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Tag: National Book Awards

TOB Longlist and Award Announcements

It has been a busy week. Oh, wait, I was supposed to be talking about awards and longlists. On Monday the Tournament of Books published its 76-book longlist, from which 16 books (plus two additional for play-in rounds) will be chosen for the tournament. The longlist is an amalgam of TOB regulars’ suggestions and books put forth by the TOB powers-that-be. 

I’ve been following the TOB for about 5 years, I think? I’ve known of it for at least a decade (this is its 15th year) but didn’t pay much attention unless I was reading a specific judge’s decision or looking for the winner. Then I started following the tournament closely over the two weeks it takes place, then I discovered the longlist, etc. etc. For the last couple of years I’ve picked up books from the longlist and read them over the course of the year, and I’ve found some real gems. I have fared less well with the actual tournament. I enjoy rubbernecking in the comments section, but the literary sensibilities of most of the judges and the regulars don’t overlap that much with mine. The choices try to reflect a broad range of Anglophone and a few translated novels and short stories, but they tend to be NYC/MFA in their approach. In other words, they’re definitely the books that are talked about in New York publishing, but not necessarily books that are finding audiences in the UK or Europe. And the Canadian selections rarely range beyond the obvious. 

This sounds grumpy, and I don’t want that to be the dominant tone. I’ve loved the sense of discovery I get from perusing the longlist, and while I am not much of a horse-race literature award/contest reader, I like reading the judges’ verdicts and readers’ reactions to them. I find new books and authors, which is the most important and fun thing. 

This year, thanks to reading so many awards-nominated books, I’ve managed to read 16 books on the longlist (definitely the most ever by a lot):

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NBA Longlist quick reviews

The NBA shortlists come out on Wednesday, October 10. I’ve read 5+ of the 10 books at this point. Here are three brief-ish reviews of books that were worth reading but not at the top of my list, and one DNF.

Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Heads cover

This is a debut collection of short stories, some of which have been published elsewhere. It’s uneven but well worth reading. The first and last stories deal with black men shot by police and the effects on those around them. They involve more than that, but I found it interesting that we begin and end the collection with those, because most of the stories have very different emphases. It’s as if the author was saying that we can’t escape that reality, and she’s right. Both are gut-punches in expected and unexpected ways, and I found them very effective.

The other stories that worked really well for me were the ones that featured Fatima, a young black girl and then woman who is one of only two black students in her majority-white private school in Southern California. We are introduced to her indirectly in an epistolary story in which the two mothers engage in escalating one-upmanship and hostility. I found this clever, but much more cruel than funny. But Fatima’s own stories are fully of empathy, nuance, and complexity.

There is one other pair of connected stories which felt more like vignettes than full stories. The characters aren’t well developed and they seem more designed to make a point than to illuminate the people in them. I found that to be a recurring issue in the rest of the collection. The author does write young women well; older women and men, not so much.

The writing is assured and stylish. It occasionally has that workshopped feel (one story’s ending is shocking as you read it and then completely predictable in retrospect), but these stories were workshopped. I read in an interview that Fatima’s stories began as a novella, and perhaps that’s why they worked so well for me. There’s just more there to engage with.

3.5 stars at Goodreads.

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NBA Longlist Review: Where the Dead Sit Talking by Brandon Hobson

Where the Dead Sit Talking cover

Brandon Hobson has written at least two previous novels and a bunch of short stories, but this is my first book by him. It tells the story of about two years in the life of 14/15 year old Sequoyah, who has been living in foster homes and shelters since his mother was sent to prison for drug- and alcohol-related offenses. Sequoyah loves his mother but he has learned to distance himself from her, for his own sake. His case worker finds him a new foster placement in a rural area a couple of hours from where he’d been living in Tulsa, OK. He becomes the third foster kid in the Troutt’s house, along with 17YO Rosemary and 13YO George. Sequoyah is Cherokee and Rosemary is Kiowa, and that creates an instant bond between them, but their connection deepens as they spend time together. It’s never sexual but it’s emotionally very intense. George and Sequoyah share a room and also get to know each other, and mostly they get along, but George is focused and obsessive about his interests (he’s writing a novel, among other things) and he has trauma-based fears. So it’s not really a friendship, although they grow to care for each other’s well being. The Troutts are a bit odd but kind and supportive. The caseworker is also kind and supportive, although necessarily from a distance.

The entire story is told through Sequoyah’s POV. We learn about his upbringing and background through his ruminations and flashbacks, including his childhood in Cherokee County, his mother’s lapses, and the kitchen accident that left him with obvious facial scarring. Sequoyah wants to connect with people but he doesn’t really know how, and he veers from aloof to intensely attached depending on his mood and general state. He’s very much a teenage boy, but one who has had a difficult life and is having to make his way without stability or supportive love from any family members. His found family isn’t bad, especially given what it could be, and he does the best he can with it. Rosemary becomes the focus of his obsessive interest and attention, which creates problems because she is unstable and unpredictable.

Although a lot of things happen in the course of the novel, they’re related at such a controlled, subtle pitch that they don’t feel consequential until they sink in. In the hands of another writer the story could have been highly emotional and melodramatic. But that’s not how Sequoyah experiences and internalizes it, so we don’t either. The way it creeps up on the reader made it far more devastating to read than it would have been if the emotions had been raw on the page.

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September reading roundup

I’ve been reading pretty steadily all year, but the first month of the academic year is usually the time when I slow way down even if I’ve had a good summer of reading. This year followed that pattern, although reading the Booker longlist gave me a boost, and I had airplane/airport time, which always helps.

I read 6 1/2 books in September:

Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney. I read this from my TBR because Rooney’s Booker-longlisted novel is frequently discussed in tandem with this 2017 debut. I reviewed it here on the blog. I still like this one better than Normal People, and I’m still a bit befuddled by the “Salinger of the Snapchat Generation” moniker being repeated unironically. For a genre reader the tropes she mashes together are pretty obvious, but her distinctive voice makes it her own.

Milkman by Anna Burns. Another Booker longlist that made it onto the shortlist and my co-favorite of the ones I’ve read from the longlist. This is why I keep reading prize nominees, even when I get a run of 3-stars in a row or am disappointed by the shortlist and/or prize choices. My review is here, and the only thing I can add is that I’m still amazed by how good it is. Also, a book that gives you “The tea of allegiance. The tea of betrayal” as a metaphor for divided society is a great, great novel.

Normal People by Sally Rooney. This is the Booker longlisted novel. I think I’ve said enough about Rooney in reviews, Goodreads threads, posts and comments here, and probably while doodling in seminars. My review is here.

Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simenon. This is the first Maigret mystery, which I picked up in a Kobo deal earlier this year, and I used it as a palate cleanser between Booker and NBA nominees. I’m late to Maigret but I like the character very much, and Simenon is wonderful with atmosphere. This is set in 1930s Paris, when the Marais was still a seedy neighborhood. It’s amusing and depressing to read about specific run-down streets when you know them primarily as tourist havens with temples of consumption. It’s a good-not-great book, best for Maigret completists.

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