The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett is a novel set in the eighties in a town called Mallard which no one outside of Louisiana has heard of. The town exists a way for the founder, a black man, to create children whiter than him. The novel focuses on a pair of twins, who leave Mallard for a time. Though, one of the twins, Desiree, comes back after some time with a daughter who is far darker than anyone else in town. The other twin, Stella, runs off with her boss and tries to distance herself from her black identity as she passes as white and marries a white man. Along the way, the two twins have daughters with vastly different upbringings, one in a predominately white neighborhood, and one in Mallard. They meet in Los Angeles where the daughters, Kennedy and Jude, eventually learn they’re cousins. Stella wants to keep the lie that she isn’t black while her daughter wants to know the secret. Along the way, Jude falls in love with Reese, a trans man, and Kennedy becomes a midlist celebrity starring in off-Broadway plays. Near the end, Stella learns Kennedy has found her out and confronts Desiree, asking her to keep Jude away from her family. The novel ends with the twin’s mother dead, and at the funeral the one person absent is Stella.
I loved how this novel interrogated identity and questioned our understanding of what makes a person. It was interesting to read about a town where, even if they appeared white, people distrusted and killed them. It took the “one drop rule” and applied it to social issues rather than governmental ones. This was also paralleled in how Reese was introduced to Jude, where both felt different from the people around them. It was nicely contrasted in how Jude’s identity was external with being darker skinned in a town of mostly white passing people, while Reese presented as a man whose identity was much more internal. I enjoyed the interactions between Reese and Jude the most because they recognized each other’s pain and through that had tenderness for each other. Overall, I thought the book’s emotions, relationships, struggles with identity, and family worked in a powerful and personal way.
Final Rating: 4.5/5
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott is a book focusing on the craft of writing, how to approach writing, and some nuggets of wisdom gathered in her career. Lamott provides some of the tools that she uses and reassures the reader that writing is an arduous but rewarding process. I thought her anecdote about her brother’s bird project was poignant and compelling, when her father told him to complete the project bird by bird. As with other craft books I’ve read recently (On Writing by Stephen King), one of the tenets that keeps coming up is to tell the truth and be truthful to the reader, the characters, and the story. And as I am beginning in my writing career, I will hold this close to me because if the emotions and moments aren’t true, then why even write them in the first place? Other practical pieces of advice discuss being okay with imperfect prose, to gather in writing groups, and to break the writing into easier to complete portions. The writing is beautiful with moments of Lamott’s life sprinkled in throughout to give context and support to her advice. I liked the breadth and depth is goes into on being a writer, though its advice didn’t seem particularly different than other craft books I’ve read. Lamott does discuss writing in a unique way, and overall, I enjoyed its tenderness, love, and dedication to the craft.
Final Rating: 4/5
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley is a dystopian novel about a society that creates genetically bred castes of citizens, dulls them with drugs, and controls them with hypnotic messaging. The novel follows three characters: Lenina, Bernard, and John (the Savage) as they meet. Bernard and Lenina are of the highest class of society and decide to take a trip from London to New Mexico where there is an area that hasn’t been civilized. To Lenina and Bernard, being civilized entailed being genetically altered, with the world around them sterile, no relationships to hold them to a single person, and no parents. They meet John after a ceremony done by the “savages” and decide to bring him back to London after realizing the mother and son are related to the Controller (one of the top leaders). They parade John around their society, give his mother drugs which eventually kills her, and are sent off from society because they have become too independent.
There are a few parts about this novel which I felt were either technically sound or gave depth to the different references created. First, near the end of chapter three, Huxley takes three/four different concurrent narratives, and threads them together with single lines of dialogue. I found his approach to work seamless in how he slowly introduced the method with only two threads with longer passages, and then worked to shorten them until they were beautifully woven. The other part I found interesting was how the only book John read was Shakespeare which not only influenced what he said but how he thought.
There is a somewhat longer section of dialogue between John and the Controller discussing why a society like the one in the novel exists and why it must stay that way. The kernel of the argument was that a society must be happy to be productive, and the only way to be happy is for an authoritative government to control every aspect of a person’s life down to their DNA. I was particularly drawn to the line spoken by John in that conversation, “’But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.’” The only thing I am hesitant on is the way the “savages” are meant to be Native Americans, which seems slightly racist (though perhaps that’s what Huxley was trying to convey). It’s a strong novel to discuss social hierarchy, what a utopia in reality would be, and how one fits in the world.
Final Rating: 4/5
Out by Natsuo Kirino is a crime/thriller novel about a group of women factory workers who must dispose of a body because one of them killed her husband. The group consists of four women: Masako (the calculated leader), Yayoi (the one who killed her husband and is guiltless), Yoshie (the obedient one), and Kuniko (the debt ridden and arrogant one). After Yayoi kills her husband, she asks Masako to help her, where the rest of the group is employed to cut up the body and throw the pieces away in trashcans. They’re able to keep what they did under wraps until the body gets found in a park and a local club owner is accused of the killing. The club owner, Satake, subsequently loses his business and decides to go after the four women. For Satake, it draws up a moment in his past he wants to relive, torturing/raping/killing a woman decades ago. All the while, the four women begin to crumble where Kuniko continues to rack up loans and debt, Masako’s crumbling marriage is finally unearthed, Yoshie’s caretaking responsibilities increase, and Yayoi is constantly accused and questioned. Though, Masako is employed by one of Kuniko’s debt collectors, who has connections to the Yakuza, to cut up bodies for them to dispose of. It goes well until Satake kills Kuniko and sends the body to Masako to cut up. Satake continues to terrorize the group by robbing Yayoi of all her life insurance money and following the rest of the group. Satake finally is able to entrap Masako, rape her, and is about to kill her when she slashes his face with a scalpel, where he bleeds out and dies. Though, near the end, Masako begins to understand Satake’s feral violence and passion and feels sad about the death.
The novel is told from the viewpoint of each main character: Masako, Yayoi, Yoshie, Kuniko, the debt collector, and Satake. With this type of story, the POV switching helped to keep the tension high. I also enjoyed the way the story went into the mindset of Masako and Satake, particularly how they see themselves as different and then finally as more similar than initially. Kirino is an expert in pacing, and while I don’t usually read crime fiction, I was enraptured in the narrative. It made me question why I was rooting for one main character, while all of them had done morally questionable things—and that nuance is what I felt made the novel that much better.
Final Rating: 4/5
The Kenyon Review Winter 2023 features short stories, essays, poetry, and visual art, with a folio focusing on bridges and how people/connections/moments can be bridges for other things. This issue has a few fascinating stories, one of which is called ‘Block Party’, by Danny Lang-Perez, which features a magical man who can cook/make anything from his mobile kitchen and his son, Charles, who people adore. When Charles doesn’t appear one night because his mother asked him not to help, the neighborhood goes crazy, throwing things at the man and running him out of their cul-de-sac. It’s an interesting way to look at how the entitled treat workers, and what happens when things don’t go their way. I also enjoyed the language in ‘Eight Poems’ by Abbas Kiarostami and ‘The Orphanage’ by Emeline Atwood. Though, everything else felt a little lackluster.
Final Rating: 3.5/5
Maxwell Suzuki is a writer, poet, and photographer based in Los Angeles.