MixedWashington Independent Review of BooksLike many contemporary Korean novels, The Disaster Tourist presents a surreal world with a no-frills matter-of-factness heavy on descriptive details and light on emotional insight. Lizzie Buehler’s workmanlike translation delivers a straight-faced telling of an ever-more-bizarre tale. Though this is satire, there is no humor, just an increasingly caustic depiction of the destructive and dehumanizing effects of rapacious capitalism, swaggering consumerism, and performative travel ... The Disaster Tourist is a cautionary tale against the industry’s excesses and, indeed, the excesses of contemporary, industrialized life in general.
Cho Nam-Joo, trans. Jamie Chang
RaveThe Washington Independent Review of Books... strikes a deep chord with me, and not only because I’m female. Every woman who reads this strange, extraordinary, and infuriating document (and every woman should read it) will find glimpses of her own life ... While the story is recognizable to women the world over, it is a damning portrait of South Korean society in particular. ... The narrative is framed as a psychiatric case study, and translator Jamie Chang captures the dry, clinical tone of a therapist’s report that painstakingly records the abuse endured by the patient ... By presenting the narrative as a study, complete with footnoted statistics from government documents, the author eschews the angst and high drama of another conversation-changing work from South Korea, Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning movie, Parasite. Bong, a man, enjoys the freedom to be as histrionic and emotive as he wants, while author Cho wisely sticks to a cold, antiseptic narration, free from any whiff of \'feminine hysteria\' ... don’t think the book falls flat due to its format: It is a fascinating, terrifying, and necessary read ... Through her plain, straightforward, detached analysis of an unsustainable situation, Cho has brought South Korea to a long-overdue reckoning. With the book now in global translation, she’s exporting that reckoning to the world.
PositiveThe Washington Independent Review of Books... closely researched and entertaining ... Toggling between swimmers’ personal anecdotes and researched reportage, Tsui has accumulated an impressive trove of information on the history of swimming, generously interspersed with references to important cultural works ... Tsui is at her most eloquent and engaging when she meditates upon the myriad ways swimming has shaped her life ... The descriptions of her diving for abalone, competing in swim meets as a youth, and setting out for her first swim across the San Francisco Bay to Alcatraz are poignant and evocative, pulling the reader along in a current of vivid prose.
PositiveThe Washington Independent Review of BooksEach medical procedure is related in exacting detail, which adds authenticity to a surreal tale but also slows down the momentum of the narrative for all but the most dedicated fans of human anatomy and surgical technique ... Paralkar’s prose is beautiful, sometimes stunning. Though the logic of the story falters at times, as it must in a story of the supernatural, the doubts, yearnings, and simple humanity of the characters ring utterly true ... While vividly depicting human physiology in all its glistening, sinewy, gory glory, the physician writer allows the celestial mystery of the meaning of life to stand. There is no reassuring diagnosis of eternal redemption or prescription for salvation.
RaveThe Washington Independent Review of Books... powerful and affecting ... A master of understatement, Yoon weaves a heartbreaking story of violence and loss in the unadorned prose of a fairytale or parable. Eschewing hyperbole and cheap sensationalism, he captures the boring, granular details and small moments of harrowing, highly dramatic scenes ... Through the bleakness of the story, and against all odds, Yoon somehow weaves a hopeful tale of redemption by the simple act of survival.
Burhan Sönmez, trans. by Umit Hussein
PositiveThe Washington Independent Review of BooksDespite the Christian imagery, Labyrinth is not about the spiritual. Nor, surprisingly, is it political, even though the writer, a Kurd whose people have been savagely oppressed by the Turkish government, was brutally beaten by Istanbul police while peacefully demonstrating, and is described in the cover bio as \'a political exile\' living in Britain. Rather, the novel is even more elemental, confronting the most basic existential facts of a human life: the body, the mind, and time ... Űmit Hussein’s translation perfectly captures the absurd tension of Boratin’s existential dilemma with simple yet evocative prose. The spare punctuation blurs Boratin’s inner thoughts and spoken conversation. As the labyrinth through which he wanders, the city of Istanbul is itself a richly rendered character central to Boratin’s quest for an identity.
Wioletta Greg, Trans. Jennifer Croft
PositiveThe Washington Independent Review of BooksIn the translation, Croft could have embellished upon the text to make it more comprehensible to those unfamiliar with Polish culture and history by explaining references ... but chose instead to retain the unique inflections of Greg’s dreamy, meandering prose. The experience is akin to going on a backpacker’s expedition of a foreign country rather than a package tour: It’s a lot more work, sometimes disorienting, but ultimately a much richer and more satisfying experience ... Like the passage into adulthood, Accommodations is an exhilarating, wondrous, occasionally befuddling journey of a young woman, a country, and a culture in transition, reckoning with a violence-torn past, pressing on ever hopeful toward the future.
Ma Jian, trans. by Flora Drew
PositiveThe Washington Independent Review of BooksAs with the best satire, the most shocking details in the novel are the ones that are true. The tragic, horrible, bloody history of the Communist Party’s rule is thoroughly cataloged ... In Flora Drew’s adept translation, Ma’s straightforward prose never upstages the story. The vivid descriptions of violence, sex, and debauchery don’t soar to poetic heights, but steadfastly deliver the gory details with unstinting precision.
PositiveWashington Independent Review of Books\"Subramanian’s observations are sharp, witty, and incisive; her writing is consistently gorgeous. She is passionate about the plight of Indian girls subjected to a patriarchal system that ruthlessly oppresses and devalues them ... It is this relentlessly upbeat, Panglossian best-of-all-worlds optimism that, along with a writing style that relies heavily on declarative sentence fragments and rhetorical questions, nudges A People’s History of Heaven into YA territory. However, for a reading public that recently voted a feel-good middle-grade classic as the Great American Read, that distinction might not matter.\
RaveThe Washington Independent Review of BooksI hadn’t heard of Kathleen Collins before I read Notes from a Black Woman’s Diary. Now I can’t stop thinking of her and the many other groundbreaking writers — many of color, many women — who did not get their due when they were alive, or will never get their due, or failed to even get published ... Though these stories let the reader know they’re in the presence of a formidable talent, for me, the strongest pieces were the plays. Collins’ facility for transforming the chaotic thoughts of the psyche into poignant and revealing dialogue is on par with some of our most revered and celebrated modern playwrights ... Her lines flow naturally, never sounding false, yet always profound and provocative ... athleen Harris is no longer with us, but it isn’t too late to recognize her as a pioneer, honor her legacy, and support the work of the many extraordinary black women who have followed in her footsteps.
MixedWashington Independent Review of BooksThanksgiving 1969, and Mrs. Maxine Hortence Simmons is about to make her move for world domination. Well, not world domination exactly, but to topple ultra-bitchy Mrs. Evelyn Rollins to become the top doyenne of the cream of Palm Springs country-club society ... But her grand plans are foiled when her airline-executive husband, Douglas, announces he’s leaving her for his 20-year-old pregnant secretary, ... McDaniel has an insatiable eye for detail and is very good at capturing early 1970s period details, like avocado-toned appliances, mirrored walls, and busy wallpaper. Her writing is laugh-out-loud funny at times, which is no easy feat. How many books make you snort? This one did. The story is narrated by scheming, vain Maxine; gentle-hearted, conflicted Robert; and precocious 12-year-old Charles. Each voice is distinctive and deftly conveys the personality of the character ... However,...while the book is an entertaining read, there is just too much of it ... Still, due to its pert and adroit prose and action-packed plot, Juliet McDaniel\'s Mr. and Mrs. American Pie is a fun, breezy book that keeps the reader chuckling right up to its happy ending.
RaveWashington Independent Review of Books\"... [a] powerful, poignant debut collection of short stories ... By reading this moving, eye-opening collection of stories, I feel as if I have heard and understood the author’s important and very personal revelations. Please, Camille Acker, don’t stop. I want to hear everything you have to say.\
MixedThe Washington Independent Review of Books\"These authorial intrusions—which also include newspaper clippings, photographs, paintings, and other illustrations—upon the fictional text emphasize his immigrant’s ability to live a dual existence, to be both author and narrator, insider and outsider, actor and observer ... It’s an interesting concept, and well executed, but the novel relies too much on that tired old use of female characters whose only service is to advance the male hero’s journey. It’s yet another high-minded story about one man’s hunt for pussy cloaked in the search for love ... it’s not enough to merely perpetuate a mood of a certain point in time if those outdated attitudes are hurtful to half of humanity. It’s the 21st century, and many readers have moved on. Despite its inventive approach and poignant insights, the novel’s retro viewpoint fatefully mars this brave, fresh take on the immigrant’s story.\
PositiveWashington Independent Review of BooksAll the emptiness and drugged-up ennui might be a little much if it weren’t for Moshfegh’s trenchant critique and chromatic prose. It is the beauty of her writing and the archness of her observations that keep the reader invested in the narrator’s sorry plight up until the very end.
PositiveThe Washington Independent Review of BooksAll the emptiness and drugged-up ennui might be a little much if it weren’t for Moshfegh’s trenchant critique and chromatic prose. It is the beauty of her writing and the archness of her observations that keep the reader invested in the narrator’s sorry plight up until the very end ... After her year of pharmaceutical amnesia, it seems as if our narrator might get her happy ending ... Ah, but this is not a simple coming-of-age tale. The ending is abrupt, brutal. It says nothing and everything about our narrator’s future, which we realize with horror, is our own as well.
RaveThe Washington Independent Review of Books\"You either love Rachel Cusk’s narrative technique or you don’t, and if you are still with her for Kudos, the final installment of her trilogy, then it must be because you love it ... the self-effacing narrator whose name is mentioned only once; the telling of the story through a series of conversations rather than the showing through action; the lack of a traditional plot or an obvious narrative arc; the preoccupation with the cruelties of divorce and the damage that adults do to their children; and the business of being a high-brow, belletrist author ... Kudos strips away the noble, glamorous veneer to reveal the profane guts of the book industry ... It’s a pointed remark to the narrator, a fictionalized version of Cusk, a writer who demands of her reader all their attention without offering such fripperies as conventional plot or dramatic tension in return.\
RaveThe Los Angeles Review of BooksThe book ... deftly presents the knotty quandary of transracial adoption: Andrew’s mother is dead. No father has come to claim him. His sister has her own family and can’t take care of him. Isn’t it better that Rebecca adopt him, giving him a life of unconditional love and all the privileges that go to the son of a wealthy white family ... That Kind of Mother is not about transracial adoption at all. It’s about white privilege. And therein lies the quiet brilliance of this novel. It is not an earnest condemnation of Rebecca, or a heart-rending screed on racism in our society, or a sentimental tale of nature versus nurture. Rather, it’s the portrait of one woman who blithely adopts a black child because, to quote another adopter, \'the heart wants what it wants\' ... With That Kind of Mother, Rumaan Alam has written a thoughtful tale of transracial adoption that lays bare the good, the bad, and the ugly without clobbering the reader over the head ... it has a lot to tell us about the state of our country today.
PositiveWashington Independent Review of BooksThings get pretty meta in Richard Flanagan’s novel First Person ... Flanagan skewers other aspects of the literary world ... Flanagan writes brilliantly about writing: the obsession over word count, the hot-and-cold alternating convictions that your work is brilliant and that it’s atrocious, the writing process itself ... Flanagan’s prose is sharp, aphoristic, and clever. Almost too clever. His observations are so on-point that he makes them again and again, the same observation cloaked in a different collection of astute words. All very fun to read, but after a while, it gets to be a glut of shrewd observation, a cyclical self-indulgence employed to hammer the message home. But maybe that, too, is a wry comment on the state of literature.
Mira T. Lee
RaveThe Washington Independent Review of BooksToo often, the mentally ill are portrayed in literature as evil villains bent upon bringing unspeakable harm to unsuspecting, rational people. Mira T. Lee’s debut novel, Everything Here Is Beautiful, counters that harmful stereotype with her sensitive portrayal of Lucia, a vivacious, intelligent, and creative woman afflicted with an illness about whose diagnosis 'doctors could never agree, whether it was schizophrenia or bipolar disorder or something on the spectrum in between' ... The story sprawls out from there. While Lee’s prose is unfailingly lovely and compelling, the distractions to the main story accumulate. The narrative not only seeks to encompass the devastating effects of mental illness, but also the immigrant experience... With this tender, beautifully written novel, Mira Lee seeks to erase the stigma of mental illness by portraying it as a debilitating malady whose sufferers should be treated with the same dignity and sympathy as any other victim of a chronic illness.
Leila Slimani, Trans. by Sam Taylor
MixedThe Washington Independent Review of BooksThis novel delves deeper into social commentary than a conventional thriller, closely examining the prickly issues of class and gender that emerge when a working mother hires a stranger to look after her children ... By opening the novel with the nanny’s violent act of revenge, Slimani eschews the conventions of a traditional thriller. Rather than the crime itself, the author is interested in the social conditions that precipitate it ...text is riddled with distracting idiosyncrasies that intrude upon the reader’s enjoyment ... The confusion that occasionally ensues breaks the rhythm, shattering the illusion the author has so painstakingly conjured ... The Perfect Nanny is too cerebral to be the next Gone Girl, but it is indeed a gripping psychological thriller ...modern horror story of busy parents who hire the wrong nanny.
Peter Stamm, Trans. by Michael Hoffman
MixedThe Washington Independent Review of BooksWhy does he walk away? Nobody seems sure, not him, not his wife, Astrid, not the reader. There is not a lot of interior voice in the passages that describe Thomas’ journey through the woods, valleys, and Alpine mountain peaks, just descriptions of the terrain, the villages he passes through, and the abandoned vacation homes where he spends the night … The straightforward exposition casts a fairytale-like spell that is occasionally marred by awkward translation, especially for the American audience … The prose is so even-toned and mild-mannered, the story can easily slip by without making much of an impression.
RaveThe Washington Independent Review of BooksThe Buddha in the Attic is a tessellation of the fragments of these women’s stories. Pieced together, the novel comprises a gorgeous mosaic of the hopes and dreams that propelled so many immigrants across an ocean to an unknown country. The author, Julie Otsuka, illuminates the challenges, suffering and occasional joy that they found in their new homeland … The book becomes a history lesson in heartbreak. Just as we come to the rewards of our years of hardship — businesses well established and children in university or with factory jobs or serving in the armed forces — we are forced to abandon everything, the noodle shops, farm stands, vineyards and laundries, and sell our most precious possessions to white neighbors at giveaway prices. Tagged and herded off like livestock, to destinations unknown, we become the victims of one of the most shameful acts of 20th-century America.
MixedThe Washington Independent Review of BooksLike a virtuoso conductor, Egan deftly arranges the polyphonic viewpoints of Anna, Eddie, and Dexter, with a few heartbreaking solos from Lydia, sometimes switching narrator mid-chapter without distracting the reader or interrupting the rhythm of the story … Some readers may disagree with Anna’s fateful decision toward the end of the book. Is it a brave declaration of feminine independence, or is it submission to tradition? It turns out that Anna can have her cake and eat it, too, as the story is neatly wrapped up with mostly happy endings all around.
RaveThe Washington Independent Review of Books\"Through the course of the narrator\'s conversations with various people, most of them writers or students of writing, we come to know her innermost thoughts and preoccupations, though we have no idea what she looks like, nor do we glean other minutiae authors usually employ to define their protagonists … For many of her conversation partners, and for the narrator herself, the craft of writing and the art of living are deeply intertwined. Life is art, art is life. Life is also fiction, as we spin our own histories for public consumption, withholding some details, embellishing others; we are authors of our own life narratives. And much like life, Outline does not have a discernible plot.\
MixedThe Washington Independent Review of BooksThis is a novel of millennials, for millennials, and by a millennial, so naturally there are no chapters, but rather brief, diary-like entries … Despite the abbreviated passages, the gee-whiz observations of the too-old-to-be-precocious narrator, and the meandering nature of the narrative, the book deals with serious life themes in an engaging way. Ruth has an eye for the awkward social moment and is quick with the wry quip, making even the most self-involved musings (and there are a lot of them — Ruth seems to have no interests beyond herself) palatable … The entire narrative is imbued with a sitcom gloss that ultimately numbs the reader to the emotional crises that Ruth faces. By the end, we’re ready to say goodbye to Ruth.
RaveThe Washington Independent Review of BooksWoven to the warp and weft of the brutal realities of the most mind-controlled state on the planet, Adam Johnson delivers a literary tour-de-force in The Orphan Master’s Son, a wildly inventive mashup of the thriller, picaresque novel, gulag memoir, love story, ugly-duckling-into-beautiful-swan fairy tale and mythical heroic journey … Stitched together, these details, which are more fantastic than anything thought up by Orwell, make for a compelling background on which to build a novel … The story is told from three different viewpoints, much as if to say that all stories are propaganda, whether you read them in the newspaper, hear them from a government loudspeaker or enjoy them in literary novel form.
MixedThe Washington Independent Review of BooksKo’s prose is captivating and vivid, but the story begins to sag under the accretion of minutely observed details and overloaded plot twists, many of which seem contrived and not particularly believable. The plot feels over-workshopped, as if the author’s vision became smudged with the fingerprints of too many well-meaning readers naïve about contemporary immigration and adoption procedures … The crescendo to the climax swells too loud and too long, and the story is unable to sustain the suspense. While Polly’s first-person narrative is compelling, Daniel’s story is told in the third-person and is not as vibrant or convincing, resulting in a portrait of a transracial adoptee that is disappointingly clichéd.
RaveThe Washington Independent Review of BooksA rich and intricate tapestry of tales, the chapters are tightly woven together: Pick at a single thread, and it will lead through the entire book. Small details echo throughout, glinting and winking off each other, and yet each chapter is a perfect, standalone jewel box, narrated in a distinct voice ... A dazzling work of structural, thematic, and psychological complexity, Anything Is Possible stands as an alternate text to those books that depict an angry, hopeless, and despairing white working-class culture.
PanThe Washington Independent ReviewIn lush and captivating prose, Didion describes a Southern landscape permeated with decay and burdened by the oppressive weight of history. Even in these preliminary sketches, her rhetorical framing is expert, her eye for the telling detail unerring ... The less said about the 'California Notes' chapter, the better. Perhaps the publisher needed to add to the word count to justify the $21 list price, and thought Didion’s stream-of-consciousness meditation on growing up in the Golden State was a natural sequitur to amplify the statement quoted earlier about the South being the true future of America. While Nathaniel Rich asserts in his breathless introduction that the reader is getting 'a glimpse inside the factory walls,' the demystification of the writing process makes for cringeworthy reading ... a naked money-grab by an insatiable corporation, shilling an overpriced product to a public addicted to name brands.
RaveThe Washington Independent Review of BooksHamid takes this remove one step further in Exit West, which reads almost like a sociological report, Saeed and Nadia lab specimens whose past and futures are entirely known. The omniscient narrator reveals outcomes that have not yet happened, like the manner in which someone will die or an estrangement that will never be healed. It is as if God itself were the narrator, and Saeed and Nadia prototype figures like Adam and Eve. By removing the melodrama inherent in a refugee’s plight and replacing it with quotidian incidents picked out in vivid, evocative and highly astute prose, Hamid elevates this tale from a self-pitying weeper or a heart-wrenching invective into a sympathetic, beautifully wrought story of two people propelled by events outside of their control who seize their own destinies. While offering a dim view of the future, it also comforts with a portrait of humanity’s resilience.
RaveThe Washington Independent Review of BooksA Separation cannot escape comparison to another novel about a woman emerging from a broken marriage, Rachel Cusk’s Outline. Both are set in Greece, employ divorce plots, and are narrated by smart, sharply observant woman who take great care not to reveal themselves as they observe with an eloquent yet clinical precision the people and the world around them. Both authors sum up the absurdities and paradoxes of modern life in incisive, powerful prose. But whereas the integrity of Cusk’s narrator is never in doubt, Kitamura’s encourages the reader’s suspicion. It’s a brilliant manipulation as the reader’s evolving relationship with the narrator mirrors the increasing alienation and suspicion of a troubled marriage.
RaveThe Washington Independent Review of BooksWhat could be excruciating navel-gazing by a cast of mostly upper-middle class white Brits is instead a revealing, gently sardonic glimpse into the emotional lives of intelligent, articulate, yet stultified adults ... Cusk writes with the same pitiless, probing eye, the same transcendent, perfectly controlled prose as these Great Male Narcissists, but from a feminine viewpoint that is not fatally weakened by a fear of women. While the penis-gazers relegate the other half of humanity to mere symbolic vessels of their desire and convenient foils to their own weaknesses, Cusk has no such blind spots, and therefore casts a clearer and bolder eye upon the world ... Cusk, like fellow European feminist Elena Ferrante, has broken the bondage of the male point of view, but whereas Ferrante is a bare-knuckle brawler, Cusk takes a less confrontational, more bloodless approach. Which is not to say that her prose is devoid of passion, for Cusk’s 'native habit of finding metaphors and similes in unlikely places' makes her writing pulse with relevance and meaning, while changing the paradigm of literature.
Peter Ho Davies
RaveThe Washington Independent Review of BooksThough the stories can stand on their own, recurring motifs, details, and historical figures thread through the chapters, weaving a poignant, intricately patterned brocade of the Chinese-American experience ... His genius is not in the aggregation, but in the canny crafting of an embarrassment of racist riches into a resplendent, inventive, heartbreaking chronicle of the Chinese-American experience.