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: The Invited by Jennifer McMahon

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THE INVITED by Jennifer McMahon
★★★☆☆
Doubleday, 2019

 

Set in the Vermont countryside (in my backyard, essentially), The Invited follows a couple, Helen and Nate, who have just bought property and are building a house from scratch – the only problem being that the land is supposedly haunted. This is the second book I’ve read by Jennifer McMahon (the other being The Night Sister) and honestly I feel similarly about both: I have a soft spot for McMahon and her spooky Vermont ghost stories and I would recommend them wholeheartedly to anyone looking for a quick and entertaining read, but they’re not without their significant issues.

The biggest problem with The Invited is that it takes an agonizingly long time to get going. Once it hits its stride it’s juicy enough, but for the first hundred or so pages, you will be inundated with more construction talk than is strictly necessary, and a parallel storyline following 14-year-old Olive failed to come to life for me (mostly because I never really believed Olive’s voice and found her sections a little tonally inconsistent).

What I did thoroughly enjoy though was the central mystery surrounding Helen’s haunted land and the ghost of Hattie Breckenridge. I’d honestly hesitate to classify this as a thriller (there were really only two twists, both of which I found painstakingly obvious), but if you’re in the mood for a compelling enough, unexpectedly subversive ghost story, I’d say this is a pretty safe bet.


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

wrap up: May 2020

  1. My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell ★★★★★ | review
  2. Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare ★★★☆☆
  3. The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo ★★☆☆☆ | review
  4. King Lear by William Shakespeare (reread) ★★★★★
  5. The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare ★★★☆☆
  6. Romeo & Juliet by William Shakespeare ★★★★★
  7. Bunny by Mona Awad ★★★☆☆ | review
  8. Timon of Athens by William Shakespeare ★★★☆☆
  9. Pericles by William Shakespeare ★★★★★
  10. Don’t Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri ★★★☆☆ | review to come
  11. Hysteria by Jessica Gross ★★★★☆ | review
  12. If All The World And Love Were Young by Stephen Sexton ★★★☆☆ | review to come
  13. Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan ★★★★★ | review
  14. Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica ★★★★★ | review
  15. Henry V by William Shakespeare ★★★☆☆

MAY TOTAL: 15
YEARLY TOTAL: 48

Favorite: King Lear (still)
Runner up: Tender is the Flesh, Exciting Times
Least favorite: The Most Fun We Ever Had

Other posts from May:

Life update:

Still got nothing.

Currently reading:

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

P.S. Follow me!  @ Twitter | Goodreads | Instagram | Letterboxd | Ko-fi

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.

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: 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!

P.S. Follow me!  @ Twitter | Goodreads | Instagram | Letterboxd | Ko-fi