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.

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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.