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.
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.
As I mentioned in this post, the lovely Jennifer asked you guys to submit Women in Translation recommendations, which we’ve compiled into this post here. We got some really incredible submissions – so enjoy, and read Women in Translation year round! 🙂
The Museum of Unconditional Surrender by Dubravka Ugrešić (translated from Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth)
If one looks up a definition of a museum, one will get an explanation on the lines of a building containing artifacts of importance. However technically, going by that definition, every dwelling is a museum of sorts. In The Museum of Unconditional Surrender Ugrešić takes this concept to interesting territories.
Throughout the novel we readers are presented with pictures and artifacts while the narrator of the book explains their significance to her own personal history , these memories and objects range between quirky to bleak. By the end of the book the reader learns how a personal history, encapsulated in objects, has a way of contributing to events in world history. I’m a fan of playful narratives and this does not disappoint.
Rachel Matthews, Nottingham, England
Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich (translated from Russian by Anna Gunin and Arch Tait)
In Chernobyl Prayer, Svetlana Alexievich manages to create beauty out of devastation. She brings together a series of monologues from the people of Chernobyl affected by the 1986 nuclear power plant accident. The choices she makes in how the monologues are structured elevate this from being a simple record of events to something closer to poetry with themes of hope, duty and uncertainty running throughout. The reference to prayer in the book’s title is fitting as those sharing their stories do so without confirmation they will be read, some will die before the book is even published, but they speak anyway in hopes that their sacrifice will not be forgotten. Alexievich has immortalised their words in this wonderful book and it was a truly humbling experience to read.
Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez (translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell)
Mariana Enriquez’s Things We Lost in the Fire is a beautiful and chilling short story collection which most definitely warrants a read. Under the shadow of Argentina’s former dictatorship, characters must undergo constant challenges to their values and must negotiate between their morals and their survival. The horror in these stories succeeds because it strikes a balance between the violence visited upon the characters’ bodies and the psychological terror that comes with self-knowledge and experience.
Father Maybe an Elephant, and Mother Only a Small Basket, But… by Gogu Shyamala (translated from Telugu by Various)
Shyamala’s stories, written in Telugu which is a prominent Indian regional language, are cut from the fabric of her own life and seek to depict the complexity of Dalit experiences. Even though each story has a different translator, overall it’s a translation that mimics and retains the unique flavours of Shyamala’s Telugu, quite distinct from the more standardized version. These stories deal with serious themes like discrimination, caste violence, and emancipation, yet are never pedagogic or heavy-handed. The prose is simple but sensuous, especially in its lush descriptions of nature. Published by an indie press that prides itself on its anti-caste focus, this collection creates marvels out of the mundane, distils the essence of life, and leaves a bit of itself inside the reader.
Breast Stories by Mahasweta Devi (translated from Bengali by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak)
Mahasweta Devi focused on women’s lives in her writing and explored how a female subaltern is doubly marginalized, first for being female and second for being subaltern (here meaning belonging to a lower caste or class). This micro-collection of three stories centres around the image of breasts to highlight the callous oppression and gross objectification of women through their bodies. During any conflict or war, a woman’s body becomes the primary target of an attack as she is seen as a receptacle of honour and shame by a patriarchal society. Devi explodes this extremely twisted notion in these three stories and shows how a body, especially the female body, can become a site of exertion of authoritarian power as well as of gendered resistance against that power.
Emma Wilson, Canberra, Australia
Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck (translated from German by Susan Bernofsky)
In this slim and eerie novel, Erpenbeck tracks the fortunes of one lakeside house in Brandenburg. At first I couldn’t be fully immersed because of how removed the perspective seemed, as the different inhabitants over the course of a century come in and out of focus. But in the end I think that’s the book’s strength: its wider view of a century of massive change for Germany. I loved the idea that places are haunted by disappearances, dispossessions, and repossessions, and how the house itself remains both stoic and affected throughout.
There’s an aching feeling of loneliness as well as a foreboding sense of danger throughout Hanne Ørstavik’s short, razor-sharp novel Love. The story concerns Vibeke and her adolescent son Jon who have recently moved to a small town in the north of Norway. Jon is about to turn nine years old, but rather than prepare to celebrate they embark on independent journeys deep into the night meeting strangers and travelling through the freezing near-empty landscape. The narrative continuously switches focus between the mother and son’s points of view without any line breaks or indications that it’s changing. This produces the curious effect of a synchronicity and connection between the two, but, as the novel continues, it becomes apparent there’s a dangerous disconnect between them. Although there’s little plot, a quiet tension hums throughout each section making this a deeply meditative, haunting and curiously mesmerising novel which captures an eerie sense of estrangement from the people we’re supposed to be closest to.
Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena (translated from Latvian by Margita Gailitis)
Soviet Milk alternates between the perspectives of an unnamed mother and daughter over a number of years from 1969 to 1989. They have a tumultuous relationship with each other and both struggle to find their place in society because this was a period of time when Latvia was still under Soviet rule. The mother is a skilled doctor specializing in female fertility, but finds life in the communist system stiflingly oppressive. Equally the daughter struggles to grow and nurture her developing intellect in such a regimental system. This is a moving and deeply poignant story of an unconventional mother-daughter relationship and a country undergoing radical social change as Latvia regains its independence. It illuminates the distinct personalities of certain characters in how the weight of history impacts them, but also shows a cumulative sense of national identity.
Elena Faverio, Smithtown, New York, United States (Elena Faverio)
Fruits Basket by Natsuki Takaya (translated from Japanese by a few different companies and a lot of hardworking fans!)
Fruits Basket is about a young orphan, Tohru Honda, who gets involved with the mysterious Soma family who are suffering under an ancient family curse. Whenever one of the family members is ill, stressed, or embraced by a member of the opposite sex, they transform into one of the animals of the Chinese Zodiac. This was the first ever manga I read (way back in 2007) and it has recently come back into mainstream popularity with a reanimation of the 26-episode anime series (it was first animated in 2001)! It is one of the most popular Japanese manga of all time, with over 18 million copies sold. Fruits Basket is light-hearted, tender, heart-wrenching, and funny in turns–and it’s a great read for young and mature readers alike!
Shielding the Flame by Hanna Krall (translated from Polish by Joanna Stasinska & Lawrence Weschler)
Shielding the Flame if translated word for word from Polish would be titled “To make it before God,” which doesn’t sound as smooth as the former, but illustrates more clearly the doomed fight Krall’s reportage describes.
In the seventies of the last century, Hanna Krall published a series of interviews with Marek Edelman, one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Edelman, a man reluctant to talk about the past in a myths-creating manner, in Krall’s reportage, commemorates the ghetto’s insurgents, but he also exposes everyday life during the most dehumanising circumstances.
Those who have never read Holocaust literature, fiction or non-fiction, need to brace themselves for the inhumane imagery of that period. Additionally, this set of interviews alternates between the Ghetto Uprising and the post-war life of Edelman, who became a well-known cardiac surgeon, which might make it a bit harder to follow. However, even though it’s a gut-wrenching read, it is gripping and extremely current too, due to its overarching humanism.
Marek Veselý, Czech Republic
Purge by Sofi Oksanen (translated from Finnish by Lola Rogers)
This book was intense but so good! Aliide is an old woman living alone in Estonia when a Russian girl named Zara shows up on her door, running from some kind of trauma. You learn about both their (very traumatic) backstories, but probably the most memorable thing is the atmosphere. There’s resentment and unspoken pain behind every interaction. And the more you learn about both (especially Aliide) the more sympathies change. Not a book for the faint of heart but definitely well-written and impactful.
La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono (translated from Spanish by Lawrence Schimel)
Set in Central Africa, this coming-of-age novella follows the orphan Okomo whose grandmother has warned her away from befriending a group of young women she considers “indecent and mysterious.” Naturally, Okomo begins spending time with them. When she finds herself falling in love with their leader, she has to decide whether to follow the strict conventions of her Fang culture or rebel and become an outcast alongside her gay uncle. La Bastarda subverts all kinds of cultural norms and western ideas about queer love, community, and identity, which scholar Abosede George does an excellent job of contextualizing in the afterword. It’s also worth noting that this is the first novel by a woman from Equatorial Guinea to be translated into English, making it a landmark addition to the canon of translated literature.
Vagabonds by by Hao Jingfang (translated from Chinese by Ken Liu)
Set in the year 2196, Vagabonds follows a group of young delegates returning to Mars after a five-year cultural exchange on Earth. Mars won the war for independence a hundred years prior, but now escalating tensions between the two planets threaten the peace. After her return, Luoying, a Martian dancer, struggles to reintegrate to her homeland’s collectivistic society after experiencing the independence and creative freedom of life on capitalist Earth. Meanwhile, Eko, a documentary filmmaker from Earth, experiences opposing internal conflicts over his surprising appreciation for Martian society, with its open access to information and non-existent intellectual property laws. The two are vagabonds, stuck between cultures, never to be fully at home again on either planet. It’s easy to think of Mars as representative of China and Earth as Western society, but this meandering, philosophical novel cracks open readers’ assumptions and veers away from simple metaphors. It’s a lengthy tome, but well worth the investment.
Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri (translated from Japanese by Morgan Giles)
Tokyo Ueno Station paints a picture of life in modern-day Tokyo as if observed from a crowded train platform. You may only catch snippets of conversation, the call of a bird as it passes overhead, or a glimpse of an umbrella dripping with rain. These observations are woven together with reflections and ruminations of an unhoused man who later becomes a ghost. Both in life and death, he occupies a park near the Ueno train station and reflects on his life and his surroundings. There is so much to consider in this novel about Japanese history, our legacies, death, and how we treat one another. I really loved it for its brevity and thematic complexity, although its style may deter some readers.
Tender is the Flesh by Augustina Bazterrica (translated from Spanish by Sarah Moses)
This is a novel about a near-future in which people begin breeding and raising humans for consumption. The normalization of cannibalism is blurred and ambiguated through carefully controlled language and a redefinition of what it means to be a person. What makes this novel great is how it goes beyond its premise to examine the power of language, the danger of individualism, and the lengths people will go to in order to get what they want. I don’t consider myself to be a squeamish person, but this novel had my stomach fluctuating between queasy churning and a knotted pit of dread. Tender is the Flesh is a visceral, often unpleasant read that will not appeal to everyone, but I found it quite impactful. I was also grateful that it was relatively short, as I do not know if my constitution could have handled much more body horror.
The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart (translated from the French by Barbara Bray)
This novel is about the end of slavery on the Caribeean island Guadaloupe and the end of a family line, Télumée being the last of a long line of mothers and daughters. But of course it’s not really the end; the effects of slavery are ongoing, and Télumée is such a vivid, arresting presence that it’s impossible to believe she’ll leave no trace. You may have gathered that this is not a light novel, but the writing and the translation is light, as in airy, and dreamlike. The prose is so effortless and perfect, it’s easy to forget this is a translation, but it’ll also make you want to read in the original French, if you can.
The International Booker Prize isn’t always the most accessible place to start diving into translations. They tend to favour the experimental. This 2020 shortlister probably qualifies, but it’s actually accessible at many levels. Are you familiar with the foundational Argentinian epic poem El Gaucho Martín Fierro? Perfect, this is a satire and you’ll love it. Not so much? That’s fine too, you can relax and enjoyr a drug-fueled romp across the pampas, or get serious and appreciate the sharp post-colonial and feminist critique. Oh, and if you need a 19th century lesbian romance to hold you over till Ammonite is released, China Iron‘s got you covered.
Four by Four by Sara Mesa(Translated from Spanish by Katie Whittemore)
Insular communities are an excellent setting for gothic stories, and Four by Four is no exception. Set at Wybrany College –– only allegedly established in 1943 –– is an “elite alternative to the orphanages and shelters of the day,” where the wealthy keep their kids away from the rapidly depopulating city of Vado. The “Specials”, those on scholarship, become pets to the elite students; students pets to the masters; and on it goes. Through its short chapters, erratic timeline, and two-part narration the school’s web of exploitation is gradually weaved. Just try to find your footing in this unsettling milieu.
The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli (Translated from Spanish by Christina MacSweeney)
Valeria Luiselli’s irreverent second novel in Spanish was written in collaboration with workers at a Jumex factory in Ecatepec. The workers would listen to chapters as they worked, discuss them, and return the recordings of their discussions back to the author. The story follows Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez, an auctioneer in Mexico City. His wares? The teeth of notorious and infamous people from Petrarch to Marilyn Monroe. Highway is endearingly eccentric and charming company on this hilarious, madcap journey on which his only aim is to impress his son.
After the Wall by Jana Hensel (translated from German by Jefferson Chase)
This is a memoir about growing up in East Germany, and what it’s like to have childhood experiences that don’t exist anymore. My favorite element is the contrast of generations; older East Germans find it harder to adapt to the change, but younger Germans can’t completely understand what it was like to grow up in a divided country with such different experiences on either side of the wall. Hensel writes in a collective voice to show that she’s speaking for her cohort who have one foot in the past and another in the present. Really recommend this!
Isy Abraham-Raveson, Philadelphia, United States
Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lingren (translated from Swedish by Florence Lamborn)
Pippi Longstocking is a joyful story of an unconventional, super-strong girl teaching others the importance of breaking conventions and being oneself. Pippi is wonderfully imperfect. She can be self-centered and is easily annoyed, but also hates injustice and always stands up to bullies, whether they are little boys or police officers. Unfortunately, the book is not free of racism–Pippi is full of strange tales of racialized others from her worldly travels. If sharing this book with children, it would certainly require a discussion about prejudice. But overall, Pippi is a role model for all of us, embodying courage, strength, independence, playfulness, and the power of eccentricity.
The Frightened Ones by Dima Wannous (translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette)
The Frightened Ones explores the psychological traumas of living under dictatorship in present-day Syria through an intimate look into the pressure-cooked minds of two women. It is an emulsion of reality and memory, blurring storytelling boundaries between an in-person narrator and one in a manuscript. The effect creates a sort of meta-autofiction, where truth is overrun by fear and we as readers are left questioning what is commentary, biography, or fiction. The complexity of Wannous’ text softens its focus, making it hard to describe, but its propulsive pace and meticulous sense of atmosphere make it worth the effort. Ultimately, The Frightened Ones reads less like a novel and more like an experience.
There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (translated from Russian by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers)
Gessen and Summers collected various stories from this renowned author and placed them into four categories: Songs of the Eastern Slavs, Allegories, Requiems, and Fairy Tales. But they all share dark, fable-esque perspectives on jealousy, repression, and revenge. I realized while reading this that I’d come to expect a certain interiority from short stories in general, and a focus on minute personal psychology. But Petrushevskaya’s stories are externalized; the outside world is treated as a nightmarish reflection on the grimness inside. There’s a sense that we’ve made the world in our image, and that the result is not pretty. This then raises the question of how you cope if what’s inside you doesn’t match the stories the world is feeding you, forcing characters to create or to find their own worlds. It’s fabulous in all senses of the word, and whether or not you speak Russian, I encourage you to look up some video interviews with this author, if only to appreciate her enviable hat collection.
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.
Catherine House ★★★☆☆ | review The Lost Village ★★★☆☆ | review
SUCH A FUN AGE by Kiley Reid
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2019
So, first things first: my expectations for this book were all wrong. Most summaries of this book describe in detail the novel’s first 20 or so pages, in which the protagonist, Emira, a young Black woman, takes the white toddler she’s babysitting to a local supermarket and is accused of kidnapping her. From this I expected something sort of Celeste Ng-esque, or maybe even comparable to Jodi Picoult’s courtroom thrillers; the reality of this book is much more banal. Shortly after The Inciting Incident, everything goes back to normal, except for the fact that Alix, the mother of the toddler Emira was babysitting, becomes fixated on making amends, to the point where Emira’s wishes are disregarded entirely in Alix’s attempt to do good by her.
The theme of performative allyship is a topical one, but it’s not navigated with any particular finesse. I think there’s a good book in here somewhere, buried deep under irritating dialogue and commonplace events unfolding with melodrama; take for example this description of a toddler throwing up at a dinner party – this is the seriousness with which this utterly unremarkable event is written: “And when Emira grabbed what she knew was a very expensive napkin and dove across the table to cover the toddler’s mouth, Jodi was the first to notice and scream.” The chapter ends there. At ‘Jodi was the first to notice and scream’ I thought the child was about to have a seizure and be rushed to the hospital, but not even in a way where I felt the tension? This whole book was melodrama one-step removed.
And as much as I admired Reid’s intentions, I couldn’t help but to feel that the whole thing was just so heavy-handed. It’s so easy to intuit Emira, Alix, and Kelley’s narrative functions so early on that I could never quite believe any of them as real people or become invested. I just felt like Reid knew exactly what she wanted to say with this book but not how she wanted to say it; the novel as a whole feels clunky and unfocused, like a quilt that’s stapled together rather than sewn.
Ultimately: a perfectly fine debut and a good book club book (I don’t mean that in a judgmental way! if you want to force your friends or coworkers into having a serious conversation about racism and white allyship, by all means start here!) but as a literary novel this left so much to be desired that its inclusion in the Booker longlist is… baffling to me.
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
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!!!
Question 10 – A book that made you cry
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
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
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
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.
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.
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 Relaxation, Almost 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.
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.