I never used to care at all about book awards. But last year two of my favorite reads came from the Man Booker shortlist, and I had an absolute blast reading the longlist this year. So when the longlist for the National Book Award popped up I just had to read them all. Or at least attempt to: I had tried What Belongs To You earlier this year and dnf’d it, and I also struggled so much through the first few chapters of The Portable Veblen (too cutesy, not enough substance) that I didn’t finish it. But other than those two, neither of which made the shortlist, I powered through the whole thing! Just kidding, I didn’t read New of the World because it wasn’t out when I started reading the list, and by the time I finished I just didn’t care about it enough to start. So… 7 out of 10. Good enough!
Sweet Lamb of Heaven, by Lydia Millet. Finished September 16th. I have no idea what I read. I should have realized this book would be a big pile of wtf when I saw it was written by Lydia Millet, who wrote Mermaids in Paradise: a comedic tale of ecological destruction with the most “what the hell” ending I’ve ever encountered. I’m convinced that Millet’s books are all going through identity crises.
So what exactly is Sweet Lamb of Heaven? It has thriller elements (woman running from a psycho ex), it has supernatural horror elements (main character hearing a voice stemming from her infant child), it has mystery elements (a general sense of “what the hell is going on”), it has quirky slice-of-life elements (her life in the Maine hotel). Yet it is not a thriller, a horror novel, a mystery, or a quirky slice of life book. I’m… I’m not really sure WHAT it is. More importantly, I don’t think the book knows what it is. I did originally rate this 3 stars but after thinking about it, it’s just such a hot mess that I can’t in good faith keep that rating. Even if it was an interesting read.
Basically, this is a book where you have no idea what is going on or how you are supposed to feel about anything. Our narrator has elements of being unreliable: she’ll spend a whole chapter talking about something like it’s still going on, then a chapter later will say “but all that ended years ago” and you’re like… ??? what? Time shifts, events are glossed over, it’s a real sense of unease. But I don’t think it’s executed well–I love books that keep you on your toes mentally, but Sweet Lamb just felt intentional obtuse and confusing. No bueno.
There were elements I liked, though. Millet’s writing is slow-paced but compulsively readable. And there are lots of odd, almost random scientific discussions that I adored. Animal language! Pando! Orcas! These are all areas of study I’m very interested in so I loved seeing them pop up in the story. Even if, you know, it didn’t 100% make sense. But whatever, I’ll take a random paragraph about orca language in literally any book for any reason.
It was actually going well enough until the end, confusion aside. The last chapter was just really, really bad. Nothing made sense, plot points came out of nowhere, it was incredibly rushed and felt like a different novel. I went from “this is weird but enjoyable” to “no why I don’t want this at all.” I don’t think it’s a bad book, but I don’t think it’s a good book either. Is it even a book? Did I just read blank pages and hallucinate the whole thing? Who knows. Certainly not Lydia Millet.
Miss Jane, by Brad Watson. Finished September 20th. I love reading through the longlist of book awards because 9 times out of 10 I’m picking up a book I probably wouldn’t have been interested in otherwise. And while there are always some flops, there are winners too: like this book, which (aside from the beautiful cover) seemed not at all appealing to me. How wrong I was!
This is a slow, character-driven piece of historical fiction that centers on Jane, a little disabled girl. The novel follows her life from birth to death, though the majority of it focuses on her childhood and early teen years. That’s probably my only criticism: events at the end felt very rushed. I really wanted this to be a 600 page chunker so I could spend days and days with these characters. It’s a very short novel, just over 200 pages, and I do think it suffers just a little bit because of the length. But that’s literally the only negative.
It’s such a beautiful book. Jane has a rare disability (a genital malformation that makes her permanently incontinent and also unable to conceive a child) and the vast majority of the book is about her dealing with her situation. From realizing as a child that there’s something different about her, to fighting her disability as a teen, to finally accepting it as an adult. I have several disabled family members so of course this is a topic near and dear to my heart, and Brad Watson handled it so deftly and with so much compassion. Jane is a complex, dynamic character who is not defined by her disability, but this is not some “rah rah learn to overcome your problems!” type of narrative. It’s about Jane accepting that her disability is part of her: it doesn’t define her, but it’s certainly part of the overall definition of who she is.
Of course there are other plot threads and characters. We follow the doctor who diagnosed her, my personal favorite character, along with Jane’s dysfunctional family. A bitter mother, and alcoholic father, an older sister who just wants to leave. Issues of sexism and racism are deftly woven into the narrative. This is a book that hits some heavy topics, but it’s really just a book about life. About dealing with the hand you’re dealt and finding happiness anywhere you can.
Another Brooklyn, by Jacqueline Woodson. Finished September 21st. I wanted to like this book more than I did. It has so many elements I enjoy: set in NYC, coming-of-age, intense female friendship. And while I liked it, there was nothing I particularly loved. It was a pleasant but unassuming read.
I think a large chunk of that is because of how short it is. I’m not sure what is up with this current “super crazy short” novel trend: the majority of the books on both the Man Booker and National Book Award longlists are under 300 pages. Many are under 250, and this one is under 200. There’s a way to make a short novel work (for example, I thought Hot Milk was the perfect length) but overall I tend to find lengthy books more enjoyable.
There’s just a lot to cover here and not enough pages to bring the emotional impact. We follow our main character August, but there are SO many side stories: her mother’s mental illness, her father’s conversion to Islam and how it affects her family, the lives of August’s 3 very close friends, and snippets of her current life as an anthropologist. The last was definitely my favorite part, and one I wanted a lot more of. I am an absolute sucker for cultural anthropology in novels and it seems so on-trend now which makes me very happy.
I felt like, aside from August, no one was very fleshed out. I wanted to feel the tight relationship between her friends, but the pace was so rapid-fire I had trouble even keeping track of who was who. Compare this to A Little Life, a book about four friends who are so amazingly separate and distinct. Considering some of the struggles these girls go through, I felt like 200 pages was incredibly insufficient. I wanted so, so much more of them.
I also wasn’t a fan of the writing style. It’s very repetitive. For example:
“The government owns the pecan trees now. What had once been my family’s has been taken. By the government.”
There’s nothing inherently wrong with a writing style like that, but it’s never something I enjoy. I don’t like repetition and stripped-down, simple sentences. It’s meant to feel colloquial and casual but I always have problems with it, like in My Name Is Lucy Barton. It’s just not for me.
The Throwback Special, by Chris Bachelder. Finished September 23rd. I expected to like this book, but was honestly surprised by how much I loved it. My favorite on the NBA longlist, and I can’t imagine another book knocking it off that spot (though Miss Jane is close). What first drew me to The Throwback Special was that it’s about football: I love football pretty passionately, so whenever it pops up in serious literature I am all over it.
You don’t really need to know anything about football, or even like it, to appreciate this book… but I think it definitely helps. There are many scenes discussing the Theismann-LT play that may read as a little dry if you’re not a fan. And there are also clever elements that can easily be missed if you don’t follow football (their lottery mimicking the NFL draft, for example). I usually have a pretty strong aversion to “manly men discussing being men” type of books, which this definitely is, and I loved it despite that. I mean I kind of hated All That Man Is from the Man Booker list and I think The Throwback Special could definitely go into “boring man stuff” territory but it veers so hard in the opposite direction.
This is a quiet book that is absolutely stuffed with brilliant observations on human nature and life. I have entire pages highlighted because of how meaningful and beautiful I found the passages. They just rang so true to the universal human experience–sometimes a book just strikes right at the heart of things, and The Throwback Special does this with incredible finesse.
The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead. Finished September 26th. When I was a kid, I thought the underground railroad was not a metaphor but a literal, physical railroad under the ground like a subway that saved slaves. It was all very exciting and I thought American history was super cool. Then a teacher told me that it was not, in fact, literal. Much sorrow was had that day. So you can imagine my excitement when I found out there was a book that took that concept and ran with it!
I’ve read one of Whitehead’s book in the past, Zone One, and I feel like there’s a huge emotional element missing in his writing. The Underground Railroad is a book that deals with a very heavy topic, slavery, and some scenes are incredibly hard to read. There’s a lot of brutality and it’s based on history, which makes it that much more powerful. But while you cringe and sympathies with the characters, I never felt like I knew them or their motivations.
This didn’t stop me from enjoying the book, though given the content perhaps “enjoy” is too strong of a word. It’s beautifully written, moving, and impactful… but I wanted more of all those elements. I wanted more emotion, more gut-punching sadness (what can I say, I’m a book masochist).
Imagine Me Gone, by Adam Haslett. Finished September 27th. This is a hard book to rate. I can’t say I enjoyed it–the reading experience was tense in a not-so-pleasant way, and it filled me with anxiety. Most reviews start off with trigger warnings for depression and mental illness, and of course I ignored them because let’s be honest: just from the description and first chapter, it’s very clear the direction this book is going to go. There’s little surprise when the wham moments come (one of the few negative things I can say about Imagine Me Gone), and in fact the entire plot seems laid out neatly in the first 5 pages.
But. But. There is this sense of unease and dread suffusing every chapter, and if you suffer from anxiety and depression yourself I think certain chapters (aka any of Michael’s) will be hard to get through. His pulsing, roving anxiety is so aptly described that it’s hard to keep your own reigned in. Whenever Michael stuffed a bill in the drawer of his desk without opening it or got increasingly obsessed with some trivial detail of his day I felt my own heart beat a little faster: in sympathy, yes, but also because I related to his situation in a way that made me very uncomfortable. This is a harsh look at what mental illness does to both the sufferer but also to an entire family. It’s raw and, at times, almost unbearable. Even though you know what’s coming, the tension doesn’t let up: in fact, I think knowing the ending makes it just that much harder to get through.
This could have been a 5-star read for me, but I felt a little let down (and upset) by the ending. I think certain characters acted in incredibly stupid ways. I also felt the last few chapters were kind of lackluster: for a book that takes such a hard look a tragedy, all the time-jumping felt a bit flat and detached.
The Association of Small Bombs, by Karan Mahajan Finished September 29th. While the subject matter of this book is quite heavy, it left basically no impression on me. I don’t really feel one way or another about it. I didn’t like it, but I didn’t hate it either.
If anything, I found it boring. I flew through the first half and then suddenly found myself dreading picking it up again. I really had to push myself to finish it. I’m pretty sure I will struggle to remember a single detail in only a few weeks. Just super forgettable.
My obvious favorites were Miss Jane and The Throwback Special, though sadly only one of them made it to the shortlist/finalists.
Reading Challenge Goals
24/35 Series Books
57/50 TBR Books
22/15 Different Countries