The Windham-Campbell Prize has been going for five years now and their list of eight recipients for this year’s prize have just been announced. It’s one of the richest book awards in the world as each winner of the prize is awarded $165,000 – a considerable amount that grants authors the freedom to write whatever they please. You can watch me discussing this book award and this year's winners here: Some of the past recipients whose books I’ve enjoyed include Jerry Pinto, CE Morgan, Tarell Alvin McCraney and Nadeem Aslam.

This year’s winners include Lucas Hnath, Suzan-Lori Parks, Sarah Bakewell, John Keene, Lorna Goodison and Cathy Park Hong. And I’m particularly happy to see Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi has won the prize as I read and admired her novel "Kintu" so recently. Also, Olivia Laing who is a wonderful cultural critic and nonfiction writer. Her book “The Lonely City” was one of my favourite books from 2016. So I’ll be really eager to discover the writing of these other winning authors.

If you could give a living author $165,000 to write whatever they please, who would you award it to? It’s a fun question to contemplate – like imagining what you’d do if you won the lottery, but instead it’s money you can grant to a favourite writer. An author I’d certainly like to endow with such financial freedom would be Garth Greenwell as he’s such an ingenious writer with such promise.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
2 CommentsPost a comment

The geeky act of making lists of favourite books is a pleasure I don't think we should deny ourselves. What better way to get a snap-shot of someone's reading tastes and pick up on recommendations for great books you might have missed over the year. I read 112 books this year, many of them newly published in 2016 and many of them highly enjoyable. However, these ten books all show great craft but also feel personally significant to me. Click on the titles below to read my full reviews of each book. You can also watch my BookTube video talking about these ten books:

The Man Without a Shadow by Joyce Carol Oates

Anyone who knows how Oates is my favourite author might think it is an obvious choice for me to put a new novel by her on my list, but this is truly an excellent book. The more I think about it the more layers it yields about the meaning of personality and romance. An unusual love story between a man with short term memory loss and scientist Margot that explores the elusive mechanics of the mind.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

I can't ignore the significance of this novel coming out in an American election year when a campaign fuelled by racism and anti-immigration helped a politically-inexperienced misogynist enter The White House. This story about an escaped slave named Cora who travels a physical underground railroad to arrive in different states of racism America says something so significant about the times we live in.

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

The state of loneliness is a curious psychological phenomenon which seems natural to the human condition, but one which is only increasing in an age of so-called online connectedness. Laing's incredibly personal and well-researched non-fiction book looks at the lives and work of many great queer artists to see how loneliness manifests in different ways. This is an incredibly touching and moving book.

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack

Although it may seem daunting to read a novel that is one continuous sentence it comes to seem quite a natural thing as you enter the consciousness of its Irish protagonist. It's a significant reflection of the times we live in as much as it is as a moving story of family and the working life. Reading it is an electrifying experience.

Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

Great survival stories are both thrilling and heartening. This is a tale of a girl who survives a brutal civil war only to discover that her natural desire to love women goes against the religious beliefs of her family and community. She faces a very different kind of challenge to survive as she's pressured to settle down into marriage with a man and gradually assert what she really wants in life. It's a brutally honest and inspiring story which suggests strategies for unifying disparate communities which are bitterly embattled.

Dinosaurs on Other Planets by Danielle McLaughlin

Creating finely constructed short stories that give the impact of a full-length novel is a difficult challenge. But this is something McLaughlin accomplishes consistently and beautifully in this memorable and significant debut collection. Even though I read it at the very beginning of the year many of these stories about people across all levels of Irish society have remained clear in my mind. You can watch me discussing this and other great books of short stories from 2016 here.

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

Tremain's tremendous artistry for plucking an uncommon story from history and making it come alive is unparalleled. Here she writes about two boys in Switzerland in the time immediately following WWII, but moves backwards and then forwards in time to show the repercussions of political neutrality and hidden love. This is a beautifully accomplished novel.

Autumn by Ali Smith

There's no writer more daring and inventive than Ali Smith. Not only has she bravely planned a quartet of novels based around the seasons, but she's reflecting in them what's happening in society now. This novel focuses on the country's mood in the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit vote and an uncommon friendship between young Elisabeth and a mysterious old man Daniel. In doing so she addresses the meaning of nationality, the state of the modern world and the nature of language. She does this with great flair, humour and passion.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Music has played a large part in many great novels this year – from Rose Tremain's novel to Julian Barnes' most recent novel “The Noise of Time” - but Thien skilfully shows how the art of composition and the compositions themselves fare under fifty years of living under the Maoist government. A girl follows her family's history in this complex, absorbing story which culminates in a depiction of the infamous student protests in Tiananmen Square. It's an epic novel.

The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss

It's always an immense pleasure to discover an incredibly talented author I've not read before and one of this year's great finds for me is Sarah Moss. This novel takes a potential family tragedy and expands the story to explore the messiness of ordinary life in such a tender and poignant way. It also reflects back to the past to consider the meaning of loss using such a disarming style of narration which totally gripped me.


Have you read any of my choices? Which are you most interested to read? Let me know some of your favourite books of the year. I'm always eager to hear about books I might have missed reading.

This year is racing by! There has been a lot of depressing news lately so it feels all the more necessary to take the time to celebrate great books that have been published this year and recall that 2016 isn’t all doom and gloom. Since we’re at the midpoint here are ten of my favourite books so far. It’s been very difficult to whittle down this list as I’ve read 57 books so far this year and many have been excellent. (I should note Garth Greenwell's "What Belongs to You" would be on this list but I actually first read it last year) Click on the titles at the bottom to read my full thoughts about each of these outstanding books. You can also watch a video of me briefly discussing each of these books here:

Last year I ran a competition and it worked so well I want to do it again.
Here’s how to enter:
-    Leave a comment letting me know the best book you’ve read so far this year (it doesn’t have to be a new book).
-    Leave some kind of contact info (email or Twitter/GoodReads handle).
-    At the end of July I’ll pick one of your suggestions and send that person one of my favourite books from the below list below.
-    Open to anywhere in the world.

I’ll also read your suggestion by the end of the year. Last year, Poppy recommended to me the fantastic novel “Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness”.

Even if you don’t want to enter, please let me know what great books you’ve been reading this year or if you’ve read any of my choices.

Dinosaurs on Other Planets by Danielle McLaughlin
The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain
Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta
The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney
The Lonely City by Olivia Laing
What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
The Man Without a Shadow by Joyce Carol Oates
The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee
A Quiet Life by Natasha Walter

It’s difficult to write about books that affect me the most. Of course I was drawn to this non-fiction book because the title is so in line with my blog’s title. As well as being a platform for me to ponder what I’m reading, I like to think of this blog as an ongoing exploration on the conflicted relationship I have to literature – how it can make me feel so connected to our larger shared humanity. At the same time, it makes me physically alone and reading itself can serve as a self-imposed barrier to social interaction. Therefore, “The Lonely City” is exactly the kind of extended meditation on loneliness I crave to better inform me and expand my understanding of this condition. It’s a heavily researched book focusing on a choice selection of artists’ work and biographies to enhance Olivia Laing’s arguments about why we might frequently feel lonely, what loneliness means and how it’s a manifestation of living in society. This book is also highly personal with sections which are startlingly candid and touchingly vulnerable. In the same way that Helen Macdonald used an electric range of sources and personal experiences to broaden our understanding of grief in “H is for Hawk”, Laing uses fascinating research to inform a dynamic portrait of her intimate reality and make strong observations about loneliness. This made reading “The Lonely City” a deeply meaningful experience for me and made it a riveting book.

Laing concentrates on multiple visual artists such as Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger and David Wojnarowicz to formulate a nuanced and compelling understanding of what loneliness means. Her interpretations of these artists’ creations is heavily informed from biographical information and how expressions of loneliness are reflected in the physical forms of their work. She conducted an extensive amount of research going through archives and conducting interviews to gain deeper insight into the struggles they faced. In doing so she makes a number of compelling connections between how similar difficulties can manifest differently through artistic expression. She also references studies from psychologists such as Frieda Fromm-Reichmann to inform her arguments and deepen an understanding of the feelings these artists processed and formulated into art.

Klaus Nomi - Simple Man

"Come now and take my hand
Now and forever, never to be lonely
Yes, I'm a simple man!
I do the best I can"

There’s a mesmerising way in which Laing’s engagement with art and artists leads on to more research and related research into other fascinating figures/artists such as Valerie Solanas, Peter Hujar, Billie Holiday, Klaus Nomi, Zoe Leonard, Jean-Michel Basquiat. They all reflect back on her focal subject and cast a different perspective on the sensation of being an outsider. The queer or racial minority status of many of her subjects and the way in which broader society has rejected them makes their deep-set feelings of aloneness and alienation highly understandable. They also serve as touchstones for Laing’s own feelings of not fitting into the majority or any neat classification of gender or sexuality: “I inhabited a space in the centre, which didn’t exist, except there I was.” Examples such as the famous gay cruising grounds of the piers in 1970s NYC serve as vibrant displays of freedom from social pressure to be in a monogamous couple or “to cuddle up, to couple off, to go like Noah’s animals two by two into a permanent container, sealed from the world.” Although men are frequently made to measure themselves against impossible masculine standards, women experience differently intense stresses to fit into a certain type leading Laing to state “God I was sick of carrying around a woman’s body, or rather everything that attaches to it.” Her observations about the general pressure towards conformity make her conclude that multiple forms of “structural injustice” induce feelings of loneliness and that loneliness is a collective experience rather than a singular one. In some form we all inhabit this state of mind, this city.

Growing up as a queer boy in the relatively rural state of Maine, I always had a keen sense of being outside the norm and often felt lonely. Moving to the city of Boston in my teenage years did little to assuage these feelings. While I met many like-minded people and had a range of experiences to broaden my sense of identity, I was made to feel more intensely isolated during a short period where I had nowhere to live. Bundling up against the cold and hunkering under a closed shopping centre’s light throughout the night, I read constantly to distract myself from the sleeplessness caused by living rough.

I always remember one evening when a guard patrolling the centre’s perimeter came upon me at 3am. Nervous I’d be ushered to move along I started to get up, but he just raised his hand and asked with genuine concern if I was alright. I huddled further into my coat and raised my book again assuring him I was fine. He lingered a moment and I could tell he wanted to ask more or offer some assistance, but I concentrated on my book deflecting any potential connection. There is a similar moment that Laing recounts when she’s reading at a train station and is approached by a man who is obviously desperate to strike up a friendly conversation. She avoided this contact and subsequently felt guilty about it. In the same way, although I was the one in need, I feel a lingering guilt that this man offered a connection in a lonely city and I shied away from it.

Reading can be a deeply enriching experience providing knowledge and extending our empathy to see the world through another individual’s perspective. However, it can also serve as a shield to avoid engaging with others even when a connection is what we desperately want. It’s also why participating in online interactions can be so much more seductive than making real life contact. As Laing writes about time she spent mostly online: “I wanted to be in contact and I wanted to retain my privacy, my private space.” It’s particularly fascinating how she concentrates upon examples from the rapidly changing landscape of the internet for how loneliness is both expressed and perpetuated through this medium. It proves how loneliness isn’t simply a question of being by yourself as opposed to being surrounded by others, but how the internal life become despondent, detached or separated from the external reality.

“The Lonely City” is a book that raises many deeply embedded and probably hidden feelings. It’s admirable not only for the sustained and studious lengths to which Laing probes the mystery of the common state of loneliness, but the way in which she bravely inserts herself into the question itself. Reading this book felt to me like engaging in the most personal and intense internal conversation – the kind you might only have with yourself sitting alone in a diner late at night staring through a window at all the distant lights.


AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesOlivia Laing
4 CommentsPost a comment