BOOK REVIEW: LUSTER by RAVEN LEILANI

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Image result for Luster by Raven Leilani

I feel like Luster is another installment in a series of books that I’m gonna call Dysfunctional Women Being Dysfunctional—which theoretically, I’m all for, but in actuality I’ve been disappointed by more often than not, this novel included. (Update: I ended up writing a whole post about Messy/Dysfunctional women in literary fiction.)

Luster is Leilani’s debut book, and there are definitely glimmers of sharp, wry writing to be found here. One of my favourites: “In the time we have been talking, my imagination has run wild. Based on his liberal use of the semicolon, I just assumed this date would go well.” (lol)

That being said, I can’t really say that I enjoyed this novel.

This is a novel that is immensely bogged down by its own moroseness. The main character, Edie, undergoes humiliation after humiliation with no break and nothing even close to resembling happy to temper that humiliation. I think the novel articulates its own spirit when Edie thinks,

“…the debris around the drain not enough to deter me from lying down in the tub and being dramatic, humiliation being such that it sometimes requires a private performance, which I give myself, and emerge from the shower in the next stage of hurt feelings.”

And that’s exactly it: reading this novel feels like reading a performance of humiliation (“performance” in the sense that it’s a presentation of humiliation, not in the sense that that humiliation is performative or “fake,” somehow). And the writing compounds this performance to the novel’s detriment. Leilani’s writing is simultaneously too verbose and too clipped, both over- and underwritten: at times she elaborates on moments that don’t need to be elaborated on, and at others she breezes through monumental emotional moments as if they were nothing. It felt like the novel was working at cross-purposes from what I wanted.

Of course, what all of this means is, this book was written in a style that wasn’t to my taste. And I think that there’s definitely people for whom this book’s style will work. If you liked Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Miranda Popkey’s Topics of Conversation, or Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times, you’ll like Luster. I will also point out the fact that Luster is an ownvoices novel told from the perspective of a Black woman, whereas all those books I just mentioned are from white women’s perspectives.

Thanks so much Farrar, Straus and Giroux for providing me with an e-ARC of this via NetGalley!

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BOOK REVIEW: TENDER IS THE FLESH by AGUSTINA BAZTERRICA (trans. by SARAH MOSES) (#WomenInTranslationMonth)

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Tender Is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica

If there was ever a book to truly merit being called disturbing, it’s Tender is the Flesh.

The premise of Tender is the Flesh is evocative enough–a world where humans are bred, processed, and sold as meat for consumption–but the execution is far more chilling in its gruesome detail. What could possibly have led to a world where the consumption of human flesh is accepted as a given, much less industrialized and streamlined? Bazterrica fills in these gaps, providing plenty of context as to what came before and after this cannibalistic system to institute and entrench it so deeply in this world. And as with any sector of society, fictional or not, it really all comes down to corruption and oppression–oppression that is, in this case, more vicious in that it is literally carnivorous, preying on the lives of the marginalized.

If human flesh is now become part and parcel of a meat production system, what does it mean to optimize it? to advance it? to capitalize on it? These are the questions that are at the forefront of the novel’s beginning. This first portion of the narrative is preoccupied with the microscopic: how “heads,” humans bred for consumption, are modified to produce “quality” meat; how they are slaughtered so as not to damage their organs; how breeders control and monitor their reproduction. (Needless to say, this book is not for the faint of heart.) But Bazterrica also pays attention to the macroscopic–that is, if we allow that humans can now be bred as cattle and processed for their flesh, then what else can you do with those human-cattle? Well, you can hunt them for sport. You can buy them to do all manner of experiments on them (ethics? no longer a concern). You can domesticate them and raise them as your own personal cattle. Really, the options are limitless and all equally disturbing. In this way, industrialized cannibalism comes to signify not just a breach of a fundamental societal taboo, but really, an unraveling of everything that holds human society together. If you, a human, eat another human for sustenance, then the line between you and what you eat is a very fine line indeed.

Tender is the Flesh is also a novel that is as much about the linguistic implications of industrialized cannibalism as it is about its material realities. Bazterrica underscores this linguistic concern again and again both in her epigraph and in the novel itself,

“Many people have normalized what the media insist on calling the ‘Transition.’ But he hasn’t because he knows that transition is a world that doesn’t convey how quick and ruthless the process was. One word to sum up and classify the unfathomable. An empty word. Change, transformation, shift: synonyms that appear to mean the same thing, though the choice of one over the other speaks to a distinct view of the world. They’ve all normalized cannibalism, he thinks. Cannibalism, another word that could cause him major problems.”

Tender is the Flesh, however rich its thematic exploration, is not without its faults, though. First, the novel had some really questionable sexual dynamics. There’s one scene in particular where Marcos, the protagonist, feels especially powerless and decides to work through his emotional issues by having some very violent and aggressive sex with this woman he knows, Spanel. It’s a very uncomfortable scene to read, not because it’s graphic but because of the way Marcos treats Spanel. I just hate that in this scene, a male character who’s going through something psychologically decides to process it by treating a woman like a plaything during sex. I know that just because Marcos is the protagonist doesn’t mean I have to take everything he does at face value, that the novel didn’t exactly condone his actions per se–but it also didn’t address those actions at all. I would’ve liked Bazterrica to at least delve into the scene more rather than just putting it in and moving on.

Also, Bazterrica’s writing is a little clunky and ineffective sometimes, often in ways that are very noticeable. For example,

“His sister’s words are boxes filled with blank paper.”
“His sister’s word accumulate, one on top of the other, like folders piled on folders inside folders.”
“Estebancito looks at him with a sparkle in his eyes, a sparkle full of splintered trees and silent tornadoes.”
“His niece’s words are like pieces of glass melting in extreme heat, like ravens pecking out eyes in slow motion.”

Too many similes, and similes that don’t really work. What does it even mean for eyes to have a sparkle full of “splintered trees” and “silent tornadoes” ???

Though I wanted more substance from the protagonist and his narrative, I think the world that Bazterrica weaves in Tender is the Flesh is effective and visceral. If the narrative arc of the novel falls short, then the setting of that narrative more than makes up for it.

(Thanks so much to Simon & Schuster for sending me a review copy of this in exchange for an honest review!)

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10 BOOKS TRANSLATED FROM THE JAPANESE (#WomenInTranslationMonth)

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Hi everyone! Matthew SciarappaKendra Winchester, and Jennifer from Insert Literary Pun Here on YouTube are hosting the Women in Translation Readathon this month from the 24th to the 31st, so I thought I’d recommend some books you might want to read during the readathon!

Ever since I read the delightful Where the Wild Ladies Are (which I’ve included in this post), I’ve been on a Japanese fiction kick and have been wanting to read and recommend more Japanese fiction, so here are 10 titles translated from the Japanese, all of which have been written and/or translated by women. (I’ve only read 2 of these, but I’m so ridiculously excited to read the rest of them!!)


1) REVENGE by Yōko Ogawa (translated by Stephen Snyder)

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(read my review here)

From this beginning Yoko Ogawa weaves a dark and beautiful narrative that pulls together a seemingly disconnected cast of characters. In the tradition of classical Japanese poetic collections, the stories in Revenge are linked through recurring images and motifs, as each story follows on from the one before while simultaneously introducing new characters and themes. Filled with breathtaking images, Ogawa provides us with a slice of life that is resplendent in its chaos, enthralling in its passion and chilling in its cruelty.


2) THE EMISSARY by Yōko Tawada (translated by Margaret Mitsutani)

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Japan, after suffering from a massive irreparable disaster, cuts itself off from the world. Children are so weak they can barely stand or walk: the only people with any get-go are the elderly. Mumei lives with his grandfather Yoshiro, who worries about him constantly. They carry on a day-to-day routine in what could be viewed as a post-Fukushima time, with all the children born ancient—frail and gray-haired, yet incredibly compassionate and wise. Mumei may be enfeebled and feverish, but he is a beacon of hope, full of wit and free of self-pity and pessimism. Yoshiro concentrates on nourishing Mumei, a strangely wonderful boy who offers “the beauty of the time that is yet to come.”

A delightful, irrepressibly funny book, The Emissary is filled with light. Yoko Tawada, deftly turning inside-out “the curse,” defies gravity and creates a playful joyous novel out of a dystopian one, with a legerdemain uniquely her own.


3) THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS AN EASY JOB by Kikuko Tsumura (translated by Polly Barton)

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(this one doesn’t come out till November 26, 2020 in the UK and March 23, 2021 in North America)

Convenience Store Woman meets My Year of Rest and Relaxation in this strange, compelling, darkly funny tale of one woman’s search for meaning in the modern workplace.

A young woman walks into an employment agency and requests a job that has the following traits: it is close to her home, and it requires no reading, no writing – and ideally, very little thinking.

She is sent to a nondescript office building where she is tasked with watching the hidden-camera feed of an author suspected of storing contraband goods. But observing someone for hours on end can be so inconvenient and tiresome. How will she stay awake? When can she take delivery of her favourite brand of tea? And, perhaps more importantly – how did she find herself in this situation in the first place?


4) Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda (translated by Polly Barton)

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(read my review here)

In this witty and exuberant collection of linked stories, Aoko Matsuda takes the rich, millenia-old tradition of Japanese folktales–shapeshifting wives and foxes, magical trees and wells–and wholly reinvents them, presenting a world in which humans are consoled, guided, challenged, and transformed by the only sometimes visible forces that surround them.


5) The Little House by Kyōko Nakajima (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori)

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Little House is set in the early years of the Showa era (1926-89), when Japan’s situation is becoming increasingly tense but has not yet fully immersed in a wartime footing. On the outskirts of Tokyo, near a station on a private train line, stands a modest European style house with a red, triangular shaped roof. There a woman named Taki has worked as a maidservant in the house and lived with its owners, the Hirai family. Now, near the end of her life, Taki is writing down in a notebook her nostalgic memories of the time spent living in the house.

Nakajima manages to combine skillful dialogue with a dazzling ending. The result is a polished, masterful work fully deserving of the Naoki Prize.


6) The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino by Hiromi Kawakami (translated by Allison Markin Powell)

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Who loves Mr Nishino?

Minami is the daughter of Mr Nishino’s true love.
Bereaved Shiori is tempted by his unscrupulous advances.
His colleague Manami should know better.
His conquest Reiko treasures her independence above all else.
Friends Tama and Subaru find themselves playing Nishino’s game, but Eriko loves her cat more.
Sayuri is older, Aichan is much younger, and Misono has her own conquests to make.

For each of them, an encounter with elusive womaniser Mr Nishino will bring torments, desires and delights.


7) Tokyo Ueno Station by Yū Miri (translated by Morgan Giles)

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Born in Fukushima in 1933, the same year as the Emperor, Kazu’s life is tied by a series of coincidences to Japan’s Imperial family and to one particular spot in Tokyo; the park near Ueno Station – the same place his unquiet spirit now haunts in death. It is here that Kazu’s life in Tokyo began, as a labourer in the run up to the 1964 Olympics, and later where he ended his days, living in the park’s vast homeless ‘villages’, traumatised by the destruction of the 2011 tsunami and enraged by the announcement of the 2020 Olympics.

Akutagawa-award-winning author Yū Miri uses her outsider’s perspective as a Zainichi (Korean-Japanese) writer to craft a novel of utmost importance to this moment, a powerful rebuke to the Imperial system and a sensitive, deeply felt depiction of the lives of Japan’s most vulnerable people.


8) Out by Natsuo Kirino (translated by Stephen Snyder)

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Natsuo Kirino’s novel tells a story of random violence in the staid Tokyo suburbs, as a young mother who works a night shift making boxed lunches brutally strangles her deadbeat husband and then seeks the help of her co-workers to dispose of the body and cover up her crime.

The complex yet riveting narrative seamlessly combines a convincing glimpse into the grimy world of Japan’s yakuza with a brilliant portrayal of the psychology of a violent crime and the ensuing game of cat-and-mouse between seasoned detectives and a group of determined but inexperienced criminals. Kirino has mastered a Thelma and Louise kind of graveyard humor that illuminates her stunning evocation of the pressures and prejudices that drive women to extreme deeds and the friendship that bolsters them in the aftermath.


9) Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto (translated by Megan Backus)

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Kitchen juxtaposes two tales about mothers, transsexuality, bereavement, kitchens, love and tragedy in contemporary Japan. It is a startlingly original first work by Japan’s brightest young literary star and is now a cult film.

When Kitchen was first published in Japan in 1987 it won two of Japan’s most prestigious literary prizes, climbed its way to the top of the bestseller lists, then remained there for over a year and sold millions of copies. Banana Yoshimoto was hailed as a young writer of great talent and great passion whose work has quickly earned a place among the best of modern literature, and has been described as ‘the voice of young Japan’ by the Independent on Sunday.


10) Territory of Light by Yūkio Tsushima (translated by Geraldine Harcourt)

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It is spring. A young woman, left by her husband, starts a new life in a Tokyo apartment. Territory of Light follows her over the course of a year, as she struggles to bring up her two-year-old daughter alone. Her new home is filled with light streaming through the windows, so bright she has to squint, but she finds herself plummeting deeper into darkness, becoming unstable, untethered. As the months come and go and the seasons turn, she must confront what she has lost and what she will become.

At once tender and lacerating, luminous and unsettling, Yuko Tsushima’s Territory of Light is a novel of abandonment, desire, and transformation. It was originally published in twelve parts in the Japanese literary monthly Gunzo, between 1978 and 1979, each chapter marking the months in real time. It won the inaugural Noma Literary Prize.


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