book review: Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo | BookBrowse

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KIM JIYOUNG, BORN 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo
translated by Jamie Chang
★★★★★
Liveright, April 2020

 

“Kim Jiyoung is thirty-three years old, thirty-four Korean age. She got married three years ago and had a daughter last year. […] Jiyoung’s abnormal behavior was first detected on 8 September.”

So begins Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, Cho Nam-Joo’s daring excavation of a young woman crumbling under the strain of unrelenting misogyny, which has sold over a million copies in its native South Korea. Jiyoung (the Korean naming convention places a person’s family name before their given name), an average, unremarkable woman, one day begins to imitate the voices of other women she has known throughout her life—a phenomenon neither she nor her husband can explain, which prompts them to visit a psychiatrist.

You can read my full review HERE on BookBrowse, and a piece I wrote about feminist movements in South Korea HERE.


You can pick up a copy of Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 here on Book Depository.

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book review: Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica

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TENDER IS THE FLESH by Agustina Bazterrica
translated by Sarah Moses
★★★★★
Scribner, August 4, 2020

 

Effectively an anti-factory farming polemic satirized to its shocking, inevitable conclusion, Tender Is the Flesh is a horrifying and grotesque piece of work.  Translated from the Spanish brilliantly by Sarah Moses, it tells the story of a man named Marcos who recently lost his son to a cot death and is estranged from his wife as a result.  Marcos works at a local processing plant – but instead of cattle, the plant farms and slaughters humans, following a virus which infected all non-human animals, rendering their meat unsafe to eat.  But these people are no longer referred to as humans; so desensitized is everyone to their new dietary reality.

This book made me feel physically ill every time I picked it up, but I found it equally hard to put it down.  I’ve been a vegetarian for most of my life, primarily in protest against factory farming, so it’s safe to say that this novel’s central conceit resonated strongly enough to compel me to keep reading, but it would be reductive to say that condemning the meat industry is the only thing Bazterrica is doing here.  This book focuses equally on the question of what it means to be human (I can’t get a sort of half-baked Never Let Me Go comparison out of my head, even if the similarities truly do end there – but there’s a reason that’s my favorite book; it’s a theme that I find endlessly fascinating to wrestle with) and the ways in which we allow our personal ethics to be shaped by those in positions of power.

It’s not a flawless book – I think the (air-tight) worldbuilding occasionally overpowers the character-driven part of the novel, which I was honestly fine with until something happened that made me wish the character development hadn’t been quite so withheld from the reader, so I initially rated this 4 stars when I finished, but on second thought, I think this book will be seared into my brain forever, and I have nothing but respect and admiration for what Bazterrica has achieved here.

This is not an easy book to recommend, and I cannot emphasize just how strong of a stomach you need to make it through this, but, somewhat perversely, it’s not a hard book to love.  I’d say it’s probably the single most disturbing thing I have ever read (A Clockwork Orange has been dethroned at last), but that is in no way a criticism.

Thank you to Netgalley and Scribner for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.


You can pick up a copy of Tender is the Flesh (already published in the UK) here on Book Depository.

book review: Hysteria by Jessica Gross

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HYSTERIA by Jessica Gross
★★★★☆
Unnamed Press, August 18, 2020

 

Hysteria belongs to a Marmite subset of literary fiction that I like to call ‘books about disaster women’.  (Other disaster women books include, for example: The Pisces, My Year of Rest and RelaxationAlmost Love.)  These books tend to feature young women in their 20s-30s who have abrasive personalities and make poor decisions and have a lot of casual sex usually for the wrong reasons.  If you do not enjoy disaster women books, you will not like Hysteria, it’s important to get that out of the way.  This will not be the book to change your mind and embrace this whole subgenre if it’s something you’ve henceforth found uninteresting or repulsive.

But with that said, if you do enjoy disaster women books, it’s a damn good one.  In Hysteria we follow an unnamed narrator living in Brooklyn, who goes into her local bar one day and discovers a new bartender has just started working there; she becomes compelled by him and starts to believe that he is none other than Sigmund Freud.

Hysteria is short, punchy, and shocking.  The way Jessica Gross juxtaposes the narrator’s meditations on sexual desire and meditations on daughterhood are uncomfortable to the extreme – I’m trying to avoid using the word oedipal in this review as I know that isn’t an enticing prospect for most people – but what works is that Gross’s writing never tips into gratuitousness.  It isn’t provocative for the sake of being provocative; she actually does have incisive points to make as she simultaneously celebrates and interrogates the narrator’s lasciviousness.  Not a book for everyone but highly recommended to those who it appeals to.

Thank you to Unnamed Press for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.


You can preorder a copy of Hysteria from the publisher here (not an affiliate link).

book review: Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

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EXCITING TIMES by Naoise Dolan
★★★★★
Ecco, June 2, 2020

 

Exciting Times is the most Sally Rooney book to have not been penned by Sally Rooney.  In a way that statement is overly reductive of Naoise Dolan’s fresh and distinctive voice, but still, the fact remains: if you don’t find Sally Rooney to be much to write home about, steer clear of this debut about Irish socialist millennials overanalyzing their messy and self-destructive relationships.  But if you’re like me and that’s sounds like a recipe for perfection, you’ll probably love this.

Shown through the eyes of an Irish expat living in Hong Kong, Exciting Times essentially focuses on a love triangle between narrator Ava and two individuals who in many ways are polar opposites – the rich, tactless English banker Julian and the elegant, clever Hong Kong native Edith.  Each is distinctly compelling, though the love triangle itself isn’t what moves the narrative so much as Ava navigating her own boundaries and ethics and evolving perspective on relationships.  Irish identity is another theme that takes center stage; Ava is an English teacher and finds herself tempering her natural speech patterns so that she teaches ‘correct’ English to her students.  It’s a thoughtful, clever, meditative book from a number of angles.

Dolan’s prose is this novel’s shining jewel; she has such a compact, witty, dry voice – it won’t be for everyone and I can see where others might find that it grows wearisome as the novel chugs along, but I found it consistently charming.  ‘”Anything strange?” said Mam on the phone.  She really said it, “antin strange,” but if Brits spelled Glosster as Gloucester then I supposed Mam deserved similar leeway.’

Exciting Times is definitely this year’s Normal People while also being very much its own thing, and I recommend it very highly.

Thank you to Netgalley and Ecco for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.


You can pick up a copy of Exciting Times here on Book Depository.

book review: Bunny by Mona Awad

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BUNNY by Mona Awad
★★★☆☆
Viking, 2019

 

I liked the idea of this book more than I ended up liking the execution.  A horror novel set on a college campus surrounding a toxic friend group sounds like a recipe for perfection, but I found the result a little uneven.  I didn’t dislike reading it, but I also didn’t find it nearly as weird or groundbreaking or darkly funny as other readers have.

There was a sort of disorienting quality to this book that I didn’t particularly enjoy.  As you read you have the feeling that there’s something just outside your grasp that remains integral to the plot, and that feeling of being slightly unmoored was never compensated with a compelling enough hook to make me really care to figure out what it was that I was missing.  It’s one of those books that sort of sat in that nebulous grey area between being a chore to read and a pleasure.

The thing that I did absolutely adore about this book was the ending.  No spoilers, but suffice to say I found the resolution well worth waiting for.  And I feel I may have been overly harsh here, but expectations were high and I just didn’t enjoy the ride nearly as much as I hoped I would.


You can pick up a copy of Bunny here on Book Depository.

book review: The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo

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THE MOST FUN WE EVER HAD by Claire Lombardo
★★☆☆☆
Doubleday, 2019

 

I finished The Most Fun We Ever Had weeks ago, after a rather agonizing month-long reading experience, and despite my fondness for writing negative reviews, finding the motivation to review this book has been… a struggle; so happy was I to be blissfully done with it.  The only thing compelling me to write this review now is the promise that after I click post I will never have to think about this book and these inane characters ever again.

The most frustrating thing about this book to me was its wasted potential.  When I started reading it, I was sure I was going to love it in the same way I love soap operas; I’m a sucker for mindless, messy, salacious family drama.  This could have been 200 pages shorter; it could have been an unapologetically entertaining romp through the ripple effects of one daughter’s unplanned pregnancy 15 years after she gave the child up for adoption; it could have been a lot of things.  Instead it was agonizingly, embarrassingly sincere.  Meet David and Marilyn, the parents: they’re still disgustingly in love after all these years.  Meet their children: Wendy’s a fuck-up, Violet’s frigid, Liza’s naive, Grace is the baby.  Meet Violet’s illegitimate child, Jonah: he’s never known stability so he has trouble adjusting to it.  Congratulations, you have now read The Most Fun We Ever Had.

None of these characters undergoes any development.  Any.  At all.  This book is 532 pages.  That is 532 pages of painfully one-note characters arguing with each other about any given character’s one (1) allocated personality trait.  The repetition is insufferable.  And yet, this book really believes it has something to say?  The reader is simply bashed over the head with the most mundane and trite pontifications on life and love and growing up and it’s all so bizarrely earnest for the fact that none of it has any particular depth.

The one thing I will hand Lombardo is that her treatment of the family’s wealth was very self-conscious and well-executed; it’s tempting to dismiss this as a ‘rich people problems book’ (and it’s understandable if that’s a premise that just flat-out does not interest you), but I did feel like Lombardo did a good job contextualizing their struggles and providing a somewhat thoughtful commentary on class disparity.

But ultimately a pretty massive waste of time.


Women’s Prize 2020 reviewsDominicana | Fleishman is in Trouble | Girl | Girl, Woman, OtherHow We Disappeared | Red at the Bone | The Most Fun We Ever Had | Weather


You can pick up a copy of The Most Fun We Ever Had here on Book Depository.

Project Shakespeare: month #2 wrap up

As you’ve probably noticed, Shakespeare has utterly taken over my life lately, in the form of weekly readings over Zoom.  If you missed my first Project Shakespeare wrap up you can read that here, but now we’re done with month #2, which is a little surreal to think about.  Anyway, let’s talk through these plays:

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As You Like It
★★★☆☆
my role: Celia

The thing about As You Like It is that it’s… really fucking weird?! The conflict that’s set up in the first act never really materializes into anything (what even happens to Frederick?), character development happens entirely off-stage or without reason (Oliver’s a good guy now! because… Celia needs a husband!), there is an OFF-STAGE LION ATTACK? IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FRENCH FOREST?, there’s a wedding in which two people are married by… an actual god?! What even is this play???!  (Potentially a satire of the pastoral genre, I know; still, regardless of its intentions, it’s weird as hell and it’s hard to totally warm up to.)

But it’s equally hard not to be at least a little charmed by it. The friendship between Rosalind and Celia is one of the most pure and touching female friendships that Shakespeare wrote, and I had a blast playing Celia, who starts out sweet and simple and becomes increasingly more jaded and frustrated by Rosalind’s shenanigans, while still lending her support.  Celia is truly the unsung MVP of this play.  Though, shout-out to Patrick for his minute-long dramatic entrance as Jaques (Jay-kweez).

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Hamlet
★★★★★
my role: Laertes

I mean… it’s Hamlet.  This is actually only one of two Shakespeare plays I ever studied in school (the other being Macbeth), so I feel like I have a stronger grasp on it than some others, and I do enjoy it immensely.

As a group, I think we were all a little nervous about Hamlet – it was only the second tragedy we’ve done after Macbeth, and Macbeth is still a ‘fun’ play in a way that Hamlet isn’t.  The prospect of putting on a 3+ hour Zoom production of Hamlet was a little daunting, but those 3+ hours positively flew by.  We divided the role of Hamlet into two (everyone knows that Hamlet is a massive role, but for context, he has twice as many lines as Prospero in The Tempest, which is… already a massive role), jokingly into Ham and Let, and both halves of our Ham/Let duo brought so much heart and passion (and sass) that it was a joy to watch.  The two other clear stars that emerged were our Claudius and Ophelia; two characters I’ve never given much thought to, Claudius being so easy to portray as a mustache-twirling villain and Ophelia being The Generic Tragic Ingenue.  But Abby brought such a pathos and humanity to Claudius that this monologue gave us all chills, and Pamela broke all of our hearts with her tender portrayal of Ophelia.  Really incredible acting all around this week.

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Comedy of Errors
★★★★☆
my role: Solinus

Following Hamlet, we opted for the shortest play.  And what an unexpected breath of fresh air this was!  All I knew going into this was that it was one of Shakespeare’s earlier plays and that it was about two sets of twins and mistaken identity, and, indeed, that’s pretty much all there is to it.  Heavy on the commedia dell’arte vibes, Comedy of Errors is just an unapologetically stupid romp, and I enjoyed every second of it.  Its short length is absolutely part of its charm, because it smartly does not overstay its welcome (these dumb characters already take far too long to catch on to what’s happening), but by the time it ended I think everyone wanted another hour of it.

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King Lear
★★★★★
my role: Edmund

I actually have no words for this experience but I’ll try to come up with something.  King Lear is my favorite Shakespeare play – I’m utterly obsessed with the high-stakes drama and scale of tragedy.  It’s also thematically satisfying and narratively ambiguous in a way that REALLY works to my tastes, and I think it has the most devastating ending of any Shakespeare play.  Edmund is my favorite character – he’s the one I’ve always been the most compelled by, and I think he’s one of Shakespeare’s more interesting villains.  Because in a lot of ways, he’s set up to be a sort of underdog hero – most of his ‘thou nature art my goddess’ monologue appeals directly to the audience and is actually disturbingly compelling.  Because yes, who among us has not been screwed out of something we deserve; why shouldn’t he fight for what’s been denied to him by unjust social custom?  Of course, that’s up until his line ‘well then, legitimate Edgar’ when the monologue takes a turn for the sinister and you realize that Edmund’s ambitions are naturally at the expense of his own family.  But even after he is set up as the play’s chief antagonist (along with Goneril and Regan), his motives remain clear and cogent and perversely sympathetic – and his dying moments show a flicker of tenderness toward his brother that suggest that power for power’s sake was never the goal so much as being accepted by the family that he betrays – and I am unendingly interested in untangling the knot that is his character.

Anyway, much as I love Edmund, I felt nervous about requesting him.  If you’ve been following the roles I’ve been taking, you will see a very clear pattern: Straight Good Men and ingenues.  Both of which I’ve had a lot of fun with, but neither of which require a whole lot of… acting?  (Or at least, you can get away with less acting; I should put it that way.)  But I decided fuck it, I would never have this opportunity again and I would be kicking myself if I requested Cordelia out of fear (though I do quite like Cordelia).

Everything about this production was magical.  I know it probably sounds hyperbolic to call it a production, but the caliber of everyone involved blew me away.  (You can watch the eye gouging scene here; I truly cannot recommend it highly enough.)  Abby and Rachel choreographed that scene beautifully and Abby, who was a brilliant Gloucester, played the rest of the show with a blindfold onMaggie played Kent’s disguise with an Irish accent; Ashley played Edgar with FOUR ACCENTS.  And Pamela and Chelsea were the absolute heart and soul of this production as Lear and Cordelia respectively; I have chills just thinking about the final act and how much the two of them broke my heart (and has there ever been a more chilling line than ‘Never, never, never, never, never’).  Anyway, it’s hard to evaluate your own performance with any kind of objectivity, but I am proud of having pushed myself out of my comfort zone for this, as playing Edmund was an absolute dream and I would do it again in a heartbeat.  Doing a play a week has been brilliant but I’m finding it a little hard to move on from this one!


So that’s that!  Up next: Much Ado About Nothing.  Stay tuned for the next installment in a month.

Shakespeare question of the day and in honor of me memorizing both ‘thou nature art my goddess’ and ‘this is the excellent foppery of the world’ this week – what’s your favorite Shakespeare monologue?  Comment and tell me!

book review: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

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MY DARK VANESSA by Kate Elizabeth Russell

William Morrow, 2020

 

My Dark Vanessa was an absolute tour de force and well worth all the hype it has been receiving.  The entire framework of the novel is startling – Vanessa, now in her 30s, reflects on a relationship she had with her high school English teacher, Mr. Strane, especially in light of that same teacher being accused of sexual abuse by another student, a young woman named Taylor.  I think this novel in most authors’ minds would have been conceived around Taylor – and indeed, though she’s mostly a shadowy figure in this book, there would be plenty to dig into if she were thrust into the limelight: the difficulty of coming forward with abuse allegations when you can’t produce ‘evidence’, the strength that requires, the unwarranted backlash it solicits.

Vanessa however is an entirely different kind of heroine.  In fact, we learn that in her 30s, she’s still in contact with Strane, and that she doesn’t believe Taylor’s allegations.  Vanessa doesn’t believe herself to have been abused, and she still sees her relationship with Strane as a love story – albeit a doomed one.  It’s a premise that could feel almost deliberately belligerent toward its reader, but what Kate Elizabeth Russell is able to achieve with this book is a textured analysis of the difficulty in identifying as a victim.  My Dark Vanessa doesn’t have a comforting and predictable trajectory of Vanessa slowly coming to terms with the reality of her situation – the process is messier and the conclusion arguably less satisfying, but it feels truer to life and successfully challenges the disturbing concept that some survivors are ‘good victims’ while others aren’t.

It’s a disturbing, uncomfortable read – the passages which detail the ways Strane groomed and manipulated Vanessa are almost unbearable in their verisimilitude – but at the same time it’s almost impossible to put down.  The Lolita intertextuality is occasionally heavy-handed, that’s my one complaint, but the Nabokov references ultimately do serve to give the reader an idea of how 15-year-old Vanessa attempts to make sense of her situation through the classic novels that Strane lends her.  It’s a wonderfully paced, brilliantly characterized book that’s as harrowing as it is engrossing.


You can pick up a copy of My Dark Vanessa here on Book Depository.

monthly wrap up: April 2020

  1. Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson ★★★★☆ | review
  2. Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare (reread) ★★★★☆
  3. Mad, Bad, Dangerous To Know by Colm Toibin ★★★★☆ | review
  4. As You Like It by William Shakespeare ★★☆☆☆
  5. Macbeth by William Shakespeare (reread) 
  6. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo ★★★★☆ | review
  7. Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo | review to come for BookBrowse
  8. The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare ★★★★☆
  9. Hamlet by William Shakespeare (reread)

APRIL TOTAL: 9
YEARLY TOTAL: 33

Favorite: Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo
Runner up: Macbeth
Least favorite: As You Like It

Other posts from April:

Life update:

I got nothing.

Currently reading:

What was the best book you read in April?  Comment and let me know!

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