Fairest: A Memoir. By Meredith Talusan (Viking 2020)
Reviewed by P.A Huff
Autobiography is the most personal genre and the most generous. By definition it favors the up-close gaze. It is the fruit of self-absorption but also the turning of self-centeredness to purposes far beyond narcissism. Ancient writers, who rarely saw their reflection, spoke of the first-person narrative as a kind of mirror for the reader. For centuries, we have been entranced by the near magical link between someone else’s self-disclosure and our own self-empowerment. The Latin for looking glass, speculum, is related to a broad family of intriguing spin-offs such as speculation and introspection but also respect and, charmingly, even spice. Meredith Talusan’s memoir, well seasoned with sharp intelligence and rare powers of awareness, is a courageous gift of self that delivers keen insight into the mystery of visualizing who we are and who we long to be.
Pink Mountain on Locust Island by Jamie Marina Lau (Coffee House Press 2020)
Reviewed by Alicia Banaszewski
Asian-Australian author Jamie Marina Lau’s debut novel Pink Mountain on Locust Island published by Brow Books was shortlisted for Australia’s prestigious Stella Prize in 2019. It opens with a short chapter titled “Panther” that immediately throws the readers into Melbourne’s Chinatown and introduces the narrator’s father.
“On television a panther slicking its black limbs through paradise trees. Holy moly, look at this fur.
The third story of a Chinatown flat, and here the timber walls tighten around the fat Chinese man with a noodle moustache. A muddy bottle in his hand.”
Bestiary by K-Ming Chang (One World 2020)
Reviewed by A. Mana Nava
Bestiary is a nonlinear, multi-generational experiment exploring how stories are passed down from generation to generation. K-Ming Chang plays with narrative structure by blending the epistolary form, fables, oral storytelling, and close third-person narration. In the narrative, the character Mother tells Daughter a story about a hungry tiger who eats toes to explain why she cut hers off and keeps them in a tin. Then, one day Daughter wakes up with a tiger tail. This novel turns impossible tales of rivers impregnating women, flying crabs, and holes carrying letters across the country into a plausible reality. There is no line between fantasy and reality as the two are brilliantly woven together.
Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami (Europa Editions 2020)
Reviewed by Megan Foster
Three women in Japan wrestle with the nature of the body and the self.
Natsuko is a struggling writer when her older sister, Makiko, and Makiko’s teenage daughter, Midoriko, come to visit for a few days. Makiko has made the journey to Tokyo to explore affordable options for breast enhancements. Midoriko, who hasn’t spoken a word to her mother in six months, privately wrestles with her own changing body and turns to her journal for companionship. A climactic clash occurs between Makiko and Midorko before the two return home, and the narrative flashes forward in time ten years. Natsuko has managed to publish one collection of stories but, even more than her struggle to write a novel, wrestles with her desire to have a child. Without a partner, Natsuko seeks other possible means to fulfill her deepest wish to be a mother as she continues to grow older alone.
Braised Pork by An Yu (Grove Press 2020)
Reviewed by Allison McCausland
It’s easy for the monotony of life to settle in. It lulls us into a false sense of security. It keeps us from recognizing how drained our happiness and sense of self has become. Both circumstances plague protagonist Jia Jia as she struggles to adjust to life in Beijing after her husband’s bizarre death.
Vagabonds by Hao Jingfang, trans. by Ken Liu (Saga Press 2020)
Reviewed by Allison McCausland
Slow burn stories rarely find their place in modern storytelling. It is even rarer when a slow burn has so much thought and detail in its world-building that it warrants dissection of the most minute details. The novel Vagabonds by Hao Jingfang achieves this feat by taking its time revealing Jingfang’s extensive research of physics, economics, and social systems.