2017 recap

Like everyone else, I consider this time of year a time of reflection and nostalgia, scrolling through photos from the past year in an attempt to find some broad theme to encapsulate the year. For me, 2017 ended up being a year of improvements and growth (but hopefully that’s every year): I started a new job, started living on my own (sans roommates) for the first time, took some programming courses, traveled, and most importantly, made some significant lifestyle changes.

By that, I mean, I lost weight and began caring more about my health and fitness. I’m still by no means a health nut (my favorite thing is to indulge in a greasy cheeseburger and wash it down with a sugary iced coffee), but in 2017, I adapted a mindfulness toward my eating I’d never had before. I don’t remember a time in my life where I wasn’t self-conscious about my appearance, especially my weight, and this is the year I finally decided to do something about it. Through the simple (sometimes not-so simple) steps of watching what I eat (still eating what I like, but eating less of it, usually) and exercising more often, I now am at a place where I feel content with my body. I’ve also learned not to freak out if the scale shows me to be a little heavier than my previous weight – the body is a fluctuating thing.

This year, I also began bullet journaling, which for me ushered in a new wave of productivity. I’ve always been a fan of record-keeping and list-making, and my bullet journal helped me tackle my projects more concretely this year.

However…all of these changes meant that unfortunately I didn’t read as much as I have in previous years. I personally hate when people use “not having time” as an excuse for not doing something, so I’ll simply say that I was lazy. I prioritized mindlessly browsing Reddit and Instagram over delving into a new book. At the beginning of 2017, I challenged myself to read 36 books (one more than 2016), more than half by authors whose work I hadn’t read before. Well, I came in quite short at 24, which are listed below:

  1. Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood
  2. The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood
  3. Smart Women, Judy Blume
  4. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
  5. The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick
  6. The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky
  7. White Oleander, Janet Fitch
  8. Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer
  9. David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell
  10. The Crucible, Gong Jiyoung
  11. Waiting, Ha Jin
  12. When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi
  13. The Vegetarian, Han Kang
  14. The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
  15. The Sacrifice, Joyce Carol Oates
  16. The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, Phaedra Patrick
  17. Nemesis, Philip Roth
  18. Empire Falls, Richard Russo
  19. Franny and Zooey, J.D. Salinger
  20. Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg
  21. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See
  22. Good Indian Girls, Ranbir Singh Sidhu
  23. Nocturnal Animals, Austin Wright
  24. The Lake, Banana Yoshimoto

Out of the 24, I read 17 by new authors, so at least I accomplished that goal. I also read two novels by Korean authors, which I’m personally proud of – one in the original Korean, and one in the English translation. In 2018, I want to read at least one work from a Korean author, in the original Korean, while also being open to reading English translations or works by Korean-American authors.

I would have to say that while I wasn’t completely blown away by any of the books I read this year, White Oleander was my overall favorite. Although I read it earlier in the year, I still recall the impression the book’s style and characterization made on me when I first finished it.  I also enjoyed the Atwood novels I finished this year, which I was inspired to read after watching Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

To be frank, I’m disappointed to not have even come close to my goal of reading 36 books this year, but hoping to rectify my laziness in 2018. I’m setting my 2018 goal to reading 30 books – more than this year, but still hopefully achievable. Hopefully I can stick to it in 2018!

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A week in Oahu

Last month, I traveled to Oahu for the first time, and I was blown away. Like Disneyland, Hawaii is one of those destinations you rarely hear a ill word spoken of (other than its popularity and its rather high price point, which can’t be helped). My first time in Oahu was magical and a perfect way to refresh myself after a period of November blues.

To eat:

One of my primary motivations to travel is for good food, and Oahu has good food in plenty: poke, suckling pig, acai bowls, Spam musubi, and local fruit. It can get pricey (especially if your travel expenses, like mine, depend on the rather pitiful Canadian dollar), but my policy is to eat and spend whatever, whenever, while on vacation (while tightening the pursestrings the rest of the year).

Honolulu is a haven for Japanese food. We enjoyed eggs benny (on taro English muffins, with a side of kale and sweet potatoes) at Goofy Cafe and lined up for cheap, filling, comforting udon at Marukame Udon, which was a universal recommendation from all our friends who’d been to Honolulu. Warm udon is the perfect thing if you, like me, tend to get sunsick after a day at the beach. I consumed too much Spam musubi to count, from convenience stores as well as at Musubi Cafe Iyasume. Funnily enough, our favorite meal ended up being at Tonkatsu Ginza Bairin, a restaurant that wasn’t on the long, long list of recommendations we’d collected before our trip. It’s a tad pricey for katsu, but the pork is high-quality, you can get unlimited refills for the sides, and the service is impeccable. We went twice and were completely satisfied both visits.

On our last morning, we dropped by the KCC Farmer’s Market (located at the foot of Diamond Head) and pigged out on a variety of foods – acai bowls, local artisan popsicles, and fresh fruit. There was also the smaller Hyatt Farmer’s Market, where I picked up some food but also small hand-made souvenirs. We also got sweet, piping-hot malasadas from Leonard’s Bakery, which are by all accounts a must-have while in Honolulu.

To hike:

I’ve gone on a fair number of hikes in 2017, but I found hiking in Hawaii a fairly different experience than the hikes we have around Vancouver. We both ended up catching cold fairly early in our trip (I also hurt my foot trying to get a better look at a sea turtle), so we ended up not doing some of the more grueling hikes. However, the great thing about Oahu is that nearly everywhere you go, there’s a spectacular view, even if it’s a short trek up man-made stairs.

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We tackled the Makapu’u Lighthouse trail and Lanikai Pillbox trails in one day. These are fairly non-strenuous, but I’m glad I was vigilant about wearing sunscreen and bringing water and a hat. I’m used to hikes where most of the trail is covered by forest (and therefore shaded). With these hikes you can enjoy the view for the entirety of the hike, but that also means being exposed to the sun for long periods of time as well.

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We also went to Manoa Falls, which is a short and sweet hike to a 100-foot waterfall. We visited on a rainy day and the trail was fairly slippery, but manageable. On one of our last days, we also did the quintessential Diamond Head hike, which was crowded with tourists, stiflingly hot, but, of course, incredibly scenic.

To relax:

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We don’t get a ton of beach-worthy weather in Vancouver, so I was beyond excited to go to the beach as much as possible while in Hawaii. I brought along The Brothers Karamazov on my Kindle, which is not exactly vacation reading, but it was relaxing nevertheless. I’m not so strong a swimmer, and the man-made Magic Island Lagoon was perfect for a peaceful wade. I also went parasailing for the first time, which is a low-effort but fantastic experience if you’re not afraid of heights.

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For me, the highlight of the trip was snorkeling at Hanauma Bay. It was my first time snorkeling, and once I got the hang of it, it was easy as pie, although I was mindful not to go too far. You can still see plenty of fish close to shore, so I was fine to stay within my comfort zone. The water is so salty that floating is no effort, even if you’re as water-phobic as I am. We also visited Lanikai Beach after hiking the pillbox trail, which was much less crowded than the beaches at Waikiki.

November seems far away, and I’m already itching to return to Hawaii…and of course eat more Spam musubi.

Book Review: Empire Falls

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My God, he couldn’t help thinking, how terrible it is to be that age, to have emotions so near the surface that the slightest turbulence causes them to boil over. That, very simply, was what adulthood must be all about — acquiring the skill to bury things more deeply. Out of sight and, whenever possible, out of mind.

Empire Falls, by Richard Russo

There’s a certain subset of books that I’m fond of: those set in small communities in the United States, in a time before the ubiquity of technology today, in places where people know not only one another’s names but also their entire personal histories, and their parents’, and their grandparents’. I suppose you could say I’m nostalgic for something I’ve never experienced, and also fascinated by how small, close-knit communities functioned before the advent of such quick communication methods as we have today.

Empire Falls is an intricate study of this type of community in the fictional, titular, blue-collar town of Empire Falls, Maine. The story mainly revolves around Miles Roby, manager of the beaten-down Empire Grill, who could have carved out a life for himself elsewhere — but ends up living out his days in Empire Falls. Miles is the usual everyman character that the average reader can identify and sympathize with: decent, honorable, and clever, although a bit frustrating in his steadfastness.

For me, Empire Falls‘s biggest strength is its cast of characters. The inhabitants of Empire Falls encompass every stage of life, social status, and personality – each character is real but flawed. Many are unlikeable, but somehow relatably so. Janine, Miles’s ex-wife, is selfish and immature, but it’s not difficult to see how marriage to somewhat dull, slow-to-change Miles has made her so.

My favorite characters were Tick, Miles and Janine’s teenaged daughter, and Mrs. Whiting, the owner of the Empire Grill and many of Empire Falls’s other properties. Tick’s teenaged awkwardness, often at odds with her childish desire to do the right thing, makes her relatable, likeable, and real. I enjoyed Mrs. Whiting’s condescension, biting tongue, and sharp mind – although I enjoyed it in the way that I would never want to encounter someone like that in my own life. However, I felt that there could have been more of Mrs. Whiting in the novel. Although influential in the story due to her ownership of the Empire Grill and simply her power over the other characters and the town itself, Mrs. Whiting does not figure too prominently as a character. I would have loved to see more of her, and the contrast she provides to the character of Miles.

YES OR NO?: YES. I don’t have much to say about Empire Falls other than I would recommend it as an accurate, engaging study of small town America. Books that I find few faults with are the most difficult to write reviews for, to be honest. I’ll be sure to check out more of Russo’s works in the future.

Book Review: The Crucible

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The Crucible (도가니)by Gong Jiyoung

This review is a bit different and perhaps more personal than the others I’ve written for this blog. I am currently in my mid-twenties, and it’s been about a year and a half since I moved out of my parents’ house. I was raised in a Korean-American/Canadian household, where I mainly spoke a garbled mixture of Korean and English to both my parents and brother. Nevertheless, I prided myself on the ability to speak, read, and write Korean, even if I had to resort to Google Translate when reading articles on the complex (and sensational) world that is Korean politics.

Since I moved out, I’ve felt a greater distance with my culture. As someone who grew up primarily in North America, of course, I’ve always felt some distance – I was never one of those kids who felt entirely at home in Korea or wherever I was living at the time. But moving out meant an end to my speaking Korean on a daily basis, to delicious authentic Korean food prepared for me at every meal, to the TV constantly blaring Korean game shows, dramas, and news programs. I’ve been feeling this distance more and more – and I’ve since made a resolution to read at least one book in Korean each year.

The first book I’ve picked out to fulfill my goal is Gong Jiyoung’s The Crucible, known in Korean as 도가니. I stumbled upon this book while perusing my brother’s bookshelf, and picked it because I’d heard of the movie, and of the author. The novel depicts the story of Kang In-Ho (portrayed in the movie by swoon-worthy K-drama star Gong Yoo), a new instructor at a school for hearing-impaired children who ends up uncovering a dark and disturbing truth: the school’s students are being routinely sexually, physically, and verbally abused by the school’s senior staff. This isn’t much of a spoiler, as this happens within the first few days of In-Ho’s placement; the book, while describing the children’s abuse in a harrowing manner, is more focused on the trial that follows.

Since I don’t believe myself to be 100% fluent in Korean, I found myself translating some words (especially legal jargon and some words describing anatomy), but overall, I found this novel startlingly easy to read, in terms of the vocabulary. There were often times when I could simply discern what a word meant by the context. It helps that 도가니 is a book that immediately sets an atmosphere for its story. The city where In-Ho is employed, the fictional city of Mujin, is appropriately covered in fog, the same fog that metaphorically covers the cases of abuse he is shocked to discover. While a somewhat obvious metaphor, I found the prose effective in quickly establishing an appropriate tone for the novel.

That being said, the novel was not easy to read in a lot of ways, but these parts are intentionally uncomfortable to read. As the trial progresses, the children are forced to describe the details of their abuse, which can be sickening. 도가니 is based on a true event that happened at a similar school in Gwangju, and when I read that the novel presents a toned down version of the real-life events, I was shocked.

While the novel is not a pleasant read, it sheds light on a variety of social problems in Korea. Although unfortunately I don’t believe an English translation of the book exists, I would recommend this book. I often become frustrated when people condense Korean culture into shallow pop songs, plastic surgery, and lightning-fast Internet; this novel offers great insight into contemporary Korean social problems.

YES OR NO?: YES. Although it can be somewhat predictable at times, this was an immersive, thought-provoking read. I only wish it were available in English so it could be more widely appreciated.

Book Review: The Blind Assassin

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Breakfasts, picnics, ocean voyages, costume balls, newspapers, boating on the river. Such items do not assort very well with tragedy. But in life, a tragedy is not one long scream. It includes everything that led up to it. Hour after trivial hour, day after day, year after year, and then the sudden moment: the knife stab, the shell-burst, the plummet of the car from the bridge. 

The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood

One of my reading goals for 2017 was to read more works by authors I hadn’t yet explored. So far, I’ve been doing pretty well with sticking to this goal: Judy Blume, Junot Diaz, Han Kang, and so on. But lately, I’ve also been gravitating towards Atwood. Maybe it’s because I’ve always enjoyed her work (since I was assigned Oryx and Crake in my AP lit class), or maybe it’s because I was blown away by Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. Either way, I’ve been eager to expand my knowledge of her work.

I first attempted to read The Blind Assassin on a very long plane ride. And as happens on long plane rides, I simply couldn’t get into it. Something about the cramped seating, that airplane smell, and the incessant noise always hinders my ability to wrap my mind around a complex story. I finally picked this one up again, and I’m glad I did. The Blind Assassin is a work of historical fiction centered around the two Chase sisters, Iris and Laura, and their lives growing up in southern Ontario.

The novel employs several stories within a story: Iris alone as an old woman, living without family; the main narrative of the story, recounting Iris and Laura’s childhoods and family history; the novel within the novel, the titular The Blind Assassin; and various newspaper clippings that present the “historical” public face of the Chases and the Griffens, as compared to the more candid tales related by Iris. It sounds like a lot to take in, and it is, initially, although once you become accustomed to the rhythm of the stories and the characters, it’s easy to follow.

As I’ve explored more of Atwood’s work, I’ve become more familiar with recurring themes and motifs, like the aforementioned stories within a story. The Blind Assassin explores the role of women throughout history, world history from a Canadian perspective, the subjectivity of truth, mental health, and even dystopian topics to an extent. I found the protagonist, Iris, somewhat similar to Grace in Alias Grace as well. At the beginning of the novel, I found Iris drab and uninteresting, but as the novel progressed, I found her image to be carefully and even manipulatively presented (by herself, since her character also narrates most of the story), as a commentary on how carefully women chose to (or needed to) portray themselves in society. There’s a point in the novel at which things click and you become increasingly aware of how each of the separate stories fit into each other – that’s definitely when I began to enjoy the novel and read more carefully.

YES OR NO?: YES. While not my favorite of Atwood’s novels, The Blind Assassin boasts a complex and engaging story, complete with historical insight and flowing prose. I’d recommend it to someone looking to delve into Atwood but may not be interested in dystopian themes.

Book Review: Smart Women

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“When you’re without problems,” Claire said, “you’re dead.”

Smart Women, by Judy Blume

Summer is drawing to a close here in Vancouver, and what with working five days a week and attempting to cram every summer activity into precious weekends (namely hiking), I haven’t prioritized reading as much as I should. I recently picked up this book at the library – intrigued because while I’d heard a lot about Judy Blume growing up, I’d never actually read any of her work. I thought this would be a nice introduction to her as an adult, since I’ve found that attempting to read children’s novels as an adult can be a trying experience. The things I like about reading fiction – masterful, detailed prose and the carefully illustrated subtleties of life and relationships – are often lacking in fiction intended for younger, less experienced readers.

Smart Women draws the story of two divorced mothers, Margo and B.B., who live in Boulder, Colorado. B.B.’s ex-husband, Andrew, ends up moving to Boulder, which is the inciting incident of the novel’s plot. There are a variety of characters, including Margo and B.B.’s children, their romantic partners, extended family members, and other Boulder residents, with various subplots.

Although the subject of the novel is obviously intended for adults, I found this book disappointing, especially for my first foray into Blume’s bibliography. Now, I didn’t have the loftiest expectations for this book. I knew I was getting into chick lit, but I’ve read and enjoyed chick lit before, specifically Sophie Kinsella, who despite the genre’s somewhat shallower subject matter, always infuses humor, subtlety, and even gravitas into her books.

Smart Women instead read like a children’s novel, despite the adult subject matter. I found the characters to be shallow husks and stereotypes – Margo and B.B. as two stereotypical divorcees, Michelle as a rebellious teenager, and so on. If the characters weren’t stereotypes, they were simply devoid of any personality. Andrew, B.B.’s ex-husband who ends up dating Margo, is a major character, yet I couldn’t describe a single aspect of his personality. Blume also attempts some character development, especially for the younger characters such as Michelle, Margo’s daughter, but it is half-hearted and clunky, coming seemingly out of nowhere. I felt no sympathy for the characters.

The whole novel, which attempts to focus on something very real – two families attempting to merge together in times of crises – fell flat to me. It failed to capture the nuance of family dynamics or even the reality of being a woman in a believable way. There were several plot points that simply seemed thrown in that had no impact, either on me as a reader or on the story as a whole.

YES OR NO?: NO. I didn’t have high expectations for this novel. I simply wanted something light-hearted and quick that I could enjoy over a few days. Instead, I slogged through this novel, constantly forgetting the names of characters and their relationships to each other due to the lack of characterization. I haven’t read Blume’s other work, but I would pass on this one.

Book Review: Alias Grace

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He thinks, with a certain mordant irony, that she may also be the only one who would satisfy all of his mother’s oft-hinted requirements, or almost all: Grace is not, for instance, rich. But she has beauty without frivolity, domesticity without dullness, and simplicity of manner, and prudence, and circumspection.

Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood

A few years ago, when I was taking a course at the local university, I had a classmate who wanted to pursue a career in publishing and was an avid reader and collector of old and rare editions of books. Once before class, when the class was discussing the latest episode of Game of Thrones, she remarked that she didn’t watch TV (with a clear attitude of superiority) and preferred books.

This bothered me. I don’t particularly love Game of Thrones (although I’m a huge fan of the novels), but I hate when books are considered to be a superior art form over movies or TVs. As a child, my parents took me to the library every Saturday morning to encourage me to read, but we also watched lots of TV (especially Korean programming, which is probably why I can still read Korean fluently) and movies. Books encompass so many genres, authors, and titles, so I’m not sure how someone could claim that books, as a single entity, are superior to all TV or movies. I’ve been impressed by so many shows over the past three or four years. Like a good book, a good show inspires me to think, to consider, to scrutinize.

One show I was especially gripped by this year was Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Having read the original novel a few years ago, I was skeptical of the adaptation, but I loved it. I was blown away by the performances by the lead actresses, as well as the expansion of the world created by Atwood in the novel. It caused me to reconsider the different roles women have in society, the relationships between women (whether camaraderie, familial, romantic…jealousy), and the roles men play in furthering (or hindering) gender equality. These were already issues I was interested in, but the series sprouted new ideas for me.

I found similar themes in Alias Grace, the latest Atwood novel I finished. This is my fifth Atwood work (after The Handmaid’s Tale, the Oryx and Crake trilogy, and The Heart Goes Last), and I loved it. Since the other works were mainly dystopian, I was cautious of reading historical fiction by Atwood, especially since I’d tried to read The Blind Assassin a few years ago and ended up abandoning it midway. However, Alias Grace is as topical and poignant today as it was when first written. It shares with the works listed above what I love most about Atwood’s works: exploring familiar themes in a slightly distant world.

Alias Grace tells the story of Grace Marks, a young woman who works as a maid in Toronto, who ends up being convicted of the murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and suspected of the murder of his housekeeper and mistress, Nancy Montgomery. While Grace Marks is an actual historical figure, Atwood adds a doctor, Simon Jordan, to Grace’s narrative, providing an audience for Grace’s story. Dr. Jordan, who hopes to learn more about Grace and possibly diagnose her with a mental illness (also to further his own research), asks to listen to Grace’s entire life story: immigrating from Ireland to Canada, working a variety of households as a maid, and eventually being incarcerated for the murder of Thomas Kinnear.

What is especially brilliant about this narrative within a narrative is that while we hear Grace’s story through Grace, it is told to Dr. Jordan – therefore, this maintains the ambiguity of whether Grace committed the murders or was an unwilling accessory, since Grace’s true intentions are not revealed. It becomes clear over time that Grace is brighter than she lets on, and that as a young woman of low social standing, she has learned how to speak and behave in front of men, specifically those like Dr. Jordan. The addition of Dr. Jordan, while instrumental in showing attitudes that men had towards women in different roles (maids, widows, mothers) in the mid-1800s, also sheds light on the history of perspectives on mental health, especially concerning women, and the power men, and especially doctors, had over women’s lives. Overall, the novel is engaging and while being fairly predictable (if you read up on the actual historical Grace Marks beforehand), the addition of the fictional Dr. Jordan provides some unpredictability and suspense through Atwood’s clever embellishments.

YES OR NO?: YES. A little dull at first, Alias Grace provides a compelling, historical narrative, with relatable perspective on the role of women in society, whether today or in the 1800s. I’d recommend it if you’re a fan of Atwood and interested in historical fiction and gender issues – I’m personally pretty excited for the TV adaptation this fall.

Book Review: The Vegetarian

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She was no longer able to cope with all that her sister reminded her of. She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there.

The Vegetarian, by Han Kang

A few years ago, I read Please Look After Mom. I don’t remember the last time I read a Korean novel before that, but suffice it to say it had been a few years. I read Please Look After Mom in English, because although I can read Korean, I knew attempting to read it in Korean might slow me down. Plus, I was curious about how certain words and ideas would be translated into English. I often resort to speaking a mix of English and Korean when in conversation with anyone who understands both languages, since it’s difficult to express certain ideas in both languages. Despite not having lived in Korea for more than ten years, and sometimes feeling disconnected to my culture, I thoroughly enjoyed Please Look After Mom.

The Vegetarian is a novella written by the Korean writer Han Kang. My dad, who often encourages me to explore Korean books and media, mentioned the novel to me, saying that it had won the Man Booker International Prize. When I stumbled onto the book at my local library, I picked it up. It happened to be under 200 pages, so I thought it’d be a quick read. Despite its length, though, The Vegetarian takes some mental energy to get through.

The titular vegetarian is Yeong-hye, a typical Korean housewife who decides to turn to vegetarianism after a disturbing dream. Her decision causes irrevocable damage to her relationships with her husband and family, especially her older sister (who coincidentally shares my name) and brother-in-law. The premise itself is closely tied to contemporary Korean culture, which generally views vegetarianism as a somewhat foolish, unnecessary luxury, other than for Buddhist monks. As a country that experienced extreme poverty until fairly recently, refusing to eat meat is often seen as “being picky”, rather than a valid choice.

I found similar themes in The Vegetarian as in Please Look After Mom, specifically the role of women in Korean society. While Yeong-hye is not a mother, she is a stay-at-home wife whose tasks of cooking every meal for her husband and helping him put on his suit in the morning define her existence. Her husband, and later, her family’s insistence that she cook and eat meat as to avoid discomforting her husband and his business associates is symptomatic of the traditional Korean expectation that a wife sacrifice her personal desires to support her husband. The novel challenges Korean society’s views on family, marriage, sex, and mental health by having Yeong-hye cross almost every line imaginable.

Other than that, there are many passages in the novel that are somewhat gruesome, due to the subject matter of Yeong-hye’s aversion to meat. There are instances of self-harm and sexual assault that made me feel uncomfortable and sometimes queasy. However, I believe this is an important book: one that sheds light on Korean society, while also effectively portraying universally relatable ideas.

YES OR NO?: YESThe Vegetarian is not for everyone, due to its subject matter, which can be graphic and upsetting. However, I would recommend this book for those that are interested. It is short, compelling, thought-provoking, and I believe that you should read something that makes you uncomfortable once in a while.

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.