On book awards….

national_award_1118The national book awards are due out tonight.  I was going to do a little bit of handicapping, but, you know, the reality is that I don’t have the faintest idea who is going to win.  And there’s no wagering.

So the post is going to be about whether I care.

There are many awards, but to start with let’s look at the NBA.

I looked back at the fiction winners.  The last book I read that won was Let the Great World Spin.

For non-fiction, the last book I read was The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.  

Both of which were, you know, AWESOME.

Apparently, though, winning a National Book Award does not send me scurrying to the bookstore to snag a copy.

The last Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was All the Light We Cannot See, which I may have read before the prize was awarded and would have read because Anthony Doerr and I attended the same college.

The last non-fiction club was The Metaphysical Club (not enjoyed) and the last biography was Chernow’s bio of George Washington (loved).

I’m not saying that if I am at the bookstore and they have those little laurel Film_Fest_Laurelthings on the front I don’t give it a second look, but the track record speaks for itself.  I don’t make a point of reading award-winning books.

I can remember three instances when I read books because they were involved in awards.

I read one of the Hillary Mantel books because it won the Man Booker prize.  Did not enjoy.  (I get it, she’s great.  Did not find it readable).  DNF.

I read A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James because of the Man Booker.  It’s great but was also a DNF.  Just reached a point where I felt like I’d heard all I needed to hear.

Third, was American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell, who is a Michigan writer with a low-key university publisher who ended up nominated but not winning.  This is a collection of short stories that was just great…Hillbilly Elegy but five years ago.  I eventually saw her at an appearance in Ann Arbor.

But she didn’t win.  And, the national book awards later announced that they were revamping their nominating procedure to avoid the chance of “obscure” story collections being nominated.

So there’s that.

Here’s the thing.  Awards are won for a lot of reasons.  Sometimes they win because they are great art, sometimes because they reflect their time especially well, sometimes because they fill a political need (I’m looking at you, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) etc.

What they all have in common is that they are subjective.  And so am I.  When you get to something as personal as fiction, I just think it is hard to let other people pick ONE book that is the best and have it work for you.

Later this year, I’ll let you in on how I build my reading wish list.

Ultimately, I read literary fiction and non-fiction for pleasure.  Not to impress people or be up to date on the craft or on the bleeding edge of literary fashion.  Heavens knows, not to talk at cocktail parties, which I don’t ever get invited to and if I did I suspect there isn’t any talk of the National Book Awards.

If you want, you can watch the National Book Awards live tonight.  There’s no red carpet show.

Campaign Widows by Aimee Agresti

campaign widowsThis book was advertised as Sex and the City meets The West Wing. Two of my favourite shows! So this was a no-brainer for me to read it.

The story is about a group of unlikely friends, who have significant others that are connected with a presidential campaign. (Fictional, of course!) It’s an interesting perspective on the ‘other side’ of the campaigning and planning for an election. As someone whose husband works on political campaigns, I can totally relate. (Although my scope is on a much smaller scale than in the book.)

My interest in the book started as purely sensationalist, as in what kind of dirt will be dished out. But the author did a great job in developing the characters, and by the end of the book I was definitely invested in their lives and really cared about them. Basically I didn’t want to book to end.

I also liked the fact that the characters were all from different perspectives, and were affected differently by political life. Making the point that ‘campaign widows’ aren’t just the wives (or husbands!) of the people running, they are the spouses of the press that follows the campaign, or the people that work on a campaign.

This was a really interesting read: great story, great characters. I would highly recommend this one!

I rated this 4/5 stars on Goodreads.

Full disclosure: I received this eARC from Edelweiss for a fair and honest review. (Thanks Edelweiss!)



On Studying Shakespeare

If you are an English Major, you read Shakespeare.  That’s just how it goes.  For my part, I have to say that I was never an enthusiast.  There are moments when it is absolute magic, but on the whole, it never became something I craved.  Clearly, his command of language and structure are other-worldly.  So, conceding all that, I never got to the point where I just loved it.

I also felt it was taught wrong.  The main reason is that I thought that it wasn’t right to read Shakespeare.  It was meant to be performed and it just seemed to me that it would be more accessible to students (/me) that way.  I actually noticed this when I discovered that our library had video recordings of performances of plays…kids, this was 1984 and the first home VCRs were only just popping onto the scene.  You had to watch them in the reserve room of the library on a little monitor about the size of the latest iPhone.)

So I went down and watched a performance of a play and more effectively completed the assignment in half the time.  The caveat was that it was difficult to follow along in the text because (and no one tells you this) directors remove scenes from Shakespeare plays all the time, which you would think would be a no-no.  Anyway, that discovery created my belief that even in literature classes you should watch performances rather than read text.

year of learI had a new revelation on this topic recently.  I am reading The Year of Lear by James Shapiro, a book I paid for and heard about on a New York Times Podcast.  The book is very good but what is so interesting is that it is about the play and the times–and literally the year–it was written in.

And it is fascinating.  The context of the play, the rise of the Jacobeans, the battle to unify Britain, the plague, the actors Shakespeare wrote for….and the older text that Shakespeare drew on…is utterly fascinating.  Shapiro mentions that people consider Shakespeare an Elizabethan writer but his career continued following her death.  I have to confess I had the same assumption.

So here’s the thing.  All of our other literary training included an examination of the cultural times in which the book lived.  We talked about the times that Hawthorne lived in.  Melville.  Twain.  Hemingway and Fitzgerald.  Jean Rhys.  It was just the way the curriculum was constructed.

So why not Shakespeare?  I think that we have become so invested in the idea that Shakespeare is timeless that we have forgotten that he wasn’t.  Yes, I know there’s controversy about how to teach and that there’s the idea that the text is the thing, but The Year of Lear clearly shows us that he was a man of his time who explored the issues that were in front of him.

And I think including that into the teaching of Shakespeare would make it that much more accessible and interesting to students.  It would open the door in a way that the timeless approach does not.

To re-read, or not re-read? That is the question.

HamletI was having a conversation with a friend a while ago, and she mentioned that she re-reads Gone with the Wind on a regular basis – like once a year. This was shocking to me <insert shocked face GIF>.

Since that conversation, I have been reflecting on my own reading habits. I will happily sit down and watch of the same episode Sex and the City, or Say Yes to the Dress hundreds of times and not think about it. I have seen certain movies MANY times: Casablanca, The Godfather, Mary Poppins (yeah, I have an eclectic taste in movies). There is a comfort in these things. If I am tired and I don’t feel like paying too much attention, I flip on something I’ve seen many times and mindlessly enjoy.

But why not a book? This is the question that I have been pondering. It has never crossed my mind to sit down and say, I am going to re-read The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, or Big Little Lies again because I loved it so much. But why?

The adventure of reading: there is something about discovering a book and what will happen that gives me joy and pleasure in reading. And when I know the ending, or what will happen I think that joy will be taken out of the read.

So many books, so little time: there are so many books out there to read and I will never have enough time to do it. I would rather experience something new.

Cherishing of time and place: my love of a book may be dependent on the time and place and age that I read it. I fear that if I go back and read it again, it will loose that lustre for me. It’s like, I want to remember the book as it was to me at the time.

I will say I am now curious about this and have been pondering what book I would re-read if I decide to. Maybe I will become a re-reader.

Review: Strangers in Budapest

strangers in budapestSo, yeah.  This is a little awkward.

This review is of Strangers in Budapest by Jessica Keener.  Full disclosure: I received this eARC from NetGalley for a fair and honest review. (Thanks NetGalley!)

So, fair and honest it will be.

I didn’t like this book very much.  I gave it 2 stars on Goodreads.  I see that others liked it quite a bit and I respect that and I’m not going to trash it, but I just didn’t like it very much at all.  I’m not someone who goes to a restaurant looking for things to nitpik.  I want to be pleased.  I just wasn’t.

To work on the positive side, the book did eventually work itself up to a dramatic conclusion which was good to read.

Beyond that, though, I just found the storytelling incredibly stilted and awkward.

For example, the following construction occurs over and over in the book:

“You’re a man of questions this morning,” Bernardo said to Will, obviously enjoying Will’s interrogations.

First, that’s an awkward way for someone to talk, but the tag on the end is just very difficult for a reader, in my opinion.  It separates the reader from the story and the action.  I just think it would be stronger if it actually was obvious, as opposed to having it explained.  And, this construction is used over and over in the book.

Second, people who have commented about the book feel like Budapest became a character in the book.  That was clearly the objective–to portray it as a kind of inscrutable city with a lot of secrets and a dark, hidden side.  Having said that, while I understood that was the idea, I never really felt it.  I read Leaving Berlin recently, and that book captured a city way better than this one did, as did Gentlemen in Moscow.

Also, all the dark actions taken were taken by Americans living in Budapest, so maybe it isn’t Budapest that was dark.

Speaking of which, there’s an overly broad scene where American women who live in Budapest talk just the way you’d expect them to.

And, at one point, a main character–an American–talks about Budapest like he ate a Wikipedia entry about the city.  And a chain-smoking “escort” is thrown into the story for no apparent reason.

Anyway, other people have enjoyed this book.  I wasn’t one of them, but people’s views can vary.

Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin

young jane youngI picked this book up at my favourite used bookstore. I was on the hunt for Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (he had just won the Nobel Prize for Literature). Found the book I went in for and then….you know what happens next…I’ll just take a look around….

I thought it had a really interesting premise: intern has an affair with a married congressman (where have we heard that before?) and re-invents herself. Since I was ‘saving money’ on getting the Ishiguro book used, why not buy it?

I really liked this book. It is smart and funny.

I have written previously that my favourite book is The Sound and the Fury – this has a similar structure to it. There are 5 parts to the book and each one is written from a different character’s perspective and in their voice. After I read the first part, I was thinking, how is she going to sustain the narrative for 300 pages? Then I started the next section and went – right! This is how.

Each part really feels like it is in a different voice. She employs different structures in each one to give it a totally unique feel – one has short chapters, one is one long chapter, one is a series of emails, etc. I thought that was really clever. It made the book feel fresh even though the same story was being (kinda) told over and over.

There is obviously some broader themes that need to be addressed if you take on this story: slut-shaming, feminism, right to privacy. I think these were handled well and never in a heavy-handed way.

If you are looking for a book that is smart and funny (I LOL’d in many spots) then I would highly recommend this book.

I rated it 4/5 on Goodreads.

The Year of the Knife by G.D. Penman

knife.jpgHere is the first line of the book:

“New Amsterdam was a city the way decapitation was a paper cut.”

I mean, what a first line, right? If that doesn’t grab your attention then I don’t know what will.

I really enjoyed this book. A LOT. It starts from that stunning first line, grabs you and does not let you go. I could not put it down.

This is a fantasy mystery novel. So if you aren’t into that sort of thing, then this might not be your bag. However, if you like Neil Gaiman, David Mitchell – then I think you will really enjoy this.

The story focuses on Agent “Sully” Sullivan, of Imperial Bureau of Investigation. She is basically trying to solve the mystery as to what is behind the mass killings known by ‘The Year of the Knife”. I am 100% underselling it here because I don’t want to spoil it for you.

I am always in awe of authors who create a universe and build on things that already exist. This book focuses on magic – Sully is of the able to perform magic persuasion. In the book, the author makes it about math and formulas and not just something one is born with.

Sully is also a lesbian. I mention it because I think it actually makes the book more interesting. She is a complex character – who happens to be in a relationship with a vampire. This adds a layer to the book and makes it not your run-of-the-mill fantasy type story.

The author did a great job of keeping the suspense up. There are lots of twists and turns, and you really can’t figure out ‘whodunit’.

It was a highly enjoyable book, and I am very glad that I read it.

I rated this 4/5 stars on Goodreads.

Full disclosure: I received this eARC from NetGalley for a fair and honest review. (Thanks NetGalley!)