book review: Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

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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.

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.

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: 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: 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: 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

An Alternate Women’s Prize Longlist

As we all know, I’m a devoted follower of the Women’s Prize.  I tried my best with the 2020 longlist – I really did.  Here’s where I landed on this group of 16 books:

Shortlist

Remaining longlist

  • Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara | will not read/don’t care enough to prioritize this
  • Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner | read ★★★☆☆
  • Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams | will not read/don’t care enough to prioritize this
  • Actress by Anne Enright | on-hold for now; I read 50 pages, had to put it down when various library holds all came in at the same time, and now it’s been too long to pick it back up, so I’m going to wait a couple of months and start over
  • Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie | will not read/don’t care enough to prioritize this/have heard it’s awful
  • How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee | read ★★★★☆
  • The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo | currently reading/suffering
  • Girl by Edna O’ Brien | read ★☆☆☆☆
  • The Dutch House by Ann Patchett | will not read/don’t care enough to prioritize this/have heard it’s awful
  • Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson | read ★★★★☆

At this point, I’m just sort of fed-up.  I haven’t had a single 5-star read off this list, I’ve read two that I positively HATED, and if I have to read another book about motherhood I’m going to fucking scream.  Luckily the 3 shortlisted titles that I haven’t already read (A Thousand Ships, Mantel, Hamnet) are the 3 that I was most looking forward to off the longlist, so, that was fortuitous, and I’ll definitely be reading those.  As for the rest… nope!


So a group of blogging friends and I decided to take the initiative to create our own 2020 longlist.  In a perfect world where we were the judges, these are the books we would have longlisted this year (adhering to all the Women’s Prize eligibility criteria):

It’s a group of 8 of us, so we each put forward 2 titles.  (See if you can guess mine.)

The Judges: Callum, EmilyHannahMarijaNatySarahSteph, and myself.

The longlist:

  1. The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy | review ★★★★★
  2. My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell | currently reading
  3. Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
  4. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo | review ★★★★☆
  5. The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
  6. Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann
  7. The Body Lies by Jo Baker | review ★★★★★
  8. The Fire Starters by Jan Carson | review ★★★★★
  9. Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips | review ★★★★★
  10. Bunny by Mona Awad
  11. Supper Club by Lara Williams
  12. My Name is Monster by Katie Hale
  13. Actress by Anne Enright
  14. Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater
  15. The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld
  16. Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson | review ★★★★☆

All of us have a bit of literary prize fatigue at the moment, so we aren’t setting ourselves a deadline to read the list and come up with a shortlist.  It’s just something we’re going to meander through and hopefully revisit in a few months’ time.

That said, if you want to join us in reading any of these titles, please do!  The idea is ultimately to spotlight a group of books that we think either flew somewhat under the radar this year, or which we think are deserving of all the accolades they’ve been getting.

Comment and let me know your thoughts on the following: 1. the official longlist, 2. our alternate longlist, and 3. your own ideal longlist!

book review: The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel | BookBrowse

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THE GLASS HOTEL by Emily St. John Mandel
★★★★★
2020, Knopf

 

Vincent—a young woman named for American poet and playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay—is working as a bartender in a hotel on a remote island in British Columbia, when one day a message is scrawled across the hotel window that reads: “Why don’t you swallow broken glass.” This sets off the unexpected chain of events that are chronicled by Emily St. John Mandel in her highly anticipated novel The Glass Hotel, which follows Vincent from rural Canada to Wall Street as she becomes involved with a high-level financial executive, whose successful business is revealed to be fronting a Ponzi scheme. This is the first novel that Mandel has published since the release of the wildly successful Station Eleven in 2014.

You can read my full review HERE and a piece I wrote about Ponzi schemes HERE.


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

not a book review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

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A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM by William Shakespeare
★★★★★
originally published in 1595

 

This is more of a diary entry than a book review which I have never done before, but… times are weird!

One of my friends had a BRILLIANT idea to organize a Shakespeare read-through over Zoom this weekend. (The irony is lost on none of us that we’re essentially reenacting Station Eleven.) A group of us divvied up parts and read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which, incidentally, is the play in which I made my acting debut as Mustardseed the fairy when I was 11. I was angling for Puck so that casting decision came as quite the blow. It felt redemptive to read as Hippolyta last night, a slightly meatier role.

Anyway, all silliness aside, times are tough right now and I know a lot of us are having difficulties concentrating on our usual sorts of escapism, which for most of us includes reading. This virtual Shakespeare production amongst a group of friends was such a fun distraction that we’re going to make it a weekly thing, proceeding with The Tempest next weekend. If you have a friend group who’d be down for this kind of thing (it doesn’t have to be Shakespeare – you could do any play or movie script), I HIGHLY recommend it. It’s the only 2 hours this week that I’ve felt truly switched off from the constant news stream and existential dread that’s been eating away at me. That’s why I thought I’d share – there’s so much discourse floating around about how you need to Make The Most of this quarantine to clean your house and learn a new language and write the next great American novel, but I think what we really need are lower-stakes, delightfully distracting and unproductive projects like reading Shakespeare with your friends around the globe with a glass of wine.

Hope you all are staying safe and healthy!  Tell me something fun and silly you’ve done to help you through the pandemic?