anger about how young Black men are treated. I felt Nelson was a little heavy-handed in his treatment of this theme, though I did love that the pivotal scene is set in a barbershop, a place where men reveal more of themselves than usual – I was reminded of a terrific play I saw a few years ago, Barber Shop Chronicles. Ultimately, I wasn’t convinced that fiction was the right vehicle for this story, especially with all the references to other authors, from Hanif Abdurraqib to Zadie Smith (NW, in particular); I think a memoir with cultural criticism was what Nelson really intended. I’ll keep an eye out for him, though – with his next book he might truly find his voice.
Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan: Another debut from an Irish writer – heir to Sally Rooney? Publisher’s blurb: “In the first scene of this provocative gut-punch of a novel, our unnamed narrator meets a magnetic writer named Ciaran and falls, against her better judgment, completely in his power. After a brief, all-consuming romance he abruptly rejects her, sending her into a tailspin of jealous obsession and longing. … Part breathless confession, part lucid critique, Acts of Desperation renders a consciousness split between rebellion and submission, between escaping degradation and eroticizing it, between loving and being lovable. With unsettling, electric precision, Nolan dissects one of life’s most elusive mysteries: Why do we want what we want, and how do we want it?”
You can read more about these books and the judges’ reactions to them on the website. This year’s judges are authors Tahmima Anam, Sarah Moss, and Andrew O’Hagan; critic Claire Lowdon; and creative writing teacher Gonzalo C. Garcia. The chair, as always, is Sunday Times literary editor Andrew Holgate.
Reasoning and Prediction
- Poetry has won the last two years in a row.
- Nelson has just won the Costa First Novel Award (though the judges chose Raymond Antrobus, at that time already a recipient of multiple major awards).
- We haven’t had a female winner since 2017, so it’s past time.
- We haven’t had a nonfiction winner since Adam Weymouth in 2018 for Kings of the Yukon.
So, I’d love for Cal Flyn to win for the excellent and timely Islands of Abandonment. She’s had a few nominations (the Baillie Gifford Prize, the Saltire Award, the Wainwright Prize) but not won anything, and richly deserves to.
I haven’t heard yet if there will be a shadow panel this year. Anyone got any intel on this? If it goes ahead in person this year, I’ll hope to attend the awards ceremony in London on 24 February. In any case, I’ll be looking out for the winner announcement.