Han Kang’s Booker International Prize winner, The Vegetarian, is a dark, illuminating, and at times grotesque book about objectification and the body.
Broken up into three sections, each with a different narrative perspective, the story tracks the repercussions of one woman’s choice to become a vegetarian.
It’s a quick read; I read it in one sitting on a flight from San Francisco to Hawaii last week. Did I love it? No. There were times I had to skip over sentences because the descriptions made me slightly nauseous.
However, I appreciated Kang’s seamless writing, the 3-section structure with disparate voices, and what the book reveals about how we/society view women’s bodies and food. Kang’s vegetarian is positioned as an object, and because we are seeing her through the eyes of her husband/her brother-in-law/her sister she is an object to the reader as well, of disgust, of desire and lust, of creation, of fear and perversion, she is an object to control, to feed, to persuade, to manipulate. And we are complicit.
A powerful read overall.
Pub month: June 2017
Hiromi Kawakami’s The Nakano Thrift Shop is a quick, idiosyncratic book. While reading it, I wondered, as I often do with books that have been translated from one language to another, what was lost or untranslatable, what cultural quirks couldn’t be conveyed adequately or precisely.
The narrative takes place within the Nakano Thrift Shop and centers on Hitomi, the naive young woman who works the counter, and around her coworker Takeo, the owner Mr. Nakano, and Nakono’s sister Masayo, plus a host of other odd characters who enter their store. A romance, if you could call it that, develops between Hitomi and Takeo but is fraught with bizarre miscommunication and is built upon unsubstantiated feelings.
There is a blatant sexual underscore to the book. Nude photos are examined matter-of-factly, an erotic text is discussed openly and plainly, a romantic tryst takes place without much heat, yet the lack of sexual or emotional connection between the two characters you are meant to feel for makes for a somewhat boring and rather lackluster read.
Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred has long been on my to-read list.
Powerful and terrifying, the story follows Dana, a young black woman in 1970’s Los Angeles, who is “called” back to antebellum Maryland when her white ancestor, Rufus, almost drowns. She saves him and is returned to her own time, to her life as a writer, to the home where she lives with her white husband. Over the course of the novel she is summoned again and again to save this ancestor; she forms complicated relationships with Rufus and his parents who own the plantation, and with their slaves. Even though she saves this young white “master,” Dana herself is treated like a slave, forced into physical labor, threatened and physically abused.
The passages that take place on the plantation are stronger than those set in 1970’s Los Angeles, the characters are more developed, the story both brutal and riveting. Because the narrative is told from the vantage of a free, modern, educated black woman, the horrors of slavery are exposed with a modern lens, the cruelty of the white owners and the powerlessness of the slaves are juxtaposed with Dana’s loving and seemingly equal bi-racial marriage. Overall, a fascinating, fast-paced read.
Katie Kitamura’s A Separation (isn’t that cover great?!) is the second book I’ve read this year in which a translator of books goes searching for someone who is missing. The first was Idra Novey’s elegantly written book Ways to Disappear which I read and reviewed back in January.
In A Separation, we follow Kitamura’s narrator as she travels to Greece, to a conflagration-charred landscape, to track down her unresponsive, unfaithful husband at the behest of her mother-in-law. We learn that she and the husband are separated, have been for months, but have kept the dissolve of their marriage a secret. The smoking Greek landscape, an apt setting, offers a visual representation of a marriage gone up in flames.
Kitamura’s translator, like Novey’s, searches for answers and understanding while “translating” her experience, communicating amidst an unfamiliar language, intuiting emotions of grief and longing, and reading into foreign interactions and expressions to glean meaning.
Here, the narrator straddles an awkward divide, she seemingly cares for her estranged husband because of the past they share, but is emotionally vague, neither saddened nor relieved, angry nor scared. “She,” never given a name or a description in the book, is a passive character whose cool remove heightens the sense of foreboding, feeds the estrangement, and structures the tension at the center of the plot.
The release of Exit West by Mohsin Hamid couldn’t be more timely. It follows two characters, Saeed and Nadia, as the unnamed city they live in is torn apart by violence and occupied by militants. They flee, becoming two refugees among many seeking asylum, a place to live, food to eat, a space to call their own.
The current refugee crisis echoes loudly through Exit West, as Hamid’s characters encounter folks willing to help them on their journey, and “nativists,” those people who want the refugees out of their neighborhoods, out of their country. Conflict arises. Loyalties are tested.
Hamid has crafted – and I use crafted purposefully here as Hamid’s writing craft is truly that of a master – a beautifully written story. Set in a world that is at once very recognizable, and vaguely futuristic, refugees escape through door portals, drones are a constant overhead, surveillance is everywhere, and known cities and places – London, Mykonos, Marin Country – are slightly changed, both familiar and strange.
When Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s childhood friend became a mother she asked the author for advice on how to raise her daughter to be a feminist. Dear Ijeawele is Adichie’s response.
A quick read, Adichie’s letter offers up fifteen suggestions, including teaching her to love books, imbuing her with self-reliance, informing her about systems of oppression, talking to her about sex, and encouraging her to question language and to reject “likeability.”
I will read anything Adichie writes. Her writing is consistently smart and accessible, powerful and timely. And this is no exception.
I agree with my friend Guinevere who wrote in her review on goodreads: “While it is written as a letter of advice for raising a baby girl, every word was valuable to me as the parent of a young boy … it is equally important to raise boys to be feminists.” YES. This is not just a book for parents of girls. In order to create a more gender equal world for our children, parents also need to be raising boys who are informed, who call out inequality when they see it, who challenge gender roles, and who don’t belittle, take advantage of, or oppress the girls/women around them. The fight for equality cannot be fought by women and girls alone.
Like my copy of Manguso’s 300 Arguments, nearly every page in this slim book is dog-eared; Ongoingness is full of passages I want to return to and sentences that bring on all the feels. In it, Manguso, an avid diarist, writes about the act of keeping a diary. For her, the diary is not only a record of life, but the proof of every day. In an attempt to live with complete awareness, to ward off death, she actively archives experience, builds a document that leaves a trace and pins down memory. This is not the diary itself, but a series of meditations on the act of writing daily, on the formation of identity and how it changes, on parenthood and aging, love and loss, and ultimately the ongoingness of time.
Manguso’s passages about being a new mother, nursing, and the body as vessel struck me at the core:
“In my experience nursing is waiting. The mother becomes the background against which the baby lives, becomes time.
I used to exist against the continuity of time. Then I became the baby’s continuity, a background of ongoing time for him to live against. I was the warmth and milk that was always there for him, the agent of comfort that was always there for him.
My body, my life, became the landscape of my son’s life. I am no longer merely a thing living in the world; I am a world.”
It’s so good.
This quick read by author/illustrator Leanne Shapton, one of the women behind Women in Clothes, is comprised of short, precise descriptions of exes and exes of exes, all accompanied by lovely black and white drawings. What struck me is that the things we remember about exes, and the things our partners remember about their exes, are sometimes quirky, irreverent, and odd, but deeply defining.
So many dog-eared pages in this little book, so many bite-sized gems.
“The first beautiful songs you hear tend to stay beautiful because better than beauty, which is everywhere, is the memory of first discovering beauty.”
“I don’t love writing; I love having a problem I believe I might someday write my way out of.”
“I used to avoid people when I was afraid I loved them too much. Ten years, in one case. Then, after I had been married long enough that I was married even in my dreams, I became able to go to those people, to feel that desire, and to know that it would stay a feeling.”
“Like a vase, a heart breaks once. After that, it just yields to its flaws.”
I loved this book so much I went out and bought Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of A Diary.