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
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
Pop Culture Poetry: The Definitive Collection by Michael B. Tager is a collection of poems contemplating the nostalgia, cultural effects, and personal connections to important people such as Justin Bieber to Patrick Swayze. I enjoyed the poems, ‘All Neon Like’, ‘Justin Bieber, as Dalmatian’, ‘Justin Bieber, as Capitalism’, ‘Genghis Sees a Michael Bay Movie’, and ‘Human fighter jet’. The poems are playful, humorous, and provide interesting scenarios.
Final Rating: 3.5/5
Incest by Christine Angot is a novel about a woman who had an incestuous relationship with her father as a teenager and is in the throes of breaking up with another woman. The speaker, Christine, is married to Claude and has a daughter, Léonore, though has an affair with another woman, Marie-Christine. Christine then recounts the encounters and trips with Marie-Christine, while also describing the rockiness of their relationship. It leads into Christmas where Marie-Christine is supposed to go to Rome with Christine, but they decide to not go the first day. They eventually do go, but it displays the fervor and intense emotions of them, paradoxically, wanting to be together and be separate. Near the latter half of the novel, Christine begins to hint and describe her encounters with her father when she was a teenager. They hadn’t known each other until she was fourteen, where her father has another life with another family. There are encounters at a theater, on her vacation, at a church, in her father’s car, and on walks. The character sees herself as feeling both debased and also an intense desire to continue the relationship with her father.
Angot provides a deeply personal look into the narrator’s head, in which it reads more like a stream-of-consciousness account rather than one that is thoroughly recounted. However, I think it works to show the character’s frazzled and disorganized nature. It’s also interesting how the character continually brings up the fact that she had a relationship with a woman, but she is not gay. It’s brought up in mantras, in the repeated phone calls, and in the way plans are created then cancelled and then replanned. The novel’s subject matter and discussion provides insight into taboo things, though not only is Christine, the character, is aware of this fact, but decides to defy it. I also found it interesting in how the lines blur between the author, Christine Angot, and the character, Christine Angot. Both are writers, though not necessarily autobiographical, it provides a mystery to the reader as to what is truly fact and what is fiction.
Final Rating: 4/5
Temporal Anomalies by Matt Broaddus is a collection of poems split into three parts tackling the past, present, and future. It approaches the experience of being black, as well as providing a surrealist approach to its final section. I particularly enjoyed the poems, ‘Lalibela’, ‘Aboretum’, and the whole final section, ‘Space Station’.
Final Rating: 4/5
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
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
Love Poems by Anne Sexton is a collection of poems centered on the subjects of desire, love, pain, and departure. The majority of the poems work to provide a context of the desire for the final poem, ‘Eighteen Days Without You’. The poems provide imagery with lines such as, “The small animals of the woods/are carrying their deathmasks/into a narrow winter cave.” from ‘It is a Spring Afternoon’ to “I have walked through a door in my dreams/and she was standing there in my mother’s apron.” in ‘The Interrogation of the Man of Many Hearts’. Other poems I found powerful were ‘In Celebration of my Uterus’, ‘The Nude Swim’, ‘Us’, and ‘December 9th’ of ‘Eighteen Days Without You’. There’s an intensity these poems possess in their frankness with sex or in the way desire leaks out in the final poem.
Final Rating: 4/5
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
Maxwell Suzuki is a writer, poet, and photographer based in Los Angeles.