Book Review: White Oleander

20170618_160349Loneliness is the human condition. Cultivate it. The way it tunnels into you allows your soul room to grow. Never expect to outgrow loneliness. Never hope to find people who will understand you, someone to fill that space. An intelligent, sensitive person is the exception, the very great exception. If you expect to find people who will understand you, you will grow murderous with disappointment. The best you’ll ever do is to understand yourself, know what it is that you want, and not let the cattle stand in your way.

White Oleander, by Janet Fitch

A few years ago, I read Twilight, mostly out of curiosity. It was insanely popular at the time, as well as derided, so I wanted to form my own opinion of it. I found it dull, somewhat problematic, but not terribly offensive. One aspect of it that was particularly memorable to me (that I’ve since encountered in countless other young adult novels) was the heroine’s utter lack of personality. I thought this was simply due to the author’s lack of talent (Twilight is certainly lacking in many ways), but it’s an intentional move in much of YA literature. The hero or heroine is drawn without any distinguishing personality traits, so that the reader can insert themselves as the protagonist.

White Oleander is a novel about a young woman, but it’s far from YA fiction. When Astrid Magnussen’s mother, Ingrid, is imprisoned for murder, she becomes a part of the foster care system. White Oleander follows Astrid as she transitions from home to home, questioning her relationship with her mothers, learning to adapt to each situation, and suffering terrifying abuse. It’s an eye-opening look into life as a child in the foster care system, which I personally had little foreknowledge of.

Initially, it appears that Astrid is somewhat like your average YA heroine. It’s difficult to determine what her personality is, exactly. But as time goes on, it becomes clear that Astrid’s personalities change depending on her current environment – as she moves to each foster family. My favorite chapters were those detailing her life with Claire, who provides the resources for Astrid’s artistic ability to flourish, while still providing an example of how dysfunction still exists in an upper-class environment. Astrid is a layered, believable, and sympathetic character whose story I could not stop reading.

In addition to the detailed and realistic characterization, White Oleander is written in a lovely, poetic prose. There are some poems included as part of the novel, since Astrid’s mother, Ingrid, is a famed poet. I generally skim over poems and songs when an author chooses to include them, but I found myself genuinely intrigued by Ingrid’s (and, therefore, Fitch’s) use of words and ideas, even for such ugly ends. While Astrid does not comment on her own writing style, the narration is similarly lovingly crafted, poetic and elegant. The novel is also surprisingly easy to read. Even with the constant revolving door of characters, it’s surprisingly easy to keep track of who’s who.

My only problem with this novel is the ending, which I wasn’t entirely satisfied by. (But are any of us fully satisfied by any ending?) It seemed a bit contrived, and a tad unrealistic compared to the rest of the plot. Although, I suppose, White Oleander leaves Astrid’s life in a spot of uncertainty, which I suppose is true to the rest of the novel. I was, however, satisfied by the character development Astrid goes through, and the agency that the ending allows for her.

YES OR NO?: YES. This book was selected for Oprah’s book club in 1999. When I mentioned this to an acquaintance, he jokingly said, “Well, if Oprah liked it, it must be good, right?”…but I can’t see how this book is not worth a read. I picked this book up on a whim but was immediately engrossed. I would highly recommend this book for its plot, prose, and characters.

Book Review: The Man in the High Castle

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Even the I Ching, which they’ve forced down our throats; it’s Chinese. Borrowed from way back when. Whom are they fooling? Themselves? Pilfer customs right and left, wear, eat talk, walk, as for instance consuming with gusto baked potato served with sour cream and chives, old-fashioned American dish added to their haul. But nobody fooled, I can tell you; me least of all.

The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick

I majored in English literature in university, and my favorite classes were those that revolved around less-canonical titles. My seminar, for instance, was on Victorian detective literature (which covered much more than just Sherlock Holmes). Another class I took had a science fiction theme, although I recall our instructor deemed it a class on the “post-human”. We started with Frankenstein and ended with Octavia Butler’s Dawn, but the work that left the biggest impression on me was Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

When reading Androids, I was especially intrigued by how Dick portrays the novel’s value systems in contrast to our own: in a world of androids and humans, of real and electric animals, what does it mean to be real or fake? Which, if any, is more valuable? In the world of the novel, real animals have been wiped out and are now coveted, less as pets than as status symbols. Although imaginative, this new value system is strikingly logical, and I was impressed by how easily Dick portrayed the fragility of accepted value systems in the face of societal change.

Like AndroidsThe Man in the High Castle portrays a society disturbingly similar, yet dissimilar to our own. Instead of a future where humans have colonized Mars, The Man in the High Castle is an alternate history novel, imagining a world where the Axis won World War II. Jews live undetected, disguised; Germany has expanded their colonization efforts to the rest of the solar system; and characters obsess over a book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, an alternate history novel that imagines the world if the Allies won the war.

The society portrayed in the novel is fleshed out and substantial. The novel changes between the perspectives of different characters, so it can initially be difficult to keep track of who’s who, but this gets easier as time goes on. The depiction of multiple perspectives provides a comprehensive view of the world of the novel, as it includes Japanese, formerly American, and German characters. For me, I found the stories of Robert Childan, an antiques shop owner in San Francisco who caters to the Japanese elite, and Juliana Frink, a judo instructor who uses her sexuality to manipulate men and develops an obsession with The Grasshopper Lives Heavy and its titular author, the man in the high castle, the most thought-provoking.

One aspect of the novel that I enjoyed was how characters navigate this new  world. Childan in particular is in a tough spot. His shop is popular amongst elite members of society, namely the Japanese, yet he himself must be constantly on alert as to not offend his customers by adhering to Japanese social customs. Yet the accepted social customs of the day are not strictly Japanese, as Japanese, North American, and German customs have blended in the novel’s post-war society. Childan’s shop itself is a victim of this new societal shift, catering to Japanese occupants of San Francisco who want kitschy, outdated Americana to decorate their homes, as coveted, rare symbols of a culture now dying out. This struck me as insanely clever, and a fun poke at those who pretentiously display artwork created by other cultures in order to appear more cultured.

I also appreciated the character of Juliana, who is one of the novel’s few female characters, if not its only female protagonist. I found her character, if not entirely sympathetic or likeable, quite realistic as an attractive young woman in the novel’s society. I also liked that her enjoyment in her own sexuality is not depicted negatively (except sometimes by the other characters, which I found realistic), and that it even helps drive the central plot forward and gives the character agency. I would have loved if Juliana was fleshed out more, but I didn’t find her any more less detailed than the other characters. Since there’s such a large cast of characters, I found the amount of characterization given to Juliana and the other characters sufficient to keep the novel short and still thought-provoking.

YES OR NO?: A resounding YES. I became a fan of Dick’s work after reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheepand I will definitely continue reading his work after this novel. The novel is deftly written, concise, and still has me thinking about its themes days after finishing. Highly recommended.

Book Review: Good Indian Girls

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It was as if the dead woman had witnessed a final secret. A blissful peace wrapped her features and Lovedeep hoped she would look as pretty, as rested, as completed, as this woman did in the video. But what had she ever done? She felt suddenly small and stupid, that her life was coming to an end and this was all, this wasteland of an apartment, this unmarried life, childless. Who had she ever cared for? What accomplishments did she leave behind, what unspoken mercies done for strangers?

Good Indian Girls, by Ranbir Singh Sidhu

2017 has helped me realize the importance of setting measurable, trackable goals, whether in my personal or professional life, with the help of my trusty bullet journal. I’ve always been partial to record-keeping, and my bullet journal provides a customizable, lovingly well-worn space to do just that. My reading goal for 2017 was to read more books than I read in 2016, and to read more books by new authors. So far, as we approach the midpoint of 2017, I’ve read ten books (which, considering my goal of 36, is a little short), nine by new authors. The bullet journal makes it easy to see if I’m making enough progress, and whether it’s necessary to adjust my goals given the current circumstances.

I’ve been trying to dive into books without too much context, and so I picked up this volume mostly based on the title. I was interested in what I figured was a collection of short stories revolving around the immigrant experience, specifically that of young women navigating the cultural differences of their native India and their current countries of residence. I figured I’d easily relate to it, as I generally have with other immigrant narratives, while learning more about different facets of Indian culture.

But…a few of these stories deal with what I expected – namely, the titular short story, which concerns a woman named Lovedeep with an agonizingly empty social life. The rest of the collection follows characters of Indian heritage, of various religions and ages, in mostly preposterous situations. A particular story that stands out, which is by no means the most bizarre, concerns an ambassador’s wife who considers cooking her pet snake to serve at a dinner party.

To be blunt, I didn’t enjoy this book, although it didn’t have to do with the book’s attempts at magical realism. I have high expectations for short stories. In a way, short stories are much more difficult to write than novels. The author must convey meaning, craft characters, and deliver some sort of punchline in a small number of pages. My favorite short stories (Shirley Jackson’s “Charles”, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”, Roald Dahl’s “The Landlady”) all do this expertly. Yet, this book fails to do that. The writing style is often confusing, its symbolism and themes messy, and the characters forgettable.

YES OR NO?: NO. Ultimately forgettable, confusing, and a little uncomfortable, I wouldn’t seek out more of this author’s work based on this collection. Some of the stories were more enjoyable than others, but all in all, I wouldn’t really recommend this.

Book Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

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You don’t know what it’s like to grow up with a mother who never said a positive thing in her life, not about her children or the world, who was always suspicious, always tearing you down and splitting your dreams straight down the seams. When my first pen pal, Tomoko, stopped writing me after three letters she was the one who laughed: You think someone’s going to lose life writing to you? Of course I cried; I was eight and I had already planned that Tomoko and her family would adopt me. My mother of course saw clean into the marrow of those dreams, and laughed. I wouldn’t write to you either, she said. She was that kind of mother: who makes you doubt yourself, who would wipe you out if you let her. But I’m not going to pretend either. For a long time I let her say what she wanted about me, and what was worse, for a long time I believed her.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz

I’ve spent most of my life on the west coast, moving from Seattle to the Bay Area and finally to Vancouver, where I’ve been living now for more than ten years. But I was born in Seoul, a city whose complex and efficient transit system, assortment of inexpensive and sinfully delicious street foods, vast shopping malls, and plethora of skilled (and some criminally unskilled) plastic surgeons are second to none. Whenever I return to Seoul, which is usually at least once every four years, I’m always faced with the fact that the city I now call home is a sleepy hamlet compared to Seoul. In Seoul, there is always something happening, and the subway is always filled with people, whether at noon on a weekday or late in the night.

However, the Seoul  my parents speak of is vastly different. My parents grew up during the reign of Park Chung-Hee, a military dictator who ruled Korea for thirteen years and was assassinated by his own chief of security. (His daughter, elected as president in 2013, was recently impeached and is currently imprisoned.) My parents reminisce of a Korea plagued by a string of corrupt leaders, where poverty was rampant. Despite Seoul’s current reputation as a high-tech metropolis, I am reminded that the relatively cushy North American lifestyle I lead was made possible by the much harsher reality my parents underwent as students.

It’s funny how readily we relate to a person from a different culture. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao centers around the family of Oscar De Leon, an overweight, perpetually friendless Dominican-American growing up in New Jersey. The novel recounts the histories of Oscar, his older sister Lola, his mother Beli, and his grandparents, including depictions of the Dominican Republic under the reign of Rafael Trujillo. Now, I had never heard of Trujillo before reading this book, but the descriptions of the DR under Trujillo was as familiar to me as could be. While uniquely devastating and gruesome, I still related to the depictions of atrocities under Trujillo’s regime. In fact, I was significantly more interested in the stories of Beli and her parents, who were more directly impacted by Trujillo’s regime, than that of Lola and Oscar.

When I first picked up the book, I expected myself to easily relate to Oscar as the child of immigrants, and for the sense of non-belonging he constantly feels. However, I simply didn’t find Oscar sympathetic or interesting. His story arc, which generally consists of him flailing in self-pity and using unnecessarily verbose vocabulary, were dull. I’m no stranger to self-pity and depression, and while Oscar reminded me of some people I’ve known, I simply couldn’t wait to transition from his story to his mother or grandparents’.

That being said, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is engrossing and written skillfully. The writing, while switching perspectives between different characters, is a combination of English and Spanish, including slang – yet, for the most part, I could easily discern the meaning of the Spanish through context. It lends an authenticity to the novel while enhancing, not impeding, the reader’s experience. One of my biggest pet The Grapes of Wrath). Not here! I sometimes felt compelled to look things up on Google Translate, but for the most part, I cruised through the novel easily, despite my lack of familiarity with Spanish.

YES OR NO?: YES! The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is detailed, human, engaging, and provided me with a wealth of information about the history of a country I’d never before learned about. Despite the title, though, I found the sections on Oscar the least interesting, and would have preferred to learn more about the older members of his family, even his sister, Lola. That being said, I will definitely revisit Diaz’s work in the future.

Book Review: The Lake

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Things look different depending on your perspective. As I see it, fighting to bridge those gaps isn’t what really matters. The most important thing is to know them inside and out, as differences, and to understand why certain people are the way they are.

The Lake, by Banana Yoshimoto

As I’ve mentioned countless times on this blog, I’m an avid fan of Haruki Murakami. Ever since I first opened up 1Q84 on a whim, his motifs (the jazz cafes, the ear fetishes, the gorgeous, mysterious women with limps) make me feel at home unlike any other author’s.

That being said, I don’t have much experience with other Japanese literature, or Japanese-American for that matter. I’d heard before that the reason Murakami is beloved by Westerners (or those raised in the Western world, like yours truly) is because his work is so Westernized and separate from the Japanese literary establishment to the point that it is more relatable to those outside Japan. Whether that’s true or not, I have no idea, but I was interested in reading more works by Japanese authors – especially with my inaugural trip to Japan later this month(!). I picked this book upon a whim, mainly due to the author’s name (which turned out to be a pseudonym) and the intriguing teaser on the back cover…

However, I highly recommend that if you are interested in this book that you do not read the back cover! The book revolves around Chihiro, a young artist who’s recently lost her mother, and her strange but sweet romance with Nakajima, her neighbor. If you’ve read Murakami, you know that his novels embrace an overarching, pervasive loneliness – similarly, Chihiro and Nakajima’s story is one of isolation, sometimes from each other, and mostly from the world around them. While Chihiro explains her own origins (and her reasons for her self-imposed isolation), the reason for Nakajima’s is uncertain…except for the fact that it’s given away on the back cover of the book! I honestly thought there would be another, more significant reveal, and was gravely disappointed. I can imagine that if I hadn’t read the cover, I would have been shocked by the final quarter of the book. I highly recommend you do not read any summaries or reviews if you’re interested in this book.

That being said, while I enjoyed the book, I didn’t find it remarkable in any capacity. It was a simple story told in simple prose, although I’m not sure whether to fault the translation for this. The novel is narrated in first-person by Chihiro, and the narration tends be straightforward about her emotions and motives. While that’s understandable due to it being first-person, I found her narration a tad boring, and it lessened the mystery of Nakajima’s origins. I also didn’t find the characters too realistic. Although the book delves into Chihiro’s emotions and personality, I couldn’t figure out what her personality was, other than being reluctant to open up to others. And despite being an artist (and therefore interested in art), she wasn’t an interesting enough character to keep me sufficiently engaged or sympathetic.

All in all, because it’s a short book (not even 200 pages), I think it would be worth your while for an afternoon or a day’s read. I didn’t dislike it, per se, but I doubt I’ll recall much about it a few months from now.

YES OR NO?: YES, I suppose, but I don’t feel too strongly one way or another about this book. There are a few subplots in the book other than Chihiro’s relationship with Nakajima: her relationship with her parents and extended family, her job of painting murals, and so on. However, none of these subplots contribute much in the end, and I would rather have read this condensed into some type of short story format. This book isn’t for everyone.

Book Review: David and Goliath

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Courage is not something that you already have that makes you brave when the tough times start. Courage is what you earn when you’ve been through the tough times and you discover they aren’t so tough after all.

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, by Malcolm Gladwell

Ah, Malcolm Gladwell. It’s been a while. So far, I’ve read three of Gladwell’s books: The Tipping Point, Outliers, and Blink. I quite enjoyed The Tipping Point, which was the first of the three that I read. At the time, I hadn’t had much experience reading non-fiction for pleasure (and still don’t, to be perfectly honest. I think I’ll always prefer novels over non-fiction), and I was entranced by Gladwell’s detailed examples and his prose, which is easy to read and engaging without being too simplistic.

However, as I pursued more of Gladwell’s work, I found that while I enjoyed the writing itself, I couldn’t get on board with many of the concepts in the books. The examples used seemed biased and rather narrow from which to draw overarching conclusions about human behavior. The theses of the books seemed fairly obvious (for example, one of the ideas presented in David and Goliath is that experiencing a great difficulty in childhood, such as dyslexia or the death of  parent, makes us more likely to be successful. Not exactly groundbreaking.), and overly simplistic.

That’s how I expected to feel about David and Goliath, and that’s exactly what happened. As always, I enjoyed Gladwell’s writing and learning about a variety of different stories: the research work of oncologist Emil J. Freireich, who was deemed controversial by his peers, the origin of the three-strikes law in California, and even the titular story of David and Goliath itself, which I can actually say that I wasn’t too familiar with outside of its cliched use in everyday conversation. I don’t have much else to say about this book. I feel that my feelings toward this book are probably well-summarized in my reviews of Outliers and Blink.

For me, there was, however, one important takeaway from this book. I find that since I’ve graduated and begun working full-time, I sometimes feel complacent, and too caught up in my own rhythm and routine to consider change. In David and Goliath, Gladwell argues that those who dare to disagree with society’s rules – those who dare to lie, to cheat, and to argue with their colleagues over work they feel passionate about – often end up making new discoveries, creating timeless art, and even saving lives. It’s not a new lesson for me, but one that I needed to be reminded of. If you’re feeling in need of some inspiration, this may be the book for you.

YES OR NO?: I feel lukewarm about this book. In all honesty, if you’re familiar with Gladwell’s previous work, that would probably determine whether or not you enjoy David and Goliath. I ended up reading most of this in a two-hour session, which I think was information overload. I’d recommend taking this on a trip so the individual anecdotes have time to make some impact.

Book Review: Moonwalking with Einstein

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Memory is like a spiderweb that catches new information. The more it catches, the bigger it grows. And the bigger it grows, the more it catches.

Moonwalking with Einstein, by Joshua Foer

While I love to read and add to this blog, my day job is to churn out technical documents at a software company. I mean, it involves more creativity and planning than it sounds: structuring content, researching new features, and figuring out how to reuse my existing content as efficiently as possible. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I certainly enjoy it. There are times when the technical aspect of my job overwhelms me, which can be distressing – I’m often surrounded by people who assume my technical knowledge is beyond what it actually is.

I was once bemoaning this to my boyfriend, especially the level of concentration it takes me to understand technical concepts, and how it makes me feel stupid at times. He then insisted that I wasn’t stupid at all, and pointed out my sense of memory as an example. It surprised me – I’m aware that I have a good memory (friends often count on me to remember where we had brunch that time, and I have an uncanny ability to recall which actors starred in which movies), but I’d never counted that as a form of intelligence. It’s just been a part of who I am for as long as I can remember. Faces, names, movie titles, state capitals. While I have a “naturally” good memory, I also am obsessed with keeping track of things: through my journaling, photographs, and of course, this blog.

I’ve been trying to read more non-fiction lately, and this book seemed like a good fit for me. Moonwalking with Einstein, despite its misleading and pseudo-catchy title, is about memory and memorization. The book covers the mental athletes who participate in the World Memory Championships (yes, that’s a thing) by memorizing as much information as possible in a given amount of time, scientific cases of people with impaired and extraordinary memories, and Joshua Foer’s own journey to becoming the American memory champion.

I found most of the ideas presented by the book fascinating, although the book itself tends to be repetitive. For example, one key tactic to becoming a memory champion is to attach as vulgar and/or ridiculous (and therefore memorable) images to whatever needs to be memorized. In my opinion, Foer spends an inordinate amount of time detailing these ludicrous images. After a while, I didn’t find them entertaining and they were just bothersome to read through. Also, while I understand that including Foer’s own mastery of memory techniques serves to prove that training one’s memory is an achievable goal for the average reader, I wasn’t too interested in the author’s journey. There were also times when his somewhat mocking attitude towards the mental athletes (and their lack of fashion sense, or other oddities) felt mean and unnecessarily judgmental.

Other than the memory techniques, I was most interested in the cases of extraordinary and impaired memories that Foer researched. He had the opportunity to speak with Kim Peek, the real life inspiration for Rain Man. I watched Rain Man while in elementary school, and I’d never known that Dustin Hoffman’s character had been inspired by a real person, so that was interesting to read about. The historical perspective on memory was interesting as well, to consider that memorization was generally considered a trainable and valuable skill rather than a meaningless exercise for students.

YES OR NO?: YES, with some reservations. There are times that Moonwalking with Einstein feels like an overly long New Yorker piece (with not quite the same quality of writing), but mostly, it’s an entertaining ride. I read this book in about five days, which I think is an ideal amount of time. There would definitely be some information overload if tackling it in one or two days.