EITHER/OR by Elif Batuman
Penguin Press, 2022
“I felt that this is what I was fighting against, and always had been: the tyranny of the particular, arbitrary way that things happened to have turned out.”
Elif Batuman’s debut novel, The Idiot, published in 2017, chronicles a year in the life of Harvard freshman Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants who has vague notions of becoming a writer and thinks she may achieve this goal by looking closely at the way language works. Though she is derailed from her objective, the events of Batuman’s first novel take Selin on an odyssey through the Hungarian countryside in the summer between her freshman and sophomore years as she chases the affections of an aloof older student, Ivan, who has just graduated and is about to move to California.
You can read my full review HERE on BookBrowse and a piece I wrote about Søren Kierkegaard HERE.
LOVE IN THE BIG CITY by Sang Young Park
translated by Anton Hur
Grove Press, 2021
Set in Seoul, South Korea, Love in the Big City is a warm, playful, emotionally rich novel that weaves together four interconnected vignettes to tell the story of its narrator, Park Young, as he matures over the course of his 20s and 30s. Split into four sections—each of which could conceivably stand alone as a short story—Love in the Big City first introduces the friendship between Park Young and Jaehee, a fellow student who, like Young, spends most of her free time drinking and hooking up with random men. The two move in together, sharing everything, and the platonic love between them is palpable; Young keeps Jaehee’s favorite Marlboro cigarettes stocked and Jaehee buys him his favorite frozen blueberries. When Jaehee uncharacteristically decides to settle down and get married after years of the two sharing their young and free lifestyle, Young feels betrayed and unmoored, which leads to a series of inauspicious romantic trysts.
You can read my full review HERE on BookBrowse and a piece I wrote about contemporary Korean literature in translation HERE.
THE WOMEN OF TROY by Pat Barker
Set in the liminal days following the Trojan War, The Women of Troy follows Briseis, who the reader may have met in this novel’s precursor, The Silence of the Girls. Briseis begins that story as a free married woman in Troy and ends up a captive and slave of Achilles, the Greek fighter to whom she was given as a war prize when her city was sacked. Though Pat Barker begins The Women of Troy right where the last book left off, the sequel reads comfortably as a standalone. The two novels together, however, form a fuller picture of the life of Briseis.
You can read my full review HERE on BookBrowse and a piece I wrote about Cassandra of Troy HERE.
THE VIXEN by Francine Prose
Harper, June 2021
Recent Harvard graduate Simon Putnam has been rejected from grad school and has thus returned to his parents’ place in Coney Island for the foreseeable future. It’s the summer of 1953, and Simon and his parents spend their evenings devotedly watching the news coverage of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s trial — an event that is especially emotionally charged for the Putnam family. Like the Rosenbergs, the Putnams are Jewish, and Ethel Rosenberg is a former classmate of Simon’s mother. Contrary to the predominant social attitude about the Rosenbergs, Simon and his parents watch with horror and disbelief as the execution takes place.
You can read my full review HERE on BookBrowse, and you can read a piece I wrote about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg HERE.
EDIE RICHTER IS NOT ALONE by Rebecca Handler
Edie Richter is living in Boston with her husband, Oren, when her father is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Edie and Oren uproot their lives to move to San Francisco where she can be closer to her family, and she suffers considerable emotional strain as her father slowly loses his physical and mental faculties. “I knew Dad would stop recognizing me. I didn’t know I would stop recognizing him,” she confesses.
After watching his steady decline for months, Edie puts a t-shirt over her father’s mouth and suffocates him.
You can read my full review HERE on BookBrowse, and you can read a piece I wrote about Perth HERE.
THE PROJECT by Courtney Summers
Wednesday Books, 2020
Bea and Lo Denham are inseparable sisters until their parents die in a car crash that Lo narrowly survives. Bea, depressed and desperate after the accident, falls into the arms of The Unity Project, a religious community that embraces her as she abandons her sister to the care of their great aunt. Years later, alone in the world after the death of their aunt and working as a secretary for a prestigious journalist, 19-year-old Lo is determined to unmask The Unity Project for what she believes it to be: a cult that indoctrinated her unwitting sister.
You can read my full review HERE on BookBrowse, and you can read a piece I wrote about cult psychology HERE.
DARK HORSES by Susan Mihalic
Gallery/Scout, February 16, 2021
Dark Horses is a shocking, heart-pounding debut; it’s both a coming-of-age novel and an unflinching story of resilience and survival. Fifteen-year-old Roan Montgomery is an equestrian prodigy; she attends a private high school, where she is given a special schedule allowing her to miss afternoon classes to train for her horseback riding events, which are a stepping stone to her plan of one day riding in the Olympics. In spite of her shortened class schedule, Roan receives straight As, and isn’t allowed to date or attend any social events outside of school. The reason why, the reader soon finds out, is disturbing and sinister: Roan’s father, also her riding coach, is in complete control of every facet of her life, and on top of the daily emotional abuse he inflicts on her, he has been sexually abusing her since early childhood.
You can read my full review HERE on BookBrowse, and you can read a piece I wrote about equestrian eventing HERE.
THE DEVIL AND THE DARK WATER by Stuart Turton
In 1634 on the day that world famous detective Samuel Pipps is set to board the Sardaam from Batavia to Amsterdam in handcuffs, the ship is approached by a leper who climbs atop a crate to declare a frightening prophecy: “The Sardaam‘s cargo is sin, and all who board her will be brought to merciless ruin. She will not reach Amsterdam.” The man then bursts into flames and dies moments later, at which time it’s discovered that, despite the prophecy he just announced, he has no tongue.
While the opening of this standalone mystery is explosive, The Devil and the Dark Water is a slow burner. It mostly follows Arent, Samuel Pipps’ bodyguard, a gruff yet honorable man intent on proving the innocence of his accused employer. It also follows Sara Wessel, a noblewoman trapped in an abusive marriage hoping to make a new life for herself in Amsterdam. The two form an unlikely friendship as the ship comes under siege by dark forces in the form of a demon called Old Tom that has a terrifying link to Arent’s past.
You can read my full review HERE on BookBrowse, and you can read a piece I wrote about the Dutch East India Trading Company HERE.
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.
THE EVERLASTING by Katy Simpson Smith
Broad and ambitious in scope, The Everlasting endeavors to capture the history and spirit of Rome across generations. It opens with an epigraph from the poem “Adonais” by Percy Bysshe Shelley:
“Go thou to Rome—at once the Paradise,
The grave, the city, and the wilderness.”
The plot begins in 2015 with a section titled “The Wilderness,” which introduces us to Tom, an American field biologist studying a group of crustaceans called ostracods. Though still married, Tom spends his days alone while his wife is back in California with their daughter, and reflects on the failed state of their marriage. This novel is dense at times, and Tom’s sections offer little reprieve; the crumbling marriage and allure of an enigmatic Italian woman a sort of clichéd setup that doesn’t feel like it quite earns its length, or the reader’s investment. This section does, however, establish the novel’s central theme: desire and temptation, and whether succumbing to temptation is inherently immoral.
You can read my full review HERE and a piece I wrote about books set across huge spans of time HERE.
You can pick up a copy of The Everlasting here on Book Depository.