Booker Prize Shortlist 2020

Having not really followed this prize in recent years, finding myself more interested in the diversity of the International Booker Prize for translated fiction; this year, I was pleasantly surprised to find a number of titles that were already in my sights, so I thought I’d share the list and plot summaries here, since I plan on reading a few of the titles and I’m interested to see who will win the prize.

Moving With the Times

Personally I think this is a sign that the prize is beginning to move with the times and to recognise that readers and our cultures need exposure to a wider range and scope of voices and stories, if we are ever to move towards greater understanding and tolerance of the other.

The judges had this to say in their summation of the shortlist:

“Every book that we’ve chosen makes one bring all one’s attention and emotions, to understanding what the writer was trying to say and I think that is important.” Margaret Busby

“It’s exciting to realise that there are so many interesting female authors out there. There are so many interesting non-white authors out there giving us different glimpses of what the world is all about, telling interesting and vibrant stories.”  Emily Watson

“We were looking for books that really told a story and grabbed us. We were looking for originality as well. And personally I was also looking for technical mastery, and at the level of the sentence it needed to be really, really superb.” Sameer Rahim

“Every one of these books is an experience which has inspired us and therefore will inspire the reader.” Lemn Sissay

“You have got to read them. If you read this shortlist it will show you where the novel is right now in 2020, and it will give you a pretty good idea of where it might go in the future.”  Lee Child

The 2020 shortlist is:

Booker Prize Shortlist 2020

The plot summaries below come from the Booker Prize website and the links on the author’s names lead to their short biographies.

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste (Canongate Books)

Ethiopia. 1935. With the threat of Mussolini’s army looming, recently orphaned Hirut struggles to adapt to her new life as a maid. Her new employer, Kidane, an officer in Emperor Haile Selassie’s army, rushes to mobilise his strongest men before the Italians invade. Hirut and the other women long to do more than care for the wounded and bury the dead. When Emperor Haile Selassie goes into exile and Ethiopia loses hope, Hirut offers a plan to maintain morale. She helps disguise a gentle peasant as the emperor and soon becomes his guard, inspiring other women to take up arms. But how could she have predicted her own personal war, still to come, as a prisoner of one of Italy’s most vicious officers?

The Shadow King casts light on the women soldiers written out of African and European history. It is a captivating exploration of female power, and what it means to be a woman at war.

This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga (Faber & Faber)

In this tense and psychologically charged novel, Tsitsi Dangarembga channels the hope and potential of one young girl and a fledgling nation to lead us on a journey to discover where lives go after hope has departed.

Here we meet Tambudzai, living in a run-down youth hostel in downtown Harare and anxious about her prospects after leaving a stagnant job. At every turn in her attempt to make a life for herself, she is faced with a fresh humiliation, until the painful contrast between the future she imagined and her daily reality ultimately drives her to a breaking point.

Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi (Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House)

In her youth, Tara was wild. She abandoned her loveless marriage to join an ashram, endured a brief stint as a beggar (mostly to spite her affluent parents) and spent years pursuing a dishevelled, homeless ‘artist’ – all with a young child in tow. Now she is forgetting things, mixing up her maid’s wages and leaving the gas on all night, and her grown-up daughter is faced with the task of caring for a woman who never cared for her.

This is a love story and it is a story about betrayal. But not between lovers – between mother and daughter. Sharp as a blade and laced with caustic wit, Avni Doshi tests the limits of what we can know for certain about those we are closest to, and by extension, about ourselves.

The New Wilderness by Diane Cook (Oneworld Publications)

A daring, passionate and terrifying novel about a mother’s battle to save her daughter in a world ravaged by climate change.

Bea’s five-year-old daughter, Agnes, is wasting away, consumed by the smog and pollution of the over-developed metropolis they call home. If they stay in the city, Agnes will die, but there is only one alternative – joining a group of volunteers in the Wilderness State. This vast expanse of unwelcoming, untamed land is untouched by mankind. Until now. Living as nomadic hunter-gatherers, Bea and Agnes learn how to survive on this unpredictable, often dangerous land. As Agnes embraces the wild freedom of her new existence, Bea realises that saving her daughter’s life means losing her in a different way.

At once a blazing lament of our contempt for nature and a deeply humane portrayal of motherhood, and what it means to be human, The New Wilderness is an extraordinary, compelling novel for our times.

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (Picador, Pan Macmillan)

1981 in Glasgow. The city is dying and poverty is on the rise. People watch the lives they had hoped for disappear from view. Agnes Bain had expected more. She dreamed of greater things: a house with its own front door, a life bought and paid for outright (like her perfect – but false – teeth). When her philandering husband leaves, she and her three children are trapped in a mining town decimated by Thatcherism. As Agnes turns to alcohol for comfort, her children try their best to save her. One by one they abandon her in order to save themselves.

Shuggie holds out hope the longest. But he has problems of his own: despite all his efforts to pass as a ‘normal boy’, everyone has decided that Shuggie is ‘no right’. Agnes wants to support and protect her son, but her addiction has the power to eclipse everyone close to her, including her beloved Shuggie.

Laying bare the ruthlessness of poverty, the limits of love, and the hollowness of pride, Shuggie Bain is a blistering and heartbreaking debut, and an exploration of the unsinkable love that only children can have for their damaged parents.

Real Life by Brandon Taylor (Originals, Daunt Books Publishing)

Wallace has spent his summer in the lab breeding a strain of microscopic worms. He is four years into a biochemistry degree at a lakeside Midwestern university, a life that’s a world away from his childhood in Alabama. His father died a few weeks ago, but Wallace didn’t go back for the funeral, and hasn’t told his friends – Miller, Yngve, Cole and Emma. For reasons of self-preservation, he has become used to keeping a wary distance from those closest to him. Over the course of a blustery end-of-summer weekend, the destruction of his work and a series of intense confrontations force Wallace to grapple with the trauma of the past and the question of the future.

Deftly zooming in and out of focus, Real Life is an affecting story about the emotional cost of reckoning with desire, and overcoming pain.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The Verdict

So, do any of those sound appealing to you?

I’m currently reading This Mournable Body by Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga whose work totally deserves to be on the list. I first read her book Nervous Conditions last year which won the Commonwealth Prize 30 years ago and was a 5 star read for me, her latest novel continues the story of convent educated Tambu and her desire to fulfill her own at times unreachable expectations.

I will also be reading Maaza Mengiste’s work of historical fiction The Shadow King after listening to talk about the book at the Edinburgh Book Festival this month, especially given her passion for the story and the personal connection to her female ancestors, who fought to protect the lives and rights of their families.

The winner will be announced on November 17.

The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott

I enjoy fable-like stories or those that reference them and when I saw this title, I was captivated and intrigued by the image and concept of a rain heron. It reminded me of reading Patrick Ness’s The Crane Wife and so I thought why not, see what this eco-fable was about.

Tales of Imaginary Birds and Nature

Eco fable The Rain HeronThe first chapter tells what I imagined was the original fable of the rain heron and the unlucky farmer, and from what I can gather, the author has made this story up as well. It’s a story of a woman running a farm, the daughter of generations of farmers, but one who struggles for many reasons no matter what methods she tries.

Until one day a big storm comes and destroys nearly everything; at the end of which she is found curiously draped over the branches of an old oak tree.

Even more surprising was the large heron that rose out of the floodwaters, leaving not a ripple behind it, that landed on the branch beside her. The birds blue grey feathers were so light, they were near transparent. When it flew off, water fell from its wings like rain. Its appearance changed the fortune of the unlucky farmer, until the neighbour’s jealous son’s envy caused her bad luck to return.

What is A Fable?

So is it a fable? It’s a tale of someone who has bad luck, who for a period their luck changes, but as with life, good luck causes jealously in others, who have destructive tendencies. And so the bad luck continues.

“I just set out to write a story where real characters or characters that felt real had their lives intertwined with the nature fable.”

Arnott then begins a new story in four parts, in which we meet Ren, a woman who has left her home after a military coup and gone to live in the mountains. She is virtually self-sufficient apart from occasional exchanges with a man named Barlow and his son. The outdoor scenes are vivid and believable, Ren is a really interesting character I wish we’d spent more time with.

The Rain Heron Robbie Arnott Crane

Photo by Josh Sorenson on Pexels.com

We don’t know exactly why she fled or what the coup was about, but the man alerts her to the presence of soldiers searching the mountainside for something, a group of four lead by a young woman referred to as Harker. They are in search of evidence of a myth and they will make Ren suffer until she divulges what she knows and leads them to its source.

In the second part, we go back in time to a seaside settlement on the South  coast and meet Zoe and her Aunt, just as the girl is being initiated into the village tradition of squid ink gathering, a secret trade that is shared with no one. An ambitious Northener arrives seeking knowledge for his ideas and is spurned, he turns towards destructive means and with everything that follows Zoe leaves. This community and environment are really brought alive and I was disappointed when this part ended.

The story returns to Harker and her troops and their journey, here I felt the story waned, a few connections had been made and the interwoven nature of the parts revealed, but neither the landscape nor the characters gain traction, Harker is determined in her mission, but self-destructive in her nature and has lost whatever empathy she ever had. Her previous actions are hard to understand, her transformation(s) not entirely believable.

A Man Writing Women Characters

The Rain Heron A trap

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Most of Arnott’s characters are women and I did find myself pausing early on and wondering why he chose to inhabit so many lead female characters, the unlucky farmer, the woman surviving in the mountain, the leader of the army group. I made a note when this thought arose, because these women were all acting in ways often attributed to men, and I wondered if anyone else had noted this. Harker uses brutal tactics to change Ren’s mind; Ren has abandoned her son.

In an interview Arnott says it made more sense for him to portray those characters as women, because it required them to demonstrate resilience, something he considered more of a female trait within this story.

Because they were spending a lot of time in the wilderness, he thought writing them as male characters would come across as cliché, referring to woman as having:

“that gentle, firm, methodical way of dealing with problems as opposed to letting anger and frustration rise to the surface”

The author says he wasn’t trying to convey a particular message, but the situations he puts his characters in and the familiarity of some of the climatic events that occur make it a thought provoking story, and I think it’s all the better for not coming to any conclusion or moral, for it exists as a catalyst for discussion of those various controversial situations that arise.

The Anti-Hero

My favourite character and the one we spend too little time with was the rain heron, who spends most of the book hidden away, but listening to Arnott talk about his inspiration behind the bird, who he first imagined as a storm, manifest into a bird that had magical qualities and was a kind of anti-hero, made me wish that the heron had more of a presence.

His point here was that in nature, birds and animals are really not interested in humanity, not in the way humans are interested in them, acting from instinct not from consideration or desire. That said, he has created a creature that readers are indeed likely to be fascinated with!

The Rain Heron (2020) was Tasmanian author Robbie Arnott’s second novel, his debut Flames was published in 2018.

The Book of Not by Tsitsi Dangarembga (2006) (Zimbabwe)

A Zimbabwean Trilogy

A year ago I read and loved Nervous Conditions the first book written by a Black woman from Zimbabwe to be published in English. The author won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize with it in 1989, which led to translations in many languages.

Her most recent book, the third in this trilogy This Mournable Body was nominated for the Booker Prize and recently shortlisted. I’m eager to get to it, so this is my first read after WIT month, and I eagerly await what will happen to Tambu,  despite the sense of disillusionment.

Most of this second novel takes place in the ‘Sacred Heart’ catholic girls boarding school she is sent to by her uncle, though the tone is uncomfortably set in the opening pages while she is at home with her family. There is a war going on, ever present in the background, setting them all one edge.

They must attend a compulsory village meeting, where a landmine causes her gun-carrying older sister to lose a leg and her Uncle, her educational sponsor and her hoped for ticket out of the village is charged with being:

not exactly a collaborator, but one whose soul hankered to be at one with the occupying Rhodesian forces. Mutengesi. The people in the village said Babamukuru was one who’d sell every ounce of his own blood for a drop of someone else’s.

Mother Daughter Relationships

Tambu’s relationship with her mother is complicated, she finds little solace there, knowing she can never undo her mother’s resentment, unless she fails.

How does a daughter know that she feels appropriately towards the woman who is her mother? Yes, it was difficult to know what to do with Mai, how to conceive her. I thought I hated her fawning, but what I see I hated is the degree of it. If she was fawning, she was not fawning enough. She diluted it with her spitefulness, the hopeless clawing of a small cornered spirit towards what was beyond it. And if she had spirit, it was not great enough, being shrunk by the bitterness of her temper.

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

Tambu sets even higher expectations on herself to achieve in her education than her Uncle or anyone else and is frequently self-critical. We know from book one that her sponsorship in education came at the price of her brother’s demise, she wasn’t supposed to be the one to achieve, he was.

Due to her family’s low expectations, she wants to succeed. Due to her Uncle’s sponsorship and high expectations, she needs to succeed. Due to her perceived privilege as one of the few black girls at the mostly white catholic girl’s school, she has to work doubly hard to gain her achievements, with no guarantee of recognition.

As I liked to be good at what I did, I was not afraid of hard work. I would put in what was required to reach the peak I aspired to. It was especially important to be at the top, as it was quite clear to me and to everyone I had to be one of the best. Average simply did not apply; I had to be absolutely outstanding or nothing.

Photo by u0130brahim on Pexels.com

All of these expectations to be and do and know according to a multiplicity of expectations affect her behaviour and attitude, to the point where there is little of her authentic character able to shine forth.

On one level it is the story of a girl from a modest village family trying to become something else and on another level it demonstrates the mutation of an individual, trying to conform to a system that was designed elsewhere, within which she is perceived as being inferior, even though she is the one who is at home, living in her own country and culture. She tries hard to suppress her emotions, fearing they will contribute to her failure.

‘What is the matter?’ Sister was very anxious.
‘I’m fine,’ I told her. My favourite teacher was anxious. But my sister lay first in the sand and then in a hospital bed without a leg. What would Sister do if I told her? What would the other girls do if they heard? They all had their little boxes tight in their chests for their memories of war. There was too much grief here for a room full of girls. Thinking this, I did let go. I forgot about not letting anything out. I kept on wiping so that my tears fell on the cloth sleeve. It was like that when people were kind to you. Sometimes you forgot.

A Colonial Impossibility

It’s a thought-provoking, multi-layered novel and look at an aspect of the effect of colonialism through one girl’s education, her striving to succeed and the systemic prejudice that prevents her from being able to do so in a way that is easier for the Europeans. It’s also about the development of her undu (personhood), something she strives for, that is undermined by the system within which she attempts to develop it.

It is set during the tense and frightening period of fighting against colonial oppression, and the emergence of a new Zimbabwe – news of which occasionally filters in to the school, causing the disappearance of some of the students, and a fear for those like Tambu, who harbour confused, dual loyalties.

Scattered throughout the text are words and phrases in her maternal language, translated at the back, that add to the sense of a cultural insight and a reminder that this isn’t just a coming-of-age story of a young woman in a boarding school, it highlights the increasing dysfunction of one’s ”personhood’ while trying to fit into an alien system that is riddled with a sense of superiority she can never attain, because she is ‘not’.

Further Reading

An Interview with Tsitsi Dangarembga by Caroline Rooney following publication of The Book of Not, June 2007

My Reviews of Zimbabwean Literature

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga (1988)

This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga (2020)

House of Stone by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma (2018)

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo (2013) shortlisted for Booker Prize & the Guardian First Book Award

 

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E.Harrow

This is the book I took with me on holiday back in January, I’d forgotten about it to be honest. I hadn’t read any fiction for four months and thought perhaps something completely outside my usual genre might ease me back into reading.

I chose it because it seemed like a fun, escapist read, and I was intrigued by the use of doors as portals into other worlds. It reminded me of my childhood reading adventures into Narnia, an era when I devoured fantasy and loved to enter those other worlds outside my own.

I wondered how fantasy had moved on in the 21st century, whether it had the ability to suspend belief in the same way that it had in the past.

Goodreads describes the novel like this:

In a sprawling mansion filled with peculiar treasures, January Scaller is a curiosity herself. As the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, she feels little different from the artifacts that decorate the halls: carefully maintained, largely ignored, and utterly out of place.

Then she finds a strange book. A book that carries the scent of other worlds, and tells a tale of secret doors, of love, adventure and danger. Each page turn reveals impossible truths about the world and January discovers a story increasingly entwined with her own.

Today I definitely see and read it through older eyes and I am aware of the underlying commentary about our own world, it’s halls of power, it’s attitude towards otherness, difference, it’s dislike of magic or of those who look as though they don’t belong.

Some of the transitions were vaguely executed which removed a little of the escapist journey I was on, but otherwise I enjoyed it and would recommend it for a light, escapist read, if you like to occasionally read fantasy.

Top Five Uplifting Fiction

Finding Uplifting Fiction that isn’t genre specific like Romance or ChickLit is quite difficult. Since you’re unlikely to have these on your shelves, I’m  including a link to a longer Goodreads List described also described as Uplifting:

When you close these books you feel happy to be alive, secure that life is worth living, and motivated to get out there and live an awesome life.

Some of these books may deal with the dark side of life, but they still convey that overall it is good to be alive and leave you feeling uplifted.

GoodReads Top 100 Uplifting Fiction

A lot of the books on their list are children’s classics or novels by familiar authors such as Jane Austen and Elisabeth Von Arnim (I’ve read Elizabeth & Her German Garden and The Enchanted April); others are more contemporary and were popular when they were published like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, The Life of Pi, The Secret Life of Bees, The Goldfinch, The Shipping News, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.

None of my choices are on that list, but these five below are my personal favourites.

Top Five Uplifting Fiction

1. Two Old Women by Velma Wallis

Inspired by an Alaskan legend, this is a wonderful short read featuring the original inhabitants of the interior of Alaska; nomads they moved about in search of food according to the weather.

During a particularly harsh winter the group makes a decision regarding the two old women, which results in a sudden change in their attitudes and demands that they recall and put into practice everything they have learned over their long lives. It’s a wonderful, inspiring story, an ode to the importance of sharing experiences through friendship and community and a warning against complacency.

2. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

This book is a modern classic in America, so I expected it to be a slower read than usual, but I was totally hooked right from its opening pages.

Not only is it a compelling story of a woman’s search for fulfillment, it is an elevating study of character and consciousness emphasized by the use of dialect that draws the reader into the narrative as if it’s being read to you. A unique and exciting reading experience once you get into the rhythm of it.

3. The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain

Antoine Laurain is a French author who writes whimsical, humorous novellas and this was the first translated into English. They’re a guaranteed light, uplifting read. The President’s Hat is about what happens when President Mitterand leaves his hat behind in a restaurant and someone else picks it up. That person too leaves it behind, and so on, it is a nod to the nostalgia of Parisian life told as a kind of fairy tale, with its connection to a revered hat-wearing President of the 1980’s, whom Laurain describes as being like a noble Florentine Prince. Also inspired by the loss of a much loved hat and an active imagination!

His other books are similarly uplifting, The Red Notebook, Vintage 1954, or the slightly darker Smoking Kills.

4. The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso

This is a wonderful story of octogenarian neighbours Hortensia and Marion, living in a suburb in Cape Town, South Africa. They’ve both had successful lives, run their own businesses and are on the same neighbourhood committee, but their similarities act as a reason to divide them rather than support each other. One day an unforeseen event forces the women together. Could this long-held mutual loathing transform into friendship?  Is it really possible to love thy neighbour? Easier said than done.

It’s a story that reminds me a little of A Man Called Ove, except I didn’t like Ove and wouldn’t put that book on my list, but this one definitely, these two are far more interesting to hang out with than Ove ever was! And this novel was nominated for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2017, a worthy contender in my opinion.

5. The Italian Chapel by Philip Paris

Inspired by a true story, this is a tale of Italian prisoners of war, transported from the North African desert to the freezing cold of Orkney, (an archipelago off the northeastern coast of Scotland), at the beginning of winter 1942.

In a testament to the wonders of the human spirit, despite insufferable conditions they build a chapel, one of the most enduring icons of hope and peace to come out of WWII.

The novel introduces us to key characters and imagines them achieving this incredible feat. It is a story of optimism, resourcefulness and the things men do to keep their spirits up when the circumstances are against them. An easy, light read, moving without being overly sentimental, knowing this wonderful refuge still exists today makes it all the more special.

Philip Paris has also written a non-fiction account of the true story behind the chapel. Orkney’s Italian Chapel: The True Story of an Icon. In my review he wrote a comment, saying that he and his wife had returned for the 70th anniversary of the chapel’s completion and met up with several family members of the key artists who built the chapel, as well as 94 year old Gino Caprara, an ex Orkney POW who travelled from Italy for the event. There were many tears shed during those few days together.

Further Reading Lists

Top Five on MyTBR

Top Five Spiritual Well-Being Reads

Top Five Nature Inspired Reads

Kindred by Octavia E.Butler

I have been wanting to read Octavia E. Butler for some time, she was one of the most well-known African-American science fiction writers, with a reputation akin to the likes of Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou who sadly passed away at the age of 58 in 2006.

I guess it was the science-fiction label that stopped me reading her until now, having read Kindred her best-known work, I understand why Butler refers to this particular novel not as science fiction, but fantasy. She uses that element of fantasy to transport a character back to that historical period.

The novel begins with a shocking revelation, that immediately puts the reader on guard. After reading the first line, I was ready for something brutal to occur. It did, but not what I expected.

I lost an arm on my last trip home. My left arm.

It is 1976 and Dana is remembering everything that happened leading up to that moment. She is a Black woman writer married to a white man, a writer named Kevin. On her 26th birthday, something strange happens, she feels dizzy and nauseated, the room blurs and darkens around her, symptoms she will come to recognise with horror, signalling she is about to be transported back in time.

I was at the edge of a woods. Before me was a wide tranquil river, and near the middle of that river was a child splashing, screaming …

Drowning!

The child is Rufus, it is 1815 in Maryland and Dana has time-travelled (without explanation) to an era where her liberties are severely constrained, to save the life of an ancestor. She must try and survive while she is there and figure out how to return to her own life. Until the next time his life is danger and she is called back again.

It’s a riveting account, putting a modern woman into an era where her attitude, education and way of being in the world are a danger to herself. It reminded me of Andrea Levy’s story of slavery in the Jamaican plantations Long Song both writer’s had a similar objective, to get inside the world of their ancestors, to imagine those voices that hadn’t been able to record their perspectives and feelings.

Levy looks at slavery through the eyes of a slave and does so with both humour and distaste. Butler transports a modern women, someone like her in fact, back in time, and makes us feel what life was like in 1815, showing us how someone from our own time might cope if sent back there, knowing what we know now. It’s an interesting predicament.

The longer Dana stays, the more she begins to feel part of the household, familiar and accepting.

That disturbed me too when I thought about it. How easily we seemed to acclimatize. Not that I wanted us to have trouble, but it seemed as though we should have had a harder time adjusting to this particular segment of history – adjusting to our places  in the householder of a slaveholder.

Rufus is the son of the plantation owner, the person Dana is connected to, as he ages and becomes more like his father, she struggles to rationalise her feelings towards him.

I looked at him again and let myself understand. It was that destructive single-minded love of his. He loved me. Not the way he loved Alice, thank God. He didn’t seem to want to sleep with me. But he wanted me around – someone to talk to, someone who would listen to him and care what he said, care about him.

And I did. However little sense it made, I cared. I must have. I kept forgiving him for things…

It’s a thought-provoking novel that uses that element of fantasy to place a woman of the 1970’s into the 1800’s to look at that life and legacy from the inside out. We can imagine how that would have stretched the imagination of the author and the challenges that created for her, grappling with what she discovered there, with what she was becoming aware of.

Highly recommended.

Reading Lists for Total Confinement

Health and Well-Being

Our bodies are affected by what we eat, the air we breathe, how much we move and the strength of our immune systems. When these things are in balance they have a positive effect on the mind.

When we are told to stay at home, whether that’s due to recovering from an ailment or like now, to protect us from one, we risk becoming out of balance, physically and mentally.

We are discovering alternative ways to continue activities in unique ways, whether learning, exercising, preventing boredom or coping with the effect of the over abundance of panic/fear inducing news stories out there.

Some are creating suggestions for the #StayAtHome period, so when Paula at Book Jotter in her Winding Up the Week post asked if anyone was creating therapeutic reading lists, I thought I might create a few, I have shared a few of these titles with people already this week, being worthy titles that might assist or entertain us during this crisis.

I believe that what we consume affects our state of mind and that applies to our reading material as much as food. In order to bring balance, we can refer to books that have a positive effect on the mind, that allow us to stay in a calm, neutral state, an antidote to the excess of material and media that triggers fear, panic and other states of disequilibrium.

So over the next few days, I’ll be making a few suggestions from books I’ve read, according to the following themes, which I’ll link back to this page:

Top 5 Spiritual Well-Being Reads

  • books that suggest how to move to a perspective that fosters calm, helps prevents trigger inducing states, moves us out of drama and protects us from negative energies. And how to have fun doing it.

Top 5 Nature Inspired Reads

  • since we can’t all go there, these books put you in nature and allow you to appreciate it, going to places you’ll probably never visit, bought alive and evoking the senses without ever getting bored.

Top 5 Uplifting Reads

– they are few and far between in my opinion, books that actually make you laugh or feel good about humanity, the no drama, no trauma zone, feel good factor.

Top 5 Translated Fiction

– a sample from the millions that we’ll never read, the few that have made it through to be translated into English, providing us a glimpse into storytelling from parts of the world we probably don’t even know how to ‘Hello’ in.

Top 5 Memoirs

– Not the rich or famous, just glimpses into a slice of life of someone who has experienced something that gave them an interesting insight into life.

Top 5 Popular Fiction

– just a really good unputdownable read.

For today, I’m going to share the Top 5 Books on my TBR (To Be Read) across different genres and themes, which at the moment changes daily!

Top 5 Books On My TBR

1. Courageous Dreaming – How Shamans Dream the World Into Being (Spiritual) by Alberto Villoldo – I’ve read 3 or 4 books by Villoldo and loved them all, a psychologist and medical anthropologist who studied the spiritual practices of the Amazon and the Andes, he shares more of these ancient wisdom teachings. You can read my reviews of his other works here.

I’ve already read each of the opening chapter quotes, which I find reminiscent of our times, Chapter One, Escaping The Nightmare begins with the following thought-provoking epigram:

“I believe in looking reality straight in the eye and denying it.”

GARRISON KEILLOR

2. The Shackle by Colette (Fiction) – I LOVE Colette, my favourite French classic author, a woman with attitude, totally outside her time, read Introduction to Colette (my review)here. I bought this novella because Vivian Gornick discusses The Shackle and The Vagabond in her new book Unfinished Business – Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader. I can’t read that till I’ve at least read The Shackle!

I have also read The Complete Claudine, (my review) a series of four novellas that can be read as one and I have Earthly Paradise, a selection of extracts from her  memoirs, notebooks, and letters which together provide an insight into her life.

3. The Book of Harlan by Bernice L. McFadden (Historical Fiction)– Last year I read Praise Song for the Butterflies,(my review) my first novel by McFadden and it was excellent. She seems to write well researched, easy reading novels that teach us something interesting, that earlier novel was inspired by a tale told her by two women she met when visiting Ghana concerning a practice called trokosi.

The Book of Harlan is historical fiction set during WWII about black American musicians in Paris invited to perform in a Montmartre, affectionately referred to by them as “The Harlem of Paris”. Also based on extensive research, it blends the stories of her actual ancestors and imagined characters.

4. Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie (Nature Essays) – One of my favourite nature essayists, Kathleen Jamie is a poet and an astute observer of sensory detail no matter what she is studying. Surfacing is her latest blend of memoir, cultural history, and travelogue of her visits to Alaska, Orkney and Tibet. From the thawing tundra linking a Yup’ik village in Alaska to its hunter-gatherer past to the shifting sand dunes of the preserved homes of neolithic farmers in Scotland, she explores the natural world, considering that which surfaces and that which connect us with the past.

My reviews of her debut collection Findings and Sightlines here.

5. Plainsong by Kent Haruf (Fiction) – There’s nothing like a good trilogy and I’ve read a couple of excellent ones, such as Sandra Gulland’s excellent historical fiction of the life of Josephine Bonaparte: The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B, Tales of Passion – Tales of Woe, The Last Great Dance on Earth and Nancy E Turner’s memoirs of her great grandmother Sarah Prine, an astonishing, willful, unforgettable pioneering woman who seeks a living in the harsh, untamed lands of the Arizona Territory circa late 1800’s, These is My Words, Sarah’s Quilt, A Star Garden.

Kent Haruf’s Plainsong trilogy follows the lives of a cast of characters in a small farming town in Colorado.

Ursula K. Le Guin said when he passed away in 2014 that Haruf’s

“courage and achievement in exploring ordinary forms of love – the enduring frustration, the long cost of loyalty, the comfort of daily affection – are unsurpassed by anything I know in contemporary fiction”.

I’ve just finished Octavia E. Butler’s excellent novel Kindred, so tonight I’ll start one of these. Watch this space!

Please take care everyone, don’t take unnecessary risks, stay at home and be safe.

What exciting read do you have on your TBR to read next?

 

Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

I absolutely loved this, a surprise read, it was a gift from a friend who spends more time living in the wilderness than with humanity. When I read the bio of the author and saw she was a nature writer and wildlife scientist, with a degree in Zoology and a PhD in Animal Behaviour, I was even more attracted to the potential this might infuse, what looked like a murder mystery novel.

Delia’s research on the importance of female grouping in social mammals influenced her fictional writing. Where the Crawdads Sing explores the behavioral impact on a young woman who is forced to live much of her young life without a group.

It’s a slow burning, pleasurable observation of Kya, a girl as a fledgling, one pushed from the nest of family and abandoned before fully formed. And so she develops in a way not like others, highly observant, ultra sensitive to her surroundings, the marsh. They call her the marsh girl.

The marsh did not confine them but defined them and, like any sacred ground, kept their secrets deep. No one cared that they held the land because no one else wanted it.

Like any weak female species, she knows she is prey to the predator, and so acts in ways that might seem strange to other humans, who live within the security of a home and a community (although this is the 1960’s in North Carolina, so not all humans are treated equally).

When cornered, desperate, or isolated, man reverts to those instincts that aim straight at survival. Quick and just. They will always be the trump cards because they are passed on more frequently from one generation to the next than the gentler genes. It is not a morality but simple math. Among themselves, doves fight as often as hawks.

The story is told via twin narratives; the present day when a young man Chase Andrews is found dead at the base of a tower, and the question being asked is whether he fell or was pushed, and if pushed by who; and the past, the story of Kya, her abandonment, her survival, her friendship with Tate, with Chase, with Jumpin’ and Mabel, and how her feelings of rejection affect her relationships.

Her father stays long enough to teach her how to fish and navigate the channels with a boat, but when he leaves she has to learn to feed herself and make money to keep the boat in fuel.

The way the author makes the reader see Kya through the lens of biology and the behaviour of different species is stunning. When she described certain species behaviour, they were like clues to what was coming, I loved that she used nature as a guide.

Observing fireflies, she notices that each species has its own language of flashes to attract a mate. The males recognise the signals and fly only to the females of their species. But the female is capable of changing codes.

First she flashed the proper sequence of dashes and dots, attracting a male of her species, and they mated. Then she flickered a different signal, and a male of a different species flew to her. Reading her message, the second male was convinced he’d found a willing female of his own kind and hovered above her to mate. But suddenly the female firefly reached up, grabbed him with her mouth, and ate him, chewing all six legs and both wings.

Kya watched others. The females got what they wanted – first a mate, then a meal – just by changing their signals.
Kya knew judgement had no place here. Evil was not in play, just life pulsing on, even at the expense of some of the players. Biology sees right and wrong as the same colour in different light.

Loneliness leads her towards trouble and lessons. The marsh and its inhabitants always reward her. Humans disappoint her and she withdraws more than ever. Fortunately her one friend Tate, teaches her to read and her knowledge of the marsh becomes more academic and her appetite for learning about and within her natural environment are insatiable.

Sitting outside the old cabin, she picked up a scientific digest. One article on reproductive strategies, was entitled “Sneaky Fuckers.”

:

Kya dropped the journal in her lap, her mind drifting with the clouds. Some female insects eat their mates, overstressed mammal mothers abandon their young, many males design risky or shifty ways to outsperm their competitors. Nothing seemed too indecorous as long as the tick and tock of life carried on. She knew this was not a dark side to Nature , just inventive ways to endure against the odds. Surely for humans there was more.

She tries to understand life through the biology she reads about and observes, but the community don’t tolerate difference and will create a narrative of their own in order to seek justice for one of theirs.

Ultimately Nature will decide.

A brilliant way of exploring human nature and our ecosystem, the culmination of a long career of observing wildlife and nature, now in that stage of life where she can share it perhaps more widely in the fictional form.

Delia Owens was born in southern Georgia and grew up with a close relationship to nature. After her studies, she and her husband drove over the central Kalahari in Botswana and set up camp there for 7 years studying lions and hyenas, co-authoring the book Cry of the Kalahari. From there they moved to Zambia, where they studied elephants and established a program offering jobs, loans, and other assistance to local villagers so they would not have to poach wildlife for a living. They lived 22 years in Africa before returning to to the US.

She wants to continue writing fiction, especially mysteries that explore how our evolutionary past on the savannas influenced our current behavior in a world less wild.

She has won the John Burroughs Award for Nature Writing and has been published in NatureThe African Journal of Ecology, and many others. Where the Crawdads Sing is her first novel.

Booker Prize Longlist 2019 Announced

The longlist, or ‘Booker Dozen’, for the 2019 Booker Prize was announced on Tuesday 23 July.

The list of 13 books was selected by a panel of five judges: founder and director of Hay Festival Peter Florence (Chair); former fiction publisher and editor Liz Calder; novelist, essayist and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo; writer, broadcaster and former barrister Afua Hirsch; and concert pianist, conductor and composer Joanna MacGregor.

“If you only read one book this year, make a leap. Read all 13 of these. There are Nobel candidates and debutants on this list. There are no favourites; they are all credible winners. They imagine our world, familiar from news cycle disaster and grievance, with wild humour, deep insight and a keen humanity. These writers offer joy and hope. They celebrate the rich complexity of English as a global language. They are exacting, enlightening and entertaining. Really – read all of them.” Peter Florence

Featuring 8 women and 5 men with authors from the UK, Canada, Ireland, Nigeria, the United States, Mexico, Italy, India,  South Africa and Turkey, the nominated titles are:

Margaret Atwood (Canada), The Testaments (Vintage, Chatto & Windus)

– the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, fifteen years later, as told by three female characters.

Kevin Barry (Ireland), Night Boat to Tangier (Canongate Books)

– sex, death, narcotics, sudden violence and old magic in a Spanish port town

Oyinkan Braithwaite (UK/Nigeria), My Sister, The Serial Killer (Atlantic Books)

– a blackly comic novel about how blood is thicker – and more difficult to get out of the carpet – than water.

Lucy Ellmann (USA/UK), Ducks, Newburyport (Galley Beggar Press)

– A scorching indictment of America’s barbarity, past and present, a lament for the way we are sleepwalking into environmental disaster.

Bernardine Evaristo (UK), Girl, Woman, Other (Hamish Hamilton)

– Generations of women, the people they have loved and unloved – the complexities of race, sex, gender, politics, friendship, love, fear and regret.

John Lanchester (UK), The Wall (Faber & Faber)

– a chilling fable, dystopian novel that blends the most compelling issues of our time—rising waters, rising fear, rising political division—into a suspenseful story of love, trust, and survival.

Deborah Levy (SouthAfrica/UK), The Man Who Saw Everything (Hamish Hamilton)

–  the difficulty of seeing ourselves and others clearly. Specters that come back to haunt old and new love, previous and current incarnations of Europe, conscious and unconscious transgressions, and real and imagined betrayals, while investigating the cyclic nature of history and its reinvention by people in power. And a man crossing Abbey Road.

Valeria Luiselli (Mexico/Italy), Lost Children Archive (4th Estate)

– inspired by the experiences of desperate children crossing the desert border between Mexico, New Mexico and Arizona, and the Apache warriors who made their last stand in the desert, told as a family sets off on a road trip.

Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria), An Orchestra of Minorities (Little Brown)

– contemporary twist on the Odyssey, narrated by the chi, or spirit of a young poultry farmer, a heart-wrenching epic about destiny and determination.

Max Porter (UK), Lanny (Faber & Faber)

– an experimental fantasy set in an English village where a child goes missing, highlighting societal issues, history and the environment.

Salman Rushdie (UK/India), Quichotte (Jonathan Cape)

– a tour-de-force that is both an homage to an immortal work of literature and a modern masterpiece about the quest for love and family, a dazzling Don Quixote for the modern age.

Elif Shafak (UK/Turkey), 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World (Viking)

– After death, a woman’s brain remains active for 10 minutes 38 seconds, during which her memories recall significant moments of her life and stories of 5 close friends she met at key stages in her life.

Jeanette Winterson (UK), Frankissstein (Jonathan Cape)

– a young transgender doctor called Ry is falling in love – against their better judgement – with a celebrated professor leading the public debate around AI.  Alternating with chapters narrated by 19 year old Mary Shelley, who is writing a story about creating a non-biological life-form.

The list was chosen from 151 novels published in the UK or Ireland between 1 October 2018 and 30 September 2019. The shortlist will be announced Tuesday 3 September.

I like that it’s such an international list, with voices from a variety of different countries and cultures, bringing more depth and diversity to the prize.

I haven’t read any of these titles, but I’m interested in Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities novel, Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive and Deborah Levy’s and Bernadine Evaristo’s novelsThat said, I’m only reading #WIT Women in Translation during August, so I’ll be watching and reading the reviews of these longlisted titles to see which really tempt me.

And you? Have you read any of these? Interested in any?

Further Reading

The Guardian article: Not Read Them Yet? A cheat’s guide

The Gold Letter by Lena Manta (Greece) tr. Gail Holst-Warhaft

Destiny caresses the few, but molests the many.

Turkish Proverb

Greek and Turkish histories go back a long way, and I profess to knowing little about them, however it’s clear that whichever people you belong to there is likely to be a bias towards their stories, and it as likely that these populations are more mixed than they would like to believe, that there have been generations of cheerful intermingling, despite the differences that keep their identities separate.

The Gold Letter is a story of Greek families living in what was then known as Constantinople (later renamed as Istanbul, one of many name changes – The city was founded in 667 BC and named Byzantium by the Greeks ), and how the same twist of fate affects three generations of the same two families, where a young woman and a young man fall in love, only to have the union thwarted by their parents – in each generation it is for a different reason, beginning with them not being of the same wealth and social status, where marriage was more of a contract between families decided by the father’s.

He had married her not, of course, because he loved her, but because that was what her father had decided…Nobody thought of asking Kleoniki if she wanted to marry the grim Anargyros, with his rough hands and even rougher personality. Besides it was thought to be a very good marriage, since the groom was prosperous and an orphan.
“A big thing, that, my dear!” the matchmaker informed the girl. “Neither a mother-in-law in your face nor a father-in-law to boss you round. Lady and mistress of your own house!”

And in case they thought about falling into the temptations of forbidden love, there were frequent reminders of the sins of those who’d done so and had to flee, “discussed with horror and scorn in hushed voices at evening gatherings and tea parties”.

Even if some woman, deep down inside, understood the girl, she didn’t dare say so. Many romantic souls sighed secretly, calculating what a great love the girl must have felt to run off with her beloved, overlooking the fact that he was a Turk.

Though the son’s obey their fathers and the families are estranged, fate’s determined magnetism continues to bring  subsequent generations together.

He couldn’t shame his father; they hadn’t raised him that way. And the blood of the revolution didn’t run in his veins. He would have to bury his heart.

An abandoned house in Turkey

The story and family history are narrated in the present day as a middle age woman Fenia, arrives from Germany having been summoned by a family lawyer in Athens and told she has inherited a house from a grandfather she never met.

She decides to stay and do up the house and various knocks at the door lead her to meet two relatives, one bearing good wishes, the other hostility and through them she will fill in the gaps in their shared history.

And what is this Gold Letter – a beautiful gift imagined and designed by one son, that becomes an heirloom that will find its way into Fenia’s hands and connect the stories together.

I was a little skeptical when I began reading due to the clear prejudices of the characters, whether it was Greeks against Turks or the attitude of the men towards women and certainly the women in all these generations suffer greatly, those in the present day perhaps most of all. They were indicative of their time and sadly of  reality in some lands where country borders have moved and changed over the years when not everyone can flee, yet they remember the violence and deaths of members of their families in the past, which continues to keep them separate and untrusting for generations.

“My girl, sometimes you meet your fate on the road you took to avoid it.”

I was reminded of the wonderful novel about a friendship between two children in the same village, one of Greek and one of Turkish origin by Louis de Bernieres, Birds Without Wings, also a tragic love story, but one that combines the story of ordinary people’s lives in the 1930’s with a biography of the leader that will shift the balance of power in Turkey. One of my all time favourite books, exceptional.

I enjoyed reading The Gold Letter, covering three generations means there are many characters and connections to juggle so not much time is spent with some. That said, it’s clear the author is a gifted storyteller invested in her characters, whom I enjoyed following.

At times I felt almost like I was watching this on film, it’s an entertaining, episodic family drama of the old tradition, of couples trying to keep up family and cultural traditions as life modernises and social, political circumstances force change.

Lena Manta was born in Istanbul, Turkey, to Greek parents and moved to Greece at a very young age. She lives in Athens, has written 13 books and this is her second to be translated into English.

Buy a copy of The Gold Letter via Book Depository

N.B. This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.