The Jenfolk Awards for Other People's Books
In which I bestow book awards on behalf of all Jenkind, discuss Will Ferrell's historical doppelgänger, and suggest how to plan your writing practice a few weeks at a time.
Every December just about every organization that reviews, sells, or endorses books puts out a “best of” list. I like to graze these lists to see if there’s a consensus, then work roundly admired books onto my reading list. But I think us regular readers tend to have more eclectic annual lists of favorite books, in part because we don’t have to draw from only the books that were published this year.
I have been keeping a list of the books I’ve read each year since the turn of the millennium or so, and for nearly as long, I’ve been bestowing annual book awards. The award ceremony usually takes place in my mind.
For two years during the pandemic, I held a joint award ceremony with my daughter, in her room, where we each spoke the name of our personal winners aloud. But she is a busy high school junior with no time for her mother’s farcical ceremonies this year. But, dear reader, if you’ve read this far, you have the time to participate in a farcical ceremony! Below, I will disclose the winners, and I’d love to hear your personal winners in the comments below. Make up your own award and bestow it! The power is intoxicating.
Since I am going public with my winners this year, the awards need to have a name. I am going to call them the Jenfolk Awards for Other People’s Books. I like to think of myself as speaking for all of Jenkind. I have been granted this authority by Jens Lopez, Lawrence, and Egan, not so much through words but more through atmospheric vibes. (If you are a scrappy Jen, Jenni, or Jennifer who wants to challenge my authority, please do so in the comments.)
My categories change each year. If I like a lot of books, I’ll invent new categories so that every worthy book can have a prize, the way that swim coaches come up with a prize for each team member at the closing banquet—Most Improved, Least Sullen, Most Buoyant, Best Blueberry Muffin Eater. One category I sponsor every year is The Booty Award for Worst Book. But I will maintain decorum. That category will not be announced publicly. If you want to know who won that award, buy me a drink.
And now without further ado, the Jenfolk Awards for Other People’s Books!
I’m giving this one to several books:
Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
Either/Or by Elif Batuman (my review)
Factory Girls by Michelle Gallen (my review will be in America magazine, soon.)
If you’ve read any of my book reviews, you know that I admire and recommend a wide variety of books, from the minimalist to the maximalist, from the tragic to the comic. But the books that I personally love so much that I want to hug them are like these three: hysterical, honest about the foibles of being human, revelatory about a particular subculture or time and place, and full of color, weirdness, and life.
Best Classic That I Had Not Heretofore Read, Possibly Due to Gaps in My Public School Education
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
If you are looking for a gorgeous, timely classic that lacks the misogyny that runs rampant through Orwell, Hemingway, London, Bellow, Updike…just all of the dudes, every one of the dudes EXCEPT FOR STEINBECK, and actually honors and respects women, this is the book.
Best Short Story Collection
Jenkind has declared multiple winners! How exciting.
Afterparties (2021) by Anthony Veasna So
Paper Lantern: Love Stories (2014) by Stuart Dybek
Seeking Fortune Elsewhere (2022) by Sindya Bhanoo (my review)
One of these books I was so pleased to honor along with the NBCC John Leonard Award committee (Veasna So), one I picked up because my student told me it had inspired his writing (Dybek), and one I was assigned to review (Bhanoo). Three cheers for the serendipitous ways that the books we love best enter our lives.
Tell Me Everything: The Story of A Private Investigation by Erika Krouse
Apertures: Findings From A Rural Life by Mary B. Kurtz
The Hero of This Book by Elizabeth McCracken (my review)
A couple of these are by people I know, but…I know a lot of people, and I didn’t give all of them Jenfolk Awards! I was privileged to read Erika Krouse’s fantastic book through several drafts and celebrate its release this year. And I’m not the only authority who named it a best book of the year—so did Kirkus, BookPage, and Slate. I first read Mary Kurtz’s luminous, lyrical memoir of ranch life on Colorado’s western slope when I was her thesis manuscript reader. I knew then that her book belonged in print, and in the collections of any reader who cares about thoughtful writing about the West. And I was right! (Here I perform an endzone dance on behalf of Jenkind.)
Best Graphic Novel
Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud
This acclaimed book was published almost thirty years ago, but I first read it this year with my son, who was assigned it for a 7th grade graphic novel unit. It blew my mind. A lot of the concepts are more college level than I think a middle schooler can apprehend, but there's a lot you can glean from it no matter what age you are. I loved the way McCloud thinks about art in an expansive way, and I identified with how he sees all the artists in history staking out their position along this triangle of representative or abstract art, and defending their territory. It makes me realize I feel the same way about art that I do about writing—I love all kinds of it.
Best Blurb for a Book I’m About to Devour: Nuts Brilliant
This award goes to Kiese Laymon’s blurb for Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s forthcoming novel Chain Gang All-Stars: “It’s nuts brilliant. Just read it.” And if you’ve read anything by Kiese Laymon, you know that he, himself, is nuts brilliant, so he would know how to judge this quality in others.
Now I’m waiting for Kiese Laymon to start his own Nuts Brilliant Awards.
The Assorted Whimsy Portion of The Tumbleweed
I was helping my son study the Mexican-American War for his history class, and I noticed how much General Winfield Scott looks like Will Ferrell. Compare Scott:
Both of these curly-haired gentlemen have a slightly alarmed/aggrieved look and a very small mouth. Delightfully, General Scott was known as "Old Fuss and Feathers." It was because he was a stickler for military protocol, but it sounds more fun than that. I'd go to a Fuss and Feathers show.
The Q&A Portion of The Tumbleweed
I recently received this question from one of my students:
Q: I’m curious as to how you manage to write, despite life’s everythings? The kids and activities, the relationships, the need to make money?
A: I never get my writing time permanently figured out. I only get it figured out for a few weeks or months at a time. And that’s okay. I’ve read interviews with writers who say they rise every day at dawn and write for two hours seven days a week, and these people are probably very productive and childfree. But if your life doesn’t yield up these sort of regular hours, or if you need plenty of sleep before you can produce a creative thought, you can still make writing happen.
I work a variety of freelance jobs. Each semester, I’m assigned a different amount of students to work with in different configurations. Based on that, I figure out how much other freelance work I have to pitch myself out for to earn enough to make ends meet. My schedule is mostly stable for a few months at a time. I try to figure it out for discrete stretches, like how can I make this happen for the next two weeks? I make a plan for how I’m going to find writing time within the day. I try to give myself a couple of hours when my brain is at its best—not when it’s exhausted. At exhausted times, I complete other tasks that only need 20-80% of my brain. Because writing requires 100% of my brain and also, like satan and/or Jesus, all of my soul.
I’m always trying to be creative about how I can steal an hour for myself. For example, just about every Saturday, I plan meals for the week and go to the grocery store, and it’s an involved process because I’m shopping for four people and trying to stick to a budget. I realized my family doesn’t really notice if I’m gone for 2 hours or for 3 hours for this task—so I’ve started snatching an hour at a coffeeshop for myself and my writing during this time. (Shhh…don’t tell them!)
Each year there are a couple of stretches when I know that I will be out of town or too busy to write, such as when I teach in the twice-annual residency at the Mile High MFA. I try to plot out my time so that I finish some big writing goal that I set for myself just before I hit that non-writing patch. For one thing, it feels great to head off on a vacation just after you’ve finished a draft of your novel, and for another, this builds in the necessary down time you need to take between looking at drafts of a project to really make progress. See, even your not-writing time counts as an important part of your writing practice. It helps to have these fallow times, because then you can take out your work after the break and see it with fresh eyes.
It also helps to have deadlines—which is why I think joining writing programs or classes can be beneficial. But when you're not in school you can find deadlines to work with, like contests to submit to, or just make your own deadlines. Or band together with a writing buddy, and agree to turn in stuff to each other on certain dates.
So to summarize, try to work with the ebbs and flows of your schedule. Try to eke out a regular time for your work. Be realistic about when nothing will happen for a while because of money or obligations, and then really dive into your work whenever those pressures ease. If you go too long without writing, you probably won't be happy, so it will actually benefit your work and your relationships to wedge in an hour or two of writing time for yourself so you can arrive at the other parts of your life with a more generous heart.
The Happenings & Links Portion of The Tumbleweed
Thanks to Scott Semegran, writer and host of the book podcast Austin Liti Limits, who included Mixed Company on his best books of 2022 list! Appearing on a list with Kevin Wilson—who writes the kind of funny, heartfelt, weird books I love—makes my year.
Rachel King is touring to tell people about her new, acclaimed story collection Bratwurst Haven, and she was kind enough to invite three fellow short story writers with recent collections set in Colorado along for the ride. Wendy J. Fox (What if We Were Somewhere Else), Claire Boyles (Site Fidelity), and I (Mixed Company—you didn’t forget, did you?) will join Rachel in conversation at the Boulder Book Store on February 9 and at Tattered Cover Colfax on February 10.
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