Matt’s Weekly Reads, May 20, 2023


Himawari House, Harmony Becker (2021)

In this graphic novel, international students living in a boarding house in Tokyo learn about who they are and how to connect with others across difference as they navigate being roommates in their multicultural household and foreigners in a new country.

This is a spectacular book. I can’t think of a better match between subject matter and the graphic novel medium; it’s a story that could be told in other media, but would lose a lot in the process. I find myself thinking about the way the story was told just as much as the story itself. I also appreciated how the three expat characters were from different parts of the world (the United States, Singapore, and Korea) and so were carrying different kinds of issues with respect to difference and belonging. The two main Japanese characters were also great foils as they tried to understand their guests. The only weakness of the book for me was that it didn’t have much of a plot. It’s about normal people living normal lives. That’s a strong point, but I can’t exactly say that much ‘happens’ here, so it may not work as well for plot-forward readers.

As it happens, this would be a great read for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month!

Read this if you’re interested in:

  • Language
  • Life Abroad
  • Japan
  • Asian American Experience
  • Found Family
  • Friendship

My Rating: Premise 10, Atmosphere 10, Main Character(s) 10, Plot 7, Intrigue 9, Relationships 10, Success 10, Writing 10, Enjoyment 10, Lasting Impact 9: TOTAL 95

Weekly Roundup

The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, Richard Zimler (1996), 91: In the midst of the pogrom known as the Lisbon Massacre, a Jewish man in sixteenth-century Portugal must evade the mobs calling for Jewish blood even as he attempts to solve the mystery of the murder of his beloved uncle and spiritual mentor. This book works on a number of levels: First, as a chilling piece of historical fiction that brings to life a horrific crime against humanity in striking and disturbing detail, second as an insightful novel rich in the wisdom of the ages, and third, as a gripping thriller. There were some aspects of the plotting I didn’t love and Zimler had not yet come into his full stature as a writer at this point in his career, but this is still an excellent novel. (Judaism, Jewish History, Antisemitism, Portugal, Early Modern History, Mystery, Thriller)

Stoner, John Williams (1965), 93: This is the story of the quiet life of a minor academic in the American Midwest, filled with disappointment and tragedy of the most banal, and therefore universal, kind. Stoner was largely ignored when it was first released, but has become widely acclaimed since its re-issue almost a half century later. The prose is immaculate and the story told with technical precision. It’s the kind of novel that is a writing professor’s joy; but that same technique also makes it seem rather sterile and cold at times, which suits the subject matter of this particular story well, but isn’t exactly engaging. This is really well-done, and it rounds up to a ‘five-star’ read for me, but be prepared for a subdued experience. (Academia, Disappointment, Marriage, Complicated Families)

The Magician’s Assistant, Ann Patchett (1997), 85: Sabine, a widow in early middle age, was used to the multiple lives of her late husband: a devoted partner yet passionately in love with another man, a successful magician who made his living selling rugs, an AIDS patient who died suddenly from an aneurysm. But she is shocked to discover he was still keeping one big secret from her: his family, whom he claimed had died long ago, is alive and well, and living in a small town in western Nebraska. This was very well done, but I can’t help but feel Patchett pulled the old magician’s sleight of hand on me: the synopsis and first section of the book make it seem like it’s going to be about Sabine’s complicated life with her husband and his lover in Los Angeles, but it turns out it’s really about the family back in Nebraska. It was well done, but I felt misled; and while I’m glad I read it, I probably wouldn’t have had I known what it was really going to be about. (Complicated Families, Grief and Loss, Secrets, Domestic Violence)

A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow, Laura Taylor Namey (2020), 85: After three significant losses leave her reeling, Lila’s family sends her to stay with an aunt in England to recover. While it’s a far cry from everything she knows and loves back home in Miami, she quickly finds a purpose and discovers that there is more than one way to belong. This was pretty typical YA Romance fare. The best parts for me were the specificity of the Hampshire setting and the incredible descriptions of Cuban cuisine. (YA, Romance, Travel, Baking, Cuban American Culture, England)

The Ugly Cry, Danielle Henderson (2021), 84: A humorous memoir about the author’s childhood raised by an absent mother and a curmudgeonly grandmother. This is well done; the writing is excellent and she manages well in balancing her humour and the seriousness of some of the material. To me, it lacked some structure, but overall, it was great. Content warnings for child neglect and sexualized violence against children. (Memoir, Childhood, Complicated Families, African American Experiences)

The Turn of the Screw, Henry James (1898), 89: In this gothic classic, a governess is haunted by the memories of previous staff who seem to continue to have a hold on the children she’s been hired to raise. This has been called the most analyzed ghost story of all time and with good reason. While the ‘is this supernatural or all in their heads?’ trope is common in horror literature, nowhere is it deployed with as much impact as here. It’s a good, strong, short read and well worth the time. (Gothic, Horror, Psychological Fiction)

The Original, Brandon Sanderson and Mary Robinette Kowal (2020), 77: A woman wakes up to discover that she’s a clone, and moreover, that her ‘original’ is on the run after murdering her husband, and it’s her job to bring her to justice. I enjoyed this science fiction / thriller novella, but felt like it could have used a bit more space to let the story breathe. The short length definitely made it propulsive and exciting, but I wanted to know more about the world they were living in. All in all, a fun quick read that plays with some interesting bioethical questions, but isn’t long enough to handle them with any depth. (Thriller, Science Fiction, Bioethics, Cloning, Nanotechnology, Identity, Humanity)


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