Han Kang, 2007
Pros: Critics have compared Kang’s work to Kafka, and the similarities seem deserved: taut prose, a spiraling journey into madness, and a bent towards the allegorical (okay, more than a bent) form the backbone of this can’t-put-it-down book. Told in three parts, the narrative circles via outside perspectives around the main character’s mysterious and sudden decision to become a vegetarian in a culture where forgoing meat is not an option; as such, the narrator’s choice becomes a matter of public and familial crisis, and the story explores the horrifying consequences of her refusal to give in and return to carnivorous habits. Kang’s decision to deprive the protagonist of a narrative voice is one of the smartest in a series of good writing choices that both immerse you in the writing and remind you that the author is in complete control; this is one of the best-crafted novels I’ve ever read, and one that makes me jealous: I wish I had written it.
Cons: Allegory may be coming back into style, but as a formal decision I’ve always found large-scale metaphor to be too on-the-nose, a little too obvious; The Vegetarian may suffer from the (perfectly-executed) simplicity of its symbolism. A brush with melodrama in the third section left me feeling letdown, though I found sections 1 and 2 entirely thrilling.
The Verdict: Grab a copy, and (ironically, of course) enjoy a steak while you’re reading: this book makes you hungry, and completely satisfies.
The Red Parts
Maggie Nelson, 2007
Pros: Maggie Nelson is a master of memoir, and this autobiography following the trial of her aunt’s murderer is a brilliant examination of violence, gender, loss, and voyeurism. Nelson gets uncomfortably close to the underside of our interest in true crime and pain, and asks the reader to consider what the re-telling of such stories means to both the subject and the object. A perfect extended lyric essay.
Cons: For fans of clarity, Nelson still plays coy with some aspects of her life, though not nearly as much as in, say, Bluets or other more self-focused writing where lyricism takes precedence over plain old information.
The Verdict: A great introduction to Nelson, if you’ve never read her work, and if you have then snap this one up immediately. This is writing at its finest.
Alice Hoffman, 2016
Pros: Alice Hoffman crafts a beautiful story about love, redemption, forgiveness, and friendship in this novel following the life of protagonist Shelby Richmond after a tragic car accident–with Shelby behind the wheel–kills her teenage best friend. Moving seamlessly through time and space, with New York City providing background color and grit, the novel asks readers to explore forgiveness and growth as Shelby learns to not only survive but thrive in the face of guilt and loneliness. Clear, lyric prose, a great cast of supporting characters, and a deft hand toward tragedy make this a compelling read.
Cons: Though the crux of the story is the loss of Shelby’s friend and her subsequent, all-consuming guilt, the friendship between the two girls remained mysterious to me, and felt like a curious and clunky omission. A heavy reliance on emotional shorthand (loving animals as a sign of goodheartedness does not make a character complex, only cliché) stretches the reader’s patience and leads to flattened characters. And while much of the story explores serendipity–faith–there were many plot points that leaned (at best) toward sentimentality and (at worst) toward unbelievability. Deus ex machina, anyone?
The Verdict: Good for a lazy afternoon, but not much more. This one was a disappointment, though I certainly won’t discount Hoffman’s entire body of work based on this single title. Readers with a higher tolerance for bittersweetness and pit bulls may have a better experience than I did.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Taika Waititi, 2016
Pros: Taika Waititi’s 2016 masterpiece is equal parts pathos and comedy, a perfect blend of contemporary cinematic nods (including an amazing electronic-synth soundtrack by Moniker that’s a delight in its own right) and a classic into-the-wilderness narrative. When Ricky Baker, a city kid more interested in Tupac and pyromania than exploring the New Zealand bush, flees into the mountains with his foster uncle Hector, the two must find a way to survive both the elements and each other, all to moving effect. Think Moonrise Kingdom meets Rabbit-Proof Fence. Waititi’s use of the New Zealand landscape as well as his grasp of narrative movement is masterful, and the performances from all the actors, including veteran Sam Neill, are extremely strong. I can’t wait to get my hands on more of Waititi’s work.
Cons: Critics of whimsy will compare this to Wes Anderson’s work, which is similarly dreamy, intricate, meta; if you’re feeling uncharitable, there are moments that could be described as twee.
The Verdict: This one’s a winner. Grab a copy and settle in for a movie that will have you laughing, close to tears, and deeply satisfied.