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: 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.

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.

book review: Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

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FLEISHMAN IS IN TROUBLE by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
★★★☆☆
Random House, 2019

 

This book was a bit of a rollercoaster for me: I loved it and I hated it, I found it brilliant and I found it frustrating.  I was actually expecting very little from it (books about rich people’s marriages failing just aren’t my thing; see: Fates and Furies) so on the whole I’d categorize it as a pleasant surprise, though I do have a few too many qualms to raise my rating higher than a solid 3 star.

What I found brilliant about this book was the character work.  As others have said ad nauseum, every character in this book is deplorable, and if that’s a problem for you, you aren’t going to get anything out of this.  I didn’t like Toby and Rachel, I didn’t find them sympathetic, and I found the stakes (how ever will this family survive on Toby’s $200k salary alone!) mind-numbingly low.  So I suppose it’s to Brodesser-Akner’s credit that I was invested.  I did care about whether these annoying kids would have to be uprooted from their life.  I did care about whether Rachel would resume the mantel of motherhood, or whether she had abandoned her family for good.  And I think the reason for that is that every major character in this book felt so thoroughly fleshed out and human.  This is a book about fallible people failing; it’s a train wreck that you can’t look away from.  That’s exactly what it sets out to be, and it succeeds magnificently in that regard.

What I found frustrating about this book was the structure.  For one thing, it was overly long: this could have been an intimate, thorough excavation of this marriage, and still been 150 pages shorter.  It wasn’t the page-count alone that bothered me: it was the fact that flashbacks were awkwardly woven into the narrative in a way that was like ‘Toby saw a family with three kids get on the subway.  He and Rachel used to want to have three kids.  [Cue 8 page backstory about that.]’  Incessantly.  It felt rather amateurishly constructed in this regard.

My biggest problem though was the book’s choice of narrator.  Full disclosure: first person minor rarely ever works for me, and this was not the book to change my mind.  It’s not narrated by Toby or Rachel, but rather Libby, one of Toby’s college friends who becomes invested in their marriage.  I found this to be such a flimsy framing device that ultimately didn’t add very much, and there were a few painfully on the nose moments where the author aimed for a larger commentary about how Libby’s role in the narrative was being sidelined (middle aged women are invisible, etc), but the fact that it was the author’s own narrative choice to sideline Libby made the whole thing a bit of an eye-roll.

So anyway, a mixed bag, but I certainly got a lot more out of this than I had expected to.  I do think it’s a brilliant commentary on marriage and the sort of contradictory societal expectations placed on women, and if that sounds appealing to you and you’re willing to navigate through it with loathsome characters, I would recommend it.


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 Fleishman is in Trouble here on Book Depository.

book review: How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee

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HOW WE DISAPPEARED by Jing-Jing Lee
★★★★☆
Hanover Square Press, 2019

 

Set in Singapore, How We Disappeared centers on Wang Di, an elderly woman who survived Japanese occupation during WWII by being forced into serving as a comfort woman.  We follow her present-day narrative as well as seeing flashbacks to the war, which comprise the bulk of this novel.  Meanwhile we also follow Kevin, a teenage boy whose grandmother has just made a shocking confession on her death bed, which propels Kevin to dig into his family history.

I found this to be an occasionally frustrating and messy yet ultimately satisfying read.  Its main strength was Jing-Jing Lee’s skill at immersing the reader, and the chapters set during WWII really came to life.  I do think a bit too much of the narrative focused on Kevin – not to the detriment of Wang Di’s narrative, as I felt that her sections were properly fleshed out – it’s more that Kevin himself added very little as a character.  I tend to prefer historical fiction that doesn’t have a past/present framing, and this was no exception; I kept wishing it would stay in the 1940s.  That said, I do feel that Jing-Jing Lee ultimately justified this narrative decision with the way the story wrapped up, even if it wouldn’t have been my first choice of how to tell it.

But where I felt this book really excelled was Jing-Jing Lee’s descriptions of Wang Di’s life as a comfort woman, but then also in the depiction of the aftermath.  The shame and stigma attached to these young women after they returned home was a heartbreaking thing to reckon with, but I felt the book was strengthened by Lee’s willingness to confront this head-on.  I know that we in the book community collectively feel a bit of fatigue where WWII novels are concerned, but I felt that this one was a worthwhile read – impeccably researched and harrowing while still providing a strong and compelling narrative.  (If you’re going to read one book about sexual slavery off the Women’s Prize longlist, make it this one instead of Girl.)


You can pick up a copy of How We Disappeared here on Book Depository.


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

book review: Girl by Edna O’Brien

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GIRL by Edna O’Brien
★☆☆☆☆
FSG, 2019

 

Girl is a novel which should have been an essay.  I think Edna O’Brien’s conviction and passion for the Nigerian women abducted by Boko Haram does shine through – that was the main thing I was worried about when approaching this book.  I still remain unconvinced that Edna O’Brien (a white Irish woman) was the right person to tell this story, but I’m somewhat mollified by the fact that she demonstrably did her homework and put quite a lot of research into this endeavor.  However, the result, to me, was something that would have worked better as a long-form essay than a fictional book; it felt like the novel’s central conceit was to show the horrors that these girls went through, which did not translate to particularly believable characters or compelling storytelling – I just kept asking myself why I wasn’t seeing a different version of this project as an essay in the New York Times.

One struggle I was not expecting to have with this book was with O’Brien’s prose, but that actually ended up being one of the main issues for me.  Structurally it left a lot to be desired; every time a new character was introduced, Maryam’s first-person narration would be interrupted, and we would switch to an italicized segment, also first-person, where the character would narrate their life story for several pages.  It felt like the linguistic equivalent of flashbacks – a storytelling convention that I always find lazy.

What was even odder was the disjointed fusion of past and present tense.  As a veteran author I want to credit O’Brien with the benefit of the doubt here and say she was trying to achieve something with this, but to me it just felt like the book hadn’t been proofread.  Example:

‘They don’t.  They can’t.’  She was trembling so badly she had to hold on to a pillar.  She refuses a drink of water.
‘I want to be normal,’ she says, the voice urgent.
‘You are normal,’ I say, although I too am jangled.
‘Maybe we can meet up,’ she said and for the first time, she smiled.
‘I am going home, Rebeka.’  I blurted it out, I had to.
‘They will reject you… They will turn you out,’ her voice ugly and spiteful.
‘I have a baby,’ I said, thinking it wiser to tell her.
‘A baby!’  She was aghast.  It was all she wanted.

There’s a lot more that didn’t work for me: the pace of the first half of the novel hurtled by at breakneck speed as if it were running through a checklist of every horror imaginable, and the second half slowed to such a standstill all momentum was lost.  I felt emotionally numb reading this, which is particularly noteworthy given how graphic it is (trigger warnings for everything imaginable apply).  The exploration of trauma only ever felt surface-level; all I ever really learned about Maryam was about her identity as a mother; the more I read the less I understood O’Brien’s aims with this book.

Ultimately well-intentioned but too unfocused to make a huge impact.


If you think you will fare with it better than I did, you can pick up a copy of Girl here on Book Depository.


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

book review: Weather by Jenny Offill

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WEATHER by Jenny Offill
★★☆☆☆
Knopf, 2020

 

I don’t think this is a bad book at all, I want to make that clear right away.  I think Jenny Offill is a talented writer, and that she achieves everything she set out to achieve with this little book, a potent commentary on the impossibility of balancing every day domesticity with encroaching anxiety about the climate crisis.

But with that said… I didn’t particularly like it?  I mostly found this book incredibly forgettable.  It was a short, breezy read, but for whatever reason I didn’t have time to read it in a single sitting, and every time I put it down and picked it back up, I couldn’t remember where I had left off.  I had to constantly remind myself who was who – Ben, Eli, Henry, I think were their names, but even now I couldn’t tell you who was the husband, brother, and son – and there was nothing about Lizzie’s story in particular that justified to me why this was the particular story that Offill chose to tell.  I ultimately just needed a bit more from it, but I think that’s on me rather than the author.  Maybe I’ve just read a few too many navel-gazing literary novels lately for this to shine through.


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


Women’s Prize 2020 reviews: Dominicana | Fleishman is in Trouble | Girl | Girl, Woman, OtherHow We Disappeared | Red at the Bone | Weather