Monday, July 13, 2015

BOOKS: Bailey Prize Books + One Other

I like to follow the Bailey Prize each year. Formerly the Orange Prize, it recognizes women writers in English. This year I requested some popular books from the library and they arrived around the same time, some with shorter times to read, all over 350 pages. This all happened in June, my busiest school month of the year. To add extra activities this year, all three kids graduated from their schools and are moving up to the next level. So to say June was busy is an understatement!

oldest boy graduated from high school

Prom night with his date and me
I enjoyed these Bailey books to varying degrees. Just after I finished these nominated books, I stumbled across another book which maybe should have been on the Bailey list this year. I hope its omission is due to release/qualifying dates and that it will be there next year, because it was a great read! It also reassured me that I can read books with unique form and structure, that I can get a book that is a little different, because after some of the books from the shortlist, I was questioning myself. Granted, I think if I had been discussing some of these books with other people, my enjoyment may have gone up.

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler, 368 pages (2015 shortlist)

By far the most readable of this group of Bailey Prize nominees. Tyler writes of a Baltimore family, and their history, told in stories, as families do. Much of the book revolves around the family home - how it was built, how it came into their possession, their lives in it, and then as it leaves. Sometimes it meanders a little too much, I didn't love all the characters (two in particular were pretty selfish) but it was a great family tale.This actually felt similar in theme and characters to Emily, Alone.

 How To Be Both by Ali Smith (2015 winner)
 The Winner! As chosen by the judges, but not me. There were parts of this that I did like, particularly the first half which has the present day narrator, a teenager dealing with her mother's death. The second half follows a 16th century painter whose painting was a focus of the first half. I've read that there are copies of the book which allow the reader to pick which part to read first. That would have been interesting to see. Smith is known for playing with her writing, the composition, the characters and it was not linear or traditional in any way. I'm okay with that, but since it was focused so much on the art, and art in society my interest or understanding lagged. Thinking about some of the elements after the fact is giving me fonder memories than I had as I read it. The role of women, the painter as a spirit in the 21st century, the mystery of the mother and how she died (did I miss something?): I liked all that. But maybe it was just too hard for my little brain to think about during the end of June, a particularly tiring time for me at work. Let's say wrong book at the wrong time.

The Bees by Laline Paull, 352 pages (2015 shortlist)
The title does not lie - this is about bees. One in particular, Flora 717, seems to be a bit Divergent* (able to morph into different roles in the hive) so the reader gets to experience many different locations. I'm torn on this one, because it was interesting, (but I knew there was Queen trouble early, and knew that Flora would be involved. Does that make it predictable?) but dear Lord, the bees! I'm sure there are some issues with what bees think and do, but it seemed realistic to me. I would have enjoyed a shorter version, because a lot happened at the very end, and seemed rushed.
Also, June.
*Divergent, by Veronica Roth, a YA dystopian novel, recently made into a movie.

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O'Neill (2015 longlist)

Much like O'Neill's first book, Lullabies for Little Criminals, she writes about a bohemian, Quebecois life on Boulevard Saint-Laurant. Nicolas and Nouschka are twins of a (locally) famous singer. They were part of his television show when they were children, so are famous in their own right. What happens to 'famous' people after the fame fades? How do they get that rush, that adrenaline?

This took place during one of the Quebec referendums and I remember that time. Reading from a Quebec point of view was a nice Canadian touch. (Because Quebecois are still Canadians after the referendum.)

What I find fascinating about O'Neill's characters and her writing is that I have no idea what they are going to do or say. Their experience is so far outside my world, that it boggles my mind. Nouschka said what? (great analogies) She did what? (pretty raunchy by times) Nicolas did what? (pretty much a criminal) Nouschka is a touch more grounded, and is trying to settle down (how I'd describe it) after a pretty ridiculous childhood.I recognize that people live this way, but it is not something I enjoy imagining.

Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offill (audiobook, a little over 3 hours)
Apparently, The New York Times Book Review calling this book “joyously demanding.” I flew through this in one evening, captivated by the voice of the narrator, only referred to as The Wife but did not find it nearly as demanding as the books on the Bailey list above.
The author herself read the book and she was very good. The beginning felt random, as the narrator in her twenties tries to find love, finds many boyfriends instead. She wants to write, be an artist. Then suddenly finds love, gets married and has a baby. All of this is only clear by putting it all together in an overview. It is linear in the sense that there is an order, but it is stream of consciousness style narration. And I usually hate that! But here it worked for me. In her thirties, the baby grows, her career stalls, and her marriage gets rocky. A similar book for me would be The Lover's Dictionary by David Levithan. There are random bits, images, anecdotes, that you have to put together to get the full picture.
I heard of this book from AMB at The Misforturne of Knowing and her review made me want to read this. I'm so glad I did. Go read her, and her husband's reviews because they do a fabulous job of actually analyzing the book.