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Alice Munro Getty 1.jpg

Alice Munro, Sandra Newman, Asako Yuzuki: The Pajiba March 2024 Book Recommendation Superpost!

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Books | April 1, 2024 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Books | April 1, 2024 |

Alice Munro Getty 1.jpg

Julia by Sandra Newman

It’s been about 17 or 18 years since I read George Orwell’s 1984, a very important book that is frequently found on the lists of novels that everyone must read in their lifetime. The iconography and vocabulary of the dystopian drama is so embedded in our popular consciousness that it’s easy to forget that things like Big Brother, Newspeak, and Room 101 originated with it and haven’t always been with us. I’m not here to extrapolate on the pros and cons of a widely-revered masterpiece, but I must admit that even as a precocious teen who read lots of adult novels and didn’t quite get the nuances on them, I felt like Orwell wasn’t brilliant at writing women. Julia, the woman who becomes the lover and confidant of the protagonist Winston Smith, seemed like a two-dimensional creation. I didn’t get her. That’s been a criticism of 1984 for as long as the book has existed, and the Orwell Estate decided to approve a novel retelling her story with a more detailed approach.

Julia is, of course, focused on the woman who Winston viewed as a near-ethereal being in his own life. She is a model citizen, a dedicated member of the Anti-Sex League who does her work fixing the novel-writing machines in the Fiction Department at the Ministry of Truth without complaint. In reality, she is a regular rule breaker, a lover of promiscuity whose childhood was dominated by treachery and who navigates adulthood with a savvy ability to avoid Big Brother’s probing eye. When she finds herself handing a note to Winston, it is not a declaration of love but slip of her focus, and soon she realizes that she has never had control of her own life in this hellscape of hypocrisies and gaslighting.

While it probably would have been helpful to reread 1984 before picking this up, I thoroughly enjoyed Newman’s approach to Orwell’s world and the woman he seemed to leave behind. She does not change the plot but subtle tweaks and this new perspective offer a fresh and often unnerving view of this totalitarian nightmare. Shock horror, such dictatorships are often dependent on the policing and punishment of women, and Julia is all too aware of that. It’s also just a welcome addition to the Orwell lore to have Julia be a real person: lively, sardonic, diligent but prone to ill-advised spontaneity. Her motivations are more complex and exist outside of Winston’s blinkered gaze.

Newman is never less than respectful to Orwell’s book. This is no literary hit-job (not that his estate would ever have allowed such a thing.) It’s a vivid change of gaze, a new shade to a familiar world that only enrichens its horrors. Read 1984 then Julia.

Butter by Asako Yuzuki

Rika Machida is the only woman in the newsroom, a dedicated journalist who wants to do more than the fluffy pieces assigned to her as the token lady in the office. She thinks she’s got the perfect story that’ll help her break into the big leagues. Manako Kajii is a convicted serial killer whose story has enraptured Japan. A portly woman with impeccable culinary skills, she is said to have seduced men with her cooking then bumped them off one by one. Kajii refuses to speak with the press, but when Rika asks for one of her recipes, Kajii responds. In exchange for her story, Rika must indulge Kajii’s desires for taste by proxy. She’ll try new recipes, eat whatever she wants, and report back. It doesn’t take long for the journalist to become the subject.

To the surprise of nobody, Butter is packed to the gunnels with the most amazing food porn this side of The Taste of Things. The simplest of dishes, like a pad of ludicrously expensive butter on top of hot white rice, will have you rushing to the kitchen. Through food, Kajii and Rika form a Hannibal/Clarice-style relationship of quid pro quo that cannot help but prove enticing to the journalist who is used to solitude and ignoring her desires. As she indulges her new tastes, she puts on a few pounds and everyone around her, including her sorta-boyfriend, comments on it as though it’s a personal failing. Food becomes a way for her to break out of the stifling conformities placed upon her as a woman, and it all seems like a total blast. Food, sex, and butter? What’s not to like?

The commentary on gender and society, told through the metaphor of consumption, is pretty surface-level stuff, on the nose and never going much beyond that. For those hoping for a greater crime mystery, they’ll be left wanting. Ultimately, it’s less about the murderer than the opinions she inspires. Kajii’s status as a proud misogynist who views other women as beneath her adds a unique kink to the dish, but it’s a plot thread that’s left hanging. For a 400-page-book, this reads extremely fast, and it’s mostly satisfying, but there’s a timidity to its conclusions that belies its prickly concept. Frankly, it needed more food and f*cking.

Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro

Every year, I compile a list of pop culture I want to check out for the first time over the course of the following 12 months. Last year, I read Toni Morrison for the first time, as well as Discworld, The Color Purple, and House of Leaves. For 2024, I’m ticking off my first literary entry on the list with the wonderful Alice Munro.

Often considered Canada’s queen of the short story, Munro’s lofty reputation greatly precedes her. She’s won practically every award, including the Nobel Prize, and the likes of Sarah Polley and Pedro Almodovar have adapted her work into films. I’m not a big reader of short stories, but with Munro, I may have found my platonic ideal for the form. Believe the hype.

Her style is uncomplicated, with each tale typically set in southwestern Ontario, where she is from. Not a lot happens in terms of plot. The focus is stridently on people, and none of them are especially dramatic in their lives or emotions either. Yet, through these tales of simple lives and brief moments of realization, Munro wrings out every ounce of emotion possible, and it bowled me over with every story I read in the 2009 collection Too Much Happiness. She finds both beauty and nuance in the domestic, in areas of life that are both specific in their regionalisms yet universally relatable (infidelity, a childhood trauma, a break-in.) There’s something about the way she starts a story with such easy descriptions and then, like a sneak attack, the gut punch of what the narrative is really about hits you. It reminded me a lot of one of my favourite films of the past decade, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (now there’s a niche comparison for, like, 17 people!) Everything seems perfectly normal, mundane even, then a small change happens and it feels like the world has completely stopped spinning.

What a treat Alice Munro is. I found myself reading a short story every night before sleep, my own form of bedtime lullaby, and it was a soothing experience I was sad to lose once I finished Too Much Happiness. Fortunately for me, she has many other collections I’ve yet to read.