Not to be Overlooked
By Lara Abbey and Jasmine Aldridge
In this column, we introduce a variety of wonderful but lesser-known books to assist readers in finding their next great reads. This review covers Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado and Days at the Morisaki Bookshop by Satoshi Yagisawa.
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Review by Lara Abbey
Her Body and Other Parties is an electric collection of short stories by Carmen Maria Machado published in 2017. Although the eight tales Machado offers us vary wildly in terms of genre, all are united by their exploration of the body, sexuality and womanhood – which wield dual powers of pleasure and pain.
One of the highlights of the collection is how deftly the stories are woven together through their shared themes. The first story, ‘The Husband Stitch’, does an excellent job of examining female desire, whilst also acknowledging the tragedy and violence inherent within it. Despite the narrator giving her husband everything, he still wants access to the one thing that will undo her. Also underpinning this piece is an element of storytelling; urban legends about women and hypothetical performance notes are cleverly scattered throughout and hark back to the idea of cautionary tales being told around a campfire in a bid to keep women in line.
Violence and storytelling recur later in the collection. In ‘Especially Heinous’, Machado rewrites the synopses of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episodes to reflect how the brutalised female body is banal yet sensationalised, and ‘The Resident’ becomes more meta as we follow the narrator on a residency where she attempts to finish her novel but, amongst the Gothic atmosphere, becomes the “madwoman in the attic” herself.
Another feat the collection achieves is its prescience of events post-2017. In ‘Inventory’, a woman recalls all her sexual encounters against the backdrop of a deadly plague, showcasing humanity’s need for connection - especially in times of hardship. In the next story, ‘Mothers’, two women inexplicably have a baby together. However, it is hinted that the baby isn’t real but rather a manifestation of the narrator’s grief of having broken up with her girlfriend. Maybe the narrator is grieving the fact that, because of her queer identity, she will never be able to partake in the fantasies of domestic bliss she once dreamt of. Through this reading, Machado’s commentary has sadly only become more relevant with time, due to the recent rescinding of LGBTQIA+ individuals’ rights and protections in various parts of the USA, including the right to adopt.
Overall, Her Body and Other Parties is a salient account of what it means to be a woman in all its conflicting glory. There are a few stories not covered in this review: ‘Real Women Have Bodies’ and ‘Eight Bites’, which explore body image, and ‘Difficult at Parties’, which follows the aftermath of a sexual assault. I encourage you to pick up the collection if you’d like to experience it all for yourself. It’s a frustrating yet captivating read that’ll be sure to stick with you.
Days at the Morisaki Bookshop by Satoshi Yagisawa
Review by Jasmine Aldridge
Why are we so enthralled by books? In Days at the Morisaki Bookshop, Satoshi Yagisawa illuminates how the perhaps intimidating concept of reading can evolve to become an opportunity for a second life. From a place of comfort, familiarity and acceptance, Yagisawa places reading at the heart of finding oneself and gives space for second-hand books to be appreciated.
The novel is based in Tokyo’s popular book town Jimbōchō, home to 200 different bookshops, and the district gives its name to the Chiyoda Literature Prize which the novel was awarded in 2010. Days at the Morisaki Bookshop follows twenty-five-year-old Takako as she navigates a turbulent moment in her life: her boyfriend unexpectedly announces an engagement to someone else; she leaves her job and she finds herself at a painful crossroads that leaves her slumped unenthusiastically in bed. It is only when she receives an out-of-the-blue call from her uncle, who invites her to live at the family bookshop, that she begins to revive. Introduced to the beauty of books, family connection and the benefit of stillness, Takako is able to reconnect with her sense of self and uncover what truly matters to her. In short, the Morisaki Bookshop saves her from a life controlled by self-imposed expectations, and, in a world where it is easy to feel left behind, the lessons the novel imposes have never been more needed.
Days at the Morisaki Bookshop is a wondrously captivating read that highlights the benefit of taking time to stand still and appreciate the smaller moments. From the solace of books to the simple pleasure of a good coffee, we are transported to a world where doing nothing but reading enables you to finally recognise yourself. Eric Ozawa’s translation is delicate and sophisticated, allowing Yagisawa’s meanings to enchant, while still guiding us confidently through the emotional twists and turns of the story. Whether you are an avid reader of Japanese fiction or you are looking for an avenue into translated literature, this is a book elevated by its simple introspective emotion and it will resonate with you long after you turn its final page.