#NovellasInNovember: Patchett, Brooks, Fernández

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I’m obsessed with Ann Patchett’s non-fiction, so I splashed out on What Now? even though it’s really no more than an essay padded out with inspirational Instagram-like black and white images that don’t feel like Patchett at all. This mini-book is an expanded version of Patchett’s commencement address at Sarah Lawrence, her alma mater (having attended a lot of UK graduations in my role as an academic, I can’t imagine having someone like Patchett come to speak to you rather than the usual miserable speeches we get!). Some of the material, like her time working as a waitress and as a line cook, will be familiar if you’ve read her earlier autobiographical essays and writings in Truth and Beauty and This Is The Story of a Happy MarriageStill, I enjoyed her reflections on ‘what now?’ and how this question can be freeing as well as pressurising and terrifying. My favourite bit was actually the postscript when she explains how she wrote a boring, portentous speech first time around, then had to write it again after her mentor broke the news to her that it was awful…

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Maud Martha, first published in 1953, is a modern classic, the only novel by acclaimed, Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks. It follows the life of Maud Martha, a black girl growing up in inter-war Chicago, who moves from a relatively affluent family household to a smaller, more run down ‘kitchenette’ apartment when she marries. I had much the same problem with Maud Martha that I’ve had with other classics from black female writers from this period, such as Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929) and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937); while I recognise the historical significance of these novels, and how groundbreaking they would have been at the time, they now feel narrow and cliched to me. (I don’t think this is a problem confined to black female writers, by the way! I struggle in general with inter-war and postwar English and American literature, and so I just haven’t picked up many books by white and/or male writers from these periods – these three texts have all been book club picks.)

Maud Martha tells a very familiar coming of age story of marriage, motherhood, colorism and racism. Brooks does a marvellous job of illuminating the inner consciousness, how we think and how we imbue what we see and observe with our own emotions. Her description of the birth of Maud Martha’s daughter Paulette is so vivid and immediate, as is an incident when the n-word is used at a black-owned beauty shop but the owner fails to call it out, to Maud Martha’s horror. It’s also obvious that Brooks was a brilliant poet; there are some absolutely perfect sentences here, like when Maud Martha muses on her general dissatisfaction with her marriage when she sees her husband dancing with another woman: ‘ “I could,” considered Maud Martha, “go over there and scratch her upsweep down. I could spit on her back”… But if the root was sour what business did she have up there hacking at a leaf?’ Nevertheless, these vignettes of human consciousness never seemed to me to belong to a specific person, to Maud Martha; the novella felt like a strung-together series of observations from Brooks plus some sociological background on Maud Martha’s life. In the introduction to this edition, Margo Jefferson makes much of Maud Martha’s teenage assertion ‘What she wanted was to donate to the world a good Maud Martha’, suggesting that Maud Martha ‘cherishes her own mind, her sensibility… it is quietly extraordinary’ and that readers should ‘take nothing about this girl for granted’; but I found that Maud Martha very rarely took me by surprise.

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This very short novella is told in chorus by a group of schoolfriends who were children during Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile in the 1980s, and are now adults who still feel bound together by the horrors of this time, and especially the uncertain fate of their classmate, Estrella González. Nona Fernández’s Space Invaders, translated by Natasha Wimmer, makes much of the familiar computer game that the children play, with the ranks of green aliens who continually advance symbolising the militaristic society they are growing up in. However, I preferred the parts of this novella that felt less certain, harder to interpret. Although they are scattered far apart, the friends – with González’s childhood crush, Zúñiga, gradually coming to the fore – believe that they meet each other in dreams, where they discuss what may have happened to González after she was abruptly taken out of school by her father, an officer in Pinochet’s regime. ‘We could take attendance… but it’s not necessary. We’re all here. We were scheduled to meet here. We’ve risen from our sheets and mattresses scattered around the city to arrive precisely on time. As always, the dream summons us.’ Maybe this is just Zúñiga’s way of dealing with his own trauma, but it makes the collective memories of the friends feel powerfully entangled. As ever with novellas, this just felt too brief to me, but I’m now keen to read Fernández’s recently translated novel, The Twilight Zone.

Have you read any novellas in November? Which were your favourites?

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October Superlatives

October superlatives already! You can also read my R.I.P XVII/Spooktastic Reads challenge round-up for this month.

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry. Teen witch field hockey drama in the 1980s! However, this evocative historical novel was also brilliant on how our perspectives on race, feminism and queer/trans identity have changed, not always for the better. My full review is here.

(Hon. mention: This Time Tomorrow by Emma Straub, which gives its time-travel narrative somewhat short shrift due to some odd pacing choices, but which partly makes up for this by its beautiful, poignant depiction of the central father-daughter relationship.)

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Patricia Wants To Cuddle by Samantha Allen. I hoped this short novel would be the right side of ridiculous, but unfortunately it was the wrong side of ridiculous. The finale of a Bachelor-style franchise is taking place on a remote island where a group of female hikers went missing decades ago. Unbeknownst to our Instagram-obsessed cast, a female Bigfoot is stalking the island, aided and abetted by a cult of lesbians. Doesn’t it sound engagingly weird? However, the execution was really off. The first two-thirds of the novel reads like a light thriller criticising social media, then the final third pairs gruesome horror with humour. There needed to be a much darker, more subversive undercurrent from the beginning to make this shift work. And while this book obviously wants to be queer and satirical, I still wasn’t a fan of the lesbian stereotypes which didn’t seem to do any interesting narrative work (the interspersed love letters were so cliched they were painful to read), and the cult of ‘Patricia’ needed a lot more page-time. A shame, because it has a good cover.

The Book That Was So Well-Written But Not Much Else This Month Was…

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… The White Rock by Anna Hope. Hope’s fourth novel follows four unnamed narrators in four different time periods, travelling in the same area of Mexico: the Writer in 2020, the Singer in 1969, the Girl in 1907 and the Lieutenant in 1775. All of her novels have been well-written, but The White Rock is on another level. The strength of her writing here, however, helped me really pin down why it is that none of her novels have quite worked for me (I’ve also reviewed The Ballroom and Expectation). The quality of the prose is definitely there but the quality of the ideas is consistently lacking. These four narratives are linked by a sense of worlds that are ending, relationships with the environment that are being destroyed. However, Hope has little new to say about this; once you try and look past the prose, the story dissolves. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Only Book I Read From The Booker Longlist Before The Winner Was Announced Was…

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… Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley. This debut novel made this year’s Booker longlist but not the shortlist, and, while I admired Mottley’s writing, I’m not sure I’d have even put it on the longlist. Kiara is a black teenage girl living in Oakland who turns to casual sex work when she and her brother are threatened with eviction from their rented apartment; things turn even darker when the local police pick her up and force her to have sex with them at regular ‘parties’. Kiara’s voice is convincing, with some fantastic sentences: ‘the boyfriend I had when I was fourteen and still trying to live out childhood’; ‘a series of tingles have coursed across my forehead like that feeling when you’re blindfolded, but your body feels the eyes’; ‘Mama wore wide-leg red pants to go fall in love with Daddy and kept them even after they tore at the seams.’ The prose also occasionally waterfalls into long, run-on sections that feel utterly authentic for this seventeen-year-old narrator. However, the story itself felt too familiar, and Mottley sometimes tells us what we should take from a scene rather than letting it speak for itself, as in the otherwise strong set-piece when Kiara and a friend go to a ‘funeral day’, taking food and clothes from a funeral parlour: ‘Funeral day is a reckoning, when we mimic thieves and really just find excuses for our tears’. Despite the excellent writing, therefore, I doubt Nightcrawling will stay with me.

The Best Essay Collection I Read This Month Was…

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… Things I Have Withheld by Kei Miller. This was on my 2022 reading list; it was also shortlisted for the 2021 Baillie Gifford Prize and the 2022 Jhalak Prize. As Miller explains in the introduction, these essays ‘are about things I have withheld’, quoting the poet Dionne Brand: ‘I am a black woman speaking to a largely white audience… so that there are some things that I will say to you and some things that I won’t. And quite possibly the most important things will be the ones that I withhold.’  He writes so thoughtfully about racialisation – how society constructs racial categories to put people into – and especially well, perhaps surprisingly so, about white women, in essays like ‘Mr Brown, Mrs White and Ms Black’, ‘The Crimes That Haunt The Body’ and ‘The White Women and The Language of Bees’. As Miller demonstrates, we tend to think of ‘race’ and ‘racialisation’ only when we think of people of colour, but ‘white’ is a constructed category as well. And as a black man, he’s acutely aware of his own perspective – structurally advantaged by his sex but not by his race, although his queerness complicates things further. The book largely focuses upon Britain and Jamaica, Miller’s two home countries, plus a trip that he takes to Kenya, Ethiopia and Ghana, but speaks to experiences of racism elsewhere too. There were a few very short pieces here that felt a little less necessary, but otherwise this is an excellent, elegant and moving collection of essays.

The Best Novel About Ballet I Read This Month Was…

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… They’re Going To Love You by Meg Howrey. I was enraptured by Howrey’s last novel, The Wanderers, a brilliantly dead-pan but richly thoughtful story that followed three astronauts training for a Mars mission in the Utah desert. They’re Going To Love You is a very different book. Carlisle trained as a ballet dancer in New York, relying heavily on the support of her father Robert and his long-term partner, James. In the wake of the 1980s AIDS crisis, she watched them both uneasily, reassured by their monogamy but haunted by the sudden deaths of young men they knew. The novel skips between Carlisle’s past and the present [c.2016], where we learn that Carlisle has been estranged from both Robert and James for nineteen years, after her father forbade her to contact them. Ballet has been served badly by fiction: most ballet novels I’ve read emphasise the tortured nature of the art and how masochistic you must be to want to devote your life to it. Howrey, a former professional dancer, presents a much more nuanced view. I doubt this will be memorable in the way that The Wanderers was, with Carlisle’s first-person voice already slipping from me. Nevertheless, it’s still all too rare to read a novel that stars an ambitious, childless woman who isn’t punished for her perversity. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 10th November. 

(Hon. mention: The Cranes Dance, Howrey’s first novel, which is much MORE about ballet than They’re Going To Love You is, and is also very much worth reading, but which I found a bit schematic in its depiction of the two Crane sisters.)

The Only Book In Translation I Read This Month Was…

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… Saha by Cho Nam-Joo. This short novel introduces us to a city-state called Town where you belong to one of three levels of society: either you are a full Citizen, an ‘L2’ who’s licensed for up to two years to fulfil particular jobs, or a ‘Saha’, one of the social outcasts who lives in the high-rise Saha estates. But Saha feels caught between two narratives, two types of story. One follows Saha resident Jin-Kyung’s determination to get to the bottom of her brother’s disappearance after he’s falsely accused of murdering his girlfriend. The other skips around between the people who live in Saha and is organised by the numbers of the units they occupy. I think I understood what Nam-Joo was trying to do with this second narrative, and I liked the idea of bringing the Saha estates to life through the voices of this peripatetic community. But it strays back too often to Jin-Kyung, and the individuals often blur into a litany of suffering rather than strongly coming forward in their own right. I also struggled with the choppy transitions and sketchy writing, which often felt like an early draft. I was struck to see that this was translated by Jamie Chang, who also translated Kim Hye-Jin’s Concerning My Daughter – and I had exactly the same problems with the prose in that novella! So, this at least may be a translation issue, but I still didn’t feel that Nam-Joo really pulled off what she set out to achieve here. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 30th November. 

What were the best and worst books you read in October?

March Superlatives

Again, the Superlatives format is borrowed from Elle.

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia E. Butler (2nd ed). I’d already read the title story of this collection back in spring 2021, and it’s brilliant; I was thrilled to discover that Butler’s other SF shorts are just as good. In fact, I think my favourite story in this collection wasn’t ‘Bloodchild’ but ‘Amnesty’, another coloniser/colonised story with an even more morally complex dynamic. But I also loved ‘Speech Sounds’, which depicts a world where humans have lost most of their language abilities; ‘The Evening and The Morning and The Night’, which is about an imaginary hereditary disease and also about what we inherit more generally, even when we don’t want to; and ‘The Book of Martha’, where a woman challenged by God comes up with a pretty original idea for a utopia. (There’s something of Ted Chiang in that last one). This collection also contains two short essays by Butler on writing, neither of which is groundbreaking but which are nice to have, and two non-SF short stories, ‘Near of Kin’ and ‘Crossover’, which unfortunately didn’t work for me at all. However, a collection of five incredible miniature pieces of science fiction hardly leaves the reader shortchanged.

 The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Concerning My Daughter by Kim Hye-jin. This novella was translated from the Korean by Jamie Chang; my comments here are obviously based on the English translation and I can’t speak to the quality of the original Korean text. Concerning My Daughter sets up such interesting internal conflicts for its characters. Our narrator, an ageing woman, is appalled when her daughter, Green, moves into her house with her girlfriend, Lane. She can’t understand why her daughter would seek a relationship that, for her, is ‘play-acting’, without ‘real’ intimacy or the hope of biological children. She’s also ashamed of Green’s activism at work; Green, a university lecturer, has stood up for some of her colleagues who were sacked for being in a homosexual relationship. But our narrator is not a one-dimensional bigot. She, too, stands up for what she believes to be right when she witnesses the mistreatment of a woman with dementia at the care home where she works – a woman who’s lived a life much bigger than our narrator’s conventional trajectory.

Unfortunately, for me, the structure and prose made Concerning My Daughter almost unreadable. The novella jumps around in time, following its narrator’s internal monologue – something I love when a writer pulls it off, but here was just confusing and bitty. The narrator also has a habit of spelling out her thoughts on everything, leaving the reader no room for interpretation. This makes the novella feel clunky and obvious, despite its hugely promising plot-line, and reminded me a bit of Maki Kashimada’s Japanese novella-in-translation Ninety-Nine Kisses, which suffered from the same problem.

I received a free proof copy of this novella from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 14th April.

The Best Short Story Collection I Read This Month Was…

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… Out There by Kate Folk. This debut collection shares a lot of concerns and themes with many other collections I’ve read recently from female writers; body horror, AI infiltrators, the hidden violence of heterosexual relationships, female sexuality, mysterious medical conditions, folktale themes, returns from the dead. I’d place it alongside collections such as Julia Armfield’s salt slow, Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body And Other Parties, Mary South’s You Will Never Be Forgotten and Irenosen Okojie’s Nudibranch. However, unlike these earlier books, all of which I found disappointing to one degree or another (although both the Armfield and Machado contain some excellent individual stories), Out There delivers. My full review is on Goodreads.

The Best Memoir I Read This Month Was…

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… Aftershocks by Nadia Owusu. Owusu grew up between multiple different cultures but never felt she belonged in any; her mother was Armenian, her father Ghanaian, her stepmother Tanzanian, and she has lived in New York, Rome, London, Addis Ababa, Dar-es-Salaam, Kampala and Kumasi. The extended metaphor of the ‘seismometer’ in her head and the earthquakes it triggers allows Owusu to write incredibly effectively about trauma, as well as race and culture; as a relatively light-skinned black woman, she experiences being read differently wherever she goes. In Rome, she’s a curiosity; in Addis Ababa, she’s mistaken for a native Ethopian until people realise she can’t speak Amharic; in Ghana, she’s seen as fortunate because her skin is not too dark. In its rewarding density and its attention to the different trajectories of an extended family, this reminded me of Négar Djavadi’s novel Disoriental.

(Hon. mention: Inferno by Catherine Cho, which deals with postnatal psychosis and which I found much more emotionally resonant than I expected, given I have never been pregnant and never intend to be).

The Book That Took Me The Longest To Read This Month Was…

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…A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine. It took me a month to read this, and I’m glad I finished it, but I don’t think I’ll be picking up the sequel any time soon – especially as the loose ends felt very tied up. Great worldbuilding, politics and thought-provoking technology, but I had the same problem with this that I had with the couple of China Mieville books I’ve read (Embassytown and The City and the City); there wasn’t enough internal depth to the characters. We know interesting things about our protagonist Mahit, such as her attraction to Teixcalaanli culture, but I never felt this really informed her as a person, especially as, given how lacking she is in backstory, she might as well have appeared out of nowhere at the start of the novel (we only learn halfway through, for example, that she has a younger brother). Meanwhile, the voices of the secondary characters tended to blend together.

The Most Forgettable Book I Read This Month Was…

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Intimacies by Katie Kitamura. True to form, I’ve already forgotten almost everything about it, so there’s not much I can say! I thought the scenes in The Hague were very well done but was disappointed that the book increasingly focused on the protagonist’s romantic life. Ultimately, she ended up a bit too much disaster woman and not enough international criminal court translator.

The Most Disappointing Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Dead Silence by SA Barnes. The premise of this book is one of my favourite SF set-ups ever, although it’s a relatively familiar trope: crew of a spaceship accidentally happen upon the abandoned wreck of another spaceship that mysteriously disappeared a long time ago. The extra embellishments that Dead Silence promised only made its plot sound better; in this book, the abandoned ship is a luxury liner which was not on any kind of mission when it vanished but simply on a pleasure cruise. It’s found far away from its original course with an emergency beacon transmitting on a disused frequency; what happened? Unfortunately, Dead Silence squanders this premise, and I agree with other reviewers that it plays out more as a (tired) psychological thriller than as a relatively more original horror/SF genre-cross. My full review is on Goodreads.

The Best Thriller I Read This Month Was…

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… Sun Damage by Sabine Durrant. I’ve read all of Durrant’s thrillers; she reliably delivers gripping but credible plots, strong prose, and well-observed characterisation. Sun Damage is no exception. Ali is making ends meet through running small scams with her partner in crime Sean, drifting between different holiday destinations to find their next mark. But when a sudden tragedy makes her realise how much Sean is exploiting her, she takes off on her own, knowing she mustn’t let Sean track her down. As she infiltrates the lives of a family group holidaying in the South of France, she keeps one eye open for Sean while struggling to keep up the deception she’s invented to allow her to remain in their midst. But is somebody on to Ali, and what will happen if Sean does find her?

I’d certainly recommend Sun Damage for anybody looking for a solid thriller that’s a notch above the rest. However, looking back on my reviews of Durrant’s earlier work – which I’ve always rated four stars – I have one reflection. For some reason, however much I enjoy Durrant’s books at the time, they quickly slip from my memory. I have no recollection of her other novels, even Take Me In, which at the time, I thought was ‘much more memorable’ than other thrillers I’d read. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but it’s interesting to compare her to a writer like Lottie Moggach – Durrant and Moggach are very much on a par in terms of the quality of their prose and their plots, but Moggach’s Kiss Me First, Under The Sun and Brixton Hill are all vivid and distinct in my memory. This doesn’t make her a bad writer, though; I suppose it depends what you want from a book.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 2nd June.


			

New Year Superlatives

With apologies to Elle of Elle Thinks for borrowing her excellent Superlatives format.

Best Read of 2022 So Far…

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…was Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, which has all the intellectual clout of The Left Hand of Darkness but which I found much more accessible as science fiction. Its portrayal of the anarchist society of Anarres should be essential reading for those who wrongly think that anarchism is ‘everyone being allowed to do whatever they like and society descending into chaos’; it’s an incredibly ambitious attempt to work out what such a society might look like in practice, and how its people would think differently. My first five-star read of 2022.

Worst Read of 2022 So Far…

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…was definitely Charlotte McConaghy’s Once There Were Wolves, which supposedly looks at the reintroduction of wolves into the Scottish Highlands but is instead dominated by cliched romance and gratituous abuse. My Goodreads rant review is here.

Most WTF Read of 2022 So Far...

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… was, surprisingly, Hannah Kent’s Devotion, which started off treading very familiar ground but then went to some… unexpected places. My Goodreads review is here (spoilers are hidden). Maybe we can forgive it for its gorgeous coloured edges though? [Devotion is out in the UK on 3rd February].

Most Anticipated 2021 Release Read In 2022…

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… was Nina Mingya Powles’s collection of essays Small Bodies of Water (such a stunning cover!); it won the Nan Shepherd Prize for writers currently under-represented in nature writing. Although the natural world is certainly a linking thread between these essays, there are other themes that I’d say are equally dominant: food – from honey pomelos to the Chinese tofu pudding dòufu huā – and the Mandarin language. I picked up this book because I wanted to read about swimming, so it’s unsurprising that I was most drawn to the essays that focus on water, such as ‘The Safe Zone’, ‘Ache’ and ‘We Are All Dreaming of Swimming Pools’. However, I also loved how Powles often chases a single thing through time and space, such as the kōwhai tree in ‘Where the Kōwhai Blooms’, connecting her experiences of living in Aotearoa, Shanghai and London.

Least Anticipated 2021 Prize Longlistee Read In 2022…

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… was Raven Leilani’s Luster, which I decided not to read when I was shadowing the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction because ‘I still don’t want to read any more dysfunctional women being dysfunctional books’. Either I’ve had a long enough break from them or this one is better than most, because I liked it a lot more than I anticipated. It reminded me very strongly of Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Timesbut I’d probably rank it more highly (which means it would have made my ideal Women’s Prize 2021 shortlist), largely because Edie is a more interesting protagonist than Ava. However, I still had issues with Luster; like many of my fellow bloggers, I loved Edie’s dark irony but found that her journey ended up in a much less interesting place than I’d anticipated at the start of the novel.

Our First Book Club Read of 2022…

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… was Lot by Bryan Washington. Structurally, I found this difficult; it essentially consists of segments of a novella about a gay mixed-race (black and Latino) teenage boy, Nicolas, interspersed with short stories about people who live in the Houston neighbourhoods around him. Some of the individual short stories were absolutely brilliant in their own right; I loved ‘Peggy Park’, which brutally and efficiently traces the fates of an amateur baseball team, and ‘Waugh’, which explores the complicated relationship between a boy selling sex and the man who provides him with accommodation. However, because I know nothing about Houston and the book doesn’t fill in the gaps, I couldn’t situate any of these locations in relation to each other, so the communal voice of the city that I think Washington was going for didn’t come through for me.

I was also a little lost as to the queer themes running through the stories; Washington has said that he ‘wanted every narrative in Lot to have a queer character or queer component’ because of the lack of representation for queer people who ‘fall outside of a palette-cleansing, cis, white, queer narrative, with a certain brand of polished body’. He’s of course, absolutely right about this, and the protagonist’s narrative offers a powerful corrective to this dominant trope – but the queer characters in the short stories seem to fall into very similar moulds to Nicolas, all young men of colour who have casual sex with other men. It’s very much focused on sexuality as an act rather than an identity, and, partly because of this, it’s a very male take on queerness. For this reason, I didn’t think that Lot offered the diversity of queer experience that it promised.

January’s Biggest Talking Point…

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… was definitely Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradisewith reactions ranging from utter boredom to intellectual delight. My thoughts are here.

What were your favourite and least favourite reads in January? Any other books that stood out (for right or wrong reasons)?

More #NovellasInNovember: Kashimada and Serpell

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I looked forward to reading this collection of two novellas in translation from the Japanese writer Maki Kashimada (trans. Haydn Trowell) back in January 2021. I have to admit, part of the attraction was the cover; this design from Europa Editions is simply gorgeous. However, I’ve liked a lot of Japanese novellas and short novels in recent years, and was excited to try a writer new to me. And I enjoyed the first and longer novella in this collection, Touring the Land of the Dead, a lot. It’s an introspective third-person piece that focuses on Natsuko, who is accompanying her disabled husband Taichi to a spa hotel she used to visit with her family in her childhood. Natsuko’s family shun and jeer at Taichi for not being able to support Natsuko. However, as Natsuko’s mind darts between past and present, we learn that ‘that life’, her past with her mother and brother, was a place of horror for her, and she is still trying to shrug them off in the present. Natsuko’s striving to become her own person in the face of family expectations is a familiar theme from much Japanese fiction written by women that I’ve read, but Kashimada puts a different slant on it. As we come to realise, Natsuko has already got out, but can’t quite credit that she’s escaped.

The second novella in this collection, Ninety-Nine Kisses, is very different in style and tone. It’s narrated in first person by the youngest of four sisters, Nanako. Her three older sisters remain unmarried and living at home with their mother, and we come to realise that Nanako sees them as parts of the same whole, and is sexually possessive over them, although she denies their relationship is incestuous. As the novella develops, we realise there is something off-kilter about the whole family, who pride themselves on being able to engage in ‘dirty talk’ with each other as a sign of their closeness. This is undoubtedly a weird and disturbing story, but I didn’t find that to be a problem in itself; instead, the style didn’t work for me because it felt like everything was spelt out as explicitly as possible. There’s a sense that Kashimada wants to shock here with blatant sexual content, but this overshadowed the more interesting aspects of the relationship between the four sisters, and made it feel like nothing changed or emerged over the course of the novella, because it was all there from the beginning.

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(Technically, this is a short collection of essays rather than a novella, but it’s also Non-Fiction November, so…)

I put Stranger Faces on my 2021 TBR after being hugely impressed by Namwali Serpell’s essay on empathy in fiction. Serpell is a professor of English at Harvard, so it’s no surprise that these short essays on faces as signifiers have an academic bent. All have moments of real, accessible insight, but most use an interpretive framework that feels a little alien to somebody like me, who’s used to reading texts either as a historian or as an ‘ordinary reader’, whatever that is, rather than being trained in film or literary criticism. Serpell’s interested in how texts, both written and visual, are put together, excavating their juxtapositions and shots for layers of meaning, whereas I tend to think of texts in terms of story structure and unreliable narration. For example, ‘Mop head’, her analysis of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and the murder of Marion Crane, focuses heavily on the visual doubling that transfers the viewer’s interest from Marion to her sister Lila, whereas I’m more interested in thinking about Marion as a decoy protagonist and how this affects the storytelling (although unlike Serpell, I’m certainly no expert on Psycho!)

Both our sets of interests come together in ‘Two-faced’, Serpell’s essay on Hannah Crafts’ ‘The Bondwoman’s Narrative’, a novel that may have been written between 1853 and 1861 by an enslaved woman. If this book was really written by an escaped female slave, it would be the ‘only known novel written by a fugitive from slavery and the first by an African-American woman.’ However, as Serpell outlines, since this text was republished in 2002, academics have fiercely debated its ‘authenticity’, with some arguing that it was written by a white abolitionist. Serpell points out the anachronistic claims made by critics such as John Bloom, who argued that the text could not really have been written by an enslaved woman because of its multiple literary references and sophisticated vocabulary, which ignores the erudition of former slaves like Frederick Douglass and Phyllis Wheatley.  However, she also deconstructs our assumptions about what makes a text ‘real’ or ‘fake’, highlighting Karen Sánchez-Eppler’s argument that no text can be truly pure, and that our instinctive assumptions about ‘tells’ that reveal a text’s authorship are often wrong (Crafts’ class snobbery has been cited by critics as a sign that Crafts must have been white and as a sign she must have been black). This reminded me, incidentally, of the female reviewer who thought Jane Eyre must have been written by a man because the writer had such a poor knowledge of women’s clothes.

Although I admired ‘Two-faced’, the real gem here is ‘E-faced’, the final essay in Stranger Faces, which I absolutely loved. ‘E-faced’ focuses on emoji, and while I’m sure Serpell is not the first writer to analyse emoji, this is the first serious piece on them I’ve read, and I found it fascinating. Serpell points out that emoji were intended to clarify meaning but, like all languages, have developed shifting and uncertain meanings of their own. She also thinks about how we use emoji – often ‘stacking’ them, posting multiple emoji in one go – and how emoji are almost always unnecessary, but add a kind of warmth to a message (which I guess makes sense of why I, personally, so often add a pointless one to the end of a text, e.g. ‘Hope you have a good time at the party!’ 🎉) There are also some great bits of trivia. Wittgenstein experimented with ‘proto-emoji’ in his ‘Lectures on Aesthetics’ in the late 1930s, arguing that simplified drawings of expressions could make language more flexible and more precise. And the word ’emoji’ has nothing to do with e- as in electronic or emo- as in emotion, but comes from the Japanese words (picture) and moji (character). Interesting stuff! 👍

Netgalley Reads in November

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Ruth Ozeki’s third novel, A Tale for The Time Beingwas not only one of my favourite reads of 2013, but one of my favourite ten books of the decade (2010-19); her debut novel, My Year of Meatswhich I came to late, was one of my favourite reads of 2020. It’s such a shame, therefore, to admit that I really did not like her latest book, the 500+ page doorstopper The Book of Form and Emptiness. The basic story at the heart of it isn’t even a bad one; teenage Benny is dropping in and out of school after being diagnosed with a mental health condition, while his widowed mother Annabelle struggles with hoarding and mourns the senseless death of his father, Kenji. All three characters (even though Kenji is dead and doesn’t get much page-time even in flashbacks) are memorable creations, especially Annabelle, who is simultaneously sympathetic and deeply frustrating, a difficult balance for a writer to pull off. (I particularly enjoyed Annabelle’s correspondence with a Marie-Kondo-like figure who wrote a bestselling Zen guide to our relationship with things, Tidy Magic). 

And yet, this story, which could have made a good novel half the length of this one, is totally buried in twee narration from ‘The Book’ and saccharine asides about the life of books in general. (‘Books don’t have eyes or hands, it’s true, but when a book and a reader are meant for each other, both of them know it.’). I am really allergic to this way of talking about books, especially within fiction itself, and I’m ready to admit that I may be more annoyed about these cutesy sentences than is truly fair. However, there are other problems with The Book of Form and Emptiness that link to the childishness of its style; it veers off on a pointless tangent with a group of irritatingly quirky misfits, Benny’s ability to hear the voices of inanimate objects goes nowhere, and the end is so ridiculously rushed and unbelievable that I started searching for a meta explanation for it (did The Book make it up?), even though, as far as I can tell, there’s no textual evidence for this. If you really, really adored Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief, you’ll probably like this; otherwise, my best advice is to read A Tale for the Time Being.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

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Ann Patchett is a wonderful novelist, but in my opinion, her non-fiction is even better. I adored her memoir Truth and Beauty and her previous essay collection, This is the Story of a Happy Marriageso I was keen to get my hands on her new collection of essays, These Precious Days. All I can say is, Patchett really has a gift; she manages to make the most trivial essays about her life, things that would seem self-indulgent in the hands of most other writers, somehow work. Knitting, decluttering, cooking Thanksgiving dinner for the first time for a group of stranded college students, not getting a tattoo in Paris; these snippets of prose are all easy and fun to read. I preferred the balance of pieces in This is the Story of A Happy Marriage, which featured fewer, longer pieces of work, as it’s in long-form essays that I think Patchett really shines.

Fortunately, there are some of those longer pieces here as well. I think most readers will find the title essay, ‘These Precious Days’, about Patchett’s almost accidental friendship with artist Sooki Raphael, to be the stand-out, and it does stand out; it’s beautiful and moving and actually helps me make sense of what people mean when they say writing is ‘luminous’. It’s a comforting beacon of an essay about human goodness, life and death. But there were other stand-outs for me as well. I loved Patchett’s wry, thoughtful reflections on choosing not to have children in ‘There Are No Children Here’, and, weirdly, her homage to the children’s writer Kate DiCamillo, ‘Reading Kate DiCamillo’, even though I haven’t read anything by DiCamillo myself and am not sure I intend to. ‘Flight Plan’, which is mostly about her husband Karl’s love of flying planes, demonstrates Patchett’s ability to weave all sorts of disparate material together into a coherent emotional whole, something many essayists attempt but few achieve. There are fewer big hitters here than in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, and overall, I think it’s a slighter collection. But it’s still so worth reading.

I received a free proof copy of this collection from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 23rd November.

November Reading Plans

There are two challenges running in November that I’d like to take part in again this year: #SciFiMonth and #NovellasInNovember (co-run by Rebecca and Cathy). Serendipitously, I tend to get on a lot better with SF novellas than with any other kind of novella, so these two challenges work well together for me. I also have an eye on mopping up some of my 2021 TBR, finishing my Netgalley proofs for the year, and getting some belated spooky reading in. Here’s some thoughts I had about what to read this month.

Sci Fi Month

I’ve wanted to try Charles Yu’s writing for some time, so I’m looking forward to trying his collection of short stories, Sorry Please Thank You, which seem to have an SF bent: ‘A big-box store employee is confronted by a zombie during the graveyard shift, a problem that pales in comparison to his inability to ask a coworker out on a date . . . A fighter leads his band of virtual warriors, thieves, and wizards across a deadly computer-generated landscape, but does he have what it takes to be a hero? . . . A company outsources grief for profit, its slogan: “Don’t feel like having a bad day? Let someone else have it for you.”’

Nicholas Binge’s Professor Everywhere sounds like it combines all the things I love most: campus settings, mysterious academia and multiple worlds: ‘Chloe Chan is just about to give up on finding any real scholars at University when she starts to hear the rumours about Professor Roland Crannus… As her obsession with the Professor grows, she’s plunged into an otherworldly chess game of linguistics and etymology. But the deeper she falls into his academic labyrinth, the more she begins to realise that someone, or something, is hunting them both.’

Novellas in November

I want to read the two novellas by Maki Kashimada collected in Touring the Land of the Deadwhich was one of my most anticipated reads for 2021; I think the second novella in the collection, Ninety-Nine Kisses, sounds even more interesting.

I’ve read everything Sarah Moss has written, and I have a Netgalley proof of her lockdown novella, The Fellwhich is out in November. It sounds great: a woman escaping quarantine walks up onto the moor by herself, but an injury means she can’t get back home again…

Namwali Serpell’s essay collection, Stranger Faces, clocks in under the 200-page mark. I was impressed by Serpell’s writing in her fiction debut, The Old Drift (even though I didn’t finish it), and I loved her essay on empathy in fiction (even though I didn’t agree with all of it), so I’m excited to check this out!

I also have my eye on Caleb Azumah Nelson’s debut novella, Open Water, which follows the love story of two black British artists in London. I’m not sure about the second-person narration, but I’m happy to give it a go.

Sci Fi Novellas in November

I’m a huge Becky Chambers fan, so her new novella, A Psalm For The Wild-Built, is high on my list; it was also one of my most anticipated 2021 reads. This starts a new series about robots living in the wilderness of Earth.

I also want to try Premee Mohamed’s These Lifeless Things, which follows Eva, a survivor of an apocalyptic invasion of monsters.

Finally, I’ve wanted to read Rivers Solomon’s The Deep for ages: ‘The water-breathing descendants of African slave women tossed overboard have built their own underwater society—and must reclaim the memories of their past to shape their future’.

Netgalley

Apart from the Moss, I have two NetGalley proofs to read in November: J.R. Thorp’s Learwife, which retells the story of King Lear from the point of view of Lear’s queen, and Ann Patchett’s new essay collection These Precious Days. I like Patchett’s non-fiction even more than her fiction, so I’m particularly excited to dive into the latter.

Spooky Reading

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I’ve requested The Haunting Season from Netgalley, a collection of spooky short stories by an amazing line-up of writers: Bridget Collins, Natasha Pulley, Imogen Hermes Gowar, Kiran Millwood Hargrave and Elizabeth Macneal, plus a couple of writers I’m keen to try: Jess Kidd and Sara Collins. (Not so keen on the final two contributors to the collection, Andrew Michael Hurley and Laura Purcell, but you can’t win them all). If Netgalley don’t come through for me, I’ll probably buy this, as I’ve been excited about it for the whole year!

Which of these books should I prioritise (as I clearly can’t read them all?) What are your November reading plans? Are you taking part in either Novellas in November or SF Month, or a different challenge?

20 Books of Summer, #7, #8 and #9: Tiamat’s Wrath, The Disaster Tourist and Notes From The Bottom of the World

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Tiamat’s Wrath is the eighth book in the Expanse series, a vast interplanetary science fiction saga with more than a little in common with George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (the two writers behind the pen name ‘James S.A. Corey’ dreamed up the world of the Expanse in a role-playing game where Martin was one of the players). Given that this is the eighth of nine planned installments, the rest of this review will inevitably contain spoilers for the first seven books of the series [highlight to read]. Tiamat’s Wrath and its immediate predecessor, Persepolis Rising, instigate a soft reboot of this very long series by skipping forward decades and refocusing on what was the central antagonist of the first few books: the protomolecule, a substance created by a long-lost alien race that has the power to rewrite the very laws of physics. This was a massive return to form, in my opinion: neither Nemesis Games or Babylon’s Ashes, the fifth and sixth entries, worked well for me because they deviated from this fascinating concept to focus on a much more mundane war. I was thrilled when I realised that Persepolis Rising was returning to the series’ original horror roots, and Tiamat’s Wrath continues in the same vein, focusing on the dangerous meddling of the new Laconian Empire. Corey also resists the temptation to expand the number of narrators as they did in some of the earlier books, making them unwieldy and confusing: sticking to a core group, all but one of which have narrated before, allows Tiamat’s Wrath to keep up its pace and tension. The ending is hugely disturbing, and having become lukewarm about the Expanse in its mid-series slump, I now can’t wait for the ninth and final book.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

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Yun Ko-eun’s The Disaster Tourist, translated from the Korean by Lizzie Buehler, follows a young woman called Yona who feels she is being gradually forced out of the company she works for, Jungle Tourism, after experiencing sexual harassment. Jungle specialise in ‘disaster tourism’, luring Korean tourists to the sites of high-profile disasters, and Yona is dispatched to assess an experience called ‘Desert Sinkhole’ in the fictional country of Mui, which Yun reportedly based on south-east Asian countries such as Vietnam and Thailand. Yona discovers that this once-popular destination is becoming less appealing because it’s perceived by its visitors as lacking authenticity; the volcano doesn’t look like what they think a volcano should look like, and the sinkhole isn’t providing the emotional experience they crave. After being accidentally left behind in Mui when her tour group depart, Yona becomes drawn into an attempt to fundamentally rebrand this tourist destination through manufacturing a new disaster, directed by a faceless corporation called Paul. It goes without saying that this novella is intended to critique the destructive tourism of wealthy outsiders, but it didn’t hit as hard as I thought it might. I wasn’t convinced by the inclusion of workplace harassment at the beginning; it seemed like one theme too many for such a short book to carry and didn’t fundamentally shape Yona’s portrayal, so I would have preferred the focus to remain with the exploitation of Mui. Even so, the intensely surreal tone meant that I felt too distanced from what was happening; it seemed so unreal that it was hard to connect with the moral questions the book raises. I wondered if, as an English reader who hasn’t read that much Korean fiction, I was missing something, and sought out this fascinating interview with the author and translator; however, Yun’s suggestion that she wanted this novel to feel like an ‘Orwellian dystopia’ confirmed that for whatever reason, The Disaster Tourist didn’t work for me.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

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Suzanne Adam’s reflections on being an American expat who has lived in Chile for forty years, Notes From The Bottom of the World, were billed as being travel writing about ‘[Chile’s] culture, its idiosyncrasies, and its exotic landscapes, from Patagonian glaciers to the northern Atacama Desert’. However, this series of very short essays – many aren’t much more than a page long – focus more on Adam’s personal experiences than her explorations of Chile, at least in the third of the book that I read. Moreover, her observations tend towards the banal and the cliched, whether she’s writing about ageing or glaciers; for example, travelling through the Patagonian fjords, she muses: ‘What draws us in the twenty-first century to visit rugged, distant places? Is it an urge for adventure in these times when few unexplored frontiers remain on this planet?’ Given that this is really life-writing rather than travel writing, I found Adam strikingly unreflective. If you want a book that combines travel-writing from the farthest south with intelligent self-narrative, I’d suggest reading Jean McNeil’s wonderful memoir Ice Diaries instead.

20 Books of Summer, #4 and #5: If I Had Your Face and Surfacing

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Frances Cha’s debut novel, If I Had Your Face, is narrated in first person by four women in their late twenties and early thirties living precarious lives in contemporary Seoul (they actually live in the Gangnam district, which is a good education for those of us who have only heard of Gangnam from the K-pop single ‘Gangnam Style’). Despite only having four narrators, it has five significant female characters, all of whom live in the same apartment building. Ara, a mute hair stylist obsessed with a K-pop icon, shares her flat with school friend Sujin, who is saving up for plastic surgery so she can be a top ‘room salon’ girl like Kyuri, who makes money by entertaining men every night. Kyuri’s flatmate, Miho, seems to have broken away from her deprived upbringing in an orphanage when she wins a scholarship to an art school in New York, but is still at the mercy of the classist judgments of other Koreans when she returns; finally, Wonna, who lives with her husband in the downstairs flat, is desperate to become a mother even though she doesn’t know how she’ll be able to make ends meet. If I Had Your Face is significantly, if not wholly, concerned with how all of these women struggle to meet conventional standards of femininity and sexuality. In this, it has something in common with Cheryl Lu-Lien’s Singapore-set Sarong Party Girls; however, the latter has a much more satirical tone, depicting women who party hard and are much more willing to break the rules in their search for the perfect husband, whereas the Korean characters in If I Had Your Face live more constrained lives.

There are flashes of memorable originality in this debut novel, but the bits that stuck with me most vividly – like Wonna accidentally blinding her cousin as a child or Ara beating up an assistant hair stylist who’s sabotaging her at work – were the incidents that didn’t really connect to the story as a whole. The novel feels a little meandering and confusing, and this is amplified by how difficult it is to tell its four narrators apart and how all four of them tend to skip backwards and forwards in time when telling their stories. I was perhaps more bothered than I ought to have been by the fact that Sujin doesn’t get to narrate, whereas Wonna doesn’t seem to fit into many of the key themes of the book and so felt like an unnecessary addition. I understand that Cha wanted to explore the fate of women who do achieve marriage to a respectable man as a counterpoint to the rest of her characters trying to survive on their own, but I felt like I’d read this story many times before. If I Had Your Face had so much potential, but it never quite pulled it together.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on July 23rd.

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Surfacing is Kathleen Jamie’s third collection of nature-writing essays, following Findings and Sightlinesboth of which I enjoyed immensely. Unlike her previous two collections, Surfacing is dominated by two novella-length pieces on archaeological digs and their relationship with the landscape around them – ‘In Quinhagak’ explores the University of Aberdeen’s excavations at the Nunalleq site near the Yup’ik village of Quinhagak in Alaska, while ‘Links of Noltland’ focuses on the excavation of Neolithic remains on Orkney. The former essay is especially interesting because of the presence of the Yup’ik community, who support the archaeological dig because it’s uncovering evidence of their pre-contact culture. As Jamie writes, ‘It’s about saying, this is yours. Everything you feared you lost, or never even knew you had. Look. It’s here. It’s back.’ The Links of Noltland dig, exploring a time unfathomably more ancient, has no such direct living connection, but the meticulous work of the archaeologists builds up a sense of what the community must have been like. At one point, Jamie is helping two of the researchers, Dan and Anna, explore a particular patch:

[Dan] had the enclosure wall to deal with and, in its lee, many flints. His patch was covered in little polythene bags, each containing a bit of flint. Anna and I, just a metre further into the enclosure, had only brown earth which yielded occasional small morsels of bone. I pretended outrage when Hazel came by. “Miss! It’s not fair! He’s getting all these finds, and we’re not.”

Hazel’s answer seemed visionary. She glanced and said, “They must have been sitting on the wall, flint-knapping.”

Sat right there on their village wall in the afternoon sunshine, working and chatting. I almost saw them.

Jamie’s writing is as clear and brilliant as ever, but this collection felt slightly unbalanced by the dominance of these two long pieces. None of the very short pieces interspersed throughout worked for me, although I enjoyed a couple of the medium-length pieces; ‘The Wind Horse’, a bit of a departure from Jamie’s usual work, evocatively returns to her travels as a young woman in Xiahe, which is formally part of China but ‘ethnically and culturally Tibetan’, and ‘Elders’ is a moving piece about the ageing and death of her dad. Unlike Sightlines, Surfacing is also less successful at pulling together Jamie’s travel-writing with her emotional reflections on her own life; both are present in this book but tend to be explored in separate essays. Nevertheless, I would recommend this thoughtful, beautiful collection, especially if you are interested in questions of historical and cultural preservation.

‘Speaking Nearby’ Ourselves: Cathy Park Hong

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I’m not sure that the title and blurb of Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings give a completely accurate impression of what the book is about – in short, I can see someone picking this up expecting a meditation on the Korean American immigrant ‘experience’, and instead, encountering a series of essays that are much more concerned with making art while happening to be Korean American. Indeed, part of Hong’s achievement here is to demonstrate the deadness of familiar questions such as ‘Can white people write characters of colour?’ and to say much more interesting things about writing from your own and from others’ experiences, in conversation with other female Asian artists. For example, she writes:

‘Rather than “speaking about” a culture outside your experience, the filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha suggests we “speak nearby”. In an interview for Artforum, Trinh says: “When you decide to speak nearby, rather than speak about, the first thing you need to do is to acknowledge the possible gap between you and the who populate your film… You can only speak nearby, in proximity… which requires that you deliberately suspend meaning… This allows the other person to come in and fill that space as they wish.”‘

Hong uses Trinh’s insights to try and turn the conversation away from the inevitable focus upon white writers writing ‘outside their lane’, arguing: ‘I am only capable of “speaking nearby” the Asian American condition… I can’t stretch myself across it.’ (I found Jeannette Ng’s essay, ‘On Identity, Performing Marginalisations and the Limitations of #OwnVoices’ interesting in this context, reflecting some of Hong’s concerns about the power of the ‘single story’, or what happens when only immigrant narratives palatable to white audiences are told and retold).

Minor Feelings wrestles with the question of how artists should and can use their own experience, especially female artists of colour who risk being totally defined by it; what Nesrine Malik has called always writing ‘as a’. One of Hong’s closest friends as a young artist, Erin, insists on keeping some tragic events in her own past completely private: ‘If you reveal anything, they collapse your art with your life – and I don’t want my autobiography hijacking my art. Maybe back then, my loss was a deep part of me but I have worked really hard to separate my work and my identity from that loss.’ In another essay, Hong further interrogates these ideas through an exploration of the life and work of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, an artist and poet who worked in America but who was originally from South Korea, and who was raped and murdered at the age of thirty-one in 1982. Cha’s Dictee has become ‘a seminal book in Asian American literature… taught widely in universities’, but, Hong found, scholars are reluctant to talk about Cha’s death or to read her book as autobiographical because they feel this context devalues her art. ‘But where does the silence that neglects her end and where does the silence that respects her begin?’ Hong asks.

Because I’m fascinated by writing about art-making, I loved the turn that Minor Feelings took after the first couple of essays, which were equally strongly written but made points that were relatively more familiar to me (the denial of ‘innocence’ to children of colour; the ‘underachievement’ of black children in formal education in the US; the awkward position of Asian Americans, who are conceptualised as a ‘model minority’, privileged at the expense of African Americans, but who are also subject to racist stereotypes of passivity and authoritarianism, and told to “go home”). Hong is especially good at placing her work in dialogue with a longer tradition of female Asian American writing about art and emphasising that this is completely natural, remembering her good fortune in being college-educated in the US in the mid to late nineties: ‘Of course I read Theresa Hak Kyung Cha alongside William Carlos Williams in poetry class. I didn’t study the performances of Guillermo Gómez-Peña because I needed a sample of the “Chicano experience” like a vitamin supplement. I studied these writers and artists because they were the most interesting thinkers’.

Therefore, Minor Feelings itself becomes a subtle rebuke to those who read it looking for a certain kind of book, one that will somehow illuminate the Korean-American or, even more ridiculous, the Asian-American ‘experience’. As Hong argues, this can’t be done. But this brilliantly intelligent collection of essays is an important intervention in ongoing debates about race, identity and art.

I received a free proof copy of this essay collection from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on March 5th.