For nearly 20 years, the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction has been honoring the contributions of women writers around the world for their extraordinary contributions to contemporary fiction. This year’s winner, announced on Wednesday, June 3, is How to be Both by Ali Smith.
Prize judges describe the winning book as a story of “grief, love, sexuality and shape-shifting identity.” Two separate narratives, entitled Camera and Eye, take place 500 years apart with a glorious painted fresco as the link to both. Camera is the story of George(ia), a contemporary English teen who is thinking over exchanges with her mother who has since died. Eye tells of Francescho, an Italian girl, also motherless, masquerading as a boy in order to gain entrance as a painter in the 15 century art world. Smith says her inspiration to write How to be Both came from viewing Renaissance artist Francesco del Cossa’s beautiful works.
The shortlist of nominees included beloved local author Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, which follows a Baltimore family as its younger generations cope with their aging parents. A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie combines Ottoman Empire history, archaeology, a treasure hunt and romance against the backdrop of World War I. Rachel Cusk was nominated for Outline, a book of revelatory conversations between a woman and an assortment of people who cross her path while she is teaching a writing class in Greece. Rounding out the shortlist are two titles which appeared earlier on Between the Covers: The Bees by Laline Paull, which immerses the reader in an imaginative, totalitarian honeybee hive society; and Sarah Water’s The Paying Guest, which explores the effects of societal constraints on women, resulting in a crime of forbidden passion in post-World War II England.
There may be 50 ways to leave your lover, but for Anna Benz there is only one way to meet your lover…and that's by train. Jill Alexander Essbaum’s debut novel, Hausfrau, watches Anna’s downward spiral as she grasps at physical intimacies in an attempt to fill the gaping emotional void of her life.
Anna, an American living in a hamlet in Switzerland, is profoundly unhappy. She finds the Swiss — including her banker husband Bruno — remote, and her few friendships with expats are unfulfilling. Her struggles with the local Schwiizerdütsch dialect increase her feelings of alienation, even from her three children. The train leaving the village beckons Anna with an escape. She enrolls in a German class, but quickly finds herself in an extramarital affair with a classmate. Soon after, she drifts into another sexual relationship with a family friend.
Essbaum writes Anna as a passive woman with little will, or does she? Anna enters into liaisons readily, yet resists female friendship. Frustrated with her sadness, her husband suggests psychotherapy. As her Jungian analyst probes Anna’s psyche and interprets her dreams and her language teacher parses grammar, Anna holds back, refusing to fully participate in the very activities she’s chosen to allay her distress. Essbaum’s use of language is precise as she slowly reveals Anna’s story by cycling between past and present, illuminating the nature of her discontent as her decisions become increasingly reckless and self-destructive. Doktor Messerli tells Anna in a therapy session, “…there’s no need to seek out those mistakes. For now it is they who seek you.” Intense and disconcerting, Hausfrau is an unforgettable portrait of a desperate woman.
Short stories are usually read in a single sitting. Pick up either of these new collections, This House Is Not for Sale by E. C. Osondu or Stone Mattress: Nine Tales by Margaret Atwood, and find that sitting stretching out as one story leads to the next.
This House Is Not for Sale is set in a nameless African village. The main character of each story lives in Grandpa’s grand family house and so falls under his powerful, and perhaps corrupt, domain. Some of the stories feature ordinary problems, like Abule and his serially cheating wife or Uncle Currency’s workplace embezzlement. Other problems are more closely tied to African folklore, such as the soul-stealer who prevents Tata from carrying pregnancies to term. Conflicts are illuminated by anonymous villagers’ gossipy commentary reminiscent of a fragmented Greek chorus, and when necessary, the godfather-like Grandpa steps in to deliver a final judgment. Esondu, winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing, captures both the joy and pain of everyday life in these thoughtful vignettes.
Bitingly irreverent wit, an unsentimental use of aging protagonists and unpredictable plots mark the wonderful Stone Mattress. The first three stories form a sort of trilogy. In “Alphinland,” widowed Constance, author of a cult classic fantasy series, is guided through a blizzard by the blow-by-blow verbal instructions issued by her dead husband. At the same time, she is also remembering her first love, the pompous and ever-randy poet Gavin, who betrayed Constance with another woman. “Revenent” features Gavin, now an impotent curmudgeon married to his third, much younger wife who is heavily invested in preserving Gavin’s legacy, if not necessarily Gavin himself. Finally, in “Dark Lady,” all the players — including the “other woman” — meet again. Other stories revisit the friends from “The Robber Bride,” find a predatory widow meeting up with her rapist prom date of 50 years ago or track a one-trick pony author determined to snuff out old friends living off his royalties. Atwood is a master wordsmith and excels when revealing her characters’ internal dialogue. The only disappointment here is that by their nature, these stories are short so the pleasure of reading them ends too quickly.
Puff the Magic Dragon conjures up a saccharine image, kind of like a winged Barney. A dragon named Melted Face with hide like Kevlar is more a feature of nightmares. Unfortunately for herpetologist CJ Cameron, Melted Face and his cronies have her in their sights in the rip-roaring action thriller The Great Zoo of China by Matthew Reilly.
CJ is flying to China. The Chinese government is sparing no expense to bring her, along with influential politicians and reporters, to premiere their nation’s newest attraction: a phenomenal zoo designed to make the Disney’s amusement empire look rinky-dink. As they arrive at the park, located in a remote no-fly zone, CJ is stunned to see Greyhound bus-sized mythical creatures soaring through the sky. The official announcement? “Welcome to Great Dragon Zoo of China.”
Like a surreal Sea World, the visit starts with the equivalent of a dolphin show. A cute handler prompts dragons through tricks, explains they were were hatched from ancient eggs buried miles beneath the earth’s crust and ends by saddling up a sweet yellow dragon and flying into the clouds. CJ, however, sees both grim intelligence and simmering resentment in the lizards’ eyes, and this public relations visit quickly turns into a blood-soaked battle for survival as hordes of angry dragons turn their captors into prey. Furiously paced and laced with reptilian scientific factoids, The Great Zoo of China is an adrenaline-charged adventure of a tale.
Author Wes Moore, not yet 40, is already quite accomplished. A graduate of Johns Hopkins and a Rhodes Scholar, an army officer with combat tours in Afghanistan, a Wall Street banker, a White House fellow and author of a bestselling memoir, Moore surely exceeds any standard measure of success. Moore’s newest book, The Work: My Search for a Life That Matters, reflects upon his varied experiences which have impressed upon him the importance of work which one believes to be meaningful.
Baltimore readers may already be familiar with his first book The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates, which Moore was motivated to write after reading a newspaper article about a young Baltimore man who grew up a few blocks from Moore’s childhood home, imprisoned for his part in the shooting death of a security officer. That man’s name, too, is Wes Moore, and author Moore struggled to understand the difference in the life journeys of the two men. In The Work, Moore acknowledges his lifelong fascination with “fate and meaning…success and failure.” He goes on to highlight what he views as lessons learned from his myriad workplaces and shares stories about people who’ve inspired him and are also practitioners of work, paid or otherwise, aimed at serving others.
John Galina and Dale Beatty are the founders of Purple Heart Homes, which aims to provide disabled veterans with affordable and accessible housing. Liberty Elementary School in Baltimore City, where nearly all the students live below the poverty line, is led by Principal Joe Manko who cut the administrative budget in favor of bringing in technology and resources directly benefiting his classrooms. The Aley siblings formed American MoJo, a for-profit manufacturing company meant to employ struggling single moms. Moore also finds role models in every day folks who may not be as visible but exemplify passion and service, such as his grandfather or a NYC office cleaner. The Work includes an appendix of questions which, though introspective, could be used for triggering a book club discussion.