A Quiet Life by Kenzaburō Ōe is a novel about a woman and her older brother who is handicapped. Their father and mother travel to California where the father is trying to get out of writer’s block, and believes being a writer-in-residence will help him. All the while, the woman, Ma-chan, the older brother, Eeyore, and younger brother, O-chan, continue to live in Japan. Ma-chan has taken up the responsibility of caring for Eeyore, taking him to music practice at Mr. Shigeto’s, taking him to his job at a handicap workshop, and eventually to swim practices with Mr. Arai. Throughout the novel, Ma-chan worries that Eeyore will either have his fits out in public, will be hurt by other people, or will act out his sexual urges. None of this comes to pass, but her worries become real when it’s alluded to that Mr. Arai was involved in two deaths on a cruise. They continue to get swimming lessons with Mr. Arai, until one day when Mr. Shigeto approaches him about an incident and then gets beat up. Finally, as Ma-chan talks about her dreams of marrying a Mr. Arai, Eeyore discusses this with Mr. Arai. Mr. Arai then decides to take them to his place, where he attempts to have sex with Ma-chan, but is beat up by Eeyore. The novel ends with their mother returning home and the father still toiling away in America.
Ōe creates such an interesting narrative through his use of Ma-chan’s voice, the discussions of movies, music, and of Ma-chan’s worry. It’s a novel that highly contemplates what it means to care for a disabled family member, and shows in some instances, the reverse (i.e. the care giver needs to be the one who is cared for) is true. This occurs while Eeyore protects Ma-chan from an oncoming crowd at a train station even while he is having a fit and in the last moment where Eeyore beats up Mr. Arai to save Ma-chan from being raped. It’s a compelling novel that shows the breadth of the care siblings have for each other.
Final Rating: 5/5
The Resurrection Appearances: Fragments of a Daybook by Jay Aquinas Thompson is a nonfiction chapbook detailing the days, weeks, and months after the death of their mother. It recounts the moment they encountered her body, her life, as well as ruminations on Christianity. I particularly liked the lines, “When people asked me how grief felt, I’d say it didn’t feel like anything, it wasn’t a feeling; it was a metabolism.” and, “God is a fire victim on bedrest: from each burn point an angel is born;” It’s a deeply moving chapbook on how Thomson views their mother’s death, how their child, Finn, deals with these emotions, and what it all means within the context of religion. Thomson finishes off by writing, “There’s no and then I realized…moment in grief…”
Final Rating: 5/5
The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa is about a housekeeper tasked with taking care of a professor whose memory lasts eighty minutes. The memory loss had been caused by a car accident and now he lives in a tiny dilapidated house where he toils away at math prizes. A beautiful relationship emerges once the son of the housekeeper, nicknamed Root, comes into the equation. The professor cares for Root and is highly protective of him, trying to stop the bleeding from a cut on Roots hand to protecting him from a baseball. Both Root and the professor are enamored with baseball, but in two different ways through math and though the athleticism of the game. Throughout the novel, the housekeeper takes the professor and Root to a baseball game, she learns the tragic nature of the professor’s past, and in the end throws a birthday party for Root as well as for the professor winning a huge math prize. However, as the novel progresses, the professor’s memory shortens. In the end, the professor’s sister-in-law admits him to a living facility where he eventually dies.
Ogawa is a master at creating strikingly quiet and profound moments whether in the discussion of math or in the small details of the professor. I was charmed by the relationship between the professor and Root, implying that love and friendship go beyond time and memory. It’s a heartwarming and tender novel that I am glad I revisited.
Final Rating: 5/5
If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery is a collection of short stories focusing on the lives of Jamaican Americans living in Florida. The stories feature a tight cast of characters, Trelawny, Delano, their parents, and their cousin Cukie. The collection shows these characters at their lowest points, living out of their cars while working for an apartment complex, a father who traffics drugs, and other moments where they simply need to find a way to get by. I found the whole collection to be striking, but in particular, I enjoyed, ‘In Flux’, because of its comments on how Blackness is perceived in America, ‘Pestilence’, ‘Spashdown’, ‘Independent Living’, and ‘If I Survive You’. In the last story, it provides an intense look at how people view and take advantage of the Jamaican American population. I found the tension and dynamic of the brothers to be powerful. Highly recommend this book.
Final Rating: 5/5
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote is a non-fiction novel about the Kansas murders of the Clutter family in 1959. It follows the lives of the Clutter family leading up to their deaths, as well as describing the murders, Perry and Hickock, as they decide to rob and kill the family. Both Perry and Hickock had been in and out of trouble with the law, and in one such case heard about Mr. Clutter who owned a farm and had a safe with at least ten thousand dollars in it. With that, Hickock concocts a plan to drive to their house once they’re out of prison, rob and kill the family, and disappear. Perry has an idea of them going to Mexico to discover gold after the murders, which they decide is their next course of action. Both Perry and Hickock are described as having tolerated each other, in part because they believed they’d get a big payout. However, once they get to the house, and tie the family up, they can’t find the safe. They collect forty dollars from Mr. Clutter’s wallet, and while Mr. Clutter is tied up, Perry has a momentary psychotic episode and slits Mr. Clutter’s throat. Then, knowing there can’t be any witnesses, he shoots the rest of the family. Then, they escape from the house, begin to cash fraudulent checks, steal from stores and pawn those items off, and finally make their way to Mexico. However, due to Hickock’s spending, they find they have lost all their money, so they decide to return to the US. All the while, the detective on the case, Dewey, searches for clues in the footprints left and the photos of the crime scene. Dewey finally gets a lead when an inmate who previously bunked with Hickock had told him about the Clutter family and how he described the safe to him. Eventually, they catch Perry and Hickock in Las Vegas, where they are brought back to Kansas to stand trial. Their trial is short, with the death sentence being the final verdict. They are on death row for about five and a half years where they appeal the verdict. However, the novel ends with their hangings while Dewey observes them.
Capote masterfully crafts a vibrant and haunting world in this novel, and I felt severely conflicted with the main murderer it focuses on, Perry. It’s alluded he had some sort of schizophrenia, and had had a rough childhood. I liked how at parts of the novel, Capote takes excerpts of people’s conversations, and how both Perry views himself and the rest of the world views him. It’s imagery and conflict feel completely real, and I can see why this novel has existed in the literary cannon.
Final Rating: 5/5
Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So is a collection of short stories focused on the lives of Cambodian Americans, their interlinking relationships, and the generational trauma of the Khmer Rouge genocide. ‘Three Woman of Chuck’s Donuts’ is about a family who owns a donut shop while a mysterious man comes to order a single fritter every night without eating it. ‘Superking Son Scores Again’ is about a badminton coach who owns a store and can’t stop reliving his glory days. ‘Maly, Maly, Maly’ is about two cousins who hang out and work at a bootleg DVD store, where they get high, watch porn together, and then go to a ceremony for the rebirth of their aunt. ‘The Shop’ is about a father who owns a mechanic shop, but the business begins to fail after one of the cars is stolen. Other stories I enjoyed were ‘The Monks’ and ‘Human Development’.
The stories feature interlinking characters, though fairly loose in the specific plots between them. Thus, they create a tapestry of what it means to be Khmer, gay, and sometimes aimless. It’s a tender and powerful collection.
Final Rating: 5/5
Flux by Jinwoo Chong is a novel about a man, Bo, who loses his job at a magazine company and gets recruited for a job at a company that promises a life-long battery. His introduction to the company is one that is oddly timed with a man, Lev, offering him a job right after he falls down an elevator shaft. At the company, he begins his commute and at 9am, losses his memory of what he did for that day. The story of a younger Bo is threaded throughout, who loses his mother after she is run over by a bus three days before Christmas while bringing him his lunch. Bo is continuously filled with guilt from that moment, and fights with his brother, Kaz, runs away from his home, and then falls and rips open his wrist. Another character, Blue, which turns out to be Bo, decades after his time at the battery company, is preparing to do an interview telling the world the scam the company was running. One day at work, after getting a mysterious alarm on his phone, Bo follows its instructions, which was to use 1% milk in his cereal. This then reveals he is able to visit memories of his life and affect them, essentially becoming a time traveler. Once Bo finds out, he tries to warn his coworker, Ry, but she is then taken by the company and killed with two of her friends. The deaths kick-start in investigation into the company, where the scam and misgiving are revealed. At the interview location, Bo tries to recreate his time travel and is successful. He sets in motion setting his younger self’s alarm, goes to his father right before he has a heart attack and apologies for how terrible of a son he was, brings his younger self back home when he ran away, and finally goes to save his mother from being killed by a bus. Bo is obsessed with a character in a detective show, Raider, which features an Asian cast, but is all the while tinged in racism. Bo converses with the fictional character throughout the novel, explaining his situation, and frames it in the context of the show.
Flux is a dazzling display of Chong’s use of timelines, threaded narratives, and the surreal. The conversing with the Raider character is such a powerful framing device and reminds me of how Matthew Salesses uses something similar in The Sense of Wonder. I also like how the figure-head of the battery company, Io Emsworth, is a pretty good analog to Elizabeth Holmes. But what I am most astounded by is how intricate the timelines coalesce with Bo becoming the Jacket Guy, the phone alarms, and the memories (as with the rest of the novel). There had to have been a lot of planning on the back end on how everything would be put in, and it’s still a wonder to me how well its sense of time bends while reading. I highly recommend this book as Chong’s ability has shown he is a master at his craft.
Final Rating: 5/5
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart is a novel about a boy, Hugh “Shuggie” Bain, living in Glasgow whose mother is an alcoholic, while he is questioning his sexuality. Shuggie initially lives with his mother, father, grandmother, half-brother, and sister. His father, Shug, is a taxi driver who, it turns out, was sleeping with a lot of other women. Shug makes the family move from their place in Sighthill to Pithead, a run-down miner’s town. Then, Shug abandons the family to live with another woman who worked at the taxi company. Throughout all of this, Shuggie’s mother, Agnes, drinks their money away and, many times, tries to kill herself. At Pithead, Shuggie learns he is different from the other boys with the way he walks, talks, and is called terrible names (in addition to being forced to give another boy a handjob and is touched by a taxi driver). By this time, Shuggie’s older sister has moved to Africa and Leek, Shuggie’s older brither, is distancing himself from Agnes. Agnes at one point, however, decides to get sober and gest a job working the night shift at a gas station. She does well for a little while, meets a man named Eugene, and goes to AA meetings. However, after her one-year anniversary of being sober, Eugene invites her to dinner and convinces her to have a drink. From there, Agnes’s drinking worsens and causes terrible pain for Leek and Shuggie. Eventually, Agnes and Shuggie move out of Pithead to start a new life on the East End, but it doesn’t work out. One night, after much drama, Shuggie is in the middle of helping his unconscious mother, when she chokes on her vomit and dies. The final scene is with Shuggie and his new friend, Leanne, helping her alcoholic mother with changing her clothes because she is homeless. In the end, the realization on Shuggie’s sexuality seems to be the light at the end of the tunnel for him.
This novel is expertly told through its Scottish dialect, its acute descriptions of alcoholism, and the way it depicts Shuggie’s sexuality. It’s a novel about abuse, poverty, queerness, drugs, but it’s also about love. There are mentions throughout, and some scenes where Agnes’s abuse shows through, such as her blackout night in the back of a taxi, or her under a pile of coats in a bedroom. And the final scene really was intense, showing that had Agnes continued on her path, she would’ve been just like Leanne’s mother and he would’ve been just like Leanne. It’s a heartbreaking and tender novel and I enjoyed it throughout.
Final Rating: 5/5
The End of Eddy by Édouard Louis is a novel about a boy who lives in rural France, comes from a poor family, and tries to disregard the fact that he’s gay. The first half of the novel describes Eddy’s home life, his drunken and unemployed father (who once worked at a factory), his hard-love type mother, his large and trigger-hair older brother, and two boys that bully him (in addition to other family). He is seen in his village as the outcast, the effeminate boy, and so because of that he is bullied, name called, and beaten by others. The second half of the novel focuses on what happens after he has sex with his cousins in a shed. They get found out by Eddy’s mother, Eddy’s father beats him, and then rumors become more solidified about Eddy’s sexuality after one of his cousins tells their secret. Eddy is horrified and tries to bury it by dating Laura and then Sabrina, but when Sabrina tries to have sex with him, all he can think about is other men. Eventually, Eddy auditions, and then gets into a high school with a theater program, which is far away from his home and village. He thinks he’s evaded the accusations, but in the final moments of the novel, we see that Eddy isn’t seen different and is, “…as gay as ever…”, with Eddy laughing in response.
It's a deeply emotional novel that displays Eddy’s internal conflict so well. He recognizes his desires, but tries so hard to tamp them down, which makes it all the sadder to witness. The ending too makes me want to believe that Eddy has become himself, but there is also a sense that the bullying, denial, and hatred will perpetuate. When reading, I felt a particular parallel to another novel, Confessions of a Mask, by Yukio Mishima in which violence, masculinity, and sexuality are all blended up together. And I found this observation to encapsulate both novels, “I do not know if the boys from the hallway would have referred to their own behaviors as violent…For a man violence was something natural, self-evident.” Louis is a master at putting the reader into the mind of Eddy, to interpret the same feelings and moments as him, and to feel absolutely devastated by the way the world treats him.
Final Rating: 5/5
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin is a novel set in mid-century Paris, with an American, David, who falls in love with another man, Giovanni. David has a fiancée, Hella, travelling in Spain, and his father funds his expenses as he lives in France. We meet David as he is packing up and leaving the house that he lived in after he met Giovanni and Hella has left him. David then begins to remember how he met Giovanni who at the time was a bartender, with an older gentleman, Jacques, who liked Giovanni. Jacques implores David to order drinks for him and Giovanni in the hopes that Jacques would be able to have sex with Giovanni. At this moment, and throughout the novel, David struggles with his sexuality, at times in total denial of his attraction to men, other times being open to the idea, and sometimes somewhere in between.
At the bar, David and Giovanni hit it off, and everyone in the bar notices their chemistry. As it becomes morning, they invite Giovanni to join them for breakfast, which they take a taxi with the bar owner, Guillaume. They have oysters and wine, continue their banter, and eventually they end up at Giovanni’s room where they have sex. David and Giovanni then begin to live together because David has stopped getting payments from his father, where they desire each other, but at the back of David’s mind he knows Hella will be back. Once Hella sends a letter that she will be returning soon, things start to go wrong for both David and Giovanni. For Giovanni, he was fired from the bar because Guillaume, who had hired him only because he was attracted to Giovanni, tries to have sex with him. And for David, he goes to dinner with an old acquaintance, Sue, where neither of them really wants to have sex with each other, but once it’s done Sue has feelings for him and he is more disgusted than ever. Hella returns from her trip, David and she try to continue their engagement, but something has changed within David. David has stopped seeing Giovanni, who has begun spiraling out of control and eventually lives with Jacques for a little bit. Giovanni is so hurt by the way David abandoned him and because he got fired from his job, he returns to the bar and kills Guillaume. He is on the run but is eventually found where he is sentenced to death. By that time, David and Hella have escaped from Paris in a smaller town in France. David is still distraught, and Hella begins to suspect something is wrong. It all comes to a head when David decides to go to a bar, meets a sailor, and is caught by Hella. She breaks their engagement, and leaves David in France as she returns home. The novel ends with David in the empty house thinking about Giovanni and what it would be like for him to die.
Giovanni’s Room is an insanely moving novel. Baldwin can sit in David’s mind, rationalize his actions, and find denial everywhere he looks. What impressed me about this novel was how strong the voice, descriptions, and moments were. I was able to see the tenderness in David, and still see he was shielding the world and himself from his true identity. I loved the way the novel swayed back and forth in time, where everything had already happened and David was alone in an empty house. David cut off his interactions with Giovanni, losing him, believing it would save his engagement. But in doing so, he lost Hella too. It’s a deeply lonely novel, one that sat with nostalgia and guilt. Baldwin also made a lot of interesting choices in narrative, giving large moments to the interactions with Giovanni, but fairly brief moments with Hella. I also liked how he dedicated only a short paragraph to how Giovanni and Hella met independent of David. I also thought the imagined life of Giovanni in prison and his walk to the guillotine was brilliant for a final scene. I liked how when we met Giovanni he was the perfect man, and then fell from grace in part because of David. It’s a story I will not stop thinking about, and it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.
Final Rating: 5/5
Maxwell Suzuki is a writer, poet, and photographer based in Los Angeles.