Fault Lines by Emily Itami Published by Custom House on September 7, 2021 my rating: 3.5 stars Goodreads avg: 3.75 (as of 2022-06-16) Spoiler-free review Goodreads
I went into this completely cold and found myself a bit bored by it at first. Mizuki is a Japanese housewife who has spent time in America and dreams of more than domesticity. She begins an affair with a stranger, as she feels neglected by her husband and bored with her life. This sounds like the start of plenty of literary novels, but I found her relationship with Kiyoshi lovely and refreshing. I also liked that instead of causing her to drift further from her family, her relationship with Kyoshi allows her to settle more fully into her role as wife and mother when she is home. I was even quite emotional at the ending, although I knew it couldn’t have ended any other way. I’m glad to have read this and am looking forward to seeing if Itami puts out any more books. Thanks to Fatma for the rec!
Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier Published by Doubleday on June 9, 2020 my rating: 4 stars Goodreads avg: 3.37 (as of 2022-06-03) Spoiler-free review Goodreads
I truly had no idea what to expect from this, but a pregnant 18-year-old obsessing over a middle aged woman wasn’t it. The titular Pizza Girl is a delivery driver who is dealing with grief, the looming future of motherhood, and a deepening divide between herself and her family, which consists of only her boyfriend and her own mother. This book has humorous moments and its fair share of vulgarity, but it’s a deep look into coming of age while in the throes of depression. I was frantic and heartbroken by the end of this, more closely invested in Pizza Girl than I thought I would become. I’m glad I was recommended this for the 12 in 12 Challenge, as I honestly think I wouldn’t have picked it up otherwise.
The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa, transl. by Stephen Snyder Published by Pantheon in August 13, 2019 (originally 1994) my rating: 3 stars Goodreads avg: 3.75 (as of 2022-05-25) Spoiler-free review Goodreads
I wish I had gotten along with this more, but it was a little flatter than I expected. It was reminiscent to me of 1984 in some ways, although I wouldn’t draw a tight comparison between the two. I thought the titular Memory Police would play a more pivotal role in this, but it felt like they only existed to add stakes to the story. I just felt a lot of “why?” reading this. I could draw connections to colonialism and the erasure of cultures, or the oppression of afab bodies, but it didn’t feel like a fully formed commentary was there. I was largely bored by this and although some aspects were compelling, I felt let down.
Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith Published by Random House in July 6, 2021 my rating: 3 stars Goodreads avg: 3.87 (as of 2022-05-23) Spoiler-free review Goodreads
I’m still not sure whether I read this book or whether it was all a fever dream that I imagined. Build Your House Around My Body spans decades and follows an ever-changing cast of characters through a dark, fantastical story. The ‘main’ character, Winnie, is a Vietnamese-American woman attempting to find herself in Vietnam while slipping deeper and deeper into a depressive spiral.
While I appreciated this story overall, I found myself swinging between bored, confused, and intrigued. Sadly, too much of my time was spent waiting to get to the end of the story rather than appreciating the journey itself. This novel is often difficult to follow, although I was impressed by the way Kupersmith was able to connect the characters to each other. There were many instances where I found myself highlighting lines that would have meant little-to-nothing in another book, but that gave me an ‘aha!’ moment in seeing another connection.
I would recommend this with the caveat that if you don’t like sweeping storylines that take their time to intersect and become clear, this is probably not the book for you. It does have a lot of interesting commentary on colonialism and bodily autonomy, but I struggled to untangle this from the story itself.
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Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata transl. by Ginny Tapley Takemori Published by Grove Press in August 2019 (originally 2016) my rating: 3.5 stars Goodreads avg: 3.72 (as of 2022-05-18) Spoiler-free review
This short novel (or is it technically a novella? I never know) is a pleasantly written examination of societal expectations. It’s set in Japan so while expectations are a little bit different than what I’m used to seeing in my area of the US, I think this is a book everyone can relate to in some way. Keiko has been working at the same convenience store for 18 years and at 36 has friends and family who are concerned about her apparent lack of ambition regarding both her career and romance. Our narrator, on the other hand, is happy with her life. She understands the flow of the convenience store, is able to predict its needs the way one might do with a lover or a child. She doesn’t see the need to expand her horizon, and doesn’t understand why others may be so concerned with it.
This really felt like the perfect length to me; we had plenty of time to understand Keiko’s life, routine, and mindset before the obligatory conflict and subsequent disaster set in. I liked the humor in this and found it easy to get through. It did make me think a lot about how we judge people for not hitting certain ‘milestones’ whether it’s what they want or not. I loved how she was so happy with herself and her life and didn’t understand why that wasn’t good enough for others.
I thought this was great at doing what it was meant to do, but it was just missing something for me, which is why my rating is a little lower. I did enjoy it overall, though, and will be recommending it! Additionally, it is not explicitly stated but I found it heavily implied that Keiko is autistic and aroace. She faces a lot of critique and discrimination for this, so I would make sure you’re in the right headspace to read this if that’s something that could be difficult for you to read!
I liked how complex and easy to root for these characters were, even as they waded through gray areas of morality and made mistake after mistake. Olga is a wedding planner for the elite and her brother Prieto is a congressman. Both of them are of Puerto Rican descent, born and raised in Brooklyn. This novel explores their personal lives as well as the impact of Hurricanes Irma and Maria on Puerto Rico itself.
Olga and Prieto are both middle aged and still dealing with being abandoned (and subsequently emotionally abused) by their mother, although in different ways. Prieto has hidden himself behind a mask that is beginning to crack and Olga has avoided any kind of emotional connections. Prieto begins to question the way he’s been doing things, while Olga meets the odd-yet-endearing Matteo.
This is an interesting examination of familial trauma, race, and gentrification that works in a lot of ways but ultimately tried to hit too many topics. One of my biggest issues was that the ending felt far too neat for me, like González needed to tie everything up in a bow. I felt like we went from realistic literary fiction to a run-of-the-mill romance novel in the 11th hour; it just didn’t fit the tone of everything that preceded it.
Overall, I did enjoy this though, it just ended up knocked down a few pegs for me. Everything from here on is spoiler territory, as there are some aspects of the ending that rubbed me the wrong way. Content warning for discussion of rape ahead. The first is that the ‘third act breakup’ is preceded by Olga being raped and having a complete mental breakdown. It honestly felt like the assault was just a tool to get to this conflict, and could have been replaced by anything else. When she finally tells Matteo, he’s like ‘wow that sucks and it’s not your fault, but you can’t ignore me when you’re upset.’ Like?? Maybe cut her a little more slack dude, she was literally just raped.
Secondly, one of the unrealistic aspects of the ending is that Matteo just happens to be rich so he can say, ‘oh don’t worry about getting a job, we can just be together and money doesn’t matter!’ How is he rich? He’s a landlord. It’s okay, though! He’s a good landlord! He’s fighting gentrification! By being a landlord! Especially coming right after the ‘sorry you were raped but don’t ignore me’ conversation, this just left a bad taste in my mouth. Matteo is supposed to be a good guy, we’re supposed to be happy. I wasn’t.
Like I said above, this is still a good book. I still recommend it. I just couldn’t love it and have trouble looking past its faults.
The Pisces was my top book of 2018, so I had high expectations for Broder’s sophomore novel. While I didn’t love this quite as much, I still devoured it. While The Pisces felt like a deep exploration of depression to me, Milk Fed is an exploration of disordered eating. Rachel, the narrator, is a Jewish woman who was raised by an overly critical mother and who uses food restriction as a religion, spending all her time thinking about eating.
I found the portrayal of binge eating in this incredibly spot-on, and thought Rachel’s changing relationship with her body — and Miriam’s — was interesting. I think there are going to be some varying views on the fat representation here and I’m not positive where I fall. Miriam never felt like a fully-formed character to me, but I think that was part of the point: Rachel coveted her in an unhealthy way, obsessing over Miriam’s body the way she obsessed over her own.
Much like The Pisces, I’m not sure who I would recommend this to. It certainly won’t please everyone, but if you’re able to let go and trust Broder I think you’re in for a good ride.
And I thought: now there is no turning back. No more regrets for what I haven’t done. Now only regrets for what I have done. I love him, I hate myself; I love myself, I hate him. This is the end of a long story.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the blurb: Elle awakens at her family’s summer home the morning after sleeping with her childhood best friend and over the next 24 hours has to decide whether she wants to leave her husband. What I didn’t expect was for this to span decades, generations. While the story itself does take place over only a single day, much of it is filled in with flashbacks that slowly fill in the context until we understand more fully what Elle’s decision truly entails.
I caution readers to take care before picking this up, and to look up the content warnings. Both Elle’s history and her mother’s contain child sexual abuse and rape as well as parental abuse and neglect. I found the reading experience intense and graphic, but not needlessly so. Heller skillfully shows the aftermath of trauma and how tightly it manages to grip you.
The writing in this is truly beautiful, I marveled at the author’s way with words and was shocked to discover this was her debut novel. I cared so deeply for Elle and Jonas and was genuinely invested in their lives both together and apart. I know reading about cheating can be a dealbreaker for some people and while I don’t think cheating is a good thing, love can be complex and I think this was handled realistically and gracefully. Elle is torn between the life she thinks she should have with the husband she truly loves and the life she truly should have had with the man she has been connected to for decades. This isn’t a simple or easy choice and Heller didn’t paint it as such. I also found it interesting that many readers found the conclusion open-ended, I was positive I knew what she had chosen so other reviews surprised me!
My one issue is with a reveal that freed Elle in a way I felt she should have been freed from the start. I can’t go any deeper without spoilers but I will say that while I had no issue with the reveal itself, I didn’t particularly love Elle’s reaction to it.
All in all, I found this to be a beautiful yet devastating novel that will stick with me for years to come. I really look forward to what Heller puts out next and am glad this was selected for the Women’s Prize Longlist, which is what prompted me to read it.
Life was fragile and fleeting and one had to be cautious, sure, but I would risk death if it meant I could sleep all day and become a whole new person.
This had been recommended to me by my friend Libby for the 12 in 12 Challenge, but it had been on my TBR since 2018 and I was looking forward to reading it. Friends of mine had very much enjoyed it and I thought the concept was interesting: the narrator decides that she wants to sleep for an entire year. So she does. Or she tries, at least. Using a cocktail of downers, she sleeps as much as possible.
I enjoyed the writing in this at a technical level, but I was just never as invested as I wanted to be. It felt like a bit of a slog, and I found myself not wanting to pick it back up except to finish it so I could move on to something else. Perhaps part of this is Moshfegh’s extremely real portrayal of depression. Real depression can be real hard to read, as it digs into your brain and pulls you down with it.
The narrator is incredibly unlikeable, something that is never a dealbreaker for me in a book since I love reading about messy women. Basically I’m that meme that’s like “I support women’s rights. But I also support women’s wrongs.” And this woman has a lot of wrongs. Unfortunately I just didn’t find them interesting in the way I normally do. I was bored by her poor relationships and her cold facade.
The end, though, that end was a punch in the gut. It pulled things together for me in a way I wasn’t quite expecting. Although I don’t fully understand what Moshfegh was doing here, I do appreciate the novel she gave us and I am intrigued enough to give her other works a try.
Reading this while on medical leave from graduate school and in the midst of a depressive episode (the very same school our narrator is attending, in fact) was… tough, to put it lightly. Wang succeeds in portraying the deep ambivalence and lack of motivation that mental illness and loneliness bring. The narrator’s history slowly unravels to the reader as we follow her through this breakdown. The daughter of two Chinese immigrants, she feels immense pressure to succeed in obtaining her Chemistry PhD and can think of little else. She avoids unpacking her childhood trauma at all costs and sees little value in looking backward, even when it keeps her from moving forward.
A short and sweet novel, I found this incredibly compelling and felt deeply for our unnamed narrator. I certainly see how this wouldn’t be for everyone, but highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys quietly introspective literary fiction.