book review: Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin

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NOTES OF A CROCODILE by Qiu Miaojin
translated from the Chinese by Bonnie Huie
★★★☆☆
NYRB Classics 2017
originally published in 1994

 

An occasional pitfall of reading literature from a country other than your own is that you aren’t approaching it with the necessary cultural framework to make it comprehensible. This isn’t always the case, of course; some stories are more universal than others, and some books do a better job of contextualizing the relevant sociopolitical elements. But in Notes of a Crocodile, a book about a group of queer students in Taiwan in the late 80s, I felt desperately out of my depth, and I felt like so many of my attempts to engage with this book were met with stony silence on Qiu Miaojin’s part. But I want to stress that this isn’t a fault of the book itself. I can imagine for the right reader that a book like this would be sensational. Personally I felt like I was missing references and subtleties that a Taiwanese reader (and especially a queer Taiwanese reader) would easily pick up on. I’m glad to have read this book and grappled with it as best I could, but this wasn’t the easiest or most comfortable reading experience for me.

Narrated by a nameless protagonist, nicknamed Lazi, Notes of a Crocodile chronicles the trials of a group of queer students living in late 1980s Taipei. It’s also punctuated by a series of interludes which imagine that the country have been invaded by humanlike crocodiles; a clear metaphor for a society that sees queerness as an epidemic. (The homophobic obsession of early 1990s Taiwanese media with homosexuality is explained in a little more detail in this LA Review of Books review by Ari Larissa Heinrich, who has translated Miaojin in the past.)

This book is light on plot, and whatever plot does happen usually happens off-page and is narrated to the reader much later; instead the focus is on the internal. To me Lazi felt more like an embodiment of what it means to be queer in Taiwan than an established character in her own right – while we learn almost nothing about her past or her personhood, pages and pages are devoted to philosophizing about what it means to be a woman who loves other women; what it means for your sexuality to be interpreted as a political statement. To me the philosophy ranged from stimulating to repetitive, occasionally too mired in intertextuality to drive any particular point home. This result is a rather rambling meditation that again, I tried to engage with – occasionally successfully, occasionally not.

My other main takeaway from this is is that I think I would have appreciated this book more if I’d read it in my early twenties; I hate to sound callous but the sheer amount of self-destruction in these pages did become tiresome after a while. This book never lets up from its relentless angst and self-absorption, and the whole thing is of course shadowed by the tragedy of Qiu Miaojin’s suicide at age 26. I ultimately think this is worth a read, but I think I find Qiu Miaojin herself more intriguing than this particular book.


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

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book review: The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

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THE HOUSEKEEPER AND THE PROFESSOR by Yoko Ogawa
translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder
★★★★★
Picador, 2009

 

My only experience with Yoko Ogawa before now was her terrific short story collection Revenge, and though I’d heard that all of her books are drastically different from one another, I think I still expected to see a bit of Revenge‘s dark and macabre tone here. Instead, The Housekeeper and the Professor is utterly and unapologetically charming.

It focuses on the relationship between a housekeeper, her son, and a man whose house she’s assigned to by her agency, who she refers to only as ‘the Professor.’ The Professor has a condition which prevents him from creating new memories – his memory lasts only 80 minutes. He is nevertheless a brilliant man, and the likewise unnamed protagonist becomes increasingly spellbound by his unsolicited mathematical lectures.

There are any number of reasons why this book shouldn’t have worked for me; it’s sweet in tone, it’s about math, it’s about baseball. I don’t like any of these things. However, this book’s passion is positively infectious; this was like listening to a friend tell a story about something they love which you don’t particularly care about – sometimes regardless of the content, the enthusiasm itself is contagious. Also, I will say that this book helped me understand the sentiment that ‘math is like poetry,’ that I’ve heard a few times throughout my life, better than anything else ever has. No matter how many times I’ve witnessed an individual’s passion for math, it’s always seemed to me like this cold and rigid thing, but The Professor’s perspective on the relationship between numbers, and the solace he takes in their familiarity, really moved me.

But beyond the math and baseball, what makes this quirky book near-universally appealing is the unconventional, infinitely touching relationship between the two titular characters. The Housekeeper and the Professor is about empathy; it’s a testament to the unexpected possibilities of human connection. I just found this book to be a joy to read – quiet and subtle and nostalgic and affecting. Very highly recommended.


You can pick up a copy of The Housekeeper and the Professor here on Book Depository.

book review: The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn

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THE BIRD TRIBUNAL by Agnes Ravatn
translated from the Norwegian by Rosie Hedger
★★★★★
Orenda Books, 2016

 

What a bizarre, enchanting, darkly chilling little book. I am not in the habit of quoting others’ reviews in my own, but there’s a blurb from crime writer Rod Reynolds on the book that says ‘A masterclass in suspense and delayed terror, reading it felt like I was driving at top speed towards a cliff edge – and not once did I want to take my foot off the pedal’ – and I think that sums it up better than I could.

I’ve had this book on my shelf for years, and I can’t remember where or how I first heard about it, but I think I had it in my head that it was going to be a fairly standard thriller, which I had been in the mood for. But it was no disappointment to me when it turned out to be a different beast entirely. The Bird Tribunal felt to me like a modern-day Scandinavian Rebecca, following a young woman living in the shadow of her enigmatic employer’s first wife, but with all the dreary atmosphere and profound social isolation of Wuthering Heights. But though I wouldn’t necessarily classify this as a thriller, and I think it might disappoint readers who are specifically seeking out twists and turns, the tension and sense of growing dread I experienced while reading this were palpable.

The relationship between Allis and Sigurd is a tender, terrifying thing; this is the hook that gets its claws in you from the offset. Through Allis’s first person narration we’re drawn into her obsession with Sigurd, a distant, surly man who employs Allis as a kind of housekeeper while he awaits his wife’s return. Though Allis is blind to so many of the warning signs that the reader has access to, her obsession with Sigurd doesn’t feel unnatural or unrealistic or frustrating – reading this book isn’t like watching a train wreck so much as feeling like you’re the one steering the train. I wouldn’t say I ‘enjoyed’ this as the sense of discomfort I felt while reading it was pretty significant, but the fact that I stayed up until 1 am finishing this after taking Benadryl two hours earlier since I couldn’t tear myself away kind of says it all.


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

book review: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride

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A GIRL IS A HALF-FORMED THING by Eimear McBride
★★★★★
Coffee House Press, 2014

Having already read Eimear McBride’s sophomore novel, The Lesser Bohemians, I thought I was prepared for A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing. And indeed, I was prepared for McBride’s signature and singular prose style, a terse, choppy sort of stream of consciousness that mimics the incompleteness of thought. It’s a difficult style to warm up to: I’ve heard that listening to this book on audio can help, but personally I tried that and as I’m not an auditory learner at all, I found it much more comprehensible in print. So I think it does depend on your personal preferences, but once you settle into the rhythm of her words, it’s not as daunting as you might expect.

“Him anxious. Not at all like. But I am happy. Satisfied that I’ve done wrong and now and now. What now? Calm sliding down into my boat and pushing out to sin. He’s on the shoreline getting small.”

What I was not prepared for was how utterly gutting this book ended up being. This has to be one of the most intense, visceral, excruciating things I have read in my life – second only to A Little Life, perhaps? Just, don’t pick this up lightly. Trigger warnings for everything. Seriously, everything.

But it’s not just brutal; it’s good. Form, style, and content all dovetail here for one of the most perceptive examinations of the psychological toll of sexual assault that I have ever read. But more than that, this book is a raw and unfiltered look at sex, isolation, terminal illness, and sibling bonds, and though it’s relentlessly internal in its construction, a commentary on growing up as a young woman in Ireland beautifully underscores the entire thing. The protagonist remains nameless, something that I often find gimmicky and unnecessary, but here it works perfectly as a constant reminder of the narrator’s fractured sense of identity as she finds herself defined by the horrifying things that happen to her and around her as a young girl. This is a hard book to recommend as it’s so impenetrable at a glance, and so harrowing once you do get into it, but I think this is a book that is going to stay with me for a long time.


You can pick up a copy of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing here on Book Depository.

wrap up: July 2019

  1. Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler ★★★★☆ | review
  2. Permission by Saskia Vogel ★★☆☆☆ | review | buddy read with Matthew Sciarappa
  3. Walk Through Walls by Marina Abramović ★★★★★ | review
  4. Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah ★★★☆☆ | review | buddy read with Matthew Sciarappa
  5. Rough Magic by Lara Prior-Palmer ★★★★☆ | review
  6. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, audiobook narrated by Colin Farrell ★★★☆☆ | review to come, maybe
  7. Lock Every Door by Riley Sager ★★★★☆ | review
  8. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk ★★★★★ | review to come mid-August for BookBrowse
  9. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride ★★★★★ | review | buddy read with Callum, Hannah, Naty, Sarah, and Emily

Favorite: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride
Honorable mention: Walk Through Walls by Marina Abramović
Least favorite: Permission by Saskia Vogel

JULY TOTAL: 9
YEARLY TOTAL: 72

Other posts from this month:

Life updates:

Another relatively uneventful month for me, though I did have to go up to Montreal for a few days to attend a press check for work.  If you’ve read Severance by Ling Ma, you’ll know what that entailed; it’s basically just overseeing the printing process for our books.  Kind of boring, kind of interesting, depending on your perspective.

I also finally got to meet an online friend who I’ve known for a couple of years, Claire Andrews, who I’d never met irl despite the fact that we live an hour away from each other.  So, I hung out with her for a day the other week and that was nice!  She also took me to a bookstore that I’d been meaning to visit for years, so that was another win.

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Finally, I started a ko-fi page earlier this month, so if you ever feel the strong desire to support my blog by means of a hot beverage, there it is!  I want to stress that this isn’t something I view as an expectation – Jen Campbell refers to her Patreon account as a ‘tip jar’ for creators, and I like that comparison.  The very, very minimal monetary compensation I receive from this blogging endeavor is so helpful and so appreciated, but I’m happy just to be here chatting about books with you all.

Currently reading: The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story edited by Anne Enright, The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang, and Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb.  I was hoping to finish all of these before #WITmonth, but it was not in the cards.  I may finish the Kuang later today, but that’s a bit optimistic.  I’ll definitely finish it by the end of the week though.  The other two I may put aside for the rest of the month… who knows!  Enjoying them all, there just aren’t enough hours in the day and I really want to focus on women in translation for the next couple of weeks.

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

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

The Literary Fiction Book Tag

This tag was created by Jasmine over at Jasmine’s Reads on booktube.  I was NOT tagged for this by Claire from Claire Reads Books but we have since decided to advocate in favor of booktube/book blogging cross-pollination so I am doing this tag as a self-proclaimed ambassador of booktuber/book blogger relations.  Also I like literary fiction, as you may have noticed.

1. How do you define literary fiction?

Claire had a really good answer for this so I highly recommend watching her video, but I’ll try to come up with something.

I basically think of literary fiction as fiction that’s particularly concerned with style, structure, and quality of prose. That’s not to say that literary fiction has ‘good writing’ and genre fiction doesn’t (because first of all, ‘good writing’ is way too subjective to be a real standard, and second of all, that statement would be blatantly untrue), but in genre fiction, I see the prose more as a vehicle to move the story forward, and in literary fiction, I think the writing and stylistic choices dovetail more with the author’s thematic intentions. I also think an interest in social commentary is a common feature.

2. Name a literary fiction novel with a brilliant character study

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Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney

Since Claire already talked about The Idiot by Elif Batuman (my go-to answer for any question like this) I will instead go with Conversations With Friends.  What I think Sally Rooney does so well is balance characters’ inner lives and interpersonal lives, and while I think she did that splendidly with Connell and Marianne in Normal People, I think it’s Conversations With Friends where her prowess at characterization is most prominent.  Each of the characters in this book are frustrating, complex, contradictory, and layered, none more-so than the protagonist, Frances, one of the most vivid characters I’ve ever encountered.

3. Name a literary fiction novel that has experimental or unique writing

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A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride

I just finished reading this the other day so it’s the one that’s on my mind the most at the moment (and Jasmine also used this in her tag), but it’s honestly the perfect answer.  Eimear McBride has a striking prose style that can probably best be categorized as stream of consciousness, but it’s not the kind of rambling Joycean stream of consciousness that a lot of us think of when we heard the term.  Instead, sentences are abrupt, terse – thoughts begin and then cut themselves off and trip over one another.  It takes some getting used to, but once you warm up to the style McBride’s skill is undeniable.  She writes with similar prose in her sophomore novel, The Lesser Bohemians, which I actually read first, though I do consider A Girl if a Half-formed Thing superior in just about every way.

“I love the. Something of all it. Feeling ruined. Fucking. Off. I’m ready. Ready ready. To be this other other. To fill out the corners of this person who doesn’t sit in the photos on the mantel next to you.”

– Eimear McBride, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing

4. Name a literary fiction novel with an interesting structure

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How to be Both by Ali Smith

It’s an obvious answer, but I’m going with it.  How to be Both is noteworthy for the fact that it’s a novel comprised of two different halves: one story is about a girl, George, living in contemporary London, and the other is about a painter, Francescho, in Renaissance Italy.  50% of the editions printed begin with George’s half, the other 50% begin with Francescho’s.  But rather than being two disparate short stories connected in a single binding, How to be Both is very much a novel, one whose meaning shifts ever so slightly depending on which section you get first.  It sounds like a gimmick, but it’s done brilliantly.

5. Name a literary fiction novel that explores social themes

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Milkman by Anna Burns

Set in 1970s Belfast, Milkman is a novel about the Troubles, which captures the atmosphere of social unrest with unerring precision.  Anna Burns perfectly brings to life this community characterized by paranoia and terror and distrust, and ties into that a searing commentary on what it’s like to live under surveillance as a young woman.  It’s both a universal portrait of femininity in times of crisis, and distinctly Northern Irish in its portrayal of the Troubles, tackling social themes on both micro and macro levels.

6. Name a literary fiction novel that explores the human condition

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Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I could actually use this book as an answer to every single one of these questions, but I have to put it here, because I have never read another book that offers more of an unapologetic examination of what it means to be human.  It’s hard to talk about this novel’s plot as there’s a twist partway through that reframes the entire narrative and I think it’s best to go into it not knowing what that twist is, but, this is my favorite book, so I don’t know how to give praise much higher than that.

7. Name a brilliant literary-hybrid genre novel

I’m going to name a couple:

Literary thriller: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk
Literary sci-fi: Kindred by Octavia Butler
Literary historical fiction: Human Acts by Han Kang
Literary erotica: The Pisces by Melissa Broder

Drive Your Plow: technically a murder mystery about a woman living in the Polish wilderness whose neighbors keep mysteriously dying, but it’s literary for the attention paid to the slightly offbeat prose style, and the fact that the narrative is less concerned with the murders themselves than their social implications.

Kindred: sci-fi because it’s about time travel, literary because the time travel is just a vehicle used to explore social themes of Civil War era slavery in the US.

Human Acts: about the Gwangju Uprising in 1980 Korea; literary for the prose style and unconventional format.

The Pisces: a woman has sex with a merman — but it’s literary for its highly intelligent commentary on love, loss, loneliness, desire, mental health, and femininity.

8. What genre do you wish was mixed with literary fiction more?

Given how much I adored The Pisces, I could definitely go for some more literary romance/erotica.  But honestly, I read across all genres, so seeing ‘literary’ attached to anything is a big selling point for me.

In an effort to further my booktube/book blog cross-pollination agenda, I will be tagging a bunch of people.  But feel free to skip it, obviously, and feel free to do it if I didn’t tag you!

Tagging:

Callum | Hannah | Sarah | Naty | EmilyLou
Karissa | Elise | Laura Frey | Laura Tisdall

Booker 2019 Longlist Reaction

It’s here, pals – the Man Booker 2019 longlist has been announced!

The full list from the Booker website, with links to Book Depository:

So, let’s go through this:

Already read: My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite and Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli.

The two Women’s Prize titles.  I’ll start with the one whose inclusion befuddles me the least: I predicted that Lost Children Archive would make the cut and it comes as zero surprise.  I had a mixed experience with it (review here), but I do think it’s a very accomplished book and I completely understand the love that others have for it.  My Sister, The Serial Killer… is actually the book that I liked more, of these two, but looking at some notable snubs (Ocean Vuong! Jan Carson! Colson Whitehead!) I can’t say that I understand why it made this list, other than that it appears to be the literary prize darling of the moment.  Make no mistake, I think it’s a good book.  But, good enough for the Booker, and better than On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous?!  Hm.

Will definitely not read: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann.

I’m one of those heathens who actually hated The Handmaid’s Tale, and I also hate sequels/prequels/spin-offs of things that were originally imagined as standalones (I loved The Hunger Games in college but I have no interest in the new book; I still haven’t read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, etc), so nothing about The Testaments appeals to me.  I’ll admit that I’m curious about Ducks, Newburyport, but not curious enough to read 1000 pages of like, four sentences or whatever it is, especially over a number of other books I’ve been wanting to read recently.  Of these two I’m more likely to read Ducks, Newburyport eventually, but certainly not by October.

Will definitely read: Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry, Lanny by Max Porter, Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson.

Night Boat to Tangier sounds so up my alley it’s not even funny (it’s the only Irish book on this list, and I’ve heard it compared to In Bruges, which is my favorite film – say no more), UK booktube has been raving about Lanny for months and I’m not convinced that I’ll love it but I’m curious enough to give it a try, and I’ve been wanting to read Jeanette Winterson for ages, and I love Frankenstein so this seems like a good place to start.

And… the rest.

Of these I think I’m most likely to read The Man Who Saw Everything.  I’m kind of curious about Girl, Woman, Other, but it’s a bit long so I’ll wait to hear some more assessments of it before making my decision.  Apparently An Orchestra of Minorities has something to do with the Odyssey, so I should probably be excited about it, but I’ve heard a few too many lukewarm things.  But, maybe.  Sci-fi/dystopia isn’t my thing, so The Wall isn’t at the top of my list, but who knows.  I didn’t even know there was a new Salman Rushdie, which makes me feel like I’ve been living on another planet, but at a glance I can’t say I’m terribly interested by it.  I think the Elif Shafak sounds kind of terrible (I’m really, really not into ‘in the moments before they die’ stories), but I could probably be convinced to read it if I read enough rave reviews.

So, overall?

Needless to say, I will not be reading this entire longlist, which I’m actually really happy about.  I’ve already publicly pledged my allegiance to Women in Translation Month, and I’m really looking forward to my TBR.  I was so nervous that I was going to see a list of 13 titles that sounded super enticing to me, so I’m selfishly pleased that that’s not the case.  (Also, apologies if you follow me specifically for my Booker coverage – but for my own sanity, I can’t do this every year.)

But once I take a step back from my selfish happiness over not loving this list, I must confess to being disappointed.  This is certainly a list of literary heavy hitters, which makes a radical departure from the 2018 list which was filled with debuts and genre fiction, but honestly, I found myself much more inspired and intrigued by the freshness of last year’s list.  This list is… about what I was expecting.  There’s nothing egregiously awful about it at a glance, but there’s nothing that really excites me, either.

Also, moment of silence for The Fire Starters, hands down the best piece of fiction I’ve read so far in 2019.  I guess the Booker couldn’t do Troubles Lit two years in a row?

What are your thoughts on the Booker longlist?  Which titles are you most and least excited to see her?  What are you planning on reading?  What do you think was snubbed?  Let’s talk in the comments!