An Alternate Women’s Prize Longlist

As we all know, I’m a devoted follower of the Women’s Prize.  I tried my best with the 2020 longlist – I really did.  Here’s where I landed on this group of 16 books:

Shortlist

Remaining longlist

  • Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara | will not read/don’t care enough to prioritize this
  • Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner | read ★★★☆☆
  • Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams | will not read/don’t care enough to prioritize this
  • Actress by Anne Enright | on-hold for now; I read 50 pages, had to put it down when various library holds all came in at the same time, and now it’s been too long to pick it back up, so I’m going to wait a couple of months and start over
  • Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie | will not read/don’t care enough to prioritize this/have heard it’s awful
  • How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee | read ★★★★☆
  • The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo | currently reading/suffering
  • Girl by Edna O’ Brien | read ★☆☆☆☆
  • The Dutch House by Ann Patchett | will not read/don’t care enough to prioritize this/have heard it’s awful
  • Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson | read ★★★★☆

At this point, I’m just sort of fed-up.  I haven’t had a single 5-star read off this list, I’ve read two that I positively HATED, and if I have to read another book about motherhood I’m going to fucking scream.  Luckily the 3 shortlisted titles that I haven’t already read (A Thousand Ships, Mantel, Hamnet) are the 3 that I was most looking forward to off the longlist, so, that was fortuitous, and I’ll definitely be reading those.  As for the rest… nope!


So a group of blogging friends and I decided to take the initiative to create our own 2020 longlist.  In a perfect world where we were the judges, these are the books we would have longlisted this year (adhering to all the Women’s Prize eligibility criteria):

It’s a group of 8 of us, so we each put forward 2 titles.  (See if you can guess mine.)

The Judges: Callum, EmilyHannahMarijaNatySarahSteph, and myself.

The longlist:

  1. The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy | review ★★★★★
  2. My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell | currently reading
  3. Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
  4. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo | review ★★★★☆
  5. The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
  6. Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann
  7. The Body Lies by Jo Baker | review ★★★★★
  8. The Fire Starters by Jan Carson | review ★★★★★
  9. Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips | review ★★★★★
  10. Bunny by Mona Awad
  11. Supper Club by Lara Williams
  12. My Name is Monster by Katie Hale
  13. Actress by Anne Enright
  14. Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater
  15. The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld
  16. Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson | review ★★★★☆

All of us have a bit of literary prize fatigue at the moment, so we aren’t setting ourselves a deadline to read the list and come up with a shortlist.  It’s just something we’re going to meander through and hopefully revisit in a few months’ time.

That said, if you want to join us in reading any of these titles, please do!  The idea is ultimately to spotlight a group of books that we think either flew somewhat under the radar this year, or which we think are deserving of all the accolades they’ve been getting.

Comment and let me know your thoughts on the following: 1. the official longlist, 2. our alternate longlist, and 3. your own ideal longlist!

book review: The Everlasting by Katy Simpson Smith | BookBrowse

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THE EVERLASTING by Katy Simpson Smith
★★★★☆
2020, Harper

 

Broad and ambitious in scope, The Everlasting endeavors to capture the history and spirit of Rome across generations. It opens with an epigraph from the poem “Adonais” by Percy Bysshe Shelley:

“Go thou to Rome—at once the Paradise,
The grave, the city, and the wilderness.”

The plot begins in 2015 with a section titled “The Wilderness,” which introduces us to Tom, an American field biologist studying a group of crustaceans called ostracods. Though still married, Tom spends his days alone while his wife is back in California with their daughter, and reflects on the failed state of their marriage. This novel is dense at times, and Tom’s sections offer little reprieve; the crumbling marriage and allure of an enigmatic Italian woman a sort of clichéd setup that doesn’t feel like it quite earns its length, or the reader’s investment. This section does, however, establish the novel’s central theme: desire and temptation, and whether succumbing to temptation is inherently immoral.

You can read my full review HERE and a piece I wrote about books set across huge spans of time HERE.


You can pick up a copy of The Everlasting here on Book Depository.

book review: Saint X by Alexis Schaitkin | BookBrowse

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SAINT X by Alexis Schaitkin
★★★★☆
2020, Celadon

 

In the opening pages of her debut novel, Alexis Schaitkin introduces the reader to an idyllic beach scene, where mostly American tourists are lounging around on the fictional island of Saint X. Within a few pages idyll turns to tragedy as the 18-year-old daughter of the Thomas family, Alison, goes missing, and days later turns up dead. Two men are charged with her murder, but both are acquitted, and the mystery goes unsolved. Years later, we follow Alison’s younger sister, Claire, who was only seven years old at the time of Alison’s death. Now living in New York, Claire has a chance encounter that brings her into contact with Clive Richardson, one of the two men that had been charged with killing Alison. Believing their encounter to be an act of fate, Claire latches onto her connection with Clive in an attempt to discover what really happened to her sister.

You can read my full review HERE and a piece I wrote about Caribbean immigration to the US HERE.


You can pick up a copy of Saint X here on Book Depository.

book review: The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel | BookBrowse

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THE GLASS HOTEL by Emily St. John Mandel
★★★★★
2020, Knopf

 

Vincent—a young woman named for American poet and playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay—is working as a bartender in a hotel on a remote island in British Columbia, when one day a message is scrawled across the hotel window that reads: “Why don’t you swallow broken glass.” This sets off the unexpected chain of events that are chronicled by Emily St. John Mandel in her highly anticipated novel The Glass Hotel, which follows Vincent from rural Canada to Wall Street as she becomes involved with a high-level financial executive, whose successful business is revealed to be fronting a Ponzi scheme. This is the first novel that Mandel has published since the release of the wildly successful Station Eleven in 2014.

You can read my full review HERE and a piece I wrote about Ponzi schemes HERE.


You can pick up a copy of The Glass Hotel here on Book Depository.

Project Shakespeare: month #1 wrap up

Since Shakespeare has been dominating my reading of late, and because I suck at writing up full-length reviews of classics, I thought I’d take you through the first month of this #ProjectShakespeare experience with me.

Project Shakespeare, if you didn’t see me mention it before, was an idea that my friend Abby came up with, to gather a group of friends and read/perform a different Shakespeare play every Saturday night until we’re out of quarantine.  We’ve done four plays so far, so let’s go through them:

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A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM
★★★★★
my roles: Hippolyta, Snug, Moth

A Midsummer Night’s Dream and I go way back.  My acting debut (and also… the last time I acted) was in a performance of Midsummer that my fifth grade class put on.  At the time I desperately wanted to play Puck, and given the fact that in fifth grade MY NICKNAME WAS PUCK, not being given the role of Puck felt like a personal attack that I’m still not sure I’ve recovered from.  (I spitefully memorized Puck’s if we shadows have offended monologue, which I can still recite to this day.)

Despite this traumatic event, I have a very strong fondness for Midsummer.  Being eleven at the time this was obviously my first exposure to Shakespeare, and I found it weird and enchanting.  Fairies, mischief, a play within a play… what’s not to love?  What struck me as an adult is how good of an ensemble play this is – is there even a main character?! – it’s no wonder that so many schools and community theatres opt for this one.  It’s also just unabashedly fun in a way that entertains rather than grates.

And shoutout to my friend Patrick for serving us the hammiest portrayal of Bottom that the (virtual) stage has ever seen.

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THE TEMPEST
★★★★☆
my role: Miranda

In contrast, The Tempest was new to me!  I knew it was Abby’s favorite play and had been looking for a good excuse to read it for a while now, and I’m glad I did.  Before I read it she predicted ‘you’ll like it but it won’t be your new favorite’ and I’d say that’s an accurate assessment.  Though I suppose it can technically classified as a comedy, it’s decidedly less comedic than Shakespeare’s more carefree plays – there’s a real thematic heft to it that compelled me so much that I think if the ending had culminated in tragedy and bloodshed, it would have been a new favorite after all (sorry, I’m predictable).

Reading the script a few days before requesting a role, I was most drawn to Miranda, so I decided to throw my name in the hat for the play’s only canonical female character, who I did end up playing.  Miranda has been my favorite character to play so far – in some ways she’s the archetype of The Ingenue; innocent, loving, trusting, filled with more compassion than experience.  But her upbringing adds a layer of complexity – she’s never seen the face of another woman, she’s lived a life entirely subservient to her father in the microcosmically patriarchal society that he’s created on this island.  Still she shows an inherent moral goodness which at times is in conflict with her father’s own agenda; in fact, the first time we’re introduced to Miranda it’s in the context of her challenging her father; the play’s hero automatically taken down a peg by his teenaged daughter.  (The scene that results from this argument also reminded me so strongly of the dynamic between Valjean and Cosette in Les Misérables that it tugged at my heartstrings.)

Anyway, The Tempest was a joy to read and perform, and one that I’d heartily recommend to anyone who’s a little intimidated by Shakespeare and isn’t sure where to start.  The language was some of the most accessible yet beautiful that I’ve read in any Shakespeare play – O brave new world, That has such people in’t!

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TWELFTH NIGHT
★★★☆☆
my roles: First Officer, Curio

Twelfth Night is not my favorite, and not just because my first exposure to it was an incredibly bizarre community production which was entirely period except for the unexplained choice to make Fabian a surfer dude.  (Who is Fabian, anyway?)  The thing about Twelfth Night is that none of the couples are particularly worth rooting for – Viola is great, and naturally we want her happiness, but Orsino is such a dunce it’s hard to be thrilled about that conclusion.  It’s also hard to rejoice in Malvolio’s comeuppance, because what has Malvolio even done that that’s outrageous other than be a bit of a Squidward?!  (High literary analysis you’re getting here.)

Nevertheless, I enjoy it.  It’s gay, it’s chaotic, it’s got some strong characters (I particularly love Viola and Olivia) and great comedic moments.  I just find it curiously cold overall.  Still, another strong week for Project Shakespeare, with people going harder and harder each week both with props and acting choices.

[changed my 4 star rating to 3 stars a few weeks later – I need to be honest with myself, I am not a big Twelfth Night fan.]

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MACBETH x2!
★★★★★
my roles (first show): Lady Macduff, Gentlewoman, Angus, Lord, Third Apparition, Soldiers
my role (second show): Malcolm

That’s right – we put on TWO performances of Macbeth.  Since there were so many requests to play Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and since it’s everyone’s favorite play (I’m not going to say you’re lying if you say your favorite play isn’t Macbeth, but…), we decided to do our usual Saturday evening show and then put on a Sunday matinee.  I think five or six of us did both shows, with our roles incredibly shuffled up on the two days, but some people just did one or the other.  On Sunday we were joined by my friends Will and Jess who were a most welcome addition – Will played Macbeth and put on a Scottish accent whose authenticity is dubious but which utterly charmed the group of Americans who were watching it.  And I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shoutout to my college roommate Rachel for getting into her bathtub and slathering herself in fake blood for her role of Lady Macbeth – the commitment bar has been raised so high I’m not sure how we’re ever going to top it.

Anyway, Macbeth, what is there even to say?  Another fun thing about this is that it’s the first time I’ve read the play since becoming utterly obsessed with Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, an avant-garde Macbeth retelling set in an abandoned hotel in Chelsea (Manhattan).  Hearing lines read aloud by my friends which have been whispered into my ear by performers in the McKittrick was chilling (‘blood will have blood!’)

I also had an excellent time playing Malcolm, a rather uninspiring character for the fact that he’s one of the four characters with the most lines – still, I tried very very hard to breathe some life into him and I had a great time doing it.


I feel like I can’t talk about any of this without talking about the fact that – and I don’t think this comes through very well with my online persona, so I do have to stress this – I am painfully shy.  Something like this even five years ago would have mortified me so much that the thought of participating would have made me physically ill.  I don’t know what it is that inspired me to finally put myself out there and actually try at something for once in my life that I’m not naturally gifted at, but I think the fact that the stakes are so remarkably low has been soothing my anxiety.  Project Shakespeare has also been the one constant in my life that has broken up the monotony of the weeks, so I think I really needed something like this to occupy me as I struggle to concentrate on most other things.

Anyway, that’s all.  Tomorrow night we’re doing As You Like It (I’m Celia) and the week after, Hamlet.  I will report back in another four weeks on how those went.

Tell me two things in the comments: what’s your favorite Shakespeare play, and what’s the silliest, lowest-stakes thing that’s been a comfort to you during quarantine?

And if you have a group of nerdy friends who could join you as you read early modern plays over Zoom, I cannot recommend something like this highly enough.

Stay safe and stay inside if you can.  xx

book review: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

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GIRL, WOMAN, OTHER by Bernardine Evaristo
★★★★☆
2019, Grove Atlantic

 

Girl, Woman, Other is effectively a collection of interconnected short stories, divided into groups of three: each trio of stories is about a group of characters (mostly black women) directly related to one another, though in the end you start to see a fuller picture of how everything is linked.  It’s easy to see why this one won the Booker: it’s stylistically innovative, topical, skillfully structured.  And indeed it’s a very impressive book, but I did have a few more nagging issues with it than I had expected to.

I thought a few too many of the stories followed a similar trajectory to really justify including all of them: the Shirley/Winsome/Penelope trio of stories I found especially weak, and while the narrative relevance of this section becomes apparent later on, it still dragged the middle of this book down.  This book also had one of those situations that I consider a pro and a con simultaneously; Evaristo’s writing is sharp, perceptive, articulate, to the point where at times characters spoke on history’s various iterations of feminism with such an eloquence that they felt like mouthpieces for the author rather than convincing characters in their own right.

That said, these were mostly minor issues in the grand scheme of things.  I did find Evaristo’s writing to be mesmerizing, and this book’s main strength I think is her ability to convincingly draw characters from different generations and give equal weight to their unique struggles.  This book has nuance in abundance; it has so much to say about what it means to be a black woman living in the UK, and none of that could be distilled down for this review without losing a lot of its heft.  Absolutely worth reading and a very worthy Booker winner.


Women’s Prize 2020 reviewsDominicana | Fleishman is in Trouble | Girl | Girl, Woman, Other | How We Disappeared | Red at the BoneWeather


You can pick up a copy of Girl, Woman, Other here on Book Depository.

mini reviews #9: YA, translated autofiction, magical realism, and nonfiction

You can see all my previous mini reviews here, and feel free to add me on Goodreads to see all of my reviews as soon as I post them.

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WE ARE OKAY by Nina LaCour
★★★★☆
date read: February 23, 2020
Dutton, 2017

I know this seems like a sort of hollow platitude, but We Are Okay is the kind of book that breaks your heart and then mends it again; a rather impressive feat given that I read it in under 2 hours. I imagine it won’t leave a huge long-term impression on my heart, but I found it very moving and engrossing and I’m glad I finally got around to picking it up. I’ll happily read more from Nina LaCour in the future.

You can pick up a copy of We Are Okay here on Book Depository.

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OPTIC NERVE by María Gainza
translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead
★★★☆☆
date read: February 29, 2020
Catapult, 2019

This book should have done so much more for me than it actually did. I’m a bit of an art history geek, so autofiction about an art geek musing on various paintings sounded like it was going to be a dream, but I think the execution left a lot to be desired. I found the art history lessons engrossing, as expected, but María Gainza’s life (or the life of her fictional stand-in, I guess) never really dovetailed into her art lessons to form a cohesive narrative. This ultimately felt a bit disjointed and unsatisfying, though I did enjoy the strength of Gainza’s passion for art.

You can pick up a copy of Optic Nerve here on Book Depository.

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SHARKS IN THE TIME OF SAVIORS by Kawai Strong Washburn
DNF @ page 66
date read: April 5, 2020
MCD, March 2020

I think the fact that this is the first book I’ve DNF’d in 8 years says it all. Between the painfully labored prose – it’s one of those books where it feels like the author is trying to imbue every single sentence with Meaning – and the fact that all four protagonists that I’ve encountered so far have the exact same narrative voice, I just can’t. This reads like an unfinished MFA project.

You can pick up a copy of Sharks in the Time of Saviors here on Book Depository.

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MAD, BAD, DANGEROUS TO KNOW by Colm Tóibín
★★★★☆
date read: April 5, 2020
Scribner, 2018

If you’re interested at all in Irish lit, this is SUCH a brilliant hidden gem. In this sort of offbeat biography, Tóibín digs into the lives of the fathers of Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats, and James Joyce, with an emphasis on their relationships with their respective sons. The book is divided pretty evenly into three sections and each has its strengths and weaknesses – I was most compelled by Joyce’s, somewhat to my surprise – but for a book that changes trajectory three times it’s reassuringly steady in its aims: humanizing these men, contextualizing the way they manifested into their sons’ writing, and creating a textured portrait of the history of literary Dublin. (Also, I can HIGHLY recommend the audio – Tóibín has a fantastic voice and his rendition of Joyce’s Ecce Puer was chilling.)

You can pick up a copy of Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know here on Book Depository.


Have you guys read any of these, and what did you think? Feel free to comment if you’d like to discuss anything in more detail.

book review: Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

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RED AT THE BONE by Jacqueline Woodson
★★★★☆
Riverhead, 2019

 

In Red at the Bone, a quick, engrossing, fairly plotless read, Jacqueline Woodson dissects the anatomy of a family.  She’s able to skillfully distill a collection of lives down to their bare essentials, without anything feeling rushed or underdeveloped, a feat in a book that’s scarcely 200 pages.  The novel is narrated by a handful of characters and centers on Melody, a teenage girl preparing for her coming of age ceremony in her family’s home in Brooklyn.  The narrative then weaves in and out of the past and present, in short, readable chapters, all pervaded by a sense of nostalgia and melancholy.

At times I found Woodson’s writing a tad overwrought (here I will cite the most obvious offender: WHY do authors feel compelled to have characters narrate their own births – has anyone else noticed that this is a growing trend?!).  However, on the whole I found that subjects were navigated with deftness and subtlety – the chapter in particular which introduces a major world event I found positively gutting.

The downside of short, punchy books like this is that they never tend to leave much of a lasting impression on me, and I doubt Red at the Bone will be an exception in the long run, but I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent with it.


Women’s Prize 2020 reviewsDominicana | Fleishman is in TroubleGirl | Girl, Woman, Other | How We Disappeared | Red at the Bone | Weather


You can pick up a copy of Red at the Bone here on Book Depository.

wrap up: March 2020

  1. Dominicana by Angie Cruz ★☆☆☆☆ | review
  2. Weather by Jenny Offill ★★☆☆☆ | review
  3. The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan ★★★★★ | review
  4. Girl by Edna O’Brien ★☆☆☆☆ | review
  5. How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee ★★★★☆ | review
  6. Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden ★★★★★ | review
  7. A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare (reread) ★★★★★ | review
  8. The Tempest by William Shakespeare ★★★★☆
  9. The Everlasting by Katy Simpson Smith ★★★★☆ | review to come for BookBrowse
  10. Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner ★★★☆☆ | review

MARCH TOTAL: 10
YEARLY TOTAL: 24

Favorite: The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan
Runner up: Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden
Least favorite: Dominicana by Angie Cruz

Other posts from March:

Life update:

So… that was a month.

I don’t really feel compelled to dwell on the situation in this post and give a full run-down of how I’ve been handling everything (badly!!), but I’m lucky to be employed and to be working from home so let’s leave it there.  I hope everyone else is healthy and doing well, relatively speaking.

Highlights of my month were my birthday (I turned 28 on the 31st) being a nice, low-key day, and Project Shakespeare which I talked about here if you’re interested.  Since my triumphant debut as Hippolyta I have since played Miranda in The Tempest which was a delight, and I intend to give my all to my very esteemed role as ‘First Officer’ in Twelfth Night this coming Saturday.  But seriously, this is all good fun and very much keeping me sane and I would absolutely recommend arranging something like thing in your own friend groups.

Two things I’ve been doing on Twitter to hopefully help boost morale a bit are posting a photo of one of my two very photogenic cats every day, and posting a lot of nature shots from walks I’ve been taking.  I’ll share some here:

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Currently reading:

What was the best book you read in March?  Comment and let me know!

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