Format: Paperback

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

Posted January 13, 2021 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary / 2 Comments

Earthlings by Sayaka MurataTitle: Earthlings (Goodreads)
Author: Sayaka Murata
Translator: Ginny Tapley Takemori
Published: Granta, 2020
Pages: 247
Genres: Contemporary
My Copy: Paperback

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What I really loved about Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman is the way she writes about social norms. She looks at social situations and asks the question, “What do we consider normal, and why it is so important?” Keiko was happy with her situation as a convenience store attendant, but the world and even her family wanted to push her to want more from her career and life. Murata seems to take this idea one step further in Earthlings.

The novel follows Natsuki, who even from a very young age felt like she did not belong here on earth. Both Natsuki and her cousin Yuu considered themselves to be aliens from another planet left on earth. Even when she got older, Natsuki had this viewpoint, and considered earth to be just a baby making factory. To keep her family off her back she married and hoped to just have a quiet life with her husband. However, her family kept demanding she have children and the pressure continuously grew to unhealthy levels.

Earthlings is a weird book; it explores the social pressures of reproducing but it does take a disturbing turn. I like the way Sayaka Murata looks at social issues and pushes the boundaries to show just how damaging they can be but I am also not a fan of the way this book ended. I do not think it is worth discussing the ending and if you have read the book, you know what I mean. I feel that the focus should be on how alienating social norms can be, and the way it made Natsuki feel. I have been married for eleven years and I know how frustrating it is when people ask me and my wife why we do not have children. This question is none of their business and tend to lead to awkward moments if you do decide to share the reasons. This novel plays with the social expectations of reproduction by constantly referring to the world as a baby making factory, like life has no value except creating children.

Sayaka Murata loves to push the boundaries with her characters and I am not going to try and diagnose these people in her books. I have seen far too many people claim Keiko was autistic in Convenience Store Woman, but does that really matter? You could probably label both Natsuki and her husband as asexuals in Earthlings, but it feels weird to label a fictional character. I am not a psychologist, so I do not want to diagnose Keiko with autistic and while I understand it is useful to show representation or to use psychoanalysis to analyse a book, I often find myself questioning the motives. If the author has not mentioned it, are we just projecting ideas onto a character? Granted this can be useful for understanding but it can also mean we are pushing these characters into a label and not letting them show us the problems with the world around us.

The writing of Sayaka Murata might not be for everyone, but I am looking forward to seeing what Ginny Tapley Takemori translates next. I want to read more books like this, where the author challenges social ideas and does it in interesting ways. This is a dark but very entertaining novel, and I am glad that Murata has done so well for herself in the English speaking world.


Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (trans. by Oliver Ready)

Posted November 10, 2020 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic / 5 Comments

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (trans. by Oliver Ready)Title: Crime and Punishment (Goodreads)
Author: Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Translator: Oliver Ready
Published: Penguin Classics, 1866
Pages: 702
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Paperback

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What I love about rereading a translated classic is that most of the time there are so many translations to try out. The translator makes a big difference and it is amazing how different it can make in interpreting the text. I love Russian literature and have openly discussed my issues with most of the commonly used translators, being their translation method, the anglicising of names or their censorship of the text. I will leave you to work out my meaning here, I just reread Crime and Punishment, but being an outsider to a BookTube readathon. My issue was the fact they picked a translation that I was not interested in reading, so I buddy-read the Oliver Ready translation with Derek from Read the World! I thought it was a way of being ‘sort of’ apart of the community reading event but still have a more one-on-one conversation with a better translation.

It has been eight years since I last read Crime and Punishment, and looking back at my previous review, it does not look like I said anything interesting about this great novel. I mention the class struggle and internal conflict of Raskolnikov, but I did not really go into any detail. The internal conflict is obvious, you can see a psychological break down of Raskolnikov after the murder, but I struggle to comprehend everything Dostoevsky is trying to say here. From the reread, it feels like there is a philosophical question being thrown at the reader, but Dostoevsky never seems to offer any insights. I wonder if Dostoevsky had any true answers here, because on this reread, I feel like the struggle with understanding the psychological and philosophical ramifications of the crime is the purpose of the novel and no true answers are given, or if they are I might find out on a later reread.

Class struggle was an interesting topic to explore with Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov is struggling with the idea of class internally. He has it in his mind that he is a wealthy intellectual, but in reality, he is just a struggling young man living off the money his mother gives him. Upon rereading, I was fascinated to just how disillusioned he is about his own class status. He is just a young man, that really has no idea of his own value or how to budget his money. I found it interesting to look back at my reading of this novel, I was closer to the same age as Raskolnikov and probably had similar naivety. However, I will not go into great detail about this, as you will be able to find my discussion of the book with Derek here.

I was very impressed with Oliver Ready’s translation of Crime and Punishment; I think his translating method really appealed to me. There was some modernisation of the writing but done in a way that still felt dated. Like he used phrases that felt old but still more contemporary, and I think he managed to nail that balance of making the book accessible, while still feeling like an older piece of literature. I really hope Ready continues to translate some of the Russian classics, not just Dostoevsky.

I am probably going to regret not putting extra time into this review, I have a lot to say but I know that I want to save that for the podcast. This time reading it, I think I cared more about the secondary characters rather than Raskolnikov, particularly his sister Dunya, but I also liked Sofya. She was a fascination for me, and I wish Dostoevsky spent more time with her. I will have to read this novel again and again, not sure which translation I will go with next, possible the Michael R. Katz translation. This is the type of book that needs to be reread every few years, just to see what you get out of it later.


The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante

Posted October 15, 2020 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary / 6 Comments

The Lying Life of Adults by Elena FerranteTitle: The Lying Life of Adults (Goodreads)
Author: Elena Ferrante
Translator: Ann Goldstein
Published: Europa Editions, 2020
Pages: 322
Genres: Contemporary
My Copy: Paperback

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What I love about reading Elena Ferrante is the way she is always writing about the experiences of women from a social-political standpoint. She always gives the reader a wide range of emotions and can make them feel uncomfortable with the situation but in a way that does not cause many to abandon her books. I have read all Ferrante’s works of adult fiction and was happy to see that my in-real-life book club was doing her latest release The Lying Life of Adults. Honestly, sometimes I think I go to my book club just to complain about the books we read, but I also attend to try and improve my ability to talk about literature with real life humans.

The Lying Life of Adults is the story of Giovanna, who is a young woman that is quickly discovering all the drama happening within her family. She learns why her father and her aunt Vittoria do not talk, and basically uncovers all the hostility and fighting that has been happening in the family all her life. This is not the easiest information to uncover, the adults all have their own side of the stories and they are all lying to make themselves look better in every situation. Ferrante’s books always deal with domestic drama and The Lying Life of Adults is no different, but what I really enjoyed about this novel, is the way it focuses on the lies.

It is hard to talk about The Lying Life of Adults without mentioning the Neapolitan series, those books got plenty of attention and will be the basis of all Ferrante critiques. Which is justifiable, the approach Elena Ferrante takes when writing really focuses heavily on the life of women living in Naples, particularly looking at sexism and domestic abuse. I find that The Lying Life of Adults seems to have similarities with The Story of a New Name, book two in the Neapolitan series. Both books have characters in the late teens, exploring the balance between family, love and academia. This journey fascinates me; I want to learn about young women discovering just how messed out their family is, while also realising how horrible men are, all while trying to decide their plans for the future.

Personally, I would have preferred if Elena Ferrante really dove into the psychological state of Giovanna. Not to mention the exploration into the feelings of attraction, sexuality, and emotion. There is so much that could have been unpacked if she wanted to really explore the damaging nature of these lies, and the effects they would have had on Giovanna’s outlook and future. I am fascinated for a deeper dive into the emotional damage, but I understand why Ferrante grazed over these topics. Not everyone wants to explore domestic abuse in so much detail and it would greatly change the tone of the novel.

If you have never read Elena Ferrante before, this might be a good place to start, I personally recommend The Days of Abandonment as a starting point, but this would work too. Fans of the Neapolitan series may not need any encouragement to check out The Lying Life of Adults but I hope you do. Obviously, I really enjoyed this novel, I think Ferrante is doing an excellent job at helping bring translated literature into the spotlight, thanks to the amazing work of Ann Goldstein.


Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami

Posted October 7, 2020 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary / 0 Comments

Breasts and Eggs by Mieko KawakamiTitle: Breasts and Eggs (Goodreads)
Author: Mieko Kawakami
Translator: Sam Bett, David Boyd
Published: Picador, 2020
Pages: 430
Genres: Contemporary
My Copy: Paperback

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After reading Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo (translated by Jamie Chang), I moved on to Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami (which is translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett & David Boyd). These two books seem to pair nicely with each other; one explores the everyday sexism that woman face, while the other is a look at fertility and body image issues. However, I am not the right person to talk about Breasts and Eggs, and I only choose to write down my thoughts as a way for my own personal recollection. This is a sensitive topic and having a male reviewer explore the topic feels wrong, like a male author writing about female sexuality.

Mieko Kawakami originally wrote Breast and Eggs as a novella, which was later rewritten into the novel that has recently been released. This is the story of three women, the unnamed narrator in her mid-thirties, her older sister Makiko, and Makiko’s twelve-year-old daughter, Midoriko. Three women at different stages in their lives, exploring the issues of motherhood, fertility and their bodies. These three narratives allow the author to explore a range of body issues, Makiko is unhappy with her breasts and is having breast enhancement surgery. Not just enlargements but she wants to change her nipples, make them pink. Midoriko is going through puberty and is unable to express her insecurities about her changing body. While the unnamed narrator wants to become a mother, but Japanese reproductive laws only apply to married heterosexual women that are unable to conceive.

As you can see, this novel explores so many important issues and as a man, I do not feel like it is my place to weigh in on these topics. Women have enough problems with men trying to dictate their lives. However, I did find it fascinating to explore the struggles these women are facing and the way they try to navigate through their lives. This is a book about the repression woman face in Japan, but like Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, I think this is a much more universal problem.

Breast and Eggs has so much to offer and so many issues to explore. I really liked that the narrator explored the idea of asexuality but was still interested in motherhood. She was aromantic but still wanted to be a parent and was looking at options on how to achieve that. I do not think I have ever read a novel about an ace’s journey into becoming a mum and it really highlights just how important it is to explore the different struggles people face from around the world. I read translated literature for this reason, I want to see the different social experiences, as well as the similarities. This is why we need representation from people all over the world, and the LGBTQI+ community.

I really hope that I was able to verbalise my thoughts on Breast and Eggs without overstepping my mark. While this is a book that women should be talking about and reviewing, I still think it is important for men to read as well. I simply want to write my thoughts on this book, so I have a record of my feelings; I post reviews on my blog to document my reading journal. I hope I am not offending anyone by talking about Breast and Eggs.


Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo

Posted September 30, 2020 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary / 6 Comments

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-JooTitle: Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 (Goodreads)
Author: Cho Nam-Joo
Translator: Jamie Chang
Published: Scribner, 2016
Pages: 163
Genres: Contemporary
My Copy: Paperback

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When you find a book that you want to share with everyone, and talk about constantly, you know you have found a new favourite. This is my experience with Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo, which has recently been translated from the Korean by Jamie Chang. I loved this novel so much, I re-read it, with only Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami (translated by Sam Bett & David Boyd) separating the two. While it makes for a great book pairing. Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 follows an ordinary woman expressing her life to a psychiatrist. It is a very simple plot but allows Cho Nam-Joo to explore the everyday sexism woman face throughout their lives.

This is a novel exploring the gender inequalities facing women in South Korea today, but really this feels like issues facing women all around the world. While preparing to write this review, I saw the synopsis on GoodReads that started with “Kim Jiyoung is the most common name for Korean women born in the 1980s. Kim Jiyoung is representative of her generation.” This idea that it is a generational issue made me wonder, is the world getting better? Because the evidence of improvement is sadly lacking.

Kim Jiyoung is depressed.
Kim Jiyoung has started acting out.
Kim Jiyoung is her own woman.
Kim Jiyoung is insane.

I wanted to reference the above quote from the same synopsis because I think it is a reflection of the problems being faced in this novel. I am not a psychiatrist so I will not be diagnosing Kim Jiyoung in the review, but I will say that I disagree. She was sent to the psychiatrist by her husband and the book reads as a clinical assessment of the everywoman. Although I tend to think that both the husband and the psychiatrist are the problems, and not Kim Jiyoung. She might be suffering depression but then you have to diagnose all women with depression. She is not acting out; she is fighting to be heard and she is definitely not insane. Finally, why is Kim Jiyoung being her own woman a bad thing?

What I love is just how worked up I get while reading (or writing about) Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982. However, this is a reason while I have been told by a few women that they hated this book. I was told a few times “I don’t need to read this book, I’ve lived it” which is understandable, not everyone wants to read about the sexism they experience every day. This is the type of book all men need to read but I do worry that like the husband and the psychiatrist, they might miss the point.

We can talk about all the incidents that happen in this novel, but that would be the entire book. The ones that stick with me the most is start with an incident in school where a boy is picking on Kim Jiyoung and causes her to get in trouble with the teacher. Later the teacher apologised to her and told her that he picked on her because he liked her, which made no sense to Kim Jiyoung. Next there she was denied a promotion at work because they thought she will get pregnant and leave the company and finally the way her own husband pressured her into having a child. While these incidents in the novel might make you angry, these three moments stuck with me the most. There is no reason these three should stand out more than all the other issues, they just encapsulates the sexism women face in childhood, their work life and by loved ones.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is a quick read that really focuses on the everyday sexism that really needs to be stamped out. The novel references to some horrifying statistics facing women in South Korea, like the fact they are ranked 108th in the world in the Global Pay Gap Index, with women getting paid 67.2% of what men get paid. Australia is ranked 44th with women getting paid 73.1%, and Iceland has the best score but still women get paid 87.7% of what men get paid (I pulled these stats from the 2020 Global Gender Gap report put out by the World Economic Forum). This is a book that will stick with me for a long time, and I hope it helps myself and other men improve in the way we treat others around them, not just women but all genders.


Nada by Jean-Patrick Manchette

Posted September 28, 2020 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Pulp / 4 Comments

Nada by Jean-Patrick ManchetteTitle: Nada (Goodreads)
Author: Jean-Patrick Manchette
Translator: Donald Nicholson-Smith
Published: NYRB Classics, 1972
Pages: 256
Genres: Pulp
My Copy: Paperback

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My reading tastes have changed so much in the few years that I have been a reader. When I first discovered my love of reading 11 years ago, I loved crime novels and that eventually led me to discover noir and hard-boiled fiction. Nowadays I spend the majority of my time reading translated literature, but I sometimes turn to crime for some palette cleansers, because that is what they are. The problem I find is that American authors seem to be the best at writing the crime novels I enjoy; it must be related to their crime rates and frivolous gun laws. There is one French author that I think bridges my two loves, pulp novels and translations, and that is Jean-Patrick Manchette (I am sure there are others, I am just yet to discover them).

Not to brag, but I recently read Nada while staying in a gorgeous treehouse up in the Atheron Tablelands. Nada is a leftist revolutionary/anarchist group that decides to kidnap the United States Ambassador to France while he is visiting a brothel. As you can imagine from a noir novel, things do not turn out too well. I do not want to explore the plot because I much prefer to explore themes when talking about literature. Besides, rehashing the plot is more for the back of a book, not a review.

What I was surprised to discover with Nada, was the way Manchette added so much political and social commentary into the novel without taking away from the fast, action paced plot. Relevant to today’s political climate, this group of anarchists wanted to send a message to the right. The problem was that each member had their own motivations besides making money. What fascinated me here was the way Jean-Patrick Manchette played with the concept of political terrorism and revolutionaries. Depending on your political beliefs these are two sides of the same coin. I was drawn to the disarray of the anarchist group, and to me it became a reflection of the problem the left-wing often faces, which is an insurmountable amount of social issues that need to be corrected in this world. Both Jean-Patrick Manchette and I are leftists, however my political ideology might be very different to Manchettes. Where the right-wing has a much smaller amount of concerns when it comes to political and social issues, meaning they tend to appear more united.

The way Manchette plays with this idea in the concept of a noir novel was masterful. At no point did he take the foot off the gas to explore these social issues, Nada was always a fast-paced thrill ride. He was skilful enough to add his ideas into the book for people interested in dissecting the plot. While I spent so much time thinking about the social commentary, other readers might find this to just be an entertaining crime novel. I am impressed at the way Jean-Patrick Manchette was able to achieve this in his writing.

This was not my first attempt at Jean-Patrick Manchette, I have read The Gunman (which was translated by James Brook) in 2018 and it did not give me the same level of enjoyment. I could not tell you if it was not a great novel or if I did not look hard enough to find the deeper meaning. I am often drawn to books that offer more than an exciting plot and I found that in Nada, but not in The Gunman. Donald Nicholson-Smith appears to be translating all of Jean-Patrick Manchette’s books for NYRB Classics and I am tempted to try them all. I do have Fatale, The Mad and the Bad and Ivory Pearl on my shelves, but not sure which to try next.


Vernon Subutex Trilogy by Virginie Despentes

Posted September 24, 2020 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary / 2 Comments

Vernon Subutex Trilogy by Virginie DespentesTitle: Vernon Subutex Trilogy (Goodreads)
Author: Virginie Despentes
Translator: Frank Wynne
Published: MacLehose Press, 2017-2020
Pages: 1088
Genres: Contemporary
My Copy: Paperback

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How many translated series can you think of? Apart from Proust, or Elena Ferrante or Karl Ove Knausgård. Maybe, there are more than I expected; Virginie Despentes’ trilogy Vernon Subutex is currently the most talked about, with book three just being released in English. This trilogy started off as a cutting-edge look into the punk sub-culture of France but slowly, with each book the focus shifted, stepping away from the music industry, towards a mystery in book two and finally the third novel focusing more on a cult-like community. While Vernon Subutex is the focus of this trilogy, I found that the different styles of each novel become a little disconcerting for myself.

Virginie Despentes draws from her own career in these books, I suspect using some of her own experiences to drive the plot. Before becoming a novelist, she worked in a few fields including as a sex worker and a pornographic film critic. While these careers play a part in the Vernon Subutex trilogy along the way, it started with her experiences as a salesclerk in a record store and a freelance rock journalist. It is these aspects that I found the most fascinating, my love of music (particularly punk rock) really drew me to this series in the first place.

I loved how the first novel focused on the music, Vernon Subutex started working in this record store in his twenties. The store was legendary back in the days, but now thanks to the internet and digital music it is struggling. Even Vernon Subutex himself has a cult-like status (which plays out more later in the series) with people on the internet speculating that he owned the last recordings of musician Alex Bleach. What I loved the most about Vernon Subutex 1 was reading about the industry and exploring the dark side of the punk culture, from the violence and drug abuse often associated with this culture to the less talked about racism and sexism.

Unfortunately, the books slowly digressed away from exploring the punk scene, and maybe my interest did as well. That is not to disregard books Two or Three, my interest was the scene and I was less interested in following the character Vernon Subutex. The first novel focused on the punk scene, whereas book two focused on this one character and a small group of people around him, a group that have banded together at a bar in the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. While the plot of Vernon Subutex 2 focuses more on what happened to the lost tapes of Alex Bleach, I was more interested in themes than plot, so this became a book about class struggle.

This group of people hanging in the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont turned into a cult, which leads to the third novel of this trilogy, where Vernon Subutex has become a spiritual leader to the group. The final book in the series, for me is the weakest, but it was clear Virginie Despentes knew what she was doing and where she wanted to take this journey. There was a strong focus on social struggles that plays out here, focusing more on homelessness and the way these people banded together. The cast of characters slowly shrinks with each book, but I really like how Despentes brings in new characters and then they disappear after a short period of time. This might frustrate many, but I found it natural; sometimes you meet someone, and they are only in your life for a small period of time, they might make an impact but then they are gone.

Vernon Subutex 3 was more political, with the 2015 Charles Hebdo shootings playing a part of the plot. The satirical papers controversial depictions of Muhammad are believed to be the cause of that attack. However, it was Michel Houellebecq that was on the cover of the magazine when this attack happened. I bring this up because I find Virginie Despentes and Houellebecq have similar styles. Both are satirical French authors that make me question myself and their writing style. They leave me with an unease while reading them and I spend time contemplating their satirical nature. I even find myself wondering if they are actually satirical or just overdoing the transgressive. This is not easy reading and knowledge of the punk scene and modern French history became vital aspects of my appreciation of Vernon Subutex.

When I think about the writing of Virginie Despentes, I have a similar feeling as when I think about Michel Houellebecq, I am unsure how I feel about them as authors. I have read five Despentes novels and while I enjoyed the Vernon Subutex trilogy, I find it hard to fully appreciate her works. Her writing is a combination of the thriller genre, but it tends to be overly transgressive. I am not trying to be negative, just not the style of literature I tend to enjoy. I am curious to know more about Despentes’ life and might read her feminist manifesto King Kong Theory, which like the Vernon Subutex trilogy has been translated by the legendary Frank Wynne.


Honey, I Killed The Cats by Dorota Masłowska

Posted August 1, 2020 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary / 2 Comments

Honey, I Killed The Cats by Dorota MasłowskaTitle: Honey, I Killed The Cats (Goodreads)
Author: Dorota Masłowska
Translator: Benjamin Paloff
Published: Deep Vellum Publishing, 2019
Pages: 176
Genres: Contemporary
My Copy: ARC from Publisher

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Polish writer Dorota Masłowska has had a stellar literary career so far, publishing her first novel (Snow White and Russian Red) at just 19. She has won the NIKE Literary Award (a prestigious Polish award) in 2006 for her second novel, which has yet to be translated into English. Out of her six books, half have been translated into English, the latest being Honey, I Killed the Cats which was translated by Benjamin Paloff. In this novel Dorota Masłowska tells the tale of two independent woman as they try to navigate their lives and friendship in our modern world.

Before talking about the novel, I want to quickly talk about satire, mainly because I am sick of seeing confusion around this literary device. There are two main types of satirical writing, Horatian is playful, while Juvenal is scolding. Satire is used to criticise social issues; it doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with humour. The reason I wanted to talk about these differences is because I think Honey, I Killed the Cats does a wonderful job in incorporating the Horatian and Juvenal satire into the novel. On one hand we have a playful, humorous look at mass-media and consumerism, then there is a harsh exploration into the dangers of corporate greed, diet culture and fitness fads.

Another reason why I wanted to talk about the different satirical styles was because I have an example of each that I think seem to share some similarities to Honey, I Killed the Cats. For Horatian satire, I had a similar vibe to Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, in the sense that it shared a very similar style of dark humour. Then the style of Juvenal satire similar to this novel, I think would be American Psycho, in the way it attempted to explore the destructive nature of modern trends, but it used advertising jingles in a similar way Bret Easton Ellis did with fashion descriptions.

On the back of the book is a quote that says this books a cross between Virginie Despentes and Blade Runner. While this is an apt description, especially since Blade Runner is set in 2019, the book that I am reminded of is Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart. There is a similarity here that is both playful and bitter towards modern consumerism that I find fitting. Needless to say, I appreciate a novel that knows how to both have fun and deal with some real issues.

I read this novel soon after finishing Ducks, Newburyport so I think I might have gone for some deeper interpretation. The plot became less important and even irrelevant to my reading experience. I had a great time with Honey, I Killed the Cats and am curious to explore more from Dorota Masłowska. I found it strange going from a book like Ducks, Newburyport to something like this novel but thankfully there was plenty to explore. Despite the fact that this review says nothing about the plot of this book, I hope I have said enough to interest others.


Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann

Posted November 1, 2019 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literary Fiction / 8 Comments

Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy EllmannTitle: Ducks, Newburyport (Goodreads)
Author: Lucy Ellmann
Published: Text, July 4, 2019
Pages: 1040
Genres: Literary Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

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Having spent the good part of a month reading Ducks, Newburyport might shock many of the readers here, the fact that I spend most of my time reading books in translation, the fact that I often have reservations about reading a 1000+ page book, not willingly but mainly because I can’t stop myself from fixating on numbers, and the fact that it is rare for me to pick up a hyped book like this one, but in my defence I wanted to read this before the Booker Prize, I had actually heard about it from the Three Percent Podcast and knew that I had to get my hands on this novel. I think many people are put off by the style, Ducks, Newburyport has been promoted as a single sentence stream of consciousness novel which might make people feel hesitant. However, I think this is a surprisingly easy novel to read, and once you are in the groove of things, you will really enjoy the journey. The book focuses on the inner thoughts of an Ohioan wife as she is backing pies.

I have always been fascinated with the stream of consciousness but sometimes it feels like a gimmick, with Ducks, Newburyport it feels natural. This woman has a lot on her mind, from her own health worries, her family and the state of America. The books length is designed to be intimidating, to simulate that crushing feeling of thoughts and emotions. What impressed me most was the way Ducks, Newburyport blended pop-culture, personal experiences, memories and even synonyms to progress her inner thoughts, then sometimes they are just random tangents.

I can’t stop thinking about the way this woman censors her own thoughts, there are many times where she censors phrases like Trump’s ‘grab ‘em by the p____’ or using words like derriere. I think it speaks volumes about her character, this need to act a certain way, even in her own thoughts. She really freaks out when the thought of anal sex pops into her head. I feel like Lucy Ellmann wants to explore these feelings surrounded acting the way the patriarchy wants her to act, those feeling of shame or surprise, and the need to censor her own mind. The glossary of anagrams at the back of the book have also been sanitised, so FFS means For Pete’s Sake.

Having the book set in Ohio was an interesting choice, admittedly I did have to look up the state’s politics. Ohio seems like a real melting pot of political viewpoints, there is a very close divide between Republicans and Democrats. This really allows Lucy Ellmann to explore the volatile political landscape of America at the moment. Looking at major issues like climate change, gun control, mass shootings, and so much more.

The structure of Ducks, Newburyport is something that needs to be addressed. I have seen many people freak out about the idea of a single sentence, stream of conscious narrative but I found it really easy to read. The repetitive phrase ‘the fact that’ quickly gets drowned out and I tend to use the phrase as the start of the next sentence. Having said that, I like that Ellman gave a middle finger to writing rules like ‘avoiding repetition’ or punctuation and really did her own thing, and it worked.

Lucy Ellmann has published seven books in the past, but her regular publishing house, Bloomsbury rejected Ducks, Newburyport. Leaving the book to be published by small indie presses, Galley Beggar Press in the UK, Canadian publisher Biblioasis for North America and Text Publishing here in Australia. Ellmann is the daughter of two literary critics, her father Richard has written a biography on James Joyce author of Ulysses which Ducks, Newburyport continuously gets compared to. However, her mother, Mary Ellmann often wrote about the representation of femininity in British and American literature, and I think that maybe she had just as much of an influence on Lucy’s writing and worth mentioning. The book focuses heavily on feminism, motherhood and female representation in pop culture.

As most people know, I love pop culture and really appreciated the content references throughout the novel. Not only recent references but also exploring classics like The Odd Couple and a favourite of mine, The Apartment. All through the novel the narrator burst into random songs, and thinks about film and television, as well as literature. Without these references, I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed Ducks, Newburyport as much as I did.

Having said all that, while there are so many serious issues being explored within the novel, Ducks, Newburyport is extremely funny. I enjoyed every moment I spent with the novel. I loved the way the book advanced the narrative through memories. I found it to be a great way to develop the characters within the novel. Could a non-translated book be my favourite read for 2019? At this point, it is too close to tell.  I highly recommend Ducks, Newburyport and think this book will require multiple reads in the future. It is the type of novel with mainly layers to unpack, and I look forward to reading it again. Also, I think this would make an amazing audiobook.


Sphinx by Anne Garréta

Posted May 4, 2019 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literary Fiction / 0 Comments

Sphinx by Anne GarrétaTitle: Sphinx (Goodreads)
Author: Anne Garréta
Translator: Emma Ramadan
Published: Deep Vellum Publishing, April 21, 2015
Pages: 152
Genres: Literary Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindleWordery (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

I may have read Sphinx by Anne Garréta back in November last year but there has not been a day go by where I have not thought about this amazing book. I had always planned on writing a review for this novel but kept putting it off in favour of reading other books; this feels like the story of my writing habits. Since the details are still burned into my brain, I have no problem talking about this masterpiece.

Anne Garréta joined the Oulipo in 2000, which is an experimental literary group of French speaking writers who like to put constraints to their writing. The idea is to force the writer to create new structures and patterns in their own writing. The Oulipo was founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais. Notable members include Italo Calvino and Georges Perec who wrote the most notable Oulipian novel La Disparition (English title: A Void), which was written without using the letter e. When translating these books, many translators chose to keep the same constraints, in the case of A Void, translator Gilbert Adair kept the same constraint of not using the letter e. The Spanish translation did not use the letter a (since e is used too frequently), Russian contains no о and Japanese does not use  (i).

In the introduction of Sphinx, Daniel Levin Becker talks about the Oulipian constraint found in this book and he is of the opinion that is best not to spoil it for others, allowing them to discover it organically. If you feel it is better not to know, then stop reading here.

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