BOOK REVIEWS

The New Me by Halle Butler

The New Me is a book that has been on my periphery since it first came out. The cover, title, and summary were relatively intriguing as they gave me some very strong Ottessa Moshfegh/The Bell Jar vibes. Still, it wasn’t anywhere close the top of my TBR until I saw that Halle Butler is going to introduce a new edition of The Yellow Paper.

The New Me shares much in common with My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Pizza Girl, Luster, Severance (and many others): we a rather nondescript main character, thirty-year-old Millie, who is leading an unfulfilling and rather meandering existence. She is a temp worker who doesn’t really know what she wants to do or what she likes. Her latest assignment finds her working as a receptionist. The job is boring and Millie spends most of her shifts screening calls. Her mostly female colleagues are depicted as gossipy and self-centred. Karen, her sort of superior, hates Millie and decides that she wants her out. Millie’s first person narration is often interrupted with short snippets following Karen, other female colleagues, and at one point her downstairs neighbours. These segments detract from Millie’s narration as they don’t really add a lot to her story. They simply portrayed people being or acting in horrible way all the while believing they are right or good.
I did find Millie’s dark, and occasionally caustic, humour to be fairly entertaining. Yet, while Butler succeeds in satirising the modern work place and female friendships, her novel did feel a bit basic. It doesn’t take much to poke fun at women like Karen or Millie’s other colleagues. And part of me wishes that there had been some variations in the female dynamics (all female friendships in this book are the same: one of them whinges about life/work/whatever being unfair, the other one listens while internally whinging about having to put with her ‘friend’s’ whinging).
At the end of the day I probably wouldn’t recommend this book to a lot of readers (this type of story has been already been told…and dare I say better?). Still, it definitely had its moments now and again and I do think that Butler is a writer to watch out for.
Hilary Leichter’s Temporary is not only a far more entertaining novel (in my personal opinion) but it manages to capture the gig economy in a way that The New Me doesn’t.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Milk Fed by Melissa Broder

(heads up: this review contains mentions of eating disorders and body dysmorphia as well as explicit language)

While I doubt that Milk Fed will win many awards, I sure hope that it wins the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. It 100% deserves to.

“Was it real freedom? Unlikely. But my rituals kept me skinny, and if happiness could be relegated to one thing alone, skinniness, then one might say I was, in a way, happy.”

Milk Fed follows in the steps of novels such as My Year of Rest and Relaxation (or to name a few others: Pizza Girl, Luster, Exciting Times, Severance, Hysteria, The New Me…and no, this is by no means a comprehensive list). As I’ve said before in my review for Luster, these books are a hit or miss for me. And at first I thought that Milk Fed was a definite hit but after the 30% mark the novel became increasingly repetitive, annoyingly self-indulgent, and ludicrously sensationalistic. To me, Milk Fed reads like a less compelling version of You Exist Too Much. Both novels focus on young bisexual women who have a rather toxic relationship with their mother. They both suffer at one point or another from an eating disorder. They are self-destructive and directionless. Their attempts to seek therapeutic help do not go all that well. The narrator of You Exist Too Much does some fucked up things but ultimately I cared for and sympathised with her. It helped that I found her caustic wit to be genuinely funny. Milk Fed is all style and no substance. Perhaps those who can enjoy this kind of turgid prose may be able to find this novel amusing or insightful but it just reminded of all the reasons why I did not like Susan Choi’s My Education.
Also, fyi, I had an eating disorder. However, I would never describe myself as a ‘survivor’ nor do I believe that you can’t write a dark comedy about eating disorders. I like satire and cringe comedy (Succession and Fleabag are favourites of mine) but I am certainly not a fan of narratives that are solely intent on being as garish and gratuitous as possible.

Our narrator, Rachel, is an aimless twenty-something who in the very opening of the novel informs us that “It didn’t matter where I worked: one Hollywood bullshit factory was equal to any other. All that mattered was what I ate, when I ate, and how I ate it”. Rachel thinks about food 24/7. She obsesses about calories, follows seemingly arbitrary eating rituals, exercises everyday not in order to get stronger or leaner but to burn as many calories as possible. She seems to view her troubling relationship to food and her body as preferable to ‘the alternative’ (not being ‘skinny’). She goes to therapy, “hoping to alleviate the suffering related to both my food issues and my mother, but without having to make any actual life changes in either area”. During one of these sessions her therapist recommends that Rachel should take a “communication detox” from her mother (suggesting at least 90 days of no contact).

“Do you want to be chubby or do you want boys to like you?”

We learn through brief flashbacks and Rachel’s recounting that one of the reasons why developed an eating disorder is her mother. As a child Rachel’s mother would shame her for eating things she believed were ‘unhealthy’ or ‘bad’ and imposed strict diets on Rachel. Rachel began to binge-eat (in secret), which made her gain weight. To ‘make up’ for it Rachel begins to eat less and less, which sees her becoming anorexic (when she confesses to her mother that she thinks she may be anorexic her mother dismiss this by saying something on the lines of her not being ‘skinny enough’ to be truly anorexic). Rachel’s mother is horrible and she gives the mother from You Exist Too Much a run for her money…but, unlike You Exist Too Much, here we only told bad things about Rachel’s mother. Because of Rachel’s ‘detoxing’ from her, she never makes an appearance in the actual story. Her presence certainly haunts Rachel but I wish she had not been portrayed in such a skewed way. Making someone embody only negative traits is a very easy way of making them unlikable or into the ‘bad guy’.

Rachel doesn’t care about her job ( I cannot precisely remember what she does other than it has to do with ‘Hollywood’) nor does she have any friends or hobbies (unless you count obsessing about food as a hobby). She is desperate for validation, which is perhaps why once a week she does stand up comedy for a night show called ‘This Show Sucks’. This thread of her life often felt unexplored and out of place. You could probably cut out the scenes she spends at this show and the story would be much the same (by the end this show’s main purpose seems to be that of a meeting place).
At work she has sort of bonded with an older woman who she sees both as a mother-figure of sorts and as an object of desire. This leads to some predictably gross incestuous fantasies that have a very Freudian feel to them as they exist mainly to indicate Rachel’s state of mind (and they have the added bonus of grossing the reader out). During one of these sexual fantasies, which goes on and on for quite a few pages, Rachel imagines being ‘mothered’ by this older female colleague. Later, when she begins bingeing again, she imagines having sex with this same colleague, only this time she is the one who is in doing the ‘dominating’.
Rachel’s first meets Miriam at the frozen yogurt shop where she usually gets a plain yogurt from (part of her eating routine). Miriam, who works at this shop, insists on giving Rachel a bigger portion of yogurt. Because of this Rachel is annoyed by Miriam. Added to that is Rachel repulsion towards Miriam’s body (she describes Miriam as being “medically obese”). However, Miriam’s nonchalance towards food and her body soon catch Rachel’s attention. Her initial repulsion gives way to lust, and the two women seem to ‘bond’ over the fact that they are both Jewish (Miriam however, unlike Rachel who does not seem to practice any Jewish rituals and does not believe in God, is Orthodox).
Miriam invites Rachel to her house and Rachel idealises her family and home-life. They all enjoy eating and cooking food, and their meals together are happy occasions.
Rachel believes that Miriam reciprocates her feelings and the two being a very one-way sexual relationship. Things, of course, do not go as planned. Rachel’s ups and downs with food, her self-hatred, her unresolved mummy issues, they all contribute to her self-destructive behaviour.
I probably wouldn’t have minded the book’s switch of focus (from Rachel’s ED to Rachel feelings for Miriam) if the relationship between Rachel and Miriam had not been wholly superficial. Miriam is reduced to the role of sex object. There are many instances were Rachel, and the readers, could have learnt more of her—what kind of person she is, her feelings towards Rachel, the way she sees herself, her future & desires, etc.—but we do not. What we get instead are many scenes about Rachel wanting to have sex with Miriam, obsessing over Miriam’s body, masturbating while thinking of Miriam or that her colleague, having sex with Miriam…the list goes on. The way Rachel’s thinks about Miriam’s body raised a few red flags and her attraction towards her sometimes verged on fetishising. She doesn’t think of Miriam but merely of Miriam’s body. Many of the metaphors used when the two are having sex or when Rachel is fantasising about her are food related (Rachel describes Miriam’s moles as “chocolate drops”, her tongue as a “fat piece of liver she was king enough to feed me”). She also loves watching her eat and is aroused when Miriam “slurp[s] dumplings”. Miriam’s “rolls of fat” are like “pussies” to Rachel. I don’t know…these descriptions were probably meant to be funny and weird but they mostly struck me as affected and cheap.
Most of the sex scenes in this novel were awful. They tried hard to be gritty and real but ended being the opposite: when watching a film with Audrey Hepburn Rachel imagines Audrey’s “concave thighs” and sticking her “mouth in her little pussy”; when she is holding Miriam’s hand she views this as an act of sexual intercourse, her finger is a “a cock, a penetrating object”; some of her fantasies included phrases such as “I activated Frankencock” or “It was like nipples were two clits”; when she is having sex with Miriam she smells “the faintest waft of shit coming up from underneath her. It smelled like fertile heaven: peat moss, soil, sod, loam”. Later in the novel she brags about fingering a guy to that older female colleague in order to impress her, feeling remorse in doing so. She never confronts her mother or this colleague, nor does she feel challenged or inspired by her relationship with Miriam. Yes, the more time she spends with Miriam, the less she restricts but throughout the course of the narrative she maintains an obsessive relationship with food and keeps assigning moralistic values to food. I never believed that she cared for Miriam, nor do I think that the relationship helped her somehow. Miriam…she did not strike me as a fully fleshed character. While her body is described in minute detail, her personality remains largely absent. Often, it seemed that Rachel viewed Miriam’s body as representing her ‘essence’. She likes going to the cinema, she’s Jewish, she seems to care for her family…other than that? Who knows!
Because this is a satire most of the characters exist in order to make fun of a certain type of person: we have Rachel’s manager, a woke ‘dude bro’, her older female colleague who is thin, mean, and enjoys belittling other people’s appearance etc., the famous actor who is kind of full of himself, the not very helpful therapist who sees fake deep things…
The narrative also had a thread involving a golem (Rachel creates it out of putty during one of her therapy sessions) and a series of dreams with Judah Loew ben Bezalel, and, to be perfectly honest, these were my favourite elements of Rachel’s story. Sadly however they do not play a huge role in the plot, and most of the narrative is dedicated to Rachel having sex or thinking about her ‘pussy’. Seriously, there were times when this book brought to mind WAP cause there are a few situations in which Rachel and Miriam would benefit from using a mop.

I would not recommend this to those who have been affected by an ED. Although the author initially seemed to have captured many sentiments that resonated with me, Rachel’s ED is ultimately used as a source of humour. There are many grotesque scenes that serve very little purpose other than ridiculing her. And I’m very over books or films that feature characters who offhandedly remark ‘I tried to go bulimic once but like it didn’t work’ (then again, I had bulimia so I am a bit touchy on that particular front).
Anyway, this novel tries to be outrageous and subversive but it succeeds only in being gratuitous. This is the kind of satire that is all bark, no bite. The author’s commentary on modern work culture, eating disorders, contemporary society, religion, the Palestinian-Israel conflict …is lacking.
Also, I find it hard to believe that Rachel, our supposedly shrewd girl, and this famous actor would get Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s creature confused.

Nevertheless, just because I found Melissa Broder’s story to be superficial and ultimately unfunny, does not mean that you should not give this novel a try (bear in mind however that this books has some pretty yucky and incest-y content).
Here is a snippet which I did not enjoy but might very well appeal to other types of readers:

“Her hair was the color of cream soda, or papyrus scrolls streaked with night light. Her eyebrows were the color of lions, lazy ones, dozing in sunlight or eating butter at night with their paws by lantern. Her eyes: icebergs for shipwrecking. Lashes: smoke and platinum. Her skin was the Virgin Mary, also very baby. Her nose: adorable, breathing. Upper lip: pink peony. Lower lip: rose. The teeth were trickier, but her inner mouth was easy–Valentine hearts and hell.”

my rating: ★★½

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There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura

Comparing this novel to the work of Ottessa Moshfegh or Sayaka Murata seems somewhat misleading, if a bit lazy.
There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job has elements that may bring to mind certain aspects of Convenience Store Woman but it has almost nothing in common with My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Still, I could have enjoyed Kikuko Tsumura’s novel if it had something interesting to say or if it was written in a particularly inventive or catchy way. Sadly, I found There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job to be an exceedingly boring story that is written in an exceedingly boring way. Some of the issues I had may be due the translation (more on that later) but for the most part Tsumura’s prose is kind of dull. Her protagonist, the classic unnamed narrator, lacks the deadpan tone of Murata’s mc, nor does she have the same upbeat voice as the lead in Temporary (a novel that explores modern workplace in an absurdist fashion).
Tsumura’s book is divided in five sections, each one focusing on a different job: in the first one our mc works a surveillance job (this happened to be the only section I enjoyed), in the second one she records ads for a bus company (advertising the shops that are on the route of that bus), in the third one she has to come up with ‘fun/useful facts’ for a packet of crackers, in the third one she puts posters up, and in the final job she works at a park maintenance office. We never gain any real insight into her private life (I’m fairly sure she lives alone and her parents are still alive) and we never learn anything about her past (other than she left her job because of burnout syndrome).
The jobs she are peculiar and yet they never held my interest. I liked Temporary much more because the jobs the mc does there are really weird. Yet, I think I could have tolerated reading about a relatively ordinary workplace if the dialogues or mc’s inner monologue had been amusing, as they are in Murata’s novel (which managed to make tedious tasks entertaining).
Even if I where to judge Tsumura’s novel without drawing comparison to other novels, I still can’t think of anything positive to say about it. The narration lacked zest, oomph. She recounts her routine in a very prosaic way, and she offers no real insights into why ‘modern’ work culture makes her feel so uninspired.
Usually when I read a translated book I don’t really notice that the prose was not originally written in the language I’m reading but here the writing had this stilted quality that made me kind of aware that I was indeed reading a translation. Certain word choices struck me as awkward. There are many instances in which the narrator’s colloquial style is interrupted by high-register and or antiquated words (such as nigh!). Maybe this was simply reflecting the original Japanese but I can’t say for sure as I’m afraid my knowledge of Japanese is abysmal. And yes, I understand that translation is not an easy chore (in the past I tried my hand at translating) but that doesn’t change that the prose There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job offers some eyebrow-raising phrases/passages.

Usually I read books of this length in two or three days but it took me five days to finish this novel (and I nearly fell asleep while reading it…which is new for me).

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
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Luster by Raven Leilani

“I think to myself, You are a desirable woman. You are not a dozen gerbils in a skin casing.

Luster is a deliriously enthralling and boldly subversive debut novel. I was dazzled by the author’s prose, which is by turns dense and supple, by Edie’s sardonic and penetrating narration, and by the story’s caustic yet searing commentary on race, class, gender, and sexuality.

“It is that it is 8:15 a.a. and I feel happy. I am not on the L, smelling someone’s lukewarm pickles, wishing I were dead.”

Luster follows in the steps of recent releases starring perpetually alienated young women prone to bouts of ennui, numbness, morbidity, lethargy, and self-loathing. They are misanthropic, they often engage in some sort of masochistic behaviour, and a few of them inevitably spiral into self-destructiveness. In short, they are millennial Esther Greenwoods.
Luster, however, is by no means a carbon copy of these novels, and Edie’s distinctive voice sets her apart from other eternally dissatisfied protagonists. From the very first pages I found myself mesmerised by Edie’s perplexing and hyper-alert mind.

“I want to be uncomplicated and undemanding. I want no friction between his fantasy and the person I actually am. I want all that and I want none of it.”

Edie is a recently orphaned 23-year-old black woman who leads a directionless and unfulfilling existence. She’s unenthusiastic about her desk job and with no friends to speak of she tries to allay her loneliness through sex (think Fleabag). After a series of ill-advised sexual encounters, Edie lands herself in trouble and finds herself staying in the home of Eric, her latest date. Eric is a white, forty-something archivist who is in an open marriage with Rebecca. The two live in a very white neighbourhood with their adoptive daughter, Akila, who is black.

“There is the potent drug of a keen power imbalance. Of being caught in the excruciating limbo between their disinterest and expertise. Their panic at the world’s growing indifference.”

Eric, who is clearly in the midst of a mid-life crisis, isn’t a particularly attractive or charming man. Yet, Edie is desperate for intimacy. Although she’s aware of her own self-destructive behaviour, she’s unwilling or unable to form healthy relationships, romantic or not, with others. Although Rebecca is suspicious of Edie, she wants someone to help Akila, someone who can show her how to look after her hair, and seems to adjust to Edie’s presence.
Edie’s hunger for love, desire, acceptance, recognition, and self-worth dominate her narrative. Her fascination—part desire, part repulsion—with Eric and Rebecca sees her crossing quite a few lines. The couple, in their turn, treat Edie in a very hot-or-cold way or use her as if she was little more than a pawn in their marriage game.

“He wants me to be myself like a leopard might be herself in a city zoo. Inert, waiting to be fed. Not out in the wild, with tendon in her teeth.”

Edie’s voice makes Luster the crackling read it is. While Edie often entertains rather ridiculous notions, she’s quite capable of making incisive observations about privilege, race, sexism, and modern dating. Throughout the course of the novel Edie makes a lot of discomforting decisions, and more than once I found myself wanting to shake her. But I also really understood her inability to break free of the vicious cycle she’s in (which sees her seeking affirmation and self-love in the wrong places), and of feeling tired by just existing. I loved her unabashedly weird inner monologue and her wry humour (“She tells us the specials in such a way that we know our sole responsibility as patrons in her section is to just go right ahead and fuck ourselves”). Those few glimpses we get of her childhood and her relationship with her mother and father, deepen our understanding of why she is the way she is.

“I am good, but not good enough, which is worse than simply being bad. It is almost.”

Luster explores the thoughts and experiences of a messy black young woman, without judgement. Like recent shows such as Insecure, Chewing Gum and I Will Destroy You, Luster presents its audience with a narrative that challenges the myth of the ‘strong black woman’ and other existing stereotypes of black womanhood (checkout Amanda’s video on ‘the quirky/awkward black girl’ ). There are times when Edie is awkward, selfish, and angry. Her identity isn’t confined to one character trait. And that’s that.

Luster charts Edie’s sobering yet mischievous, kind-of-sexy, kind-of-weird, sad but funny search for everything and nothing. She both wants and doesn’t want to form meaningful connections with others, she both wants and doesn’t want to be alone, she wants to be used by others, she wants love. Her art is perhaps one of the few pillars in her life. She describes her paintings, the colours she uses, and the artists she likes (Artemisia Gentileschi’s ‘Judith Slaying Holofernes’ gets a mention) in a very vivid manner.
I liked the bond that Edie forms with Akila, one that isn’t uncomplicated but feels like one of the few genuine relationships that appear in this novel (although there were times I liked Rebecca, her intentions towards Edie were ultimately questionable). This is the kind of novel that thrives off uncomfortable truths, awkward interactions, and surreal conversations (that scene at the clown academy was gold). Edie is exhausted by the deluge of microaggressions thrown her way. She tries to be what others want her to be, which is why so many people use her. Even with Eric and Rebecca, Edie is fully aware of being a guest, that she can stay as long as her being there is convenient to them.

To be perfectly honest I find these ‘young women afflicted by the malaise of modernity’ type of novels to be very hit-or-miss (Exciting Times was a definite miss for me). Jean Kyoung Frazier’s Pizza Girl (a hit in my books), shares quite a lot in common with Luster. Both books centred on self-sabotaging young women who become increasingly obsessed with someone who is married (this someone leads a seemingly happy white suburban life), although in Pizza Girl our narrator is far more interested in the wife than the husband. Chances are that if you liked the deadpan humour in Pizza Girl you will like Luster. If you are the type of reader who prefers conventionally nice or quirky characters, maybe Luster won’t be the read for you. Lucky for me, I can sympathise and care for characters who make terrible choices or do horrible things (see Zaina Arafat’s You Exist Too Much, Rachel Lyon’s Self-Portrait with Boy).
Anyway, I’m rambling. I loved Luster, I loved Edie, and I loved Leilani’s prose and her punctuation (that scene that just goes on and on…wow). There were a few references or words that I’m not sure I entirely understood, and I have a feeling this is due to my not being American/native-English speaker.
Huge thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an arc. I will definitely be purchasing my own copy once it’s available in the UK. Leilani, please, keep writing.

My rating: 4 ½ stars

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Severance by Ling Ma

“To live in a city is to take part in and to propagate its impossible systems. To wake up. To go to work in the morning. It is also to take pleasure in those systems because, otherwise, who could repeat the same routines, year in, year out?”

Severance is an engrossing and, given the current pandemic, timely read. Through the use of a dual timeline Ling Ma’s novel encompasses many genres: we have chapters set in the past, pre-apocalypse, when the Shen Fever is a mere afterthought in the daily lives of New Yorkers, and the ones post-apocalypse, in which our protagonist joins a cultish group of survivors who seem to be immune to the fever.

Kmart realism meets millennial malaise in Candace Chen’s first-person narration.
Candace’s sardonic observations lightened the mood of the story. Her drone-like work attitude brought to mind novels such Convenience Store Woman and Temporary. The chapters set in the past detail Candace’s daily routine, in which we see that other than her half-hearted interest in photography, Candace is resigned to her position as Senior Product Coordinator of Spectra’s Bibles division, and isn’t too disturbed by her role in the exploitation of workers outside of America. She’s yet another disaffected, somewhat directionless, twenty-something female protagonist who has become all the rage in contemporary fiction. Thankfully Ma makes Candace her own unique creation, one who, as the fever starts spreading in America, actually undergoes some character growth (making Severance a coming-of-age of sorts). Although Candace operates very much on auto-pilot, her listless routine is soon interrupted by the pandemic.

In the chapters focusing on ‘after’, once New Yorkers have either fled the city or become infected, Candace joins a group led by the rather bullying Bob, a man who isn’t particularly charming or clever but has somehow successfully convinced others that they will be safe if they follow him to the Facility (a ‘mysterious’ but safe location). Along the way, they raid the houses of those who are infected, and Candace finds herself becoming increasingly disenchanted towards her so-called leader.

In Ma’s novel the fevered repeat “banal activities” on an infinite loop: they will spend the rest of their days performing the same activity (such as washing dishes, opening a door, dressing , trying different clothes). Ma’s fever works as an allegory, one which reduces humans to the humdrum activities—getting dressed, preparing food—that constitute their lives.
Tense or even brutal scenes are alleviated by Candace’s caustic narration. And there are even moments and dialogues that are so absurd as to verge on the hysterical realism. Ma makes it work, and unlike her characters, or the circumstances they face, her language remains restrained.
Underneath the novel’s hyperbolic scenarios lies a shrewd critique of capitalism, consumerism, globalism, modern work culture, and the American Dream. Through flashbacks we learn of Candace’s parents’ arrival in America and of how their diverging desires—Candace’s mother wishes to return to China while the father believes that will lead more successful lives in America—created a rift in their marriage.

Ma covers a myriad of topics in a seemingly offhand manner: adulthood, loneliness, connectedness, dislocation. Candace’s deadpan narration takes her readers alongside a journey that is as surreal as it is chilling. Ma, far more successfully than Mona Awad with Bunny, switches with ease between the first and third person, showing her readers just how easily one can lose sight of their identity.
My only criticism is towards Ma’s use of the dual timeline. At times there wasn’t a clear balance between past and present, and some sections detailing Candace’s work at Spectra were overlong. Still, I really enjoyed Severance, it is an impressive debut and I can’t wait to read more from Ma.

My rating: 3 ¾ stars of 5 stars

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Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata — book review

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“The normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects. Anyone who is lacking is disposed of.”

Convenience Store Woman delights in its own absurdity. In spite of its slender size and its deceptively deadpan style, Sayaka Murata’s novel is surprisingly subversive.
Keiko Furukura’s clipped yet enthusiastic narration manages to both amuse and bewilder. In the very first pages she recounts a childhood episode in which she asks her mother whether they could grill and eat a dead bird. Yet, in spite of these macabre instances, Keiko’s narration has this effervescent energy, this ceaseless optimism, enlivens the more depressing, ambivalent, or unsettling moments.

Keiko is a thirty-six-year old who has been working part-time at the same convenience store for the past eighteen years. While her peers are married and/or have ‘proper’ careers, Keiko is quite content to remain at her convenience store. While other employees have moved on to other jobs, Keiko has no desire to change (herself and her job). She appeases her school acquaintances and colleagues by mimicking their language and behaviours, but she does so not because she actually wants to fit in or due to peer pressure but because she doesn’t want others to question her or the lifestyle she leads (for example that she has never been, nor does she wish to be, in a relationship).
We follow Keiko as she performs the ordinary tasks that make up a shift at the convenience store: welcoming customers, filling shelves, store cleanliness, serving customers at the till…while I personally hate doing these kind of things (and I work as a customer assistant) Keiko seems to genuinely like and be actually good at her job. That she is happy to be a ‘cog’ in the capitalist machine is certainly disquieting but readers will have a hard time envisioning a future in which Keiko is content not to be a convenience store worker (since being a store worker seems an integral part of her identity).

Through Keiko’s unique mind ordinary moments and conversations are tinged with surreality. Although she’s unerringly logical, a lot of her thoughts are frankly bizarre or plain outlandish. Even her most sober observations (on Japanese social and gender norms, notions of normalcy) are injected with a dose of peculiarity.
Through Keiko’s uninhibited narration, Murata emphasises the absurdities of our modern age (particularly about work culture, social conformism, the expectations society places on single women in their 30s, alienation).
Playful, funny, thought-provoking, and occasionally disturbing, Convenience Store Woman is a deeply engrossing novel and Keiko’s slightly off-kilter reality is bound to appeal to readers who enjoyed Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer, Hilary Leichter’s Temporary, books by Hiromi Kawakami, or the recently released Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier — book review

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“They could support a teenage pregnancy, but not this, not a person who drifted from one moment to the next without any idea about where she was headed.”

Sayaka Murata meets Ottessa Moshfegh in this freewheeling and darkly funny debut novel. Jean Kyoung Frazier’s deadpan wit and playful cynicism give a subversive edge to what could otherwise seem like yet another tale of millennial ennui.

Pizza Girl is uncompromising in its portrayal of love, obsession, addiction, and depression. Our narrator and protagonist is a Korean-American pizza delivery girl who lives in suburban Los Angeles. She’s eighteen years old, pregnant, and feels increasingly detached from her supportive mother and affable boyfriend. Unlike them, our narrator cannot reconcile herself with her pregnancy, and tries to avoid thinking about her future. As her alienation grows, she retreats further into herself and spends her waking hours in a perpetual state of numbing listlessness.

“Where am I going and how do I get there? What have I done and what will I continue to do? Will I ever wake up and look in the mirror and feel good about the person staring back at me?”

Her unfulfilling existence is interrupted by Jenny, a stay-at-home mother in her late thirties who orders pickled covered pizzas for her son. Our protagonist becomes enthralled by Jenny, perceiving her as both glamorous and deeply human. Pizza girl’s desire for Jenny is all-consuming, and soon our narrator, under the illusion that Jenny too feels their ‘connection’, is hurtling down a path of self-destruction. Her reckless and erratic behaviour will unsettle both the reader and her loved ones. Yet, even at her lowest Frazier’s narrator is never repelling. Her delusions, her anxieties, her world-weariness are rendered with clarity and empathy.

She feels simultaneously unseen and suffocated by the people in her life. While readers understand, to a certain extent, that her sluggish attitude and cruel words are borne out of painful frustration. Her unspoken misgivings (about who is she and what kind of future awaits her, about having a child and being a mother), her unease and guilt, her fear of resembling her now deceased alcoholic father, make her all the more desperate for a way out of her life. Unlike others Jenny seems unafraid to show her vulnerabilities, and there is a strange kinship between these two women.

“I’ll tell you what I wish someone told me when I was eighteen—it never goes away.”
“What is ‘it,’ exactly?”
“All of it, any of it, just it.”

While the world Frazier depicts seems at times incredibly pessimistic, the narrator’s unerring, wry, and compelling voice never succumbs to her bleak circumstances.
Frazier’s prose has this lively quality to it, one that makes Pizza Girl into an incredibly absorbing read. The feverish latter part of the story, in which others call into question our protagonist’s state of mind, brought to mind Caroline O’Donoghue’s novels (in particular Promising Young Women). Let it be said that things get confusing (and somewhat horrifying).

“Han was a sickness of the soul, an acceptance of having a life that would be filled with sorrow and resentment and knowing that deep down, despite this acceptance, despite cold and hard facts that proved life was long and full of undeserved miseries, “hope” was still a word that carried warmth and meaning. Despite themselves, Koreans were not believers, but feelers—they pictured the light at the end of the tunnel and fantasized about how lovely that first touch of sun would feel against their skin, about all they could do in wide-open spaces.”

Frazier’s mumblecore-esque dialogues demonstrate her attentive ear for language. Speaking of language, I particularly liked pizza girl’s assessment of ready replies like ‘I’m okay’ or ‘I’m fine’.

“Fine,” a word you used when you stubbed your toe and people asked you if you were okay and you didn’t want to sound like a little bitch. When your mom gave you Cheerios after you asked for Froot Loops. Something you said to people who asked about your day and you didn’t know them well enough to give them a real answer. Never a word used when talking about anything of value.”

Pizza girl’s disconnect—from others, reality, and herself—is vibrantly rendered. Her troubled relationship with her dysfunctional father hit particularly hard as I found her conflicting thoughts towards him (and the idea of resembling him) to echo my own experiences.

Similarly to Hilary Leichter and Hiromi Kawakami Frazier’s surrealism is rooted in everyday life. Funny, moving, and unapologetic, Pizza Girl is a great debut novel. The narrator’s fuck-ups will undoubtedly make you uncomfortable, but much of her harmful behaviour stems from self-loathing and it also points to other people’s hypocritical attitudes towards those who are deemed ‘troubled’.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

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“Over time, I told myself, I would try to deserve them all. […] I had chosen this place, these people, this life, with its secrets and its violence, its hardness and its beauty, and even thought I was not yet worthy, even thought I would never belong, I would not leave.I would stay and try.”

The Far Field is a striking debut novel. Madhuri Vijay has written a remarkably taught and exceedingly incisive slow-burner, one that will likely make the reader experience many unpleasant feelings, such as uncertainty, frustration, and unease.

After her mother’s death Shalini, a young woman from Bangalore, becomes detached from her daily existence. Increasingly alienated from others she makes the impulsive decision to travel to a remote Himalayan village in Kashmir where Bashir Ahmed—an old friend of her mother’s— lives.
In an interview Vijay describes Shalini as being “remote and closed-off, so hamstrung by doubt and suspicion, that even [she], as the writer, occasionally felt suffocated by her voice”. Well, I agree 100% with her. Shalini can be overwhelming. Her arrested development makes it hard to totally condone her for her behaviour but she has plenty of cruel and selfish moments that will make it really hard for readers to forgive or sympathise with her. Her vulnerabilities certainly come through, for example, she is hesitant to demonstrate her feelings or to simply share her thoughts with the people who could potentially become her friends. Vijay has depicted her in this way quite intentionally. To me, Shalini’s inability to act was yes deeply frustrating but it was also believable and it augmented the friction between her and other characters. Time and again readers will wonder if this time around she would be able to really live in the present and connect with others.

Her journey does not follow the classic ‘coming of age’ that often occurs in similar novels (where a character travels somewhere to ‘find themselves’ or to come ‘to terms with their past). Shalini’s experiences in Kashmir are far more realistic. An ingrained distrust still dictates a lot of what she does. I was really saddened and angered by her half-hearted attempt at a friendship with Zoya and Amina. Shalini seems desperate to fill in the hole left by her mother’s death but she is also very reticent about revealing her innermost self. Then again, the two women, however likeable, also do not make things easier.

Shalini was deeply naive and self-centred, blind to her privilege and often does more harm than good. The few times she actually ‘acts’ or says something important she usually ends up doing or saying the wrong thing. She seems unable to read other people or to take in account what they too might be hiding/protecting their true emotions. Having lived a life of comfort Shalini doesn’t seem to realise that not everyone knows those same comforts (which she has taken for granted).
Given that Shalini is recounting her journey to Kashmir years after it, she often expresses the wish to have acted differently, and there are a lot of ‘if onlys‘ which furthered the tension of her story.

There are chapters that focus on Shalini’s childhood and on her intense relationship with her fiery mother. It is perhaps because she is so young (and sheltered) that Shalini does not notice how trapped and unhappy her seemingly strong mother was. Their strained relationship takes its toll on both mother and daughter.

This novel depicts Shalini’s desperate attempts to belong and to reconcile herself with the way in which she treated (and was in turn treated by) her mother. Sadly, Shalini often acts under the wrong impression, and she either misunderstands others and or ends up being misunderstood by the ones she claims she cares for.

Vijay renders the way in which language can betray one’s intention or the way in which words often are inadequate and cannot express or convey what we truly think or feel.
This novel has a lot to wrestle with but it does so in a paced manner. This story is one of ambivalence and dissolution; the plot rests on the novel’s setting(s) and on Shalini’s interactions with mainly two other families. While the author does not shy away from portraying the religious conflict occurring in Kashmir, she focuses more on the experiences of various individual characters — the way in which they themselves are affected by dispute between India and Pakistan — rather than offering a dumbed down ‘overview’ of Kashmir’s long history of violence. Having Shalini as the narrator allows readers to glimpse Kashmir through the eyes of an ‘outsider’.

This is a story about privilege, guilt, grief, cowardice, and failed connections. Amidst the novel’s bleak realism there are some heart-rendering moments, and Vijay’s lyrical writing allowed me to briefly forget of the discomfort created by her story. I kept hoping against hope that the ending would provide some sort of not quite magical solution but that it could at least give me some closure…but I’m afraid to say that the ending is what makes this a 4 star read rather than a 5 one.

Anyhow, I will definitely keep my eyes open for more of Vijay’s stunning and heartbreaking writing.

my rating: ★★★★✰

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SWING TIME: BOOK REVIEW

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Swing Time
by Zadie Smith

★★✰✰✰ 2 of 5 stars

I feel cheated.
The beginning of this sprawling and pointless narrative promised something. It gave me certain expectations. So, when I found myself questioning the direction of this novel, I told myself that surely, by the end, this would all make sense. Turns out I was hoping against hope.
Maybe, my expectations lie in Zadie Smith’s writing. Among the many peculiar passages I caught glimpses of just how beautiful and poignant her writing could be. Now, however, while I do believe that Smith can write well, I think that Swing Time does not showcase her writing ability but rather it seems an example of good writing turned bad.

This is not a novel about friendship. It isn’t a coming of age, nor is it a portrait of ambition. This novel consists in a series of grotesque caricatures. All of the characters are in turn false, unprincipled and or bitter. These ‘characters’ not only came across as being stereotypes, and Smith seems to ridicule all kinds of people. Fair enough, the narratives spares no one and every single character becomes little more than an unfunny joke.
Her unsympathetic nameless narrator seemed a poor attempt to write from the point of view of an ambiguous and possibly apathetic individual.
Tracey, her supposed best friend, is over-sexualised and is the typical friend who is better looking and more talented than the protagonist is (when will we ever get to read about a more nuanced female friendship?). The narrative uses Tracey time and again, throwing her in as to confuse and irritate both the main character and the readers. She is so illogical and incoherent that I had a very hard time taking anything she did or said seriously. Every-time she appeared I find myself thinking ‘of course, there she goes again‘.
The protagonist is worse than a shadow. She isn’t merely the type who prefers to observe rather than be observed. She is completely feckless. Her stupidity and her naïveté were jarringly unbelievable. I didn’t so much care for her lacking a name but her lack of an actual personality was harder to ignore. Her narrative is needlessly confounding. The time jumps were handled poorly, it seems that Smith wanted to do more than the classic then & now timeline, and in doing so ended up with a lot of odd transitions. The obvious retaining of certain information from the reader was both unnecessary and annoying (these instances rather than generating suspense just come across as being stilted). Also, are we to believe that someone so nonexistent would describe certain random acts in a completely exaggerated manner? Because our narrator loves giving random dramatic descriptions…and has a penchant for the word ‘gold’ .
As much as I personally dislike this narrator, I dislike her because we see from her point of view. Other characters don’t know just how irksome she is and yet….every single person she encounter seems to give her a sermon which consist in slightly varying versions ofyou have no idea/you are so privileged/you don’t nothing bout anything/listen to what I know/I know what’s what/listen to my life story/yadda yadda‘. Very likely…
Smith occasionally does turn her writing skills to do ‘good’, and she offers observations that don’t seem to come from the narrator’s point of view, and therefore did not seem theatrical or irritating. Sadly, she also comes up with things such as:

“I remember there was always a girl with a secret, with something furtive and broken in her […] I often thought I saw her again, this girl who lives everywhere and at all times in history, who is sweeping the yard or pouring out tea or carrying somebody else’s baby on her hip and looking over at you with a secret she can’t tell.”

What the actual…am I to believe that our ‘woke‘ protagonist would think this? A ‘broken’ girl?! And that cheesy line about ‘a secret she can’t tell’?!

This novel is indeed ambitious…it tries to include as many topical and relevant things but it all just comes across as overreaching. Rather than offering a nuanced cast of characters and believable scenarios, Smith seems to go out of her way to portray grotesque impressions of people (for example when the narrator is on a plane she is seated next to two truck-drivers with ‘bleeding gums’, ‘yellow teeth’ and seem to be rather crass…) and all for the sake of what? I wanted a story about ambition, I wanted a complex depiction of the dangers that words such as ‘potential’ and ‘talent’ can have, and above all, I thought there would be a friendship between two passionate girls...what I got was a series of cruel and degrading lampoons with a few ‘in’ terms & topics.
Massive let down.

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Normal People by Sally Rooney

Review of Normal People by Sally Rooney

★★✰✰✰  2 of 5 stars

If you believe that characters who dislike themselves, shrug a lot and say “I don’t know” a lot, are very deep and realistic, well this is the perfect read for you.

salluIf you are thinking about reading this novel, I suggest you listen to the following song instead, since it will take you less time and you will get the same story:

Song for a Guilty Sadist by Crywank

While I enjoyed Rooney’s style, that is her interweaving of ordinary moments with emotionally charged ones and the uncertainty that pervades her story, I was also annoyed by how artificial her novel is. I had the impression that Rooney was trying to conjure a certain millennial “vibe” through her characters and their experiences. Connell and Marianne lacked depth and, as stupid as it might sound, character. Their looks were emphasized in a way that made them “different from others”. They are skinny and beautiful, they smoke, they make languid movements, they are smart, they are unlike their peers and they actually care about world politics, basically they are really DIFFERENT and SPECIAL.
Marianne comes from a wealthy and abusive family, Connell was raised by his mother and suffers from bouts of anxiety and depression. That they have issues that they can’t cope with is realistic, but what I didn’t like was the romanticizing of their difficulties. What I didn’t like is that being “alienated” is “cool” and that seeking sadomasochistic relationships is understandable if you come from an abusive family. Marianne and Connell aren’t terrible people but god, they are so self-involved. Their relationship is made to appear fraught but I didn’t always understand why. Drama for the sake of drama? They enter forgettable relationships with other forgettable people but they are fixated on each other. Why? Who knows…
normalSecondary characters and family members are barely sketched out, they have little to no purpose other than creating more “drama” for the main characters. Marianne’s family was so badly written that I had difficulties taking them seriously. Friends from college serve very little purpose, other than making the main characters seem “different” and “real” (special snowflake alert).
What I disliked the most is that by the end neither Marianne or Connell show any sort of character growth.

The reason why I finished this novel is that I listened to the audiobook and the narrator managed to make this otherwise unappetizing storyline sort of okay.

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