Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut is a novel about a journalist who is on a search to interview and write about one of the fathers of the nuclear bomb. He finds out that one of the children is a General of an island nation called San Lorenzo. There, the narrator takes a trip to the island where a confounding religion has taken hold of the population, but the rulers try to snuff it out. The narrator then finds out that the man who created the nuclear bomb also created something called ice-nine, which is a crystalized form of water with a melting temperature of 114 degrees Fahrenheit. Thus, would be cataclysmic if it ever touched the ocean. The narrator then is asked to be the next ruler of San Lorenzo, the ruler dies by ice-nine, and at a ceremony celebrating the death of people that were shipped out for World War II, one of the planes in the ceremony crashes into the ruler’s palace. The dead body of the ruler falls into the sea where everything then freezes over. The narrator survives in a bunker, writes his novel about the end of the world, and finally meets the person who started the religion, Bokonon.
The novel is satirical in its nature, commenting both on the creation of religion and its false persecution, the cold war in which both the US and Russia have shards of ice-nine, and the absurdity of the characters. Throughout, the narrator discusses his feelings related to Bokononism and uses it to deepen his understanding of the world that exists in that final moment. It’s a quippy, dark, and funny read.
Final Rating: 4.5/5
The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka is a novel about a group of people who are religiously committed to a swimming pool underground. One day, a crack appears on the bottom of the pool and it becomes a mysterious subject either avoided or talked about incessantly. Eventually, the crack causes some people to leave, while the pool decides to shut down due to maintenance and the crack. The novel then begins to focus on one specific character, Alice, who lived through the Japanese American Internment camps and mental state slowly deteriorates, leading her to be put in hospice. The end of the novel resides with Alice’s daughter who contemplates the memories of her mother, and the state of her mother before and after Alice’s death.
The novel takes interesting directions with its approach to voice, with the first part in the voice of a collective “we”, believed to be one of the swimmers at the pool. Another part is from the voice of Alice’s daughter, and another part is from the voice of the care facility. It’s an interesting route to go, making the text and narrative feel that the characters are being directed either by the pool officials or the narration of the care facility (rather than from their own free will). I was also intrigued by the seriousness (and humor) with which the swimmers approached the crack and its appearance. Overall, it was a powerful though sad novel.
Final Rating: 4.5/5
Life for Sale by Yukio Mishima is a novel about a copywriter, Hanio, who tries to kill himself, but fails. He then decides to put his life up for sale in the newspaper, which kickstarts a collection of desperate people who want to use him. The first man wants him to sleep with his young wife, get caught, and killed. Another woman wants him to test a poison concocted from beetles for a Western buyer. A boy wants him to sleep with his mother, who turns out to be a vampire, while the mother intends to kill both her and Hanio in a fire. Two spies enlist his help in testing out poisonous carrots and deciphering letters. And finally, a woman asks for him to live with her and pay his rent, while she intends to kill him with her. Many of these instances are connected through the Asia Confidential Service (ACS), who believes him to be an undercover cop trying to unravel their international murders. In the end, the ACS captures him, but he outwits them with a stopwatch in a box which he says is a bomb. However, when Hanio goes to the police to report the ACS, he is brushed off as he is seen as crazy and homeless.
The novel shows Hanio wanting to die, but through the course of its narration, he seems to stumble out of harms way. He cannot kill himself, the women that ask for his services intend to commit suicide with him, but he always inexplicably slips away from danger. This is what drives the story forward: Hanio’s desire for death and Mishima denying his death. The novel, however, depicts women in an oddly misogynistic light with its descriptions of their bodies, their singular desires to have sex with Hanio, and their melodramatic suicides either in the face of a gun, a fire, or poison. All that being said, it’s a fast-paced and tense novel throughout, and I found Hanio’s situation to be both surreal and ironic.
Final Rating: 4.5/5
A Hundred Lovers by Richie Hofmann is a collection of poems focusing on the erotic, gay, and tender moments the speaker remembers with his past lovers. I particularly enjoyed ‘One Another’, with its lines, “How easily the earth closes / its cavities.” I also enjoyed ‘Spring Wedding’, ‘Mummified Bird’, ‘Opulence’, and ‘French Novel’. ‘Spring Wedding’ fractures its stanzas between the erotic (the first half) and the mundane with “We will have children. / We will buy another house.” The imagery is stark and the collection isn’t afraid to take on themes of sexuality with precision.
Final Rating: 4.5/5
A Shameful Life by Osamu Dazai is a novel framed within discovered journal entries meant for a previous lover of the character Yōzō, which describe his distance from society, his previous suicide attempts, and his drug/alcohol abuse. The story begins with Yōzō’s childhood where he realizes he needs to make everything he says a joke to disguise his disconnection from the world. From this, he meets a schoolmate, Takeichi, who gives him two predictions: that women will fall for him, and that he’ll be a great artist. He tests into a great higher school, though when he attends, he can’t seem to concentrate (he also meets one of his friends, Horiki, at this school who brings him into the Leftist party). Along the way, he meets a woman, Tsuneko, who decides to commit suicide with him, but Yōzō survives and she doesn’t. He’s kicked out of school for being part of someone’s suicide, and he goes to back to a friend’s house, Flounder’s, where he recovers and tries to pick up the pieces. This is when he starts to seriously draw his cartoons, which get picked up by Shizuko, his next girlfriend and a connection to large magazines. But even then, Yōzō drifts to another woman, Yoshiko, who is seen as innocent and virgin, so Yōzō decides to be with her. However, one night when he and Horiki are talking, they find Yoshiko with another man. Yōzō drinks so much and his health is deteriorating. He decides to kill himself with sleeping pills, but it doesn’t work. At the end he is taken to a mental hospital, and he charges himself with the question, “I’d never, not for a moment, gone mad. Ah, but I suppose that’s the sort of thing a lunatic would say.” At the end of his stay, he’s taken back to his brother’s place where he attempts suicide again, but the sleeping pills are replaced by laxatives.
It isn’t hard to see the parallels between Dazai’s life and Yōzō through the failed suicide attempts and the drug and alcohol abuse. It’s a novel that both feels confessional and reserved. Yōzō sees himself as different from society, and that he tries to disguise that through clowning around. And in part, some of Yōzō’s behavior may be explained through the slight references to his childhood servants doing bad things to him. The framing of the novel is also really interesting, with the journal entries being bookended by a random traveler looking for food. It’s a terribly sad novel, one that feels achingly close to Dazai’s life and for that reason, I found its portrayal of the human experience to be exacting.
Final Rating: 4.5/5
Holy American Burnout! by Sean Enfield is a collection of essays ruminating and expanding upon being a middle school teacher at a Muslim school during the lead up to the 2016 presidential election. Enfield discusses his frustration and sadness of the inhumane treatment of Black people in America, police brutality, islamophobia, and where he fits into the whole mix. The collection experiments with form, in one essay structured as if a lesson plan, another structured in acts, and others bouncing between space/time and pop culture. I particularly enjoyed the essays ‘To Pimp a Mockingbird – Lesson Plan’, ‘Teacher, Don’t Teach Me Nonsense’, ‘All My Niggas Was white – Notes from the Color Line’, and ‘To Be (or not to be) in a Rage Almost All the Time – An Essay in Five Acts’. It’s a lovely and powerful collection and I am happy to have been part of the team to publish it.
Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang is a collection of surreal and sci-fi stories which challenge the understanding of the world. There’s the well-known story, ‘Story of Your Life’, which was adapted into the movie, ‘Arrival’. That story was certainly an amazing read, with its use of past and present tense, its discussion of language and time, and the way it portrays love. Other stories I admired in the collection were, ‘Tower of Babylon’, about a structure so tall it touches the heavens, ‘Understand’, about a man who receives a drug enhancement to become smarter than anyone else in the world, ‘Division by Zero’, about a professor who learns that any number can equal any other and its implications, and ‘Hell is the Absence of God’, where angels come down and grant miracles but also create destruction in the process.
The collection is a mind-bending foray into science fiction I hadn’t necessarily read before. Some of the stories take interesting forms and structures, and the science explanations are thoroughly researched. Throughout, it was an interesting collection to read and think about.
Final Rating: 4.5/5
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner is a novel about the Bundren family in Mississippi traveling to bury their dead mother. It follows the trials and tribulations of the sons, daughter, and father as they each deal with the death in a different way. The story opens with the mother close to death and her oldest son, Cash, preparing the casket in their yard as the daughter, Dewey Dell, stands by the mother’s bed. It’s described that the father, Anse, doesn’t really care for his dying wife, Addie, and only honors her wishes after she is dead. There are two more sons, Jewel who seems to only care for money, and Darl who is described as the only son who truly loved Addie. And finally, Vardaman, is the youngest son who doesn’t know how to interpret Addie’s death, so acts out by scaring off the doctor’s horses. Once dead, the family hitches Addie’s body up in a wagon and begins their journey to a wholly separate county. Along the way, a storm forces them to take a detour, a failed fording across a river causes Cash to break his leg, Darl starts a barn fire, and Dewey Dell searches for an aborticide for her pregnancy. The whole time, they have Addie’s body decomposing in the wagon, which lasts over a week, before they finally bury her. The novel ends with Anse finding another woman, as if to say Anse hadn’t really cared for Addie all along.
The novel has a huge cast of characters which Faulkner tackles by placing the reader in the mind of each one expertly. What’s brilliant about As I Lay Dying is that Faulkner is able to craft uniquely distinct voices for each character. For example, Vardaman sounds like a kid, Anse’s language is written in dialect, and the doctor’s thoughts are more formal. I loved how the family interacts with each other, when they use concrete as a cast for Cash’s leg, Dewey Dell’s mission for an aborticide, and Vardaman believing Addie had become a fish. It is no wonder Faulkner is seen to be one of the greatest writers of his time.
Final Rating: 4.5/5
The Sense of Wonder by Matthew Salesses is a novel about an Asian American basketball player, Won, his desire for fame, and the problems that arise through racism. Won gets on the Knicks where he is overshadowed by the star player, Powerball!, and yet when given the chance, for seven straight games, Won leads them to victory. However, between Won, Powerball!, and a Knicks reporter, Robert Sung, a contentious dynamic emerges. First, Robert is also Asian American and felt somewhat slighted by the NBA when he tried and failed to succeed on a team (he got injured and his career was over). Robert then takes his anger out on Won through slights of his reporting. Both Won and Robert look up to Powerball! as the player they want to be. Powerball! is also married to Robert’s crush, Brit, and it all comes to a head that Robert is cheating on his girlfriend with Brit.
All these relationships are framed within the context of a K-drama because Won’s girlfriend, Carrie, is a K-drama writer. Throughout the story there are subplots with Carrie’s sister getting cancer, Won proposing to Carrie, Carrie getting her own K-drama produced, and the way white people treat Won as the first Asian American in the NBA. Salesses structures his novel in POVs that switch between Won, Carrie, and descriptions of K-dramas. It was a great way to frame the basketball player’s relationships, following and rejecting the tropes it discusses. Near the end, the novel zooms out in time, summarizing what happens to each character as if they too have tragic and fairy tale endings.
I was very much affected by the scene where they stage Carrie’s sister’s funeral with her still alive and present. Knowing the context that Salesses’s own wife died of cancer was a beautiful way to defy his wife’s fate. I also really enjoyed the way the characters interacted with each other. Overall, I found the betrayals, relationships, loves, tragedies, and passions all work together in a fast-paced novel.
Final Rating: 4.5/5
Bliss Montage by Ling Ma is a collection of stories which focus on the Chinese American and immigrant experience, all of which are wildly surreal. The first story, ‘Los Angeles’, is about a woman who houses a hundred of her ex-boyfriends in their home; ‘G’ is about a drug that can make you invisible; ‘Returning’ is about a couple who goes to a fictional country called Garboza in which people are buried underground and are cured of ailments; and yet even another, ‘Office Hours’, is about a portal in an office that leads to a forest where time doesn’t exist. All these stories force the reader to suspend their disbelief and go along with whatever strangeness that occurs.
Though, what’s interesting in many of these stories, the strangeness is simply taken and not fought against. The story ‘Yeti Lovemaking’ shows, at first, the speaker is confused, but then just moves along as if making love to yetis is part of their life now. Particular stories, such as ‘Los Angeles’, deployed really interesting tactics in storytelling. One of the tactics was how the husband only talked in dollar signs, and was never named, while all the ex-boyfriends were given names and had their own understandable dialogue.
Ma also pulls us out of stories at moments that don’t initially make sense. For example, in ‘Returning’, the story ends with the woman pulling Peter out of the hole and calling both his English and Garbanese name. What we don’t get to see is how the Morning Festival changed Peter, or how they returned to America, or even how their relationship would change. Ma does however, sprinkle in ideas of how the end of the story should be interpreted. Particularly in ‘Returning’, the speaker is a writer who has written a book and describes it as, “’…this couple who spend a lot of time and resources planning for their idealized future, which never comes’…’But then the wife breaks out of the spell, but the husband doesn’t. They become separated on different timelines.’” The novel the speaker is talking about summarizes the fracturing of a couple after one of them gets cryogenically frozen and the other doesn’t. ‘Returning’ has these two parallel stories within it then, where the speaker and Peter are in a rocky patch and the Morning Festival is what might save them, and the couple wanting to both get frozen together but one soon deciding not to. With this read of the story, ‘Returning’ doesn’t need to continue more than it already has gone. The speaker, or more likely Peter who has just been transformed after being in the dirt, will call their relationship off. And the uncovering scene is the first inkling of that change within him.
Other stories do something similar which I found delightful and at times wanting more. It was interesting to see how Ma writes a lot about writers, with stories such as ‘Returning’, ‘Peking Duck’, and ‘Office Hours’ all featuring some iteration of a writer as the main character. Overall, I loved the stories and how vivid and surreal each one of them was.
Final Rating: 4.5/5
Maxwell Suzuki is a writer, poet, and photographer based in Los Angeles.