book review: Out by Natsuo Kirino




OUT by Natsuo Kirino
translated by Stephen Snyder
★★★☆☆
Vintage, 2005



What Out does successfully is depict the utter exhaustion and desperation of the working class (focusing on a group of women working in a boxed-lunch factory in the outskirts of Tokyo).  This book is as bleak and gritty as it gets, but I liked that; I liked that Natsuo Kirino had no interest in shying away from the horrific realities that drove these characters to make the decisions that they did.  It’s also hard to come away from this book without admiring Masako Katori, its central character; she’s a brilliant creation and a fantastic focal point.

The entire time I was reading I was planning on giving this 4 stars – 1 star deducted for Snyder’s egregiously clunky translation.  Just one example among many passages that caused me to roll my eyes into the back of my head:

“Why?”
“Because you’re a smart-ass.  I’m going to teach you about the big, bad world.”
“Thanks, but no thanks,” she said.
[…]
‘Because you’re a smart-ass,’ he’d said.  She couldn’t let him get away with that.

So reading this was not entirely smooth sailing, but for the most part I found it admirable and compelling enough to compensate for the fact that it is not ostensibly a page-turner.

But then we got to the end, which… oh boy.  It’s hard to talk about without spoiling, but, in essence – this book starts to lead toward an inexorable conclusion, and it does arrive there, so that isn’t the issue.  The issue is how it unfolds, which… I personally found more offensive than I can even adequately describe, lol.  Ok, fine, spoiler: it involves a rape fetish that we got to experience through two (2) different perspectives in excruciating detail.  To say this served no purpose, was tonally incongruous, and bastardized Masako’s character – would all be an understatement. 

I’m glad I finally read this as it’s been sitting on my shelf for years, but it also felt like a shame that I decided to pick it up for Women in Translation Month (I’m reviewing it rather belatedly) when it ended on a note that I found to be so fundamentally antifeminist it kind of cancelled out the brilliant character work that had come before.

wrap up: September 2020

  1. Coriolanus by William Shakespeare ★★★★☆
  2. Slave Play by Jeremy O. Harris ★★★★★
  3. They Never Learn by Layne Fargo ★★★★★ | review
  4. The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare ★★★★☆
  5. Antony & Cleopatra by William Shakespeare ★★★★★
  6. The Year of Lear by James Shapiro ★★★★☆
  7. Henry VI Part 1 by William Shakespeare ★★★★☆
  8. Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas ★★★☆☆ | review
  9. The Lost Village by Camilla Sten ★★★☆☆ | review
  10. The Two Noble Kinsmen by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher ★★★★☆
  11. The Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare ★★★☆☆
  12. Tokyo Ueno Station by Miri Yu ★★★☆☆ | review
  13. Luster by Raven Leilani ★★★★☆ | review
  14. So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo ★★★☆☆

SEPTEMBER TOTAL: 14
YEARLY TOTAL: 86

Favorite: Antony & Cleopatra
Least favorite: Catherine House

Other posts from September:

I managed to read 4 books for my and Hannah’s readathon: Catherine House, Tokyo Ueno Station, Luster, and The Lost Village. Of course, since then I’ve also acquired (checks notes) 5 more ARCs from Netgalley, so it does feel a bit like I’m running on a hamster wheel here.

Life updates:

Pass.

Currently reading:

I am so sick of myself. If I don’t finish Death in Her Hands and Brideshead Revisited in October I am throwing them into the ocean.

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book review: The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave





THE MERCIES by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
★★★★☆
Little, Brown and Co., 2020



This was a compelling read, a chilly and melancholy story about a fishing disaster and religious fanaticism in early 1600s Norway, buoyed by Millwood Hargrave’s elegant prose and deeply sympathetic characters.  The author’s attention to historical detail really shone through in her depiction of the village of Vardø, devastated by the loss of most of the male members of the community following a brutal storm; the surviving women then face yet more ruin following the arrival of Absalom Cornet, a Scottish commissioner tasked with spreading Christianity by witch-hunting suspected pagans in the community. 

My reading experience with this was all over the place – it was a 5 star book that dropped to somewhere around 2 or 3 stars by the end.  For me, this book felt like it was building and building toward an explosive climax, but instead sort of fizzled out – and I don’t just mean in the final scenes, which I know some readers took issue with; for me the entire final act sort of fell flat on its face.  I don’t want to spoil anything, but partway through a romance develops which didn’t materialize in a particularly interesting way for me – I thought it would have been a stronger and more interesting book without this element.  And while I of course loved the commentary on men fearing powerful women, at times this element felt a little too on the nose.  It’s not that Millwood Hargrave’s feminist agenda did a disservice to the book – certainly to the contrary – I just would have preferred a slightly defter touch.

That said, I did mostly enjoy reading this.  I think its biggest strength was the bleak, isolated atmosphere, which Millwood Hargrave captured to perfection.  (It reminded me quite a lot of Burial Rites in that regard.) I also thought Maren and Ursa were fantastic protagonists, each with a distinctive narrative voice. So ultimately, not a new favorite like I wanted it to be, but certainly worth a read.

Hannah and I have too many ARCs: an emergency readathon – 2020 edition

Last year around this time Hannah and I created a 2-person readathon to tackle some of our ARCs, and we are going to do the same this year, for the last two weeks of September.

I say it’s a 2-person readathon just because we are not planning on doing prompts or hashtags or anything that would accompany an Official readathon, but if you want to join us, by all means do! The only prompt is to read your ARCs.

I’m not going to do a set TBR because I know I won’t follow it, so I’m just going to show you all of my possibilities.

So without further ado… my ARCs. These are only the ones I’ve acquired since this time last year but I think this is more than enough to choose from.

So… what should I read?! Help!

EDIT: I’ll update this as I go.

READ:

Catherine House ★★★☆☆ | review
The Lost Village ★★★☆☆ | review

wrap up: August 2020

  1. The Bookwanderers by Anna James ★★★★★ | review to come
  2. Stop Kiss by Diana Son ★★★★☆
  3. Henry IV Part 1 by William Shakespeare ★★★☆☆
  4. Cymbeline by William Shakespeare ★★★★☆
  5. The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave ★★★★☆ | review
  6. The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani ★★★★☆
  7. Henry IV Part 2 by William Shakespeare ★★☆☆☆
  8. Out by Natsuo Kirino ★★★☆☆ | review

AUGUST TOTAL: 8
YEARLY TOTAL: 72

Favorite: The Bookwanderers
Least favorite: Henry IV Part 2

Other posts from August:

Life updates:

I got an iPhone 11 Pro and the quality of my cat photos has VASTLY IMPROVED. Follow on Twitter for daily cat spam.

Currently reading:

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book review: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell | BookBrowse

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HAMNET by Maggie O’Farrell
Tinder Press, 2020
★★★★★

 

William Shakespeare’s name is never used in Hamnet — a conspicuous absence around which Maggie O’Farrell forms her richly imaginative narrative. Instead, the novel tells the story of those closest to Shakespeare: his parents, John and Mary; his wife Agnes; his daughter Susanna; and his twin children Hamnet and Judith. Shakespeare himself features in the narrative, though he is only ever described in relation to those around him, referred to as the Latin tutor, the husband, the father, the son. The result of this narrative decision is twofold: it pushes Shakespeare’s family to the foreground, but it also humanizes Shakespeare himself by reminding the reader that none of his works were created in a vacuum. This is the central conceit around which the novel’s climax is formed, as O’Farrell imagines the potential influence of Hamnet’s death in 1596 on Hamlet, written between 1599 and 1601.

You can read my full review HERE on BookBrowse, and you can read a piece I wrote about the real Anne Hathaway and Hamnet Shakespeare HERE.

The Mid Year Freak Out Book Tag 2020

Better late than never!  I do this tag every year so I couldn’t let it pass me by.
2017 | 2018 | 2019

Question 1 – The best book you’ve read so far in 2020

I mean… the Complete Works of William Shakespeare will be my top ‘book’ of 2020 and you all know that.

The only two novels solidly in with a chance of making my top 10 (god I need my reading to pick up in the second half of 2020 or that top 10 is going to be so bleak) are The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel and Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell.

Question 2 – Your favorite sequel of the year

N/A – I haven’t read a sequel.

Question 3 – A new release that you haven’t read but really want to

SO MANY but toward the top of my list are these three: Real Life by Brandon Taylor (getting to attend his book tour in LA was a wonderful experience!), Luster by Raven Leilani (I don’t think this is quite out yet but I have an ARC, and I have heard NOTHING by good things), and Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski (I don’t have a copy yet, but it sounds ridiculously up my alley).

Question 4 – Most anticipated release for the second half of the year

The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld, The Harpy by Megan Hunter, and Snow by John Banville.

Question 5 – Your biggest disappointment

The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams, Saltwater by Jessica Andrews, Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey.  Bad, worse, disappointing.

Question 6 – Biggest surprise of the year

Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica – surprising in every sense of the word.

But honorable mentions to Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 which I expected to like in a lukewarm 3.5-4 star kind of way but which I was actually blown away by, and Hysteria by Jessica Gross – another legitimately shocking read.

Question 7 – Favourite new to you or debut author

T Kira Madden, Kate Elizabeth Russell, and Naoise Dolan are all authors I’d love to read more by (and Jessica Gross, from the last question).

Question 8 – Your new fictional crush

As always, pass.

Question 9 – New favourite character

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Constance from King John.  Getting to play her on Zoom has been one of my absolute highlights of the year.  She’s fierce, savvy, prideful, intelligent, and is the absolute heart and soul of this play – despite the fact that she has NO political power she sets the whole thing in motion and then is the one to most acutely suffer the consequences and has some of the most heart-rending monologues in all of Shakespeare (“grief fills the room up of my absent child”).  Also, THIS!!!

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Question 10 – A book that made you cry

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Hm, none so far.  But if I had a heart I would have cried at Traveling in a Strange Land by David Park.

Question 11 – A book that made you happy

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Rereading If We Were Villains was probably the most fun reading experience I’ve had all year, in light of my own newfound Shakespeare thing.

Question 12 – Your favourite book to movie adaptation that you’ve seen this year

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Lady Macbeth, directed by William Oldroyd and starring Florence Pugh.  Contrary to popular belief this is not an adaptation of Macbeth – it’s an adaptation of a Russian novella inspired by Macbeth; Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov.  I haven’t read the novella in question, though I’d like to; but I was really blown away by the film (despite some questionable racial optics…).

Question 13 – Favourite book post you’ve done this year

My Project Shakespeare wrap ups, probably: one, two, three, four.

Question 14 – The most beautiful book you have bought/received this year

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Daughter from the Dark by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko, translated by Julia Hersey.

Question 15 – What are some books you need to read by the end of the year

Other than the rest of Shakespeare’s plays?  Hopefully A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes and the Cromwell trilogy by Hillary Mantel to round out my (shitty) Women’s Prize reading for the year.

wrap up: June 2020

Am I posting my June wrap up on July 22?  Absolutely.  Who cares, time isn’t real.

 

  1. The Invited by Jennifer McMahon ★★★☆☆ | review
  2. Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare ★★★★★
  3. By The Way, Meet Vera Stark by Lynn Nottage ★★★★☆
  4. All’s Well That Ends Well by William Shakespeare ★★☆☆☆
  5. Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid ★★☆☆☆ | review
  6. Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare ★★★★☆
  7. If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio (reread) ★★★★☆ | review
  8. King John by William Shakespeare ★★★★☆
  9. Richard II by William Shakespeare ★★★★☆
  10. Three Plays by Lisa B. Thompson ★★★★☆ | review

JUNE TOTAL: 10
YEARLY TOTAL: 58

Favorite: Julius Caesar
Runner up: Revisiting If We Were Villains
Least favorite: Such a Fun Age

Other posts from June:

Life update:

Still got nothing.  I AM however FINALLY inspired to get back into the swing of blogging.  So, watch this space.  And by this space I mostly mean, your own blogs.  I will finally be reading them.  Sorry.  I don’t even know what happened to me these past few months.

Currently reading:

 

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on rereading If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

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IF WE WERE VILLAINS by M.L. Rio
★★★★☆
Flatiron Books, 2017

 

I do not reread books very frequently; between having a pretty decent memory and being in a constant state of intimidation regarding my TBR I rarely feel compelled to revisit books I’ve already read, especially if they aren’t all-time favorites.  If We Were Villains falls into that category; I first read it as an ARC in 2017 (original review here – from before I was any good at writing reviews, hah) and I really enjoyed it – I found it fun and compelling and moving, but it wasn’t a book that I actually expected to revisit at any point.

Cue the unexpected plot twist where I would spend most of 2020 injecting Shakespeare straight into my veins.  If you do go back and read my not very good original review, you’ll see that I actually talk about my opinions on Shakespeare, which were, at the time, middling – in the sense that I had a couple of Shakespeare plays I loved, and I typically enjoyed the productions I’ve gotten the chance to see, but until this year Shakespeare had never been a very big part of my life.  Now (in case you haven’t been following my recent obsession), a group of friends and I spend every Saturday evening performing a different Shakespeare play over Zoom, and I thought that revisiting If We Were Villains in this context would make for a more exciting reading experience than it was for me in 2017.

And yes, it certainly was.  Despite having more issues with this book the second time around – I’ll get to that in a second – I had so much fun with this.  Obviously an informal production over Zoom is not the same as intensive study at a Shakespearean academy, but still; I felt so much more engaged in the drama surrounding character types since I was able to quickly mentally sort every single person in our group into one of the seven types Rio presented (I’m James, if anyone was wondering).  The constant quoting of Shakespeare too took on a whole new life for me; I’ve only been doing this since March, and still I find myself quoting Shakespeare out of context in my daily life.  Yes, the extent that these characters do it is deliberately heightened to the point of being unrealistic, but they’ve also immersed themselves in intensive Shakespearean study every day for four years so I’ll give them a pass.

The one issue I had that I wanted to talk about in some detail is the rather uninspiring treatment of gender.  First to give some context: there are seven fourth year students, 4 boys and 3 girls.  One girl (Wren) is always cast as the ingenue, another (Meredith) as the temptress, and the third girl (Filippa) is put wherever they need a spare actor, either in a male role or a female one.  Filippa constantly laments that she doesn’t have the opportunity to play more female roles; Wren and Meredith are both content with the roles they get cast in.

Now, here’s the thing.  At the beginning of the novel, they’re doing Julius Caesar, and a very big deal is made of the fact that Richard, playing Caesar, doesn’t have anything to do after act 3 when Caesar is killed.  No mention is made of the fact that Wren and Meredith, playing Portia and Calpurnia respectively, are each only in two scenes, and neither returns after act 2.  Calpurnia only has 27 lines (compare to Caesar’s 151 and Brutus’s 721).  Yet both Wren and Meredith are perfectly content with their roles, which they’re implied to have auditioned for, and Filippa’s only grievance is that she can’t play a woman.

This is what I don’t understand.  This is a college production at an experimental arts academy – why in god’s name would none of these three young women audition for Brutus or Cassius?  Why is Filippa more bothered by the fact that she has a male role than a small role?  What performer on earth – regardless of gender – would rather play Calpurnia than Caesar?  And if Rio wanted to fall back on the excuse that this was the 90s and things were altogether less progressive, fine, or even that women are more accustomed to keeping their mouths shut when they get shafted, I’d get it; what I find disingenuous is that this is never addressed.  A lot is made of the male characters’ discontent with the roles they end up playing, but I found the complacency of the female characters incredibly unrealistic.  And you can’t argue that this is besides the point of the novel when the entire premise is rooted in tension over casting.

This isn’t a criticism that overpowered the rest of my reading experience, but it was in the back of my mind pretty much the whole time that I read. But that said, this is a book I really enjoy engaging with and I can see myself returning to it again and again as my own personal relationship with Shakespeare and performing evolves.

book review: Weather by Jenny Offill

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WEATHER by Jenny Offill
★★☆☆☆
Knopf, 2020

 

I don’t think this is a bad book at all, I want to make that clear right away.  I think Jenny Offill is a talented writer, and that she achieves everything she set out to achieve with this little book, a potent commentary on the impossibility of balancing every day domesticity with encroaching anxiety about the climate crisis.

But with that said… I didn’t particularly like it?  I mostly found this book incredibly forgettable.  It was a short, breezy read, but for whatever reason I didn’t have time to read it in a single sitting, and every time I put it down and picked it back up, I couldn’t remember where I had left off.  I had to constantly remind myself who was who – Ben, Eli, Henry, I think were their names, but even now I couldn’t tell you who was the husband, brother, and son – and there was nothing about Lizzie’s story in particular that justified to me why this was the particular story that Offill chose to tell.  I ultimately just needed a bit more from it, but I think that’s on me rather than the author.  Maybe I’ve just read a few too many navel-gazing literary novels lately for this to shine through.


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


Women’s Prize 2020 reviews: Dominicana | Fleishman is in Trouble | Girl | Girl, Woman, OtherHow We Disappeared | Red at the Bone | Weather