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
Review of Out by Natsuo Kirino
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
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield is a short book on what Pressfield believes to be behind being an artist and how to work to achieve that goal. It’s split into three sections which each detail Resistance (which Pressfield describes as the force that creates fear and creative blockages), how to combat Resistance, and how to use what you have at your disposal to go beyond Resistance.
I’ll start with what I liked (because there are far more things I disliked and sometimes baulked at). It’s a straightforward read, one that is short, and its language/structure is concise. It has a matter-of-fact tone that is convincing enough if I didn’t already have a strong understanding of craft/artistry. And finally, Pressfield’s prestige gives an air of authority that some people would find appealing.
However, the thesis and supporting arguments for Pressfield’s ideas on Resistance are framed and contextualized in bad taste. The title, The War of Art, frames the idea of creation and artistry as of a way to defeat/destroy/annihilate this unknowable force he calls Resistance. Personally, I dislike this idea because it places the reader in a mindset that to become a great artist, one must have a warlike attitude. It’s a very macho-esque and toxic view on how art is made. Its tone reads as if there is a winner and a loser, a war between good and evil, and gives no nuances. The way it’s written though makes sense because of his background in religion and his time in the Marines. Neither of those identities on their own merit rejection of his word, but it’s his synthesis of sin and Angels paralleling the writer and writer’s block, which leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I don’t think art should be approached in an aggressive/combative mindset (it reminds me of the grindset tech bros and gym rats).
The first section of the book is focused on defining what Resistance is which still unsettles me. Pressfield explains that Resistance is the object that prevents us from producing art (I’m fine with that part) “…is the most toxic force on the planet.” and is itself worse than “…poverty, disease, and erectile disfunction.” (Literally what is he talking about?—and I won’t even approach the disingenuous way he groups those three ailments together). Later in the book he discusses that many times he goes about implying that even illness and cancer can be conquered (sometimes blaming companies of making up diseases, and other times describing cancer going into remission just because a woman decides to do what she loves). It’s a deceptive and icky tactic to try and give credit to the idea that it’s all about mindset and not about situation, poverty, disease, genetics, location, family, or any other factor that occurs in someone’s life. I am also deeply unconvinced of his logic when he says, “…it was easier for Hitler to start World War II than it was for him to face a blank square of canvas.” If that were the case, then wouldn’t we have millions of current day Hitlers now as well? Also, I don’t think it's mutually exclusive for a person to either be an artist or someone who creates genocide.
The latter half of the book is written is a way to seem deep—to compel the reader to be an artist—and what is stopping them is Resistance and themselves. It’s the same thing that generic inspirational speakers and rat-tail Shia LaBeouf would say, which is to just do it. There’s discussion of Muses and God giving the gift of being creative, but at that point in the book I already knew it wasn’t worth putting weight behind Pressfield’s words. The one redeeming quality of the book is that it’s so short I don’t have to spend any more time thinking about his nonsense.
Final Rating: 1/5
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is a novel set in the antebellum era about a black girl, Cora, who escapes from a plantation in Georgia and continues to run north toward freedom. Along the way, she meets people who work the Underground Railroad (a metaphor turned physical), abolitionists, slave patrollers, and hunters. Cora is victim to and watches the horrors of slavery, hangings, torture, and the worst of people as she tries to survive. It is a brutal and horrifying account, which feels like only a fraction of how terrible slavery was. As with any runaway slave, Cora is subjected to the unrelenting onslaught of a brutal slave catcher, Ridgeway, tasked with finding Cora. At every reprieve in South Carolina, Mr. Fletcher’s attic, the farm in Indiana, Cora is lulled into thinking she is safe, but she isn’t. She never is. The story ends with Cora finally killing Ridgeway and exiting a railroad tunnel, which acts as a physical embodiment of her freedom.
Whitehead intersperses Cora’s narrative with some of the people she meets along the way, such as Ridgeway, Caesar, Ethel, and her mother Mabel. Each one shows the depths of how gruesome their lives are and the never-ending way they are tied to slavery. It is a novel that doesn’t shy away from terror in how it describes moments like the torture of a man whose genitals are cut off and stuffed in his mouth. The novel is devastating, compelling, and powerful, but above everything else, terribly sad.
Final Rating: 4.5/5
Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness by Kenzaburō Ōe is a collection of 4 novella length stories detailing strange occurrences and of people going mad. The first, ‘The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away’, is about a man who believes he has liver cancer and is describing to the nurse about his father (who died from bladder cancer), his grieving mother, the emperor, and his brother who was killed during the war. It is a fascinating and sometimes confusing story where the man used to look up to his father but has difficulties understanding his place in the world. The second story, ‘Prize Stock’, is about a boy in a village that has captured an American pilot who crash landed in the forest. The boy is apprehensive and curious about the American while they begin to get along. However, when the American is about to be given over to the Japanese military, the American holds the boy hostage, which ends in the killing of the American by the boy’s father. I was drawn in by the way the boy sees and interacts with the American and how he digests his father’s actions. The third story, ‘Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness’, is about a father whose son has a disability and is fierce in trying to protect the boy’s innocence. Though, at a zoo, the father feels helpless in trying to protect his son, and it starts cracking his understanding of himself. This particular story was based on Ōe’s own experiences with his disabled son. And finally, the last story, ‘Aghwee the Sky Monster’, is about a young man who helps out a composer haunted by his dead son in the sky. The young man helps the composer right his wrongs, destroy his work, and say goodbye to the places he loved before the composer attempts to kill himself by walking in front of a truck.
Each story is beautiful, haunting, and powerful in how death, grief, and terrible life circumstances affect and change the outlooks of the characters. It is painful to see how each character’s “madness” reveals itself and what they must do to right their wrongs. It is a collection of what it means to be a father, a son, and what happens when the world between the two falls apart.
Overall Rating: 4.5/5
After the Banquet by Yukio Mishima is a novel about Kazu, a business owner of a restaurant in Japan, trying to get her husband, Noguchi, a retired politician, back into politics. Kazu meets Noguchi when one of Noguchi’s close friends collapses in her restaurant. The two seem unlikely, since Kazu is described as a more outgoing and talkative type, while Noguchi is a quiet older man. Kazu falls in love with Noguchi partially because of his demeanor and partially because she wants to be in a respectable grave like his family’s when she dies. Kazu, throughout Noguchi’s campaign, is seen as the mastermind and the one to sway people’s votes. Though, once the opposing party distributes pamphlets describing Kazu’s scandalous and predatory actions, Noguchi’s campaign loses. Arguments, and divorce ensue, with the final part of the novel ending where each character started: Kazu tending to her restaurant and Noguchi living in obscurity.
I loved how the novel worked to show the dynamic between not only Kazu and Noguchi, but also Kazu and her campaign partner, and finally Kazu and her old friend. As the novel went on, Kazu not only got more and more desperate, but also her endearing façade quickly crumbled. From the news of her early illegal campaigning to her past lovers, Kazu was always in a stew of controversy. Overall, the politics and the character dynamics were entertaining to watch unfold.
Final Rating: 4/5
BeHere/1942 by Masaki Fujihata is a book describing an exhibit put on by the Japanese artist Masaki Fujihata, which documents and explores the Japanese American Internment Camps. The book seems to be paired with an art exhibit featuring 3D renderings of famous photographs taken as Japanese Americans were forced to leave their homes. In one instance in the book, Fujihata zooms in on the eyes of famous photographs to show how the observer (the photographer) is reflected in the eyes of the observed (the Japanese American). The book is broken up into three parts, first describing Fujihata’s project and process, second discussing the history of the internment camps, and third focusing on Fujihata himself. The book, and Fujihata’s vision, is to think about how the observer/photographer/government wanted to represent and positively spin the incarcerations. There were some striking, and deeply emotional photographs and it was interesting to learn about the exhibit even though I wasn’t able to see it.
Final Rating: 3.5/5
Maxwell Suzuki is a writer, poet, and photographer based in Los Angeles.