The Starlet and the Spy by Ji-Min Lee, trans. by Chi-Young Kim

In 1954 Seoul, a war-weary young Korean woman and Marilyn Monroe share a brief but crucial sojourn, and learn they have more in common than they thought.

“I go to work thinking of death. Hardly anyone in Seoul is happy during the morning commute, but I’m certain I’m one of the most miserable.”

At the opening of Ji-Min Lee’s The Starlet and the Spy, Alice J. Kim works as a translator for the American forces a year after the armistice and ceasefire. Her life and outlook are as dour as these introductory lines represent: the traumas of the war have left her hopeless and joyless, taking her day-to-day life as a series of tasks to be completed. When her boss tells her about an upcoming assignment, he expects she’ll feel excited and honored to serve as escort, interpreter and handler for Marilyn Monroe, on a tour to entertain American troops. Alice is unmoved–what does she care for an American movie star?

During the course of four days with the bombshell, however, Alice will be forced to broaden her perspective on her own life and options. Her two former lovers both reappear, shaking her understanding of what exactly happened during the war. There seems the hint of a chance that she will find someone she’s lost. As Alice struggles with her will to live, the American beauty surprises her. Stunning, sexy, charismatic, yes; but Monroe is also unexpectedly approachable. And she will make a small but essential difference in the life of the less famous woman.

Lee’s novel is rooted in historical fact and inspired by two photographs: one of Monroe performing for American troops, in a slinky dress, in the snow; the other of an unknown female Korean interpreter. It is the intersection of these two lives that interests her. Two women, one famous, the other a novelist’s blank slate. What if they had met?

The Starlet and the Spy is bleak but whimsical and, yes, hopeful. Seoul has been beaten down; food is scarce and orphanages overflow. Alice dyes her hair with beer and steals pornography from work to sell to her landlady. A former artist, she doesn’t draw anymore; being forced to create endless portraits of Stalin during the war has dulled her passion, another loss that it seems she will not recover from. But she may have more friends than she thinks she does. Chi-Young Kim’s translation is both spare and emotionally evocative, suiting a narrator who is simultaneously desolate and childishly yearning.

Born of a curiosity about human relationships in unusual times, The Starlet and the Spy asks the questions: What if we met across a divide? What if a despairing young Korean woman reached into Marilyn Monroe’s makeup bag for a lipstick, or a way out? In a decidedly optimistic turn, Lee leaves her ending open, and her reader free to wonder what might be next for Alice.


This review originally ran in the August 5, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 propaganda fliers.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby, trans. by Jeremy Leggatt

Jean-Dominique Bauby was in his early 40s and enjoying a career as editor in chief at French Elle magazine when he suffered a stroke and woke up, post-coma, with “locked-in syndrome”: he can only move one eye, and jiggle his head around a little. He writes this memoir – short at 132 pages, but still, extraordinary – by blinking his left eye at a friend who runs through the alphabet with him for every character in this book. That, alone, is astonishing.

But it’s also quite a good book. Chapters are short, episodic; language is often lovely, and not just descriptive. Where I expect someone in Bauby’s position to be bitter and melancholic, he is often nearly joyful, waxing about how he can go anywhere, taste anything in his mind.

My diving bell becomes less oppressive, and my mind takes flight like a butterfly. There is so much to do. You can wander off in space or in time, set out for Tierra del Fuego or for King Midas’s court.

In his imagination, he interacts playfully with the Empress Eugénie (his hospital’s patroness, who died in 1920); travels to New York, Hong Kong, Saint Petersburg; eats apricot pie, Alsatian sausage, or “a simple soft-boiled egg with fingers of toast and lightly salted butter.” (He is fed through a stomach tube.) He is also often very blue, as in the chapter ‘Sunday’ about how excruciating that day can be when he has no visitors and his hospital carers are indifferent to their job. But we don’t blame him, do we.

Bauby has both a sense of humor and a sense of the sublime. He tells us that in using the alphabet process wherein a guest runs through letters (not in ABC order, but in order of their frequency of use in French), some are inclined to wait for him to conclude each word himself: “unwilling to chance the smallest error, they will never take it upon themselves to provide the ‘room’ that follows ‘mush.'” Others jump to conclusions, in a hurry for the next word. “Yet I understood the poetry of such mind games one day when, attempting to ask for my glasses (lunettes), I was asked what I wanted to do with the moon (lune).” Lovely. Or: before the stroke, Bauby had been contemplating writing a modern retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo (fine book, that); now he finds it ironic that he is living the life of the character Grandpapa Noirtier, who also had locked-in syndrome. “As a punishment, I would have preferred to be transformed into M. Danglars, Franz d’Epinay, the Abbé Faria, or, at the very least, to copy out one thousand times: ‘I must not tamper with masterpieces.'” This is a narrator I like very much.

Lest that go too far, he’s not perfect, either. His relationship with his children and their mother, now that his world has so changed, is complicated by the fact that he had recently left them for another woman when he had his stroke.

This is a memoir with a heartbreaking human story at its core. Nothing much happens during the course of these pages – what has happened has already happened when it begins, although we do get a brief flashback version of the stroke itself, just at the end. (I suspect this question of sequence and not-happening will be Cynthia’s focus, in her upcoming seminar.) But the thoughts and feelings of this locked-in man are worthy of our attention, told as they are with careful focus, humor and humility, and a concern for language. Recommended.


Rating: 7 lucky days.

The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga, trans. by Jordan Stump

A shadow of tragedy hangs over this lovely, lyric memoir of Tutsi childhood in Rwanda, but the author’s love for her strong mother remains central.

The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga (Our Lady of the Nile; Cockroaches) is a loving tribute to a strong mother and a striking work of memoir.

Mukasonga and her family lived as exiles in Rwanda in the years leading up to the genocide of the Tutsi. This time in her life, when they were all together and alive, was short, but Mukasonga has vivid memories, especially of her mother, Stefania, a leader in the makeshift village where they were regularly terrorized by Hutu soldiers. In an earlier memoir, Cockroaches, Mukasonga depicted the horrific end of her family. Here, she focuses on her mother: Stefania is a hard worker, always with her hoe in hand; a healer with a medicinal garden of grasses, tubers, roots and tree leaves; a “highly respected matchmaker”; and a dedicated, ever-vigilant protector of her children. Saving them was her “one single project day in and day out, one sole reason to go on surviving.” She is not a hero with a single dimension, though. In Mukasonga’s warm telling, Stefania has personality, a sense of humor and a deep love for her family.

The book opens and closes with dreamlike sequences. At the beginning, in the narrator’s memory, Stefania reminds her children of their duty to their mother upon her death. At the end, Mukasonga describes a dream about her mother’s uncared-for dead body and those of so many Tutsi. This sets the tone for the rest of the memoir, which often feels dreamy as it turns to childhood memories. Extraordinarily, this story is at times horrifying in its content and at other times playful; lyric in its style and tender in its handling of the central character. While the reader’s knowledge of the genocide to come hangs over the narrative, the everyday events often retain a quotidian feeling; Stefania and her neighbors worry over their children but also laugh and celebrate and arrange marriages. As a literary work, this establishes a rare balance. Jordan Stump’s translation from the French beautifully conveys this sense of both tragedy and day-to-day joy.

The Barefoot Woman is also an essential record of traditions and a way of life that are in danger of disappearing. It describes the inzu Stefania builds, with great effort, in exile: a traditional straw-dome house “that was as vital to her as water to a fish.” The importance of keeping a fire going, and why a mother would borrow fire from a neighbor rather than use a match. The significance of sorghum, “a true Rwandan” crop, and why Stefania insisted on a cow, the traditional gift for her son’s marriage pact, even in the inhospitable new place where cows were no longer a part of their everyday lives.

This is an adoring, gorgeously rendered memorial to a mother and testimony to a people.


This review originally ran in the November 19, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 little loaves of bread.

Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera, trans. by Lisa Dillman

Since reading Yuri’s Signs Preceding the End of the World last summer, and then meeting the author and hearing him read, I’ve been looking forward to finding the time for more of this trilogy. As I left this summer’s residency, I should of course have been starting on the semester’s reading, but in transit I only had the books in my bag. Happily, this one.

Kingdom Cons was the first of the three books to be published in Spanish, and the third in English. These titles (second comes The Transmigration of Bodies, followed by Signs) form what Yuri Herrera calls a “loose” trilogy, so I’m not supposed to feel too bad about going out of order. They are so short, though, I’ll probably reread Signs in its proper position when the time comes.

Kingdom Cons is set in a similar world to that later novel, but without any overlapping characters, according to my memory. This one stars a man we first meet as Lobo (wolf), but who quickly takes on another name. The canine implication stays, though: he is repeatedly referred to as a stray. Lobo was a poor child whose parents (also strays) sent him out to earn a few coins as a street musician; he sings and plays the accordion, and most importantly, he writes lyrics. After his parents abandon him to this life, he develops his skills: music, writing, and the art of invisibility, of ingratiating himself to the right people. In the opening scene, Lobo performs in a bar while watching–admiring–a group of powerful men. It is clear to him who’s in charge.

He knew blood, and could see this man’s was different. Could see it in the way he filled the space, with no urgency and an all-knowing air, as though made of finer threads. Other blood.

…Then he saw the jewels that graced him and knew: he was a King.

Two observations from these first lines will be central: one, Lobo’s interest in and feeling for blood. And two, the epithets that identify all characters from here on out. The head man Lobo follows hereafter (a drug lord, a mobster, a leader) is the King. He employs men known as the Jeweler, the Journalist, the Heir, the Manager, the Traitor. Lobo will be known from here until nearly the end of the book by the title given to him by the King: the Artist. He moves into the King’s palatial compound, fulfilling a new role as court balladeer. He writes songs in praise of the King’s heroics. Completely uncynically, he feels lucky to be a part of something so good, and honestly worships the man in charge. But of course, the King’s rule will eventually be challenged.

The Artist did not do well in school, but his passion and gift for words in the form of song have served him well. At the King’s Court, the Journalist sees his need and gives him books to study. The Doctor gives him spectacles, so that he can see what he’s never seen before. He finds his first romantic and sexual experiences there, but the Girl did not choose this life for herself. In a way, the Court is a microcosm of the world; but in other ways, it is exactly what it seems on its face: a violent, greedy underworld in which girls are sold for a used car, and the King has no true friends really, except perhaps the Artist himself.

That makes it sound more heroic than it is. In the end, the Artists becomes just Lobo again, although he has learned to recognize his own blood.

I missed Lisa Dillman’s Translator’s Note in this book, but I remain pleased with her work; having read the Note in Signs I trust that the idiosyncrasies of her language here are faithful to Herrera’s. That is, the use of those epithets, the running pun of calling Lobo a stray, and the consistent spelling of ‘though’ as ‘tho.’ I marked many memorable lines. Lobo “thought that from now on there was a new reason why calendars were senseless: no date meant a thing besides this one.” Later, “endings and eccentricities were the most notable way to order time.” “People already knew the story, but no one had ever sung it.” “Maybe God put the needle on the record and then went off to nurse a hangover.”

Although more subtly than in Signs, I think one of the central themes in this book, again, is borders. Liminal spaces: not just the obvious border between the unstated country where this story is set and its neighbor to the norte, but the fragile transitional space Lobo hopes to cross between his street-hustling and the finer, deceptively safer, life in the Court; and the equally delicate lines walked by other characters in these spaces. Also like Signs, Kingdom Cons retains a slightly dreamy, mystic quality, as if this were a fable, or a myth to build a culture around. Again at less than 100 pages, what a world opens up. I can’t wait to get to The Transmigration of Bodies.


Rating: 8 sombreros.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, trans. by Ginny Tapley Takemori

A quirky novel about a convenience-store clerk who seems to be the ideal employee.

In the opening pages of Convenience Store Woman, Keiko Furukura is in her element, at work in the Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart. She knows what the displays need, how properly to promote the day’s featured item, when the cold drinks need replenishing; she reads her customers expertly: “Instantly I deduce that he will use electronic money.” She is a valued employee and good at her job. The mingled beeps, dings, rustles and clacks of the convenience store form a “sound that ceaselessly caresses [her] eardrums.”

Few situations in Keiko’s life have been so easy. In primary school, she often responded to the world in ways others thought wrong: offering to cook and eat a dead bird on the playground, applying a shovel to the skull of a classmate in order to break up a fight. She wasn’t a violent child; these just seemed like practical strategies. She couldn’t understand why the teachers at school got upset. Life presented a series of puzzles she could not decipher, until the day she went to work at the Smile Mart. The convenience store offers Keiko a uniform, a series of set lines to be spoken to customers and a manual for staff behavior. She copies her coworkers’ choices in clothing and cosmetics, mimics their speech patterns and facial movements, and learns to play the part. She’s never felt so successful: no one notices that she’s different anymore. “Here in the convenience store we’re not men and women. We’re all store workers.” And so she has been a store worker for 18 years.

Convenience Store Woman, Sayaka Murata’s English-language debut, is a compelling novel about conformity in society, and the baffling rules applied in work and life. Murata’s protagonist is likable, if a bit baffling herself. Ginny Tapley Takemori’s translation feels just right for the slightly off-kilter reality of this thought-provoking story: Keiko’s first-person narrative is earnest, if continually challenged, in attempting to decode the world around her.

Keiko is attuned to the ways people act, speak and move; she suspects they are all imitating each other, just as she is imitating them. She studies these behaviors to lower her own profile, but remains honestly unclear why careers, marriage and children are desirable goals. When a new employee comes along who also has trouble fitting in–but who hasn’t mastered the act as much as Keiko has–she is intrigued. Tired of everyone questioning her lack of a husband or a “real job,” Keiko takes a risk. But it may cost her the carefully constructed mask she’s learned to wear.

This brief, brisk novel is an engrossing adventure into an unusual mind. Is it a subversive, satiric criticism of societal norms? Is it a surrealist take on extreme workplace culture? Or simply the perspective of a woman wired a little bit differently? Murata holds the reader rapt, wondering what Keiko will do next. Convenience Store Woman is for all kinds of readers, for anyone who’s ever questioned the status quo.


This review originally ran in the May 21, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 rice balls.

The Years, Months, Days by Yan Lianke, trans. by Carlos Rojas

Two novellas translated from the Chinese offer plucky characters in terrible situations, simply but poetically portrayed.

The Years, Months, Days contains two novellas by Yan Lianke, translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas. The title story, featuring just two characters, opens: “In the year of the great drought, time was baked to ash; and if you tried to grab the sun, it would stick to your palm like charcoal.” All the other residents of a tiny mountain village have fled, but an old man known only as the Elder does not think he’d survive the trip. He stays behind, with a blind dog for companion, to tend a single stalk of corn, in the hopes that when the villagers return, the kernels he nurtures will restart their community. In this stark tale, he speaks to the corn and the dog and his departed neighbors, alternately cursing and hopeful, and does battle with rats, wolves and the sun itself. As the food and water available to man and dog dwindle, every day becomes a fight for life.

The second novella, “Marrow,” is also about a grim struggle for existence. The father of four disabled children, out of guilt for his heredity, kills himself, leaving his wife to raise them alone. His ghost remains to accompany his wife and converse with her, in a twist that could be magical or merely her fantasy. When their children grow up, she works to find them marriages and homes of their own, despite their problems and the ill will of the villagers. Finally she discovers that there is a cure for their poor health and bad luck–but it involves the bones of direct relatives. When only her youngest is left at home, she devises a way to reinterpret his disturbing appetites for the better.

The common themes of these bleak stories are clear: hunger, solitude, the searing strain of existence. In a brief, insightful translator’s note, Rojas observes that Lianke’s work often transforms such abstract needs into literal ones. Indeed, the author’s descriptions are synesthetic: smells “roll noisily”; gazes produce a “crackling sound”; and a wolf’s roar is purplish-red. In a spare but artful style, Lianke presents the sun’s rays as physical realities, which have measurable mass and can be cut or shattered. His characters inhabit a bleak, harsh world. In bitterly hard circumstances, they show courage and ingenuity, defiance and grace. His renderings of real-world desolations are imaginative and wondrous; these austere fables are minimal, but beautifully composed. The Years, Months, Days is for readers who appreciate grim lessons, magical realism and lovely, lyric prose.


This review originally ran in the November 17, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 yelps like blades of green grass.

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, trans. by Lisa Dillman

This is an astonishing novel that I’m so glad I learned about from my MFA program director, Jessie Van Eerden.

Signs Preceding the End of the World is a very short novel, at under 100 pages. Herrera wastes no space on setting or set-up, but puts his reader directly into the action, leaving her to figure out when and where we are. Without taking too much of that experience away from you, I will say that our narrator, Makina, is preparing to leave her hometown (“the Village”) and head north, looking for her brother who left before her. She is a remarkable young woman, nearly fearless, and comfortable with a variety of underworld characters in the Village, whose connections will help her in her travels.

This is a book about boundaries, borders; change, movement, travel, transition; and about translation, language. All of these subjects have multiple meanings, so that a so-brief little book with actions just sketched in, and no background, works on an enormous number of levels. I dearly love this layered style, where one border stands in for all borders, and every detail can be mined for implications. I always think that a book like this has something to offer for everyone: for the surface-only reader, all the way through the dissertation-seeking academic. Not to mention that this book has been translated from the Spanish (and to a few other languages as well as English), so the question of translation within its story is continued outside of Herrera’s own work.

[This is the place to mention that Lisa Dillman’s Translator’s Note is perhaps the best I’ve ever read (though likewise brief). She goes directly to the question that made me turn to the Translator’s Note when I was on page 16 of the novel, which is always nice! and explores the beauty of the book as well as discusses her own process. For readers interested in the puzzle of translation, this novel would be worth reading just for this question, even if it were not an extraordinary read in itself.]

The work of Signs is emphasized by its brevity, I think. Makina’s journey and challenges are archetypal, and I mean by that that she must stand in for a huge swath of our world’s population, as well as that Signs hearkens to mythology, and any number of archetypal journey-stories. The quick-sketch nature of the book helps to demonstrate or play out these facts. It’s not that there aren’t details:

Rucksacks. What do people whose life stops here take with them? Makina could see their rucksacks crammed with time. Amulets, letters, sometimes a huapango violin, sometimes a jaranera harp. Jackets. People who left took jackets because they’d been told that if there was one thing they could be sure of over there, it was the freezing cold, even if it was desert all the way. They hid what little money they had in their underwear and stuck a knife in their back pocket. Photos, photos, photos. They carried photos like promises but by the time they came back they were in tatters.

(I love the ambiguous pronoun ‘they’ in that final phrase. Were the people in tatters, or the photos? or the promises?)

Although I can sense the fable/archetypal nature of this story, my background in those areas, particularly in Mexican culture, is not strong enough to see all the connections. So, that’s a level on which I have more to study about this lovely little book. Easy to read, but will continue to yield meaning on multiple readings, I can tell (and as Jessie says).

Yuri Herrera is a talent, and Lisa Dillman as well. I am looking forward to meeting Yuri at this summer’s residency in West Virginia, where he’ll be a guest writer. Wish I could meet Lisa, too.


Rating: 8 jackets.
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