Book Review: Damned

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For the rest of you, please don’t be afraid. If you go to Heaven, bully for you. But if you don’t-well, look me up. The only thing that makes earth feel like Hell, or Hell feel like Hell, is our expectation that it ought to feel like Heaven. Earth is earth. Dead is dead.

Damned, by Chuck Palahniuk

It’s funny that the quote I decided to pull from Damned is about expectations, because this book refused to meet mine. This was my first time reading Palahniuk’s work, but I knew what to expect based on his reputation and positive reviews of this book: witty, irreverent, and subversive. Suffice it to say that I was sorely disappointed. To put into perspective how much I disliked this book, let me tell you that my favorite thing about it was the artwork on the cover.

Damned chronicles the adventures of thirteen-year-old Maddy Spencer, who’s arrived in Hell after dying of what she assumes to be a marijuana overdose. Every synopsis of the book I’ve read describes the narrative as The Breakfast Club set in Hell. It’s true that Maddy travels with characters reminiscent of the group featured in the 1985 John Hughes classic. But the story isn’t focused on these characters. Unlike Bender and Claire, Palahniuk’s characters don’t fully develop outside of their stereotypes. The attempts at characterization are feeble at best. The other characters, including Maddy’s parents and the other denizens of Hell, are simply caricatures of whatever Palahniuk wants to ridicule.

That leaves us with Maddy. Pubescent, overweight, and hopelessly insecure and attention-seeking, Maddy spews big words and witticisms stuffed with pop culture references. The “witty” narration gets old, fast. I don’t know how many times Maddy has to point out that she knows the meaning of a word you’d likely find in an SAT prep book and nowhere else, or even words that to the average adult don’t imply a particularly impressive vocabulary. What’s the point of this? Yes, I get that the narrator is young, self-conscious, and intelligent. There’s no need to beat me over the head with it.

Yet that’s what Palahniuk does with this novel, over and over again. Predictably, Palahniuk’s Hell, while populated with demons and the dead, also snidely contains landmarks such as a lake of shit and eternal loops of The English Patient. This is mildly funny at best, but mentioned repeatedly until I found myself skimming and eventually skipping entire paragraphs. And believe me, I am not a skimmer or a skipper.

That being said, the novel also lacks a clear plot. The synopsis led me to believe it would be a tale of bonding and understanding like The Breakfast Club or a tale of adventure. There is some adventure, I admit, but it lacks any real sense of thrill or excitement. Instead, the book is simply an awful collection of shallow caricatures, jokes that quickly descend into tastelessness, and pop culture reference after pop culture reference. It was like watching an episode of The Big Bang Theory except set in Hell with teenagers and disgustingly large amounts of bodily fluids. And we all know The Big Bang Theory has been going downhill for a long time.

YES OR NO?: NO. I hated this book, which saddened me because I wanted to like it. The premise sounds interesting, but the book fails to deliver on that premise. I’ve seen reviews that describe this novel as a sign that Palahniuk is losing his touch, however, so I hope to not give up Palahniuk entirely by trying out one of his earlier works.

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Book Review: Push

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How that is so I don’t know. How Mama and Daddy know me sixteen years and hate me, how a stranger meet me and love me.

Push, by Sapphire

I finished Push in a day. It’s a book that’s both surprisingly easy but also heartbreakingly difficult to read. I picked it up at the library, already familiar with the story thanks to the 2009 film adaptation. At less than 200 pages, I expected to speed through it, and I did. But now I’m sitting here not exactly sure what to write.

To be honest, Push is beyond the scope of my experience and, in some ways, my understanding. While reading, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat disgusted by my own level of privilege. When it’s revealed that Precious’s mother doesn’t even understand the basics of how HIV is transmitted, or when Precious takes for granted the sexual and physical abuse she’s been subject to her entire life, even blaming herself for not taking action, I felt sad for the characters, but also shocked. The world that Precious lives in, which she unquestioningly accepts as the only world that exists, is one that I could barely fathom. There were many passages that I had to read repeatedly to be sure that I was actually understanding what was going on.

When I was in high school, I was assigned to read Alice Walker’s The Color Purplewhich share a similar premise with Precious: a young, illiterate African American woman is repeatedly raped by her father, leading to multiple pregnancies. I remember struggling to understand the narration of The Color Purple, as the writing mirrors the protagonist, Celie’s, illiteracy. I was worried the same issue would make Push difficult to read. However, other than a few words here and there, the novel retains the original spelling of most words. In passages that showcase Precious’s original writing, the spelling does get spotty,  however many of these contain corrections from her teachers, a convenient plot device that makes it easy to read. The novel contains many of Precious’s original poems. I tend to skip poems and songs when they are included in novels, but here I read all of them, and felt that they actually contributed significantly to the work as a whole. The Color Purple is also addressed in the novel, which I personally loved.

Despite the difficulty of reading about Precious’s world, what I loved about the story was Precious herself. She is a uniquely lovable character throughout the novel: earnest, thoughtful, and undeniably clever, despite her level of education. I couldn’t help wanting the best for her, and not simply because I felt sympathy for her unfortunate situation–I genuinely liked her as a character and wanted her to succeed.

YES OR NO?: YESPrecious is an important story at helping us confront certain truths about abuse, family, and poverty. However, it is a graphic story that made me feel queasy at times, so I would hesitate to recommend it to everyone.

 

Book Review: Americanah

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Alexa, and the other guests, and perhaps even Georgina, all understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty.

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A few years ago, I attended a diversity workshop at my university. The workshop was designed to help faculty members address race in the classroom, focusing mostly on First Nations issues. At the beginning of the workshop, the facilitator played Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2009 TED talk, The danger of a single story. In the lecture, Adichie discusses the role of cultural stereotypes, referring to her own experiences as a Nigerian residing in the United States.

That lecture resonated with me in a few ways. I felt guilt. I was unintentionally guilty of some of the stereotyping of African peoples mentioned in her lecture. However, I also sympathized with the talk. I myself had often had my culture reduced to a single story, and I recalled the many occasions that people had fetishized my Koreanness to my face, the anger I felt when people obsessed over the shallower aspects of Korean culture such as K-pop or the prevalence of plastic surgery, without understanding the corruptness of Korean politics, the history of the Korean War, or the hyper competitive nature of life in modern Korea. From then on, I was interested in exploring Adichie’s work, and I finally found myself picking up Americanah at the library a month ago, nearly two years after I attended the workshop.

Americanah is, in a way, an expansion of the ideas from the TED talk. Like Adichie, our protagonist, Ifemelu, is a Nigerian-born woman who attends university in the United States and finds fame as a writer. Ifemelu becomes a professional blogger who comments on race in America with brutal honesty and irreverence. The novel lacks a straightforward plot, but is mostly comprised of moments in Ifemelu’s life in America as she transitions from a student to a young professional to an academic and professional blogger, observing and blogging about her observations.

I’ve read other reviews that complain that the novel simply hits you over the head with its obsession with race, and that Ifemelu is not a likeable, fleshed out character. Personally, I found Ifemelu likeable and relatable: sardonic, intelligent, and sometimes somewhat unlikeable, as a real person is. She does seem to somewhat float around in life without making any major decisions, but I simply found that this reinforced her identity as an outsider and an observer of the world she finds herself in. I thought that her passiveness served as commentary about the immigrant experience, rather than a character flaw.

I also didn’t think that the novel was solely focused on race. In addition to race, the novel touches upon a number of other themes, including gender roles, class, and contemporary Nigerian society. Of course, those themes are also entwined with discussions on race – but how could they not be? How can you separate race from the discussion of most, if not all, social issues today?

There’s one point in the novel I found particularly humorous. The characters are discussing whether Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama will become the Democrat candidate for president, mentioning how news sources are saying that women will vote for Clinton, while blacks will vote for Obama. “But what about black women?” asks one of the characters, and the group points out that “women” is synonymous with “white women”. While I do agree that the novel is heavy with its sometimes sarcastic observations of race such as this, I didn’t find it offensive or boring. I found it fascinating and, most of the time, hilarious.

YES OR NO?: YESAmericanah, while long, is a fantastic read. The language is beautiful. The observations are spot-on. I do think, though, that the marketing for the novel places unnecessary emphasis on Ifemelu and Obinze’s love story. Although it does provide more of a structured narrative, I didn’t find the love story to be the novel’s main focus. It serves more as a device to provide the reader with different perspectives: of the Nigerian experience in the U.S. and the U.K., for example.

Book Review: The Red Tent

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For a moment I weighed the idea of keeping my secret and remaining a girl, but the thought passed quickly. I could only be what I was. And I was a woman.

The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you may have noticed that I’ve been neglecting my once-beloved Kindle in the past few posts. Lately I’ve started taking a new route home from work, which leads me past the local branch of the public library. I’ve taken to stopping by the library more often, which leads me to pick up books that I wouldn’t necessarily have sought out to download on my Kindle. I’ve missed the organic feeling of simply spotting a book and picking it up out of curiosity.

But with The Red Tent, the story is slightly different. I found it on a bookshelf at home, which is odd. My parents are avid readers, but mostly read in Korean. It turned out that my mom purchased this book for an ESL class long ago, but had never ended up reading it. So more than ten years later, I gave this book its long overdue first read.

The Red Tent is the story of Dinah, the sole daughter of Jacob and Leah, his first wife, whose story is briefly touched upon in the Hebrew Bible. Diamant expands on her story, breathing life into Dinah and other Biblical figures. I’m not too familiar with the Bible and can’t comment on to what extent Diamant changed the characters from their original depictions. I’m fond of modern imaginings of age-old stories, though, and I enjoyed the focus given to women in this retelling.

The female characters dominate this novel. The title refers to the red tent where women gathered to commiserate with each other during life, death, childbirth, and menstruation. The narrative begins long before Dinah’s birth, focusing on Jacob’s four wives, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah, who are characterized distinctly. In addition to the women of Jacob’s clan, there are countless midwives, priestesses, and bondswomen, who despite differences of personality and culture find community in their womanhood. The novel contains a huge cast of characters, especially due to the migratory nature of Dinah’s life, but each character is given a distinct personality that makes them easy to distinguish, despite the foreign names.

I enjoyed The Red Tent immensely for introducing me to an unfamiliar world in an accessible way. The only fault I think I can find with the novel is that its narration can sometimes be slow. Also, it was difficult to discern a personality in Dinah herself. Leah is practical, Rachel is beautiful and conniving, but Dinah appears to be more of a vessel for other characters’ personalities than possessing one of her own. I didn’t find this too much of a problem, since there are so many interesting characters in the novel, but it did become irritating at times, especially towards the end of the novel when the plot becomes slower.

YES OR NO?: YESThe Red Tent is a beautifully told story that focuses on women and their role in a society that while different from ours is not actually too different. I loved that the story focused on women who were dedicated to maintaining their own community, despite cultural and personal differences like being wives of the same man.

Book Review: Kafka on the Shore

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In everybody’s life there’s a point of no return. And in a very few cases, a point where you can’t go forward anymore. And when we reach that point, all we can do is quietly accept the fact. That’s how we survive.

Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, it won’t surprise you to learn that I’m a huge fan of Murakami. I’ve already published reviews of two of his other works (Sputnik Sweetheart and South of the Border, West of the Sun), and mentioned others in my end of year wrap-up posts. The book that started my love affair with Murakami was 1Q84, a giant tome that I picked up on a whim. The main reason that I became so engrossed with 1Q84 was that it was so profoundly different from anything else that I had read before that. Murakami’s world was, and is, so wonderfully strange and unique, with its own brand of surreal logic. Yet I also found 1Q84 daunting. There were some symbols that I could never decipher and simply wrote off as intentional illogic meant to convey the sense of a distorted world.

I’d put off reading Kafka for a long time, mostly because I’d heard from friends that it was the most difficult to understand out of Murakami’s novels. Yet, for some reason, I found this book relatively easy to get through, probably thanks to my now extensive experience with Murakami’s style and motifs.

Kafka on the Shore is the tale of fifteen-year-old Kafka Tamura, who flees his hometown of Tokyo to escape an Oedipal curse and ultimately arrives at a small but distinguished private library run by an intriguing older woman, Miss Saeki. The novel switches back and forth between Kafka’s story and that of Nakata, a simple-minded man in his seventies who has a fondness for eel and ekes out a living by locating lost cats for his neighbors. The novel begins by covering the faux historical background of Nakata’s story, which is tedious at first. However, by the time the story gets rolling, I found the book hard to put down. Translated by Philip Gabriel, the novel is at once easy to read, but sprinkles in enough references to Japanese and Western pop culture to keep you engaged.

Murakami novels are infamous for sharing the same characters and highlighting what appears to be the author’s own interests: music (jazz and classical), books, and cats. In addition to the above, I was delighted to find some classical and literary allusions that I normally don’t associate with Murakami. The obvious one, of course, is the Oedipal curse. To add to this, blood is a constant in this novel, even in scenes that don’t involve murder or injury. There’s a scene early on where a character can’t seem to wash blood off their hands no matter how hard they try, which I interpreted as a clear reference to Lady Macbeth. The idea that Kafka’s curse is a source of pollution reminded me again of Oedipus and other Greek tragedies in that Oedipus is polluted by his curse, and that the pollution spreads to his children and leads them to tragic fates. And lastly, though I don’t think this is as direct a connection, the character of Miss Saeki reminded me of Miss Havisham from Dickens’s Great Expectations: a woman who’s chosen to live trapped at a point in her life when she was happier.

One thing that I found a little frustrating about the book was its need to incessantly revisit certain ideas, specifically the identities of Kafka’s sister and mother. I personally would have preferred if this was hinted at a bit more subtly, since I felt that this (and some other meaningful moments) were handed to me on a plate. I like to work for answers as a reader, so I was disappointed by the overtness of some of the narrative. Still, I liked the rest of the book enough that it didn’t hinder my enjoyment to an excessive degree.

YES OR NO: YES. Surreal as it may be, the story of this novel is surprisingly easy enough to follow. That being said, there are still so many questions and thoughts I have about the book that I’m sure I’ll never be able to figure out (what’s the significance of the leeches?). Also, remember to be patient at the beginning! It gets off to a slow start, but the story soon picks up.