Book Review: WHITE DANCING ELEPHANTS by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

I love short story collections, but they’re devilishly tricky to review. Luckily, Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s debut collection, White Dancing Elephants, makes it easy for me: every single story is a knockout, cohering into a whole even greater than the sum of each part. Spanning continents, centuries, societies, religions, languages, genders, and sexualities, White Dancing Elephants offers up a profoundly moving series of observations about what it means to be alive (and sometimes dead), in some of the most beautiful prose I’ve read lately. Fans of the short stories of Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, and Jhumpa Lahiri won’t want to miss this one, though this collection is far from a mere imitation of those authors: with White Dancing Elephants, Bhuvaneswar forges terrific new ground all her own.

You can read my full review below.


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White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

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  • publisher: Dzanc Books
  • publication date: October 9, 2018
  • length: 208 pages

Two years ago, when I went back to Agra, India, at the age of twenty-two, to visit my grandparents and let two of my uncles set up my marriage, my ex-girlfriend Lauren, whom I work with now on a daily basis, came after me, hoping to stop me from giving in.

–from the story “Adristakama,” in White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

I always forget how much scaffolding goes into making a good story until I read–or attempt to write–a short story. A novel (or even a novella) has so much room for curtains and cover-ups, words that smooth over worldbuilding and stakes in order to keep us fully immersed in the fiction. A short story does not.

Authors of short stories must hit a bullseye every time in order to be successful: they need to choose a premise that’s exactly the right size for the story, peopled by the right number of characters, made meaningful by the right array of metaphors and themes and big reveals. One wrong move and the spell is broken.

Assembling a collection is even harder. The stories must not only work well on their own, but add meaning to each other. They must be unified into something that’s more than just a collection of pretty items in a shoebox–something more like a thoughtful exhibit at a museum, something you’d remember for a long time.

I was reminded of all these difficulties because White Dancing Elephants makes it look absolutely effortless. It’s a high wire act that its author, physician and writer Chaya Bhuvaneswar, might as well be performing at ground level for all it seems to test her.

It’s hard to say what, exactly, unifies the stories of White Dancing Elephants, except that they are unified. The titular story (also the first one in the collection) follows a woman struggling with a miscarriage. It’s trippy and surreal, but not self-consciously so, a watercolor-y portrait of pain and dreaming.

From there the collection opens up into a riot of color, idea, sound, humor, violence, ache. “Talinda” is vicious and tender by turns, chronicling a toxic friendship poisoned by cancer, an affair, and overwhelming, terribly attentive cruelty. “A Shaker Chair,” my least favorite story in the collection (but still a damn interesting one) is also about two women determined to hurt each other, but this time it’s a black biracial therapist and her Indian client. It probes at the ways abuse, prejudice, and sex intertwine, especially at how Asian anti-Blackness and Black xenophobia work in frustrating tandem, neither sin of mistrust cancelling out the other.

My favorite story comes near the midpoint and is also, I believe, the shortest. “Neela: Bhopal, 1984” explores the “world’s worst industrial disaster” (the 1984 chemical leak at the Union Carbide pesticide plant) in language that’s far from the clinical and numerical, the way it’s mainly written about in the U.S. today. A girl goes outside to play and does not come home. Bhuvaneswar handles the material with great tenderness and sharpness both, managing to avoid a simple environmentalist morality play in favor of something more spiritual, piercing, and indicting.

I can’t decide if Bhuvaneswar’s style is deceptively simple or simply deceptive: she’s a master of storytelling sleights-of-hand, focusing your attention on the details so that the full emotional weight of each story sneaks up on you right at the end, without feeling like a cheap “gotcha.” I don’t think I’ve ever read a book so full of revelations.

She also writes with incredible specificity, name-dropping brand names and place names and disorders and configurations of queerness. This would feel less interesting if the stories were obviously autobiographical, but they’re not: in addition to “Neela: Bhopal, 1984,” there’s “Heitor,” a story about a Portuguese slave, and “Jagatishwaran,” about an artist living with schizophrenia in an Indian city wandering between a brothel and his fraught family home.

You can feel how precious each story is to Bhuvaneswar, and because their subject matter is so diverse, the effect is one of intense empathy. Perhaps this is what unifies White Dancing Elephants so well: an intense love and attention paid to the margins, wherever they may be.

It also helps that White Dancing Elephants goes out on such a high note. The final story, “Adristakama,” about a star-crossed lesbian couple fighting culture clash, but even more than the culture clash, fighting the fear of loving and being loved freely that I think we all hold inside, is so beautiful I could do nothing but read it again once I finished.

Lastly, if you’re tired of the way American publishing houses market the work of South Asian writers–flowery language, emphasis on spices, lots of images of tea and henna and lotuses and such–you’ll find a lot to love in Bhuvaneswar’s sly commentary about writing and publishing.

In “The Bang Bang,” a father speaks Sanskrit at an open mic and then gives up his family in exchange for literary recognition (and no small amount of tokenism); it’s a darkly funny and sharp critique of publishing as well as being a powerful story about family. Other stories also draw from this well: one’s about a writer on a retreat who’s processing her unsatisfying marriage (“Chronicle of a Marriage, Foretold”; it’s also an element in “Talinda.”

I haven’t even scratched the surface of the stories in this book, nor what they meant to me. How could I? I adored this book. It’s going on my shelf right next to Runaway by Alice Munro, another favorite short story collection marked by its empathy, its vision, its deep sadness.

Chaya Bhuvaneswar is a writer of tremendous power, skill, and gift; her work is visionary and experimental without sacrificing readability. (I tore through each story, barely pausing for breath.) White Dancing Elephants is simply dazzling. ★★★★★

Standout stories: “Jagatishwaran,” “The Bang Bang,” “Neela: Bhopal, 1984,” “Adristakama”

Content warning: White Dancing Elephants contains a graphic rape scene in the story “Orange Popsicles” (highlight to read). It is also substantially about infertility, abuse (including towards disabled people), and bigotry in ways that may be triggering. Read with caution if you have those triggers.

Books you might also enjoy:


I received a copy of White Dancing Elephants from the author in exchange for an honest review. I received no other compensation and opinions are entirely my own.

Friday Bookbag (plus a personal story), 2.8.19

FridayBookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

But first, story time: As some of you may know, I had a pretty major surgery yesterday. (A total hysterectomy, in order to treat my endometriosis and related pain.) I’m happy to say that the surgery was a major success. I’m extremely emotional about it, because even though the post-surgery pain is not fun and I’m too weak to sit up without help right now, I actually feel better after surgery than I did before. I literally felt better as soon as I woke up. It’s incredible.

I’ve been suffering with this condition for years and had pretty much lost hope I’d ever get relief. I still have a long recovery ahead and there’s a strong possibility I will continue to deal with some endometriosis pain in addition to my everyday fibromyalgia pain, but both conditions should be much improved now. (The endometriosis was triggering fibromyalgia flares and vice versa. That should no longer be the case.) I’m praying that this hysterectomy closes the book on the worst pain and illness I’ve ever experienced in my life. My doctors are hopeful it will, so I’m hopeful, too.

Here’s to more reading, writing, and blogging in the future. And PSA: if you’re suffering debilitating menstrual pain, I implore you to take that shit seriously. It’s not normal to be vomiting with pain during periods. It’s not normal to be laid up for 2-3 (or 4-5) weeks out of every month because of your periods. It’s not normal to be too weak to eat or walk or think or take the bus by yourself because of your periods. Please take your pain seriously and fight for the care you deserve. I’m so glad I did.

/end story time. Now, back to the books! This week I’m featuring three exciting reads by Black women authors: two new ones I bought recently, plus an old favorite that’s just gone on deep sale. Happy Black History Month!


How Long ’til Black Future Month?: Stories by N.K. Jemisin

How Long Til Black Future Month Cover

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the premise: From Goodreads:

In these stories, Jemisin sharply examines modern society, infusing magic into the mundane, and drawing deft parallels in the fantasy realms of her imagination. Dragons and hateful spirits haunt the flooded city of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In a parallel universe, a utopian society watches our world, trying to learn from our mistakes. A black mother in the Jim Crow south must figure out how to save her daughter from a fey offering impossible promises. And in the Hugo award-nominated short story “The City Born Great,” a young street kid fights to give birth to an old metropolis’s soul.

why I’m excited:I’ve been dying to read N.K. Jemisin’s critically acclaimed work for years, but the timing’s never seemed to work out. I’ve also been dying to read more sci-fi short stories, especially with recent work like “Say, She Toy” by Chesya Burke and “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” by Rebecca Roanhorse knocking my socks off.

It’s like N.K. Jemisin read my mind and combined my sci-fi wishes into one awesome package in How Long ’til Black Future Month?. Every single story mentioned in that Goodreads summary sounds fascinating to me. That cover is gorgeous. And during a Black History Month that’s already been pretty miserable for Black Americans, I love the idea of immersing myself in a Black Future Month instead.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

The Mothers Cover

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the premise: From Goodreads:

It is the last season of high school life for Nadia Turner, a rebellious, grief-stricken, seventeen-year-old beauty. Mourning her own mother’s recent suicide, she takes up with the local pastor’s son. Luke Sheppard is twenty-one, a former football star whose injury has reduced him to waiting tables at a diner. They are young; it’s not serious. But the pregnancy that results from this teen romance—and the subsequent cover-up—will have an impact that goes far beyond their youth. As Nadia hides her secret from everyone, including Aubrey, her God-fearing best friend, the years move quickly. Soon, Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey are full-fledged adults and still living in debt to the choices they made that one seaside summer, caught in a love triangle they must carefully maneuver, and dogged by the constant, nagging question: What if they had chosen differently? The possibilities of the road not taken are a relentless haunt.

why I’m excited: You all already know how much I love the books that bridge the gap between YA and adult fiction. The Mothers looks like it will do that, and be tremendously complex and interesting to boot. I love that it seems to take teens’ issues seriously. I’m genuinely excited to see a love triangle between a “beauty,” “pastor’s son,” and “former football star” in a critically acclaimed literary fiction novel. Yessss! I think the current array of typical literary fiction protagonists is incredibly limited, and I’m looking forward to spending some time with Bennett’s characters in contrast. Also, teen pregnancies are so often flattened into metaphors or deuses-ex-machina, but I trust The Mothers will do much better. (Its gush of positive reviews seems to suggest that, anyway.)

Also-also, that cover is gorgeous. I want it on a poster on my wall.

Bonus Round:

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This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare by Gabourey Sidibe is currently on sale for $2.99 on Kindle. (If you’re a Kindle Unlimited subscriber, it’s available to read for free through that service, too.)

I reviewed This Is Just My Face last year and really loved it. Reading Sidibe’s memoir is like going to the coolest, funniest, realest sleepover of your life. She writes in a conversational, down-to-earth, self-deprecating (but also self-loving) style that’s the antithesis of what you would expect from a typical celebrity memoir. She’s lived a genuinely interesting life full of interesting stories (like her parents’ green card marriage, her summer stuck in Senegal with her brother, and her time as a phone sex operator and how it prepared her for acting).

You might know Sidibe best from the movie Precious or the shows Empire and American Horror Story: Coven, but I actually love her presence as a writer and social media personality the best. If you haven’t read it already, This Is Just My Face is definitely worth picking up during this sale.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Friday Bookbag, 2.1.19

FridayBookbag

Friday Bookbag is a (semi-)weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

This week I’m skipping over the whole pile of books I’ve bought since the last time I put up a Friday Bookbag (in October! Whew!). Instead I’m spotlighting a couple of short story collections I’ve received for review recently. Let’s dive in!


White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

White Dancing Elephants Cover.jpgsource: a copy from the author

the premise: Says the back cover:

A woman grieves a miscarriage, haunted by the Buddha’s birth. An artist with schizophrenia tries to survive hatred and indifference in small-town India by turning to the beauty of sculpture and dance. A brief but intense affair between two women culminates in regret and betrayal.

It’s a collection of seventeen stories that centers on women of color, especially queer women of color, trying to survive in a violent world.

why I’m excited: I’m a lesbian, and as much as I love happy portrayals of women loving other women, I’m also a sucker for more complex stories about queer women in the world. White Dancing Elephants promises to be that kind of complex, interesting, diverse read–diverse both in the shorthand sense of not white, not straight and also diverse in the way short story collections are always diverse: an assemblage of different perspectives and approaches to a theme. Where a novel digs deep, a short story collection can go wide. I’m excited about this one.

Mothers: Stories by Chris Power

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Mothers Cover.jpgsource: a copy from the publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, won in a contest

the premise: From the inside flap (can you tell I’ve given up trying to summarize short story collections on my own? there’s just too much much in them):

Ranging from remote English moors to an ancient Swedish burial ground to a hedonistic Mexican wedding, the stories in Mothers lay bare the emotional and psychic damage of life, love, and abandonment.

It’s apparently “braided through” with overarching stories about Eva, “a daughter, wife, and mother, whose search for a self and a place of belonging tracks a devastating path through generations.”

why I’m excited: Well, everything I said about short story collections above still applies here: I just love the experiments with language and storytelling they enable. For another, I love stories about mothers and daughters. That’s not the entirety of the collection, but it’s obviously a critical portion, given the title and repeated stories about Eva. And as I’ve written about extensively before, I prefer to read stories about women. Those will always be the most interesting, precious stories to me, given how often they’re sidelined. I’m curious what Power’s approach will be to this collection, given that he’s a man writing a very feminine-coded book (the cover’s even pink!). I’m curious how he will treat his characters. It could go wrong, or it could go very right! I’m excited to find out which it is.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Why I read women (or, why “universal” literature is bunk)

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

If you’ve spent any time on my blog–if so, thank you! –I think you’ll soon realize how few books by men I seek out, read, and write about. Scanning back a few months, the last two books by men that I’ve mentioned were Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan (in September) and November Road by Lou Berney, in a Friday Bookbag all the way back at the beginning of August.

It’s not that there aren’t books by men that I enjoy. To discount the artistic ability of nearly half the population would be absurd, right? (Ha.) It’s that, for me, reading is personal. I have always read what I want to read, and I want to read about women.

Luckily, at least in this regard, I grew up homeschooled. (The only formal schooling I got before college was one hellish year in kindergarten.) While the experience was a mixed bag, one thing I remain grateful for was that my mother did not insist I read classics, leaving me instead to read…well, everything else.

Before starting this blog, I ran a YA book blog titled “Bibliophilia – Maggie’s Bookshelf” (clearly, I’m not particularly creative with blog names) from 2009-2013 or so. I took it down some time ago–it was full of embarrassing coming-of-age content that I no longer wanted to broadcast to the web–but the experience was profound. It was my first exposure to ARCs, reviews, the ins and outs of publishing, and most importantly, the incredible diversity of books that are out there if you’re willing to find them.

Once, both for that blog and for my own enjoyment, I read 365 books in a year. It’s a great fun fact.

And yet I’ve never read Moby Dick. I’ve never read Lord of the Flies or 1984 or Lolita or Steinbeck or Twain or Dostoyevsky or any of the dozens more defining books of the English-language canon.

It’s not something I’m proud of, per se, because canons exist to create common ground, and no reader is an island. I may not have read Moby Dick but I have read countless other books by authors who care a lot about Moby Dick. To be so unfamiliar with their source material is a loss, not a gain.

But I still don’t know if I’ll ever read Moby Dick, because I value fun–or at the very least, human connection–in what I read, and Moby Dick strikes me as neither fun nor about the kind of humans I care for, although perhaps I would be interested in the whale. If that makes me a bad reader, so be it.

There is also, quite simply, so much else to read.

I once began a college essay with “I have never been fond of feminism as a way of being.” It was an essay for an English literature class; an essay on Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, no less. It’s an essay I look back on with a fair amount of embarrassment, but also, strangely, delight.

Because earlier that same year, I devoured Mockingjay, hunting an elusive release day copy at every bookstore in town. I would soon be introduced to Tris of Divergent. I already loved the kooky, Southern Belle-esque feminine wiles of Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves, about a schizophrenic biracial girl who returns to a Lovecraftian Texas town to fight monsters. I was enthralled by Gemma Doyle, Libba Bray’s Victorian witchy badass who has a vulnerable side, too. I was addicted to Philippa Gregory’s “historical,” smutty novels about the women of Tudor England. Which is to say nothing of Katsa or Lauren Olamina or Offred, or–heaven help me–Bella Swan, or Merricat and Constance of We Have Always Lived in the Castle itself, or the dozens of other intense, prickly, complex heroines who have profoundly shaped my life.

I am delighted by my crappy college essay because it has the broken-clock quality of understanding that feminism, to me, is not a way of being, at least not in any cohesive sense. It is merely–and perhaps that is the wrong word–merely the acknowledgment that the lives of women and nonbinary people are not second-rate. (Revolutionarily.)

Their stories aren’t second-rate, either, something I must have understood already, based on my tastes. Based, as well, on my analysis of Jackson’s creepy, idiosyncratic, lovely novel about two sisters, an uncle, and a sugar bowl. I still think that analysis is quite good; I found that novel to be deadly serious, and still do, just as I find the lives of young girls everywhere to be deadly serious.

If I were to assemble a personal canon, here are the novels I would place most prominently within it:

  • The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
  • History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
  • Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters
  • Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory
  • and, yes, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson.

It is not the canon. It is a canon, and I am always re-shaping it. It is a key to my heart and also, somehow, my heart itself. I encourage you to develop your own.

My life is not second-rate. My experiences are not second-rate. And neither of the stories of other oft-forgottens, especially the stories of Black women, Indigenous women, and other women of color. I am always reading–devouring–stories that affirm that truth, however frivolous they seem. (In fact, the more frivolous, the better.) This is an act of self-love and an act of love for the universe.

It is not that I find the male literary canon to be irrelevant. It is that it is a treasure that already has a home and a prominent shelf to itself.

And I am looking to find treasures of my own.

Book Review: EVENTIDE by Therese Bohman

Eventide follows Karolina Andersson, an art history professor who finds herself in a personal (and possibly, career) rut after a passionless breakup with a long-term partner, Karl Johan. Drifting aimlessly through life in Stockholm, she becomes involved with several old and new flames, along with a good-looking graduate student who promises to have unearthed a secret for his dissertation that could revolutionize the history of Swedish art. It’s a spare, self-contained novel that feels both achingly melancholy and surprisingly light on its feet. I am always charmed by novels that choose a small story to tell and then execute it perfectly; Eventide is such a novel. At times Eventide feels just a little too small, but its precise prose (translated from the original Swedish) and outsize emotional power make it more than worth the read.

You can read my full review below.


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Eventide by Therese Bohman (translated by Marlaine Delargy)

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Other Press
  • publication date: April 10, 2018 (originally published in Sweden in 2016)
  • length: 208 pages
  • cover price: $15.95

…Karolina liked her new home. It had soon begun to feel like an oasis, a space of her own, maybe somewhere she could make a fresh start, even if that was still some way beyond the horizon. For the moment it was a good location for a period of aimless confusion.

Eventide, page 5

I am struck, frequently, by how few books we have that are really about women. Not just starring women, not just written by women, but about women. It’s not that books about women are inherently better than other kinds of books. I’d just as soon read books that are about dragons, or sword-fighting, or cold-blooded murder, or pirates, or even about men.

It’s just that there are so many women, and so few stories about them, that the artificial scarcity hurts my heart. It boggles my mind. So when I find a book like Eventide, which is an intimate, specific, compassionate, but not sappy novel that is intensely concerned with the woman at its center, I find myself with an abundance of goodwill towards that book, maybe even unfairly.

Luckily, Eventide deserves that goodwill. It’s a tightly crafted, slim novel about an art professor, generically named Karolina Andersson, who is dealing with personal and professional upheaval. She’s good at her job, as far as the reader can tell, but she finds herself romantically adrift and desperately sad about it. She ends a long-term relationship because she knew it wasn’t the right fit, but endlessly despairs that that relationship, flawed as it was, might have been her only shot.

The novel circles this self-pitying drain for nearly its entire duration, but somehow, it rarely feels stale or overdone. In fact, it’s refreshing.

In a less skilled author’s hands, Eventide might only have been one more novel about the “biological clock.” For Bohman, Eventide‘s basic plot is a probing instrument to get at all sorts of unjust truths about society, even a society as supposedly egalitarian as Stockholm, Sweden’s.

The driving force of the plot is that Andersson’s newly assigned Ph.D candidate, Anton Strömberg, has uncovered a startling connection between an obscure female Swedish artist and a male-dominated German arts movement. If this sounds boring and academic, I understand; I’m not sure how to convince you that it’s not boring, other than to say that it isn’t.

Bohman infuses Karolina and Anton’s interactions with a tautness and sexuality that make the art rather secondary. That’s true of all the art history in the book, in fact. For Karolina (and the reader, at least for Eventide‘s duration), the intellectual and the sensual are inseparable.

I dislike when people try and reduce feminism in fiction to feminist characters. Is Katniss Everdeen a feminist character? Is Lizzie Bennett? Hester Prynne? And so on, and so forth. I think a better question is whether or not a novel fully realizes the power structures that women are subjected to. By expecting perfection from our heroines, I fear that we are doing the opposite of feminism.

In contrast, Karolina’s imperfection was the thing I loved most about Eventide, even when I found her to be frustrating, unethical, and claustrophobically self-centered; even when I found her story to be a bit boring and repetitive. This is a novel that understands that there is no right thing to do or say that makes things fair in a profoundly unfair world. Sometimes things go badly, and there’s little morality (or immorality) to it.

Towards the end of the novel, there’s a long meditation on the fact that no one really “deserves” anything, so you might as well strive for what you want. In a lot of fiction and pop culture, this viewpoint (which is hardly unique) comes across as defeatist or greedy; in Eventide, though, it feels different:

If no one deserves anything, that means you are just as entitled to the good things in life as the rival you hate, as the ex-lover you vilify. There is no need to keep hating them or vilifying them or giving them endless mental energy when you can simply ignore them and pursue your own desires. You are not more, or less, moral for doing so.

Eventide suggests that endlessly sorting ourselves into “deserving” and “undeserving” is a trap we can free ourselves from. It’s a message, without being, in the preachy sense, a Message.

Eventide has a small and perfectly balanced center of gravity. It is not a novel that is explosive, glorious, unforgettable, or even vivid. It is simply a little thing done well, modest and purely itself. It’s the person at the party who’s quiet all night, and then says one tiny thing just before leaving that stays with you forever.

In short, Eventide is lovely. ★★★★☆


My copy of Eventide came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: CONVENIENCE STORE WOMAN by Sayaka Murata

In Convenience Store Woman, Keiko Furukura doesn’t fit in–and doesn’t want to fit in–anywhere other than her beloved convenience store, where she works part-time. Keiko is in her 30s, past when she should have been married or found a “real” job according to family and friends, and their attempts to “cure” her gradually alienate Keiko. Convenience Store Woman is a thoughtful, tender, and funny novel that raises the serious point that society is more satisfied with people who are “normal” and unhappy than with people who are “abnormal” and happy. It’s a great read for anyone, but I especially recommend it for people interested in everyday Japanese culture, books in translation, and books with autistic characters. (Keiko’s autism is never explicitly stated, but clearly implied, and sensitively portrayed.)

You can read my full review below.


Convenience Store Woman Cover.jpg

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori)

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Grove Press (an imprint of Grove Atlantic)
  • publication date: June 12, 2018 (originally published in Japan in 2016)
  • length: 176 pages
  • cover price: $20.00

A convenience store is a world of sound. From the tinkle of the door chime to the voices of TV celebrities advertising new products over the in-store cable network, to the calls of the store workers, the beeps of the bar code scanner, the rustle of customers picking up items and placing them in baskets, and the clacking of heels walking around the store. It all blends into the convenience store sound that ceaselessly caresses my eardrums.

Convenience Store Woman, page 1

I felt seen by this book, seen on a level so profound that I’m pretty sure that author Sayaka Murata peered into my soul as she was writing. On the surface, my experience has little in common with protagonist Keiko Furukura in Convenience Store Woman. I’m in my early 20s, she in her late 30s. I work a “respectable” job as a writer, she’s a part-time convenience store clerk. I’m American, she’s Japanese.

But this is the magic of Convenience Store Woman: it is so loving and empathetic, so skillful and funny and emotional and haunting, that I think it’s impossible not to resonate with it.

Keiko is clearly written as autistic, something that’s never stated but easily perceptible through the first-person narration. It’s that first-person narrative that makes all the difference, since autistic and allistic people alike can relate to the pressure Keiko is under to fit in. She’s in her 30s and single–not only single, but working a dead-end job, which seems to be even more of a taboo in Japanese culture than it is here in the U.S. To her friends and family, it doesn’t matter that Keiko is happy: she’s somehow broken, and they make it their mission to fix her.

Whether you’re autistic or not, everyone has been in that position at some point, and that’s what Convenience Store Woman‘s charm hinges on. It asks us why we’re so committed to fitting in, while also acknowledging that we have to fit in to function in society. That contradiction keeps the novel interesting, and far away from “everyone’s special” after-school special territory.

Autistic people are so often used and abused by fiction writers to further plots, be an excuse for an allistic main character to show off their empathy, or to fulfill harmful stereotypes, such as that autistic people lack empathy or are overgrown children. I cannot emphasize enough how much I loved Murata’s approach in Convenience Store Woman. When you read, you don’t feel separate from Keiko. You’re not ogling her or judging her. You’re just experiencing the world through Keiko’s eyes, and if Keiko sees things a little differently than you might in her shoes, so be it.

Murata has a particular gift for descriptions. She engaged all my senses so vividly that I felt like I were experiencing the novel through virtual reality, a jolt straight to my neurons. That’s an especially wonderful feat considering that I’ve never been to Japan and am not particularly familiar with what a convenience store or small apartment might look like there. It doesn’t matter: the taste of a slightly spoiled mango-chocolate bun, or the look of Keiko’s feverish nephew, or the smell of an unwashed incel-like man–Keiko’s terrible sort-of boyfriend–was conveyed to me perfectly.

“Perceptive” is the word that I think describes Convenience Store Woman best. It indulges in all the specificities of Keiko’s life and suburban Japanese culture while still remaining remarkably relatable and accessible. It has sharp satirical elements, but it has a big, gushy emotional heart. It’s a book full of all those little anxieties and behaviors that you thought only you did, that you now realize others might, too. It’s a book to make you feel less alone. And goodness knows we need more of those.

Convenience Store Woman is sometimes quite dark and sad, other times quite joyful and funny, and always as delicious and comforting as hot soup–or the convenience store’s best-selling mayo-tuna rice balls. Highly, highly recommended. Just don’t read it while you’re hungry. ★★★★★

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My copy of Convenience Store Woman came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION by Ottessa Moshfegh

My Year of Rest and Relaxation isn’t a novel of either-or’s, but rather of messy middles. It follows a year in the life of a 20-something New York heiress who decides to drug herself into sleep for a year (with the aid of an unethical, conspiracy-addled psychiatrist) because she doesn’t like her life very much. That premise–and Ottessa Moshfegh’s almost gleeful execution of it–will horrify you. It will likely repulse you. And yet, from the first words on the first page, My Year of Rest and Relaxation is hypnotically readable, even enjoyable. My sense of anxiety and distaste never lessened, but it’s still, somehow, one of my can’t-miss novel recommendations of the year.

You can read my full review of this unforgettable novel below.


My Year of Rest and Relaxation Cover.jpg

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

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  • publisher: Penguin Press
  • publication date: July 10, 2018
  • length: 304 pages
  • cover price: $26.00

But coming out of that sleep was excruciating. My entire life flashed before my eyes in the worst way possible, my mind refilling itself with all my lame memories, every little thing that had brought me to where I was. I’d try to remember something else–a better version, a happy story, maybe, or just an equally lame but different life that would at least be refreshing in its digressions–but it never worked. I was always still me.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation, page 40

From June 1999 to June 2000, the narrator of My Year of Rest and Relaxation decides to sleep. She’s an heiress to a lot of money. She’s a Columbia art history graduate. She has a nice apartment in Manhattan and a cushy job at a pretentiously “edgy” art gallery. Her parents are dead. She hates her best friend. She is an utterly intolerable person and seems to know it. So she sleeps in an attempt to start over, with the help of a psychiatrist so incompetent it’s almost malicious.

You would be forgiven, after hearing the premise, for thinking that My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a magical realist fairy tale. How else could someone sleep for a year? The answer is that the narrator doesn’t, exactly: she naps and sleeps and blacks out and visits the bodega and watches movies and starts the cycle over again. If the plot is dreamy, the novel’s feel is not; in fact, it is almost oppressively real, especially as it’s grounded in the quirks and side effects of psychotropic medications.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation name-checks all sorts of pop and high culture references with the density and playfulness of a Hollywood satire. (In fact, its closest tonal match is probably Netflix’s depressing-but-beautiful Hollywood sitcom Bojack Horseman.) It skewers the art world, skewers wealth, skewers college, skewers dating, skewers shopping, and skewers psychiatry.

It even skewers the omnipresence of 9/11 in pop culture: as the novel progresses, the clock runs ever-closer to September 2001, and Ottessa Moshfegh gently toys with her readers with references to Zeno’s paradox of ever-halving time and an anti-terrorism taskforce that’s quartered in the Twin Towers. I was torn between marveling at Moshfegh’s talented satire and also feeling profoundly rubbed the wrong way by it. I think that’s the point. (To be clear, Moshfegh does not make light of 9/11–quite the opposite–but if you’re disturbed by reading some dark humor about the event, this novel likely isn’t for you.)

The emotional heft of the novel lies in the narrator’s relationship with her best friend, Reva, who visits the narrator frequently while she is “sleeping.” Reva adores her. She loathes Reva. Their push-and-pull–the (unnamed) narrator’s a WASP, Reva is an out-of-place Jew; the narrator is effortlessly thin, Reva is bulimic; Reva’s mother is dying, the narrator’s parents are already dead–allows Moshfegh to ruthlessly probe at the characters themselves and at broader archetypes about women in New York. Neither Reva nor the narrator is a good person. You don’t particularly enjoy spending time with them. Yet I felt an intense, almost mothering connection to both that kept me tethered to the novel no matter how far out it gets.

My biggest discomfort with My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a profoundly personal one. Many of the drugs that the narrator is prescribed for her “insomnia” are drugs I’ve taken myself for my very real bipolar disorder: lithium, Seroquel, trazodone, and Risperdal, for one, though the list goes on a lot further than that. As the narrator describes her weight loss, her wan-ness, her nausea, her atrophy, I became overwhelmingly angry. Psychotropic meds are horrible. If I didn’t need them, I wouldn’t take them. It’s a deep conflict I have within myself that I am an enormous advocate for mental health treatment, and also someone who loathes taking my meds.

In light of that, reading about a privileged skinny white girl taking those meds and dealing with their side effects for fun–or rather, not quite for fun, as she’s clearly struggling, but also not quite because she needs them–made me irritable. It got under my skin. It gave me bad dreams last night, not to mention all of the other disturbing things about the novel that bothered me, too.

And yet I am immensely grateful to have read My Year of Rest and Relaxation.

Ottessa Moshfegh is a writer so talented that I felt literally dazzled, like I couldn’t look at a page too long or it might burn me. There is not a word out of place here. There is not a single careless joke or plot point, although the narrator as a character is deeply careless. It’s a marvel to watch the pieces fit together.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation is as skillfully, intensely drawn as Escher art. It will befuddle you the longer you think about it, so don’t think: just read. Moshfegh’s protagonist may be busy wasting her life, but while reading about it, I only felt more intensely alive. ★★★★★

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My copy of My Year of Rest and Relaxation came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.