November ’22 book roundup

To quote a recent meme I came across, “November flew by like 4 hoes in a Nissan”. Work started back up for me around the 15th, so I tried to cram in as much reading as a could in the first two weeks of the month before my endless free time came to an end. I started an English translation of Mieko Kawakami’s Japanese novel, Heaven at the end of October and finished it just a few days later into November. As soon as I saw it in the bookstore I wanted it, but I circled it for a bit for some reason because it wasn’t very long and if I’m buying a brand-new book, I usually like to avoid books I’ll read too quickly. Something kept drawing me back though, and for good reason as it’s currently my favorite book of 2022 thus far, subject to change but not likely. I followed Heaven with another translation I found at the library, this one of a Korean novel that’s sold over one million copies, Please Look After Mom. Initially, the story dragged for me, but by the final page, my opinion had done a 180. Since you can never leave the library with just one book, I also picked up a book from an author I’d read before, Jill Santopolo. Her book, More Than Words was a bit cheesy, relatively predictable, but had enough of a blend between realistic outcomes and Hallmark movie moments that overall, it was a quick, entertaining read. I finished out the month with a Lanternfish Press novella by Kelsey Socha called An Archive of Brightness. In the style of Lanternfish, Socha blends genres, plays with form, and strikes a narrative chord paradoxically dissonant and completely in sync with the multiple interwoven storylines she creates. Overall I’d say I had a solid set of reads this month, and I’m especially feeling grateful to have found a new favorite in Kawakami’s Heaven; it’s been too long.

Heaven by Mieko Kawakami

Translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett & David Boyd

Heaven was first published in 2001 by Europa Editions. The paperback is 175 pages.

I was initially drawn to Kawakami’s Heaven because of its eye-catching pink and green cover. Once I saw it was a translation, I was sold. I’ve been trying to expand my reading beyond what I already know, so this was one of my first forays into non-western fiction. Heaven is a beautiful, heartbreaking story about two middle schoolers, Kojima and “Eyes”, so nicknamed by his bullies due to his lazy eye. The two bond with each other over their separate but shared experience of bullying when he realizes Kojima has been the one leaving unsigned notes in his desk. This story looks at violence and suffering through the eyes of two very different individuals.

After finishing Heaven and declaring it (most likely) to be my favorite book of 2022, I realized it’s oddly because of how many parallels exist between it and my other long-standing favorite, Stephen Chbosky’s, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Both stories are coming-of-age tales told through letters and a very direct and intimate narrative voice. Equal parts gorgeous and depressing, Kawakami’s character-driven novel is rife with beautiful, controlled writing. She’s at times vague, but never withholding, capturing the uncertainty, torture, and confusion of growing up. A true 5-star reading experience, found at one of my favorite independent shops, The Ouray Bookstore in Ouray, CO. I look forward to reading Kawakami’s other works, Ms. Ice Sandwich, Breasts and Eggs, and All the Lovers in the Night.

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin

Translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim

Please Look After Mom was published in 2011 by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. The hardcover is 237 pages.

I unintentionally followed a Japanese translation with a Korean translation and found them to each have a different energy and tone. Heaven felt more like a studio Ghibli movie whereas, Please Look After Mom had a more somber tone and felt set further back in time, somehow slower. Both the title and the opening line to Kyung-sook Shin’s novel drew me in: “It’s been one week since Mom went missing.” (1) In this story, a mother and father are traveling to Seoul to visit their children. Their aging mother’s physical and mental health has been in decline, unacknowledged by anyone in the family. At the train station in Seoul, 69-year-old So-Nyo gets separated from her husband. We learn of each family member’s relationship to her as each section is told from a different family member’s narrative point of view. This change in narrative voice was accompanied by different grammatical points of view as well, occasionally using the second person plural version of “you”, such as on page 8, “You all blamed each other for mom’s going missing, and you all felt wounded.” Other times, it’s a third person singular address, or alternatively, a first-person omniscient point of view when we reach the final chapter in which the mother narrates.

This was one of those odd times when for 90 percent of the book, I’m just not that into it. Not in a way that makes me want to put it down and walk away, but just enough that I’m not super enthusiastic about picking it up, so it takes me a while to get through it. A combination of the desire to know if Mom was okay and the anticipation of starting a new book carried me through to the end. The final chapter told from the mom’s perspective turned my opinion and my entire reading experience around. It shifted something that was so oddly in line with the content of the story. It was as though once I’d heard the mom’s perspective, the rest of the story slid into full focus and became something entirely different to me than it had been before. A running theme throughout each of the family members lenses is the idea that in hindsight the mom’s sacrifice is at the forefront of it all. They see how they chose to look the other way or frame something in such a way that suited them at the time, willfully pushing their mother and her experience out of frame. Please Look After Mom is a story of sacrifice, gratitude, and perspective; one that I recommend sticking with to the end. Kyung-sook Shin has several other English translations including, The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness, I’ll Be Right There, and The Court Dancer.

More Than Words by Jill Santopolo

More Than Words was published in February of 2020 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. The hardcover is 342 pages.

After reading two such profound and nuanced stories about the human condition, More Than Words by Jill Santopolo was like watching casual romantic Netflix movie. That isn’t to say the story isn’t well plotted, or the writing was bad, it’s just that there are very different tones to books and this story of a rich white girl inheriting her family’s hotel chain rang a bit surface level in comparison. Santopolo’s first book, The Light We Lost has a similar romantic tone, but it felt just a touch more grounded than this one, perhaps because I read it when I was in my early twenties and felt closer to my experiences.

More Than Words follows Nina George as everything she thought she knew is called into question after unearthing secrets from her father’s past. Reeling from his recent death and learning how to navigate the hotel empire he’s left her to run, Nina’s comfortable, predictable boyfriend starts looking less like the future she wants for herself, and more like a predestined plan laid out for her to dutifully follow. Nina finds herself at the crux of a major life decision when she begins falling for her boss, Rafael and struggles to decide what she wants for her future, without factoring in everyone else’s considerations for the first time in her life. Romance isn’t a genre I typically gravitate towards, although I do appreciate the option to passively enjoy a book that feels like you’re watching a romantic movie you get to custom make in your own mind. If you’re looking for a quick, cozy read with short chapters, this is your book.

An Archive of Brightness by Kelsey Socha

Kelsey Socha’s novella, An Archive of Brightness offers an entertaining blend of styles – stage directions make it screenplay-esque, metaphors and repetition throughout read as poetic or allegorical but not without intention. The separate but interweaving stories are beautifully vague, seemingly sparse yet dense with meaning sometimes with an unwritten secondary meaning tucked between the lines. Opening with a murder of crows, the novella contains a tale of two sexually repressed lobstermen, a representation of Antarctica’s inability for new growth along with its subsequent interest in reliving the past, and finally, a dessert town filled with scorpion houses and a pair of women exploring each other with the shadow of a camera crew capturing the Truman-show-like experience all the while, amongst many other asides and anecdotal stories.

This description is all over the place because that’s exactly how the birds who maintain The Archive of Brightness, and all that it contains, tell the story. Socha gives us profound moments balanced with simple puns that feel weighted with more meaning than they should be able to hold. This novella gives its reader an entertaining reading experience that simultaneously makes no sense and all of the sense, depending on who’s telling the story.

In the style of November, this post has reached its end. Thank you, as always, for spending some time in my book-filled corner of the internet. Look out for an upcoming post featuring some of my go-to suggested reads that might spark some gift ideas for the holidays 🙂

Talk soon, and happy reading!


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