book review: The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

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THE ARGONAUTS by Maggie Nelson
★★★★☆
Graywolf Press, 2015

I don’t know why it’s taken me this long to read Maggie Nelson, but I was starting to worry that The Argonauts couldn’t possibly live up to its extensive hype. I was also skeptical when this memoir quite literally opened with a paragraph about anal sex – I think I sighed and thought ‘oh, this is going to be one of those books.’ I feel like this is a category of book that both novels and memoirs can fall into: the ones that think sex is this shocking, scandalous thing, that want to prove to their reader how daring they are for graphically depicting such a ‘taboo’ subject, that mistake vulgarity for profundity and bravery, but which are written so awkwardly you just end up cringing.

And I can see where for some readers, The Argonauts might end up being that kind of book. But Nelson won me over. There is a searing honesty to her prose that’s an undeniable force in this memoir, and it’s hard to put it down once it sucks you in. Nelson’s sentence construction is striking, and her observations on love and sexuality are all poignant. While Nelson’s perspectives are often heavily rooted in academia, the personal, emotional slant never fades. This is also one of the most candid, unapologetic memoirs I think I’ve ever read – though it isn’t self-deprecating in tone, Nelson never spares herself from her own commentary and conclusions. It’s just refreshingly human.

I wouldn’t dream of attempting to level this against The Argonauts as any kind of objective criticism, but I still have to mention it to explain why I dropped the 5th star from my rating: I’m tired of motherhood books. It’s a subject that doesn’t particularly intrigue me to begin with, and I feel like I’ve been reading quite a few novels and memoirs lately that reflect on motherhood. I’m just tired of it. The parts of The Argonauts that focused on Nelson’s pregnancy were the least interesting to me, and I kept wishing that the focus would stay on her relationship with Harry. But that’s entirely a personal preference, and I fully intend to check out Nelson’s other works in the near future.

Women’s Prize 2018 Winner – Home Fire

Congratulations to Kamila Shamsie on winning for her beautiful, elegant novel about Islamophobia in the UK, inspired by Sophocles’ Greek tragedy Antigone.

The 2018 Chair of Judges Sarah Sands said: “This was a dazzling shortlist, it had depth and richness and variety. We were forcibly struck by the quality of the prose. Each book had its champions. We loved the originality of mermaids and courtesans, we were awed by the lyrical truth of an American road trip which serves as a commentary of the history of race in America, we discussed into the night the fine and dignified treatment of a woman’s domestic abuse, we laughed over a student’s rite of passage and we experienced the truth of losing a parent and loving a child. In the end we chose the book which we felt spoke for our times. Home Fire is about identity, conflicting loyalties, love and politics. And it sustains mastery of its themes and its form. It is a remarkable book which we passionately recommend.

I don’t think I realized until I heard the announcement just how much I was expecting When I Hit You to win, but Home Fire would have been my second choice and my second guess, so I am quite happy with it!

Have you guys read Home Fire and if so, did you like it?  Which book did you want to win?  And do you follow the Women’s Prize or are you planning on following it next year?  Provided the list is interesting enoug hI think I’m going to plan on reading the longlist next year (this year I read 10/16) so let me know if you’d like to join me!

book review: The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

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THE MERMAID AND MRS. HANCOCK by Imogen Hermes Gowar
★★★☆☆
Harper, September 11, 2018

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, a historical novel set in 1780s London, follows Jonah Hancock, a merchant who finds himself in possession of a mermaid, and Angelica Neal, a courtesan whose protector has recently died. Their narratives intersect rather early on, and the novel mostly follows their relationship over a rather meandering 500 pages.

From the very first page, I wanted to love this book. I was struck instantly by Imogen Hermes Gowar’s prose, which is some of the best I think I’ve ever read in a contemporary novel. It’s poised, elegant, classical and lyrical all at once, with some of the most evocative setting descriptions I’ve ever read. Gowar brings the late 1700s to life in a way that I wouldn’t dare to minimize as I go on to discuss this novel’s flaws.

But I would be remiss not to mention that the pace and plotting were downright maddening. This is one of those books where nothing happens for 450 pages, and then everything happens in the last 50. It’s uneven, and for me, it wasn’t engaging enough to hold my attention throughout. Characters and their motivations also remained at arm’s length, with a questionable third person omniscient point of view which gave absolutely no rhyme or reason for its head hopping, following not only Jonah and Angelica, but a handful of other characters whose narratives were never fully developed. One of these characters in particular was Polly, a black courtesan whose storyline had absolutely no depth or insight or closure or anything remotely satisfying to read.

Again, I don’t want to downplay what an accomplishment Gowar’s writing is. If your main draw to a novel is rich, gorgeous prose, then I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this. But if you’re looking for tight plotting and compelling characters, I can’t say that either of those is a real strength of this novel.

Thank you to Harper and Imogen Hermes Gowar for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

Women’s Prize 2018 Shortlist Review & Winner Prediction

I did it, I finished the Women’s Prize 2018 shortlist!  And a few other books off the longlist that I won’t talk about in this post.  I’m so happy to report that I am in love with this shortlist.  I admittedly was underwhelmed by the longlist, but, with a couple of exceptions, I think this shortlist really is the best of the list overall.  Usually with shortlists there’s at least one book I end up really hating or not clicking with, but that wasn’t the case here: I didn’t rate any of these books lower than 3 stars.  In an ideal world I’d swap out the last book on this list for Elmet by Fiona Mozley, but oh well.

Now, I’m going to go through the list, starting with what I’d least like to see win, making my way up to what I’d most like to see win.  With an awkward mix of US and UK covers because I make my own rules here.

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6. The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar.  I actually enjoyed this book more than the one that I’ve given the 5th place slot, but the reason I’m ordering it this way is because I at least understand that book’s inclusion on this shortlist, whereas The Mermaid‘s leaves me a bit baffled.  The prose in this novel is admittedly stunning, and where that alone should be more than enough to elevate it in certain literary prizes, I feel like the Women’s Prize values other attributes more highly.  To put it bluntly: there is nothing even remotely topical about this book that speaks to our social climate or pervasive social attitudes the way the rest of the books on this list do.  This is a nice enough story, and it’s written well, but if that’s enough to win it the prize, I will be confused more than anything.

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5. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward.  This book is an important, necessary examination of race relations in contemporary American society, that scrutinizes systemic violence and inter-generational cycles of poverty.  Its numerous accolades are hardly difficult to understand.  However.  While Ward endeavors to play off modern classics – Beloved, As I Lay Dying – her own writing pales in comparison.  In my opinion, there’s not much to recommend Sing, Unburied, Sing over either of those books or over a number of other contemporary African American novels that ruminate on racism and oppression.  I also felt that the magical realism element was an awkward and heavy-handed attempt to drive home this novel’s already abundantly apparent themes.  I would admittedly be disappointed to see this novel win since I already feel its literary merit has been overhyped.  An important book, yes, undoubtedly; but one that I feel lacks the artistry of the rest of this list.

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4. Sight by Jessie Greengrass.  Sight left me conflicted, pondering the question ‘profundity or pretension?’ but at least it stayed on my mind for days after I finished it.  For such a short little novel, it packs a powerful punch, as the narrator reflects on her decision to become a mother, while attempting to reconcile that with the recent death of her own mother.  Commentary on bodily agency, a woman’s role in society, and whether we can truly know other people make this a worthy and thought-provoking read.  It did get a bit overly solipsistic at times – this narrator feels so removed from humanity that you’d think she is the only person to ever become a mother, and it was difficult not to roll my eyes at certain observations that came from such an insular perspective.  But the prose is so strong and the insights occasionally so incisive that I would not be surprised if this ends up taking the prize, and I wouldn’t be upset about it.

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3. The Idiot by Elif Batuman.  Deciding on the order for my 2nd and 3rd place titles was a major Sophie’s choice situation.  This is similar to the way I felt about books 5 and 6 – in this case, the book I personally loved more I’m putting 3rd as I believe the next book I’ve selected would be a more deserving winner.  But, The Idiot has my heart.  It’s a bitingly clever, humorous account of a Turkish-American girl’s first year at Harvard, and her feelings of mediocrity as she searches for any kind of recognizable truth in her studies or in her doomed love life.  As it’s this year’s Marmite book, you will either love or hate The Idiot, and you will know which camp you fall into by page 5.  But the kind of absurdity inherent to higher academia that Batuman tapped into really resonated with me, and I think this book is a brilliant commentary on the paradoxical role of language in elucidating and obfuscating.

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2. Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie.  A contemporary retelling of Antigone, Home Fire is set in modern London, and follows a cast of all-Muslim characters, highlighting their varied relationships with their own faith.  This is a book that tackles Islamophobia, religious extremism, and national identity, all driven home by a positively heartbreaking and tragic narrative that Shamsie chronicles with elegance.  And, a final note about adaptations and intertextuality and literary references: I put down Sing, Unburied, Sing thinking ‘I should have just re-read Beloved instead,’ but I put down Home Fire and immediately thought ‘I need to re-read Antigone,’ the distinction being that I felt Home Fire really added something to my appreciation of Sophocles’ classic, whereas I felt Sing, Unburied, Sing paled under Morrison’s shadow.  If you’re going to write a novel in conversation with classics, Shamsie shows how it’s done.

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1. When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy.  When I Hit You chronicles one Indian woman’s experience of surviving an abusive marriage, as she writes this book in an attempt to reclaim agency of her life after it’s been slowly stripped away by her controlling husband.  It’s every bit as brutal as you might imagine, but it’s never gratuitous.  Through intelligent prose Kandasamy challenges the reader to become so immersed in this woman’s circumstances the question ‘why doesn’t she just leave?’ dies on all of our lips.  This is a cleverly written, politically charged novel which examines a woman’s role in society, which takes an unflinching look at the psychology of those who endure domestic violence, which challenges any ‘feminist’ discourse which places blame upon victims who are unable for whatever reason to escape abusive relationships.

So, in short: I would not be surprised to see any of these win: When I Hit You, Home Fire, Sight, Sing, Unburied, Sing.  I would be surprised but delighted to see The Idiot win.  I would be positively baffled to see The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock win.  And I would be happy with any of my top four winning.

**Winner prediction** When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy.  It’s topical, it’s experimental in format, it’s constructed with such skill and artistry that you simply cannot deny its impact.

So, who else read the shortlist this year?  Who’s your winner prediction and who would you like to see win?  What did you think of the shortlist overall?  Come chat with me!

Hardest Game of “Would You Rather” for Book Nerds

I’m trying to get caught up with work from the days I missed being at BEA but I’m so overwhelmed that I’ve reached a point where I’m just sitting here paralyzed with ennui, so instead I’m going to do this tag which I saw on Steph‘s blog.  It’s created by Thrice Reads, who found these questions in a Buzzfeed article.

Would you rather have a friend who loses your books, or one who dog-ears them?

Dog-ears.  This is going to sound strange to anyone who’s seen my bookshelf, but I don’t actually care about my books being in pristine condition.  The reason that sounds strange is because most of them ARE in pristine condition – I’m just really gentle with all of my belongings?  But I don’t make a special point of keeping my books perfect-looking.  Like if I loan you a book I’m hardly going to say ‘PLEASE DOG-EAR THIS’ but I don’t really mind if it happens?  Who knows.  Just please don’t lose them.

Would you rather secretly love a book everyone else hates, or secretly hate a book everyone else loves?

I’m going to go for the unpopular answer here and say hate a book everyone else loves.  Not secretly – I am very open about my opinions, lol.  The reason is that loving a much-hated book is a weirdly lonely feeling?  I experience this in the circle of booktubers I watch when I see any of them talk about A Little Life.  Like, I am all for differing opinions – that’s what makes this whole blogging thing interesting.  But seeing a book that’s very close to your heart torn apart is no fun.

Would you rather be stuck on a very long plane or train ride without a book?

I can’t read on either because I get very motion sick, so this is basically just asking me if I prefer planes or trains, and the answer is trains a million times over.  I despise flying with every fiber of my being and if you’ve heard some of my travel horror stories you probably have a pretty good idea why.

Would you rather have dinner with your favorite author or your favorite character?

Favorite author, I think, though I’m not sure who my favorite author is?!  But I’m going to just say it’s John Boyne because I would LOVE to have dinner with John Boyne.  Do you guys follow his Twitter and Instagram?  He’s hilarious.  I talked to him on Twitter about the Backstreet Boys once.

Would you rather date a character you have a crush on or your crush from real life?

My real life crush because I actually HAVE ONE as of like, three days ago, for the first time in like, over half a decade?  I am not a very romantic person lol.  Anyway it is never going to happen for many and sundry reasons but I can dream.  Also I don’t think I’ve ever had a crush on a fictional character.

Would you rather have your favorite book turned into a movie, or your favorite movie turned into a book?

Book turned movie.  My favorite movie is In Bruges which wouldn’t work at all as a book.

Would you rather read a book with an annoying cliffhanger, or one where your favorite character is killed off?

I’m going to just steal Steph’s answer: Annoying cliffhanger…..unless the death is good and I’m devastated in a good way because I enjoy pain.

Would you rather lose the ability to read any new books, or the ability to reread books you’ve already read?

Lose the ability to reread books I’ve already read.  I rarely reread anyway.  Though I will miss Harry Potter.

Would you rather live in a library or a bookstore?

Bookstore – I just prefer the general vibe of them.  But I love libraries too!

Would you rather lose your place or get a paper cut every time you read a book?

Lose my place.  That is way too many paper cuts with how often I read.

Would you rather have to always read in the dark, or always read books with tiny text?

Tiny text.  This is a dumb question.  No one can see in the dark??

Would you rather read by a fireplace, or on the beach?

I much prefer summer to winter, but I’ll still go with fireplace for this question.  I’m bad at reading in places like beaches because I get very distracted by the atmosphere and can’t concentrate on the book.

Ok, back to work.  Tagging whoever!

wrap up: May 2018

My first late wrap up!  So, May was a bit insane for me – at the very last minute (like, I literally had two days to prepare for this) I was told I had to go down to Houston for work for two weeks.  If you weren’t with me back in January, just know that I hate Houston.  It was a bit better this time around, because I knew the people I was working with and it was warm (arguably too warm – it got up to 97 degrees, but I kind of loved it), and I knew where to find the vegetarian food, but it was still Houston for two weeks and I was unbelievably busy with work the entire time, so I was very glad to be home by the end of it.  ALSO, with the exception of my first flight being delayed and me having to sprint through Newark to make my connection, there were absolutely no problems with my flights both there and back, which I think is unprecedented for me.  I mean, with the flight experiences I ordinarily have, sprinting through an airport is the least of my concerns.

Anyway.  Just when I was glad to be home for a while, I was then informed that I had to go to BEA for work, so that’s where I was this past Thursday and Friday.  I also spent the weekend in New York and I got to see some friends and some theatre (Sweeney Todd and Sleep No More), so that was great, but my flight home was delayed (shocking) and got in around 1:30 am last night and I had to drive myself home and didn’t get back until around 3, and I have a cold and am generally feeling pretty run down at the moment.

So all that said and done, it’s kind of impressive that I managed to finish 9 books in May.

 

 

Best: When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy
Runner up: The Idiot by Elif Batuman
Worst: The Summer Children by Dot Hutchison

Currently reading: The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar (the final Women’s Prize shortlist book that I have to read), The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (I’ll finish today, I think), A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza, Disobedience by Naomi Alderman, and Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson (audiobook).

Also – I’m working on catching up with all of your posts from the past week or so, bear with me!

What’s the best book you guys read in May?  Comment and let me know!

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