2016 First Novel Prize Shortlist aka My Fall Reading List

Go here for synopsis’s about these books.

A week ago the Center of Fiction announced the finalists for this years First Novel Prize. Seeing that the list was a lovely mix of women and color (plus one stoic male equivalent), and I’d already read and loved Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, I wanted to read other books first-time novelists were being celebrated for. The winner will be announced on December 6th so I hope to have read all except Kia Cothron’s The Castle Cross The Magnet Carter by then, which is a galloping 800 pages.

I snagged a free copy of Emma Cline’s The Girls during my creative writing class (which was equivalent to winning the lottery considering the amount of other people who’d shot their hands up for it), I’m halfway through and it’s so enjoyable. I find myself both inspired and wholly consumed with jealousy by Cline’s style, humor, and insight – so much confidence I didn’t think could (or should) exist in a twenty-seven year old writer. But Cline is an obvious exception to the rule and was published in Tin House by the time she was sixteen, while most of us teens were still figuring this writing thing out through angsty poetry.

These finalists have written novels that explore girlhood, freedom, homosexuality, loneliness, and race. For the same reasons I think it’s valuable to keep up to snuff with what literary magazines are publishing, I think it’s also good to read books by new novelists – it’s a direct observation of what the publishing and creative worlds are paying attention to.

Of the five books I haven’t yet read, I’m most excited to read Here Comes The Sun and will pick that one up once I’m done with The Girls. Have you read any of the books on the First Novel Prize shortlist? What did you think? Are any of these going on your ‘to read’ list? Do you have any guesses at which book might win?

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Review: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

boysnowbird10booksofsummerdrunkoffrhetoricNobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy. I’d hide myself away inside them, setting two mirrors up to face each other so that when I stood between them I was infinitely reflected in either direction. Many, many me’s.

Boy Novak falls under a spell whenever she catches a glimpse of herself in a mirror, glass, a knife, anything that bounces light and casts a reflection back at her. When she marries Arturo Whitman and becomes stepmother to his daughter Snow, “an extraordinary-looking kid. A medieval swan maiden…”, Boy becomes jealous and obsessed with Snow and the idea that evil may be hiding under her amiable exterior. As Boy’s past has proven time and again “people can smile and smile and still be villains”. This dark, unsettling novel is Helen Oyeyemi’s fifth and as a fairly young novelist, she continues to explore familiar themes of fantastical worlds, brimming with narratives on race, jealousy, and the perception of beauty.

Although the back cover of Boy, Snow, Bird advertises that the novel “brilliantly recasts the Snow White fairy tale as a story of family secrets”, outside of family drama and a character’s name very similar to Snow White (Snow Whitman), the blurb is misleading. Go into the book with knowledge that you will not read anything remotely resembling the fairy tale and save yourself frustration that many readers are having with this book. Boy, Snow, Bird is a re-imagining in the broadest sense of the word that plays wonderfully with some motifs in Snow White; this story delivers on magic mirrors, a desire to be the “fairest of them all”, and evil undertones push to the forefront.

Boy’s story starts in 1953 when she runs away from her home and abusive father, Frank Novak, also known as “the rat catcher” due to his profession. Boy escapes on a train to the end of the line and arrives at Flax Hill, Massachusetts “a town of specialists” and a far cry from her former life. Still toting a blanket belonging to her previous lover, she marries Arturo Whitman while unsure of whether she loves him. Arturo and Boy’s relationship is a strange one, birthed from a general loathing for each other, suddenly morphed into an attraction. And when she gives birth to a dark-skinned, clearly “colored” daughter, Bird, the Whitman’s are exposed as light-skinned African Americans passing as white. Rather than send Bird to live with Arturo’s dark skinned sister (keeping the family secret well hidden, as Olivia, Arturo’s mother, hopes) Boy sends Snow away instead. Although Boy’s intentions are “good” as her goal is to protect Bird from comparisons to a much more eurocentrically beautiful Snow, Boy gives into the role of evil stepmother when she chooses to send Snow away because she is too “fair”.

Snow’s beauty is all the more precious to Olivia and Agnes because it’s a trick. When whites look at her, they don’t get whatever fleeting, ugly impressions so many of us get when we see a colored girl.

Split into three parts, the first and last chapter are narrated by Boy and the second is Bird’s, along with some letters between her and Snow revealing they both look into mirrors and sometimes do not see their reflections at all. Oyeyemi’s style is confident in all of it’s fantasy, providing sure footing for readers in an unfamiliar world as the story is lined with some nuggets of real life, such as Emmett Till’s slaying after whistling at a white woman, which the family discuss during a heated conversation over dinner. This helps draw us back to the weight behind the kind of impostor game the Whitman’s are playing. But in spite of stellar writing, Boy, Snow, Bird suffers from shortcomings any story with as many topics of discussion would; there are a hoard of half-baked characters – relatives, friends, friends of friends, that provide a layer of white noise and come in and out of the story. Added to the novel’s surreal style, this muddle of characters, and a lack of sense of character motives and relationships, makes for a disjointed plot that can be a slow read.

When Boy finds out the Whitman’s are actually black and sends Snow away, there are almost no consequences. There are basically no ramifications for anyone in the story, all of which do bad things. Oyeyemi makes an attempt to regain readers with a daring but undesirable twist, seemingly absolving all of the characters of any prior wrongdoing regardless of everything we just read. For some, this may beg the question; why is this story even being told? As this book is built from unreliable narrators and the notion that surface appearances are given way too much value I am hoping, like the mirror, Boy, Snow, Bird is just one of those things that needs a second, closer look to reveal its true meaning.

Book three out of ten book of summer.

Have you read Boy, Snow, Bird? I’m really interested to know what your thoughts are on it, or on this whole fairy tale “re-imagining” business in general. Is it possible to do that well? I am still under the impression that I may have to read this book again to get the full benefit of what Oyeyemi is trying to do, but we all know how that goes…

Review: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

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photo: penguin.com.au

I didn’t want to harm the man. I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.

On the outskirts of Kansas is an area called Holcomb, a sleepy town “other Kansans call ‘out there’”, where an unlocked front door is customary and residents consider each other friends rather than neighbors. In mid-November of 1959, members of the particularly well-liked Clutter family; husband and wife Herbert and Bonnie, and teenaged siblings Nancy and Kenyon, have not shown up to church. A highly abnormal occurrence for the devout Methodist family. When two friends of young Nancy visit the River Valley Farm to find out what has happened they find the family car is still parked in the garage. The house is too quiet, on the kitchen floor is Nancy’s overturned purse. At the top of the stairs is the door to Nancy’s room, when her friends open it they find her in bed with the back of her skull ripped through by a bullet. Walking through subsequent rooms, the police quickly discover that the entire Clutter family has been massacred; each killed by a shotgun held inches from their faces.

In Cold Blood was first published in 1966, seven years after the murder of the Clutter family, and although there have been some before it, it is considered the first non-fiction novel. Non-fiction novels depict real people and events while utilizing artistic license to weave facts with fiction. Capote’s use of fictitious conversations and storytelling techniques typically seen in fiction turn this novel into a unique reading experience with palpable, sympathetic characters (good and bad), tension, and exquisite prose from an unbiased narrator. A pillar of the true crime genre, until this day In Cold Blood has only been outsold by one novel, Helter Skelter Vincent Bugliosi’s 1974 book about the Manson murders.

Capote capitalizes on tension by splitting the novel into four parts: The Last to See Them Alive, Persons Unknown, Answer, and The Corner. Although Holcomb residents are sure the crime has been committed by one of their own, the reader knows the true criminals to be Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, two recently released convicts with numerous prior arrests. The pair have similarly disturbing childhoods and mentality of being jilted by the world, but vastly differing personalities that probably would not have coincided had it not been for the prison walls they were both behind. Hickock is a tall, harsh, smooth talking leader with a skewed face, while half-Indian Smith is stocky, emotional, creative, and superstitious. Capote’s ability to remain mostly unbiased (during interviews with Smith and Hickock it is clear he sees Smith as the more sensitive of the two and portrays him as such) is what drives the novel’s authoritative voice. His impartial writing style ensures that all sides of the story are told, which is why he succeeds in turning seemingly cold blooded murderers into sympathetic characters.

Going into the story readers know the Clutter family has been killed in their rural home. We already know the murderers are caught, tried, and hanged as a result. What the reader learns from this book is why, the fine details behind murder, and through six years of writing and 8000 pages of research, Capote does a wonderful job of delivering. As a result of dubious research, interviews with people who knew both Clutter family and their murderers, Capote writes with certainty and authority, delivering a story that reads like a beautifully written police report. Although readers go in with relative knowledge of the murders, Capote instills even more mystery with details peppered throughout the story, for example, the circumstances that brought the deadly pair to the Clutter household.

As a boy he’d [Hickock] so envied the son of a neighbor who had gone to the Gulf Coast on holiday and returned with a box of shells-so hated him- that he’d stolen the shells and one by one crushed them with a hammer. Envy was constantly with him; the Enemy was anyone who was someone he wanted to be or who had anything he wanted to have.

There are multiple narratives throughout the book connecting accounts of neighboring families and workers that cared for the Clutter farm up until the day of the murders, dovetailed with Smith and Hickock’s travels through Mexico after the murders. While inhabitants of Holcomb and detectives believe the crimes to be perpetrated by calculated crooks, the reader knows Hickock and Smith to be messy and stuck in a cycle of poor choices – a far cry from whom most are expecting. Capote pays special attention to Hickock and Smith’s complex love-hate relationship during and after the murders, and the dependency and strain that weighs heavily on them when funds dwindle and a paper trail of bad checks piles up behind them.

Towards the end of the book a character poses the question; “How can a person as sane as this man seems to be commit an act as crazy as the one he was convicted of?” Studying the psychology and backgrounds of Hickock and Smith as well as others convicted of crimes as heinous as the one they committed, Capote references Dr Joseph Satten’s Murder Without Apparent Motive – A Study in Personality Disorganization and draws the attention of the novel to the trial itself. Up until this point it is easy to get lost in Capote’s writing style and forget the events in the book are real, the trial brings everything back to reality. This moment is where the story soars, leaving the reader feeling emotional and conflicted about the slaying of the Clutter family and all that comes undone following it; Holcomb, the minds of those residing there, and the lives of Hickock and Smith.

Have you read In Cold Blood? What did you think of it? Is it on your TBR list? Do you enjoy reading about sympathetic bad characters? Let me know in the comments!

*Book two out of 10 Books of Summer

10 Books of Summer Reading Challenge

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Photo: 746 Books

I’m already three books behind in my Goodreads Reading Challenge, where I set a goal of reading 35 books in 2016, but hopefully this challenge will help catch me up. After finding a post over at 746 Books, the blog hosting this summer long challenge, I felt compelled to join in at least to make my growing pile of unread books a little bit smaller.

If you’d like to join in it’s simple; read 10, 15, or 20 books between June 1st and September 5th and let your fellow bloggers know how you’re doing along the way. In keeping with my idea that low expectations=success, I’ve aimed for the lowest amount possible. Even so, being a notoriously slow reader, this may be out of my reach but it’s definitely worth the effort. Here’s the pile I’ll be tackling this summer, click their titles for detailed summaries on Goodreads.

1.Euphoria by Lily King

I just bought a used but good as new copy from my beloved Friends of the Library book sale for $1. Euphoria has been on my ‘to read’ list for a while after seeing it on The Millions list of most anticipated books in 2015. I gave myself a head start and started reading this book yesterday evening. The story is about three young anthropologists in the 1930s, caught in a love triangle. I have yet to get to the parts on illicit love, but so far the book is clever, funny, and well written.

2. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

I’m finally ready for the Atwood Experience. The Handmaid’s Tale is a classic, but the topic has never drawn me in. I’m a stickler for great first lines and The Blind Assassin has plenty that demand attention; the first line of the book is “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.” so I was hooked to find out more. At over 500 pages The Blind Assassin may be the most challenging of the list to get through, but one can dream, right?

3. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

It’s not often that I read books with murder or mystery as a large portion of the plot, but this book has been collecting dust on my shelf for as long as I can remember, and reading this among more cheerful plots balances out my list. This chilling story is Capote’s reconstruction of the real life murder, investigation, and eventual capture, trial, and execution of the killers while conveying great empathy for them. Writing that makes you care about fictional bad characters are great; writing that makes you care about real life murderers are exceptional.

4. Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

From the author of acclaimed novel Mr. FoxBoy, Snow, Bird puts a twist on childhood fairy tales. I’ve never read anything of that sort before, but after hearing praise for Oyeyemi’s writing I picked up a discounted copy at Barnes and Nobles. I’m excited to start this one.

5. How to Breathe Underwater by Julie Orringer

This book of short stories was given to me during my creative writing class and apparently is a must read for short story lovers and writers alike. Published in 2003, How to Breathe Underwater features nine stories that speak on the endless tragedies of youth. I have been on a short story binge lately so thought this would be a welcome break from all of the long fiction in this list.

6. Rock Springs by Richard Ford

Another short story collection. This is my cheat book, I started reading Rock Springs a while ago but never got around to finishing so want to pick up where I left off. Don’t take my not finishing to mean I did not enjoy the stories; this book is American literature gold.

7. Spheres of Disturbance by Amy Schutzer

Over a year ago after a tour of Red Hen Press, me and a group I was with were given the opportunity to take any book of our choosing – I picked up Spheres of Disturbance but have yet to read it. This book is published under Red Hen Press’ imprint, Artkoi Books, which publishes fiction by lesbian writers.

8. Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

After reading Bad Feminist, I was over the moon to find Roxane Gay was writing a memoir. Gay uses her personal struggles with food and body image to explore “our shared anxieties over pleasure, consumption, appearance, and health.” I especially want to find out how her past, and the traumatic events within it, formed the woman whose work we’re reading today. Unfortunately, Hunger will not be in bookstores until June 14th, but I’ve already pre-ordered my copy – a little nonfiction to break up my reading.

9. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Another book I got overly excited about before realizing it had not been released yet. There is a lot of buzz around this debut novel about two half sisters in eighteenth-century Ghana. Their lives veer off on two very different paths, one sold into slavery while the other marries an Englishman and moves to the Cape Coast. I will be attending the ALOUD Reading series on June 7 where Yaa Ghasi will talk about her book. Here’s hoping I’m able to get my hands on and finish reading the book before then. 

10. Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy

It has been a while since I’ve indulged myself in some Cormac McCarthy and I think I’m well overdue for my fill. I was tempted to give Blood Meridian another read, but still don’t think I’m ready to stomach decapitations and random removal of entrails. Outer Dark may not be any better since the story follows a woman who bears her brother’s child… but I think I’ll be able to stomach it.

Are any of you participating in 20 Books of Summer? What do you think of the books in my list? Are there any that you’ve read and did/didn’t enjoy? Any books that I should just cross of my list?