My Love-Hate Relationship with Literary Awards

I’ve enjoyed following along with literary awards and book prizes since I first ventured into young adult fiction and learned about the Printz Award.  I’d read a few books that had either won or been honored, like Looking for Alaska by John Green and Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, and I enjoyed those so I sought out more Printz-recognized reads.  I read I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson and Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, which remain my two favorite young adult books to this day.  Even the few young adult books I’ve read as a college student have been Printz honorees, like We Are Okay by Nina LaCour and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.  That’s not to say I haven’t read my fair share of YA books unrelated to the Printz, but I always viewed the award as providing me a great list of novels to choose from.  Today, as a nineteen year old who doesn’t read much YA anymore, I view the Printz winner as the young adult book that I absolutely must read this year- if I’m only going to read one, it should be that one.

As I started to move into reading adult fiction, I noticed that almost all of the books recommended to me had been recognized by a different set of awards: the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the Man Booker Prize, the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and the National Book Award for Fiction.  Naturally, I started to follow along with these awards, and the longer I followed them, the more I thought about them: their importance, their meaning, etc.  I generally love literary awards, because they’re fun and they’re a great way to discover new books, but, like anything else, they certainly have their con’s.

I love the excitement, the conversation, and the discovery.

It sounds cheesy, but awards are exciting!  Most awards release a longlist and a shortlist before announcing the winner, so it’s fun to follow along with the “countdown” and see if my favorite makes it to the “next round.”  Awards create a lot of buzz and get everyone talking about the books they feature.  I see a lot of bloggers and YouTubers reading the entire longlist/shortlist and sharing reviews on each one, and a lot of them like to share their predictions as well, either predictions for who will make it on the longlist, or their prediction for who will win.  In this sense, they are also a great way to discover books, especially through awards for specific categories like PEN America’s Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction.  I love to watch the National Book Foundation’s annual 5 Under 35, which showcases five exceptional debut novelists under the age of 35.  I’ve found a lot of my favorite books through awards.  There’s nothing better than a list!

I hate the subjectivity and the lack of diversity.

Though I only have two dislikes regarding book prizes, they’re big ones.  The first, that they are very subjective as there are different judges every year, so the winner could be different depending on that year’s judging panel.  Not only that, but the judges could have ulterior motives, like picking a winner that benefits a friend/publisher/agent other than picking the best book.  I think I would appreciate the validity of an award-winner more if I knew the same people were picking it year after year.  My second issue is that literary prizes, like most awards, lack diversity, in this case diversity between race, sex, and class.  Historically, wealthy white men have won or been longlisted for more awards than any other group, especially with the Man Booker, and though this has started to change in the past few years, it’s still a huge issue.  (This is part of the reason I’m such a huge fan of the Women’s Prize, which was founded in direct opposition of the sexist Man Booker, and only honors writers who identify as women.)

What do you think about literary awards?  What do you like/dislike about them?  What are your favorites to follow along with?  I’d love to hear your thoughts!


The Family Tabor // Cherise Wolas

Thank you to Flatiron Books and Netgalley for an early review copy of The Family Tabor by Cherise Wolas, which will publish July 17, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

From the publisher:

Harry Tabor is about to be named Man of the Decade, a distinction that feels like the culmination of a life well lived.  Gathering together in Palm Springs for the celebration are his wife, Roma, a distinguished child psychologist, and their children: Phoebe, a high-powered attorney; Camille, a brilliant social anthropologist; and Simon, a big-firm lawyer, who brings his glamorous wife and two young daughters.

But immediately, cracks begin to appear in the smooth facade: Simon hasn’t been sleeping through the night, Camille can’t decide what to do with her life, and Phoebe is a little too cagey about her new boyfriend.  Roma knows her children are hiding things.  What she doesn’t know, what none of them know, is that Harry is suddenly haunted by the long-buried secret that drove him, decades ago, to relocate his young family to the California desert.  As the ceremony nears, the family members are forced to confront the falsehoods upon which their lives are built.

Set over the course of a single weekend, and deftly alternating between the five Tabors, this provocative, gorgeously rendered novel reckons with the nature of the stories we tell ourselves and our family and the price we pay for second chances.

The Family Tabor is thick with words and full of sentences so wonderfully crafted, I wanted to revisit them out of sheer admiration.  The book is dazzling in its descriptions but not so much its plot and characters.  I fell in love with the writing from the start and tried my best to push through the story in order to enjoy Wolas’s prose, but found myself bored to say the least.  I wasn’t interested in the characters, and their so-called “secrets” were just watered down first-world problems, which grew to be incredibly aggravating for me.  If I felt connected to the character, I would’ve felt compassion towards their struggles, no matter how trite, but I was so disinterested in the Tabors that I couldn’t convince myself to care.

The Family Tabor is a slow-burn story in the truest sense of the term, and I just didn’t jive with it (this coming from someone who loved Elif Batuman’s The Idiot).  Though I haven’t read Wolas’s debut, The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, I’ve heard so many fantastic things about it, which is why I was so disappointed when I had to set this one down.  I love a good multi-generational family saga, and that’s what I expected with The Family Tabor, but it fell flat for me.  Unfortunately the beautiful writing did not make up for the severe lack of plot or the dull characters.

I made it about thirty-percent through before I had to set down The Family Tabor.  If you’re a sucker for dazzling writing, it won’t disappoint, but if you’re a stickler for plot or characters, skip this one.

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.

A Terrible Country // Keith Gessen

Thank you to Penguin Viking and Netgalley for an early review copy of A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen, which will publish July 10, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

From the publisher:

When Andrei Kaplan’s older brother Dima insists that Andrei return to Moscow to care for their ailing grandmother, Andrei must take stock of his life in New York.  His girlfriend has stopped returning his text messages.  His dissertation adviser is dubious about his job prospects.  It’s the summer of 2008, and his bank account is running dangerously low.  Perhaps a few months in Moscow are just what he needs.  So Andrei sublets his room in Brooklyn, packs up his hockey stuff, and moves into the apartment that Stalin himself had given his grandmother, a woman who has outlived her husband and most of her friends.  She survived the dark days of communism and witnessed Russia’s violent capitalist transformation, during which she lost her beloved dacha.  She welcomes Andrei into her home, even if she can’t always remember who he is.

Andrei learns to navigate Putin’s Moscow, still the city of his birth, but with more expensive coffee.  He looks after his elderly- but surprisingly sharp!- grandmother, finds a place to play hockey, a café to send emails, and eventually some friends, including a beautiful young activist named Yulia.  Over the course of the year, his grandmother’s health declines and his feelings of dislocation from both Russia and America deepen.  Andrei knows he must reckon with his future and make choices that will determine his life and fate.  When he becomes entangled with a group of leftists, Andrei’s politics and his allegiances are tested, and he is forced to come to terms with the Russian society he was born into and the American one he has enjoyed since he was a kid.

Russia and Russian literature have been popping up a lot in literature lately, at least in my reading, with books like Invitation to a Bonfire by Adrienne Celt and The Idiot by Elif Batuman.  Keith Gessen’s A Terrible Country is no exception; it follows twenty-something Andrei as he leaves his life in New York behind and returns to Moscow, the city of his birth, to care for his ailing grandmother.

Told in first person, A Terrible Country felt so true to life and read autobiographical at times; I could really see Gessen’s perspective shining through the narrative.  After I finished the book, I came across an interview with Gessen conducted for The New Yorker, in which he said, “I love nonfiction, and I really love oral history.  I like fiction that is made up, but I really love fiction that is thinly veiled autobiography . . . I think if I’d had enough material for a memoir, I’d have written a memoir.  But I didn’t- my life in Russia was even less interesting than Andrei’s.  But I did want it to sound like a memoir.”  He definitely succeeded in that.

A Terrible Country is written with simple prose and plot.  The majority of the book follows Andrei’s day-to-day life in Moscow.  He plays hockey, spends time with his forgetful grandmother, struggles trying to advance his career in New York, argues with his brother Dima about money, gets involved with an “extremist” party, and develops feelings for young activist Yulia.  There’s a lot going on but it never felt like too much; it almost felt like not enough because nothing is explored deeply.  A Terrible Country is told in a diary-like format as Andrei tells the audience what happened after-the-fact, instead of narrating as things are happening.  The so-called love story felt especially weak as it was written about very briefly; as a reader, I knew nothing about Yulia, so I struggled caring about her relationship with Andrei.

In general, A Terrible Country was an enjoyable story to read, though its storytelling techniques were frustrating at times.  If you like Russian literature or history, you’ll adore this novel.

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.

The Mothers // Brit Bennett

Brit Bennett’s stunning debut, The Mothers, was an “it” book back in 2016, and I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to read it!  It’s exquisitely written with sentences so well-crafted, I read paragraphs over and over a few times, not because I needed to, but because it was just that good.

“A daughter grows older and draws nearer to her mother, until she gradually overlaps her like a sewing pattern.  But a son becomes some irreparably separate thing.”

-Brit Bennett, The Mothers

From the back cover:

It begins with a secret.  It is the last season of high school life for Nadia Turner, a rebellious, grief-stricken, seventeen-year-old beauty.  Mourning her mother’s recent death, she takes up with the local pastor’s twenty-one-year-old son, Luke.  They are young: it’s not serious.  But the secret that results from this teen romance- and the subsequent cover-up- will have an impact that goes far beyond their youth.  As Nadia hides the truth from everyone, including Aubrey, her best friend, the years move quickly.  Soon, Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey are full-fledged adults, still shadowed by the choices they have made in their youth, and by the constant, nagging question: What if they had chosen differently?  The possibilities of the road not taken are a relentless haunt.  An urgent and provocative debut from an important new voice, The Mothers is a book about community and ambition, love and friendship, and living up to expectation in contemporary black America.

As you would guess from the title, The Mothers is dominated by a theme of motherhood: what it means to be a mother, to take care of someone, biological child or not.  Underneath, the book is about the messy things in life: love, loss, secrets, and, most of all, the consequences of our decisions and how they can haunt us for the rest of our lives.  Bennett plays around with the idea of masculinity versus femininity, of who a person should be and what they should should act like based on not only their gender, but also their race and sexuality.

“Maybe all women were shapeshifters, changing instantly depending on who was around.”

-Brit Bennett, The Mothers

The Mothers is told uniquely through the collective “we” voice of the Mothers of the Upper Room church, a group of traditional, gossipy elderly women in the community who observe the happenings of the church community from afar.  I’ve heard a lot of readers say they struggled with this style, and though I haven’t read anything else told that way, I loved it.  It rounded out the story, aiding in the development of the characters, and offering multiple perspectives into a tricky situation.  I normally think short books like The Mothers could should be a bit longer in order to fully develop the story, but I think it’s a perfect length for what it attempts to accomplish.

Bennett uses a lot of cliche plot lines, like the teenage girl who turns reckless when her mother dies, and the football player who loses his scholarship after an injury and doesn’t know where to go in life, and even a weakened love triangle, and ties them together with hard-hitting themes and mesmerizing prose to create The Mothers, a portrait of life in our modern world.  It’s a timely, topical novel that sucked me in and left me breathless.

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.

On My Nightstand: July 2018

July is going to be a pretty busy month for me.  I still have five ARCs to read that come out within the next two months;  I’m also starting my summer internship, which will involve a heavy amount of reading, while still working whatever hours I can grab at my part-time bookselling job.  Long story short, this month’s Nightstand is looking pretty sparse, perhaps in amount but (hopefully) not in value.

There There by Tommy Orange

There There is probably the most buzzed-about books of the summer, and there’s nothing like a little buzz to get me to snatch a copy!  I was fortunate enough to receive a physical ARC through my bookselling job, and I need to get around to it soon.  There aren’t many Native American titles that come to mind other than Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, but hopefully Orange’s There There will remedy that.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

I’ve had my eye on Lincoln for a while, and when it won the Man Booker my interest in it was pretty much cemented.  Plus, Saunders is coming to my hometown next year, so let’s hope I can get to it before then.  I’m not sure how I’m going to like it, as it sounds pretty experimental, but I’ve heard a lot of glowing reviews and I find the topic of Abraham Lincoln fascinating, so I’m nothing if not curious.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Similarly to Saunders, Ward is also coming to my hometown next year to talk about her highly praised book, Sing, Unburied, Sing.  I’m a sucker for award winners and this novel has certainly been around the circuit, even earning Ward her second (!!) National Book Award for Fiction.  It doesn’t sound like my usual cup of tea, but I read the first chapter in a bookshop and was sucked in immediately!  I’m looking forward to getting back to it.

What books are you planning on reading in July?  Any thoughts on these titles?  Let me know in the comments!


The Idiot // Elif Batuman

The Idiot was crazy to read as someone who is in almost the exact same part of her life as Selin, having just finished my first year of college (though definitely not at Harvard).  I’m a big believer in the importance of reading a book at the right time, and I think reading The Idiot now was the perfect time for me.  It’s a muted, thought-provoking coming-of-age story with hilarious dead-pan humor and gorgeously-written vignettes.  Though The Idiot seems to be a very hit-or-miss book, it struck a chord with me and I fell in love after the first few pages.

From the back cover:

The year is 1995, and email is new.  Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, arrives for her freshman year at Harvard where she signs up for classes in subjects she has never heard of, befriends her charismatic Serbian classmate, Svetlana, and, almost by accident, begins corresponding with Ivan, an older mathematics student.  Selin may have barely spoken to Ivan, but with each email they exchange, the act of writing seems to take on new and mysterious meanings.  When the school year ends, Ivan goes to Budapest and Selin heads to the Hungarian countryside.  Her summer does not resonate with anything she has previously heard about the typical experiences of college students, but rather is the beginning of a journey further inside herself: a coming to grips with the ineffable and exhilarating confusion of first love, and with the growing consciousness that she is doomed to become a writer. 

“I found myself remembering the day in kindergarten when the teachers showed us Dumbo, and I realized for the first time that all the kids in the class, even the bullies, rooted for Dumbo, against Dumbo’s tormentors.  Invariably they laughed and cheered, both when Dumbo succeeded and when bad things happened to his enemies.  But they’re you, I thought to myself.  How did they not know?  They didn’t know.  It was astounding, an astounding truth.  Everyone thought they were Dumbo.”

-Elif Batuman, The Idiot

The Idiot is the definition of a book where absolutely nothing happens, and yet I read it surprisingly quickly.  It felt slightly autobiographical and read like a memoir at times; Batuman characterized Selin so distinctly that in the days after finishing it I wondered what she’d be up to.  The Idiot is one of those books that you have to read very closely, because every paragraph is important: skim something and you’ll miss a big part of the story.  Each sentence, every paragraph felt like a story in and of itself; they were all there for a reason, and they came together to create a bigger narrative.  It’s the kind of book that warrants a reread because you may have missed something the first time around, something that would change the entire reading process.

The Idiot is smart with wit, and yet it feels very academic.  The formality of the way Batuman writes reminded me of writing college papers; Selin often describes her classes and different linguistics topics, and speaks about literature in a highly intellectual way, so much so that it often went over my head.  She thinks a lot and is very aware that she is thinking a lot, and she wonders what she should be thinking about versus what other people are thinking about… you get the gist.  Selin is very conscious that she is in academia, and Batuman writes about it satirically, pointing out the ironies of language in a subtle, clever way.

“I kept thinking about the uneven quality of time- the way it was almost always so empty, and then with no warning came a few days that felt so dense and alive and real that it seemed indisputable that that was what life was, that its real nature had finally been revealed.  But then time passed and unthinkably grew dead again, and it turned out that that fullness had been an aberration and might never come back.”

-Elif Batuman, The Idiot

The Idiot isn’t very readable and it’s certainly not for everyone, but I got along with it splendidly.  It’s a witty, character-driven book that will make you think way too much and laugh out loud at the same time.

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies // John Boyne

I finally did it- I read the book that was everyone’s favorite last year.  And guess what?  I loved every word!  I honestly couldn’t get enough of The Heart’s Invisible Furies.  It was such a roller coaster of emotions; it made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me smile, and it broke my heart, all while becoming my favorite read of the year so far.  I’m always cautious reading crazy-hyped books, but I’m happy I finally caved because this one did not disappoint!

From the back cover:

Cyril Avery is not a real Avery- or at least that’s what his adoptive parents tell him.  And he never will be.  But if he isn’t a real Avery, then who is he?  Born out of wedlock to a teenage girl cast out from her rural Irish community and adopted by a well-to-do if eccentric Dublin couple via the intervention of a hunchbacked Redemptorist nun, Cyril is adrift in the world, anchored only tenuously by his heartfelt friendship with the infinitely more glamorous and dangerous Julian Woodbead.  At the mercy of fortune and coincidence, he will spend a lifetime coming to know himself and where he came from- and over his many years will struggle to discover an identity, a home, a country, and much more.

I adore interconnected stories, and the characters of The Heart’s Invisible Furies are so twined together that it actually boggled my mind.  The story begins as Cyril is an unborn baby still in his mother’s womb, and then it continues to follow Cyril throughout his life until he is seventy years old, with chapters peeping in every seven years.  Cyril is surrounded by the same cast of characters for the entirety of the book: his adoptive parents Charles and Maude Avery, his best friend Julian, Julian’s sister Alice, and many more.  In each chapter, Cyril crosses paths with his birth mother, and eventually they grow to have a friendship though neither of them know of their true relation to each other.  Each of their interactions felt like a little tease, and Boyne really got me rooting for them to figure it out!  The story built until their final reconciliation, in which everything finally came full circle.  I’ve never read a more satisfying ending!

“A line came into my mind, something that Hannah Arendt once said about the poet Auden: that life had manifested the heart’s invisible furies on his face.”

-John Boyne, The Heart’s Invisible Furies

The Heart’s Invisible Furies has a unique narration style; seventy-year-old Cyril narrates the entirety of the story, so reading his younger self was interesting because it came from a wiser, older point of view instead of a naive, adolescent one.  Boyne writes with a unique sense of humor and witty dialogue that made me actually laugh out loud at times.  It’s the kind of dry(ish) humor that not everyone likes or understands, and I think a lot of what made me love this book is that I clicked with Boyne’s sense of humor.  It did take me a second to get used to his style, but once I got into it I absolutely flew through the book.  I read the second half in just a day or two.

“If there is one thing I’ve learned in more than seven decades of life, it’s that the world is a completely fucked-up place.  You never know what’s around the corner and it’s often something unpleasant.”

-John Boyne, The Heart’s Invisible Furies

If you haven’t yet read The Heart’s Invisible Furies, I would strongly recommend that you jump on the bandwagon.  It’s an emotional coming-of-age story with brilliantly intertwined characters that you’ll want to hug when you finish.  You won’t be disappointed!

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.