Book Review: Crazy Rich Asians

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Araminta glided up the aisle, sneaking occasional peeks at her guests through her veil. She recognized friends, relatives, and many people she had only seen on television. Then she caught sight of Astrid. Imagine, Astrid Leong was at her wedding, and now they would be related through marriage. But wait a minute, that dress Astrid was wearing…wasn’t that the same blue Gaultier she had worn to Carol Tai’s Christian Helpers fashion benefit two months ago? As Araminta reached the altar where her future husband awaited, with the Bishop of Singapore in front of her and the most important people in Asia behind her, one thought alone crossed her mind: Astrid Leong, that damn bitch, couldn’t even be bothered to wear a new dress to her wedding.

Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan

Normally I try to pick a profound or insightful quote as the introduction to my reviews, but this was my favorite passage from Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians. To be honest, there’s nothing particularly profound or insightful about Crazy Rich Asians, but that’s beside the point. The book provides a glimpse into the lives of the super rich denizens of Singapore and beyond, and is thoroughly shallow and sinfully entertaining.

Crazy Rich Asians revolves around Rachel Chu, who envisions a carefree, relaxing vacation when she follows her boyfriend, Nicholas Young, back to Singapore for his best friend’s wedding. Instead, she is nearly assaulted by the immense wealth of Nick’s family and acquaintances. Everyone knows each other, shops constantly, eats constantly, and is desperate to elevate their own status, whether through key business alliances or marriages. In a Shakespearean fashion, the drama revolves around the wedding of the season, while the narration records mundane activities in a mock epic fashion, reminiscent of The Rape of the Lock, or even Pride and Prejudice – except in Singapore, with Asians and dozens of exclusive brand names.

As far as characters go, Rachel and Nick are boring, and, for the most part, so is their storyline. Rachel, despite being beautiful, intelligent, kind, and humble, is incredibly dull. What I really enjoyed was Astrid’s storyline. I feel that as a society, we tend to villainize the astronomically rich (especially the children thereof, who’ve put no effort into acquiring their wealth). Astrid, despite her wealth and thoughtless spending, was the most sympathetic character in the novel. Unlike the other characters’ problems, I felt that her willingness to partially give up her life of luxury for her husband and her devastation at her husband’s affair were real, raw, and relatable.

Another aspect of the novel I enjoyed and identified with was Rachel’s inability to adapt to Singaporean culture. Like Rachel, I was born in Asia but moved to North America at a young age, and although I enjoy my visits back home, I can’t help feeling out of place and between cultures. And although I’ve never been to Singapore, I instantly recognized the obsession with status and excessive consumption from my visits back to Seoul. And as a resident of Vancouver, I was excited to see my city (and alma mater!) mentioned a few times.

Although this book is a fun, quick, and admittedly shallow read, I loved that it introduces readers to a side of Asia other than the stereotypical nerds and the immigrant struggle (although mentioned, it isn’t really a focal point). Despite the constant snippets of various Asian languages and references to delicious Singaporean street eats, the footnotes and Rachel’s role as an outsider (a stand-in for the unfamiliar reader) make it easy for any reader to understand what’s going on.

YES OR NO?: YES. I enjoyed this book and found it to be a quick, delightful read, although the ending (if you can call it that) is thoroughly dissatisfying. It feels as if the writer suddenly decided to stop writing and call it a day. There is a sequel, though, which I will definitely read once I get through the rest of my TBR pile. That being said, I do not think this book is for everyone – if you’re looking for a light read that’ll make your mouth water with descriptions of lavish feasts and even more lavish outfits, this is probably a great choice.

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Book Review: The Journalist and the Murderer

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EVERY journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction writing learns–when the article or book appears–his hard lesson.

The Journalist and the Murderer, by Janet Malcolm

A few months ago, I became entirely absorbed in a new Netflix series, as I am bound to do. This time, it was Making a Murderer, the story of Steven Avery and his nephew, Brendan Dassey, who were convicted for the murder of Teresa Halbach, a local photographer. While watching Making a Murderer, which portrays Avery and Dassey in an unmistakably sympathetic light, I was skeptical. There was simply something about Avery that I didn’t like. I felt more sympathetic towards Dassey because he was younger and inexperienced, but I remained aware of the bias of the directors – as much as the series covered a real trial about a real crime, it is crafted to be entertainment.

When discussing Making a Murderer, it is often grouped with the first season of Sarah Koenig’s Serial and HBO’s The Jinx as part of a larger cultural phenomenon, the rise of interest in true crime, specifically murder. I don’t believe this interest is recent. There’s something about murder that fascinates us and that has fascinated us for a long time. Consider Capote’s In Cold Bloodwhich brilliantly illustrates the murders of the Clutter family, familiarizing readers with the family, their community, and the murderers.

In Cold Blood is often described as the first nonfiction novel. What does this mean? It means, “take this with a grain of salt”. Although it details a real crime, In Cold Blood is by no means a faithful representation of what happened. There is dialogue that is obviously invented and details that are obviously embellished, for the sake of the story. As the reader, we suspend disbelief and accept these untruths, again, for the sake of the story.

The Journalist and the Murderer discusses two men: Jeffrey MacDonald, a doctor convicted of murdering his pregnant wife Colette and their two daughters, and Joe McGinness, a journalist hired by MacDonald to write about his case. During the course of the trial, McGinness befriended MacDonald and corresponded with him even after his conviction. McGinness refused to allow MacDonald to see a draft of the book before publication, while asserting him that he still believed in his innocence. When McGinness’s novel, Fatal Vision, was finally published, it painted a picture of MacDonald as a brutal, cold, unfeeling psychopath, definitely guilty of the murders. MacDonald sued McGinness for fraud.

What’s interesting about this book is its discussion of the ethics of journalism. To what degree does a journalist have to be honest? McGinness’s argument for his dishonesty was that his final loyalty was to his novel, and ultimately, to his audience. Like a secret agent, he was willing to court dishonesty in order to worm his way into a friendship with MacDonald and obtain the truth about the murders. Is it immoral to lie to a subject one believes is guilty of an even greater crime: murder? In a way, the book argues, this is one of the unspoken rules of journalism: to manipulate the subject to gain the necessary information.

I enjoyed this book, even though I generally don’t read nonfiction (although, as this book proves, the line between fiction and nonfiction can be fairly arbitrary). It got me thinking not only about the ethics of journalism but about the act of writing in general. By definition, I realized, writing is a powerfully manipulative act in itself. Any good piece of writing is carefully crafted to elicit certain reactions from the reader.

YES OR NO?: YES. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in journalism or true crime. After bingeing on Making a Murderer and the first season of Sarah Koenig’s Serial, this book provided an interesting perspective on the journalists behind the stories. Although a little repetitive in structure, this book is a short but thought-provoking read.

Book Review: The Remains of the Day

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And yet what precisely is this “greatness”? Just where, or in what, does it lie? I am quite aware it would take a far wiser head than mine to answer such a question, but if I were forced to hazard a guess, I would say that it is the very lack of obvious drama or spectacle that sets the beauty of our land apart. What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, of its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it.

The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro

When I was in elementary school and learning to write, my teachers would invariably say the same thing: “Show, don’t tell.” For my childhood self, this meant attempting descriptive language. Instead of flat out declaring, “he had a brown dog”, I would substitute other, more “sophisticated” synonyms for “brown” (chestnut, mahogany, roan?), often abusing Word’s thesaurus function. “Show, don’t tell,” is a difficult lesson for grade schoolers, but I find that there are also few authors who do it well.

Kazuo Ishiguro is a master of “show, don’t tell”. I’ve previously read two of Ishiguro’s works: Never Let Me Go (beautiful, hollow, and depressing), and The Buried Giant (a bore and a waste of time). Despite my polarized opinions of those books, what was consistent in those two novels was the use of subtlety. What’s important is what is not said, what is implied, what is left out and left for the reader to deduce. And that same masterful technique is employed to perfection in The Remains of the Day.

The narrator of The Remains of the Day is Stevens, the supremely professional head butler of Darlington Hall. The plot of the novel is straightforward: Stevens’s employer, Mr. Farraday, suggests that he take a few days off to see the countryside, and Stevens accepts, planning to visit Miss Kenton (now Mrs. Benn), a former colleague. The narrative is peppered throughout with Stevens’s nostalgia: days of Darlington Hall’s former glory, his sometimes amicable relationship with Miss Kenton, and his musings on dignity and the merits of a truly great butler.

Stevens’s role as a butler makes him the perfect voice to illustrate the “show, don’t tell” method. Stevens considers his finest quality as a butler to be his dignity, dependent on his ability to conceal his own emotions. Even when belittled by his employer’s peers or saddened by his father’s death, Stevens remains composed and dignified, to the extent that he does not even describe his own feelings about the events. The narration is perfect: it not only kept me intrigued and engaged, it made me empathize with Stevens’s inability to express emotion for the sake of his career.

The lack of overtness in The Remains of the Day is so prevalent that when a character (Miss Kenton) finally says exactly what they mean, it was so jarring that I had to reread the passage. I saw Stevens’s refusal to deal with his own emotions as a commentary on British society, previous generations, and the silencing of the lower classes, which is actually a point of discussion for Lord Darlington and his companions.

I simply loved this book. The narrative structure is similar to Never Let Me Go: first-person narration, flashbacks, a not entirely reliable narrator, and a hopeful journey. Like Never Let Me Go, it evoked similar feelings of regret, hope, and loneliness. And while I sometimes grew frustrated with Stevens’s complacency, it was impossible to not sympathize with him. The novel begins with Stevens worrying about his inability to banter with Mr. Farraday. He proceeds to practice bantering, highlighting how Stevens’s devotion to his professional life has inhibited his personal enjoyment even of trivial things. Despite the fact that the novel was written before I was born and set in the 1950s, I saw more than a sliver of myself in this anxious but well-meaning protagonist.

YES OR NO?: YES. I was already a fan of Ishiguro before I read this book, but I would have to say this is probably my favorite of his works. I wouldn’t recommend this book if you want something fast, plot-oriented, or uplifting, but if you’re interested in historical fiction and character studies and don’t mind a meandering narrative, this would be perfect.

Book Review: Coraline

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Outside, the world had become a formless, swirling mist with no shapes or shadows behind it, while the house itself seemed to have twisted and stretched. It seemed to Coraline that it was crouching, and staring down at her, as if it were not really a house but only the idea of a house–and the person who had had the idea, she was certain, was not a good person.

Coraline, by Neil Gaiman

I read Coraline while on a long, transatlantic flight. The flight was about nine hours, and although I’ve been on longer flights, it simply felt endless. There were only a handful of movies offered, many of which I’d already watched or weren’t interested in. In general, I prefer to watch children’s movies on planes, which are simple to understand and generally don’t result in any intense reaction that might be uncomfortable on a plane. On planes, I’m already so uncomfortable that I’d prefer to have as mild a viewing experience as possible. On this particular flight, movies weren’t really an option, so I turned to my Kindle. And I turned to Coraline, which I’d deemed to be the lightest read out of the current unread books on my Kindle.

While it is a children’s novel, Coraline is perfect for readers of all ages. Sometimes I revisit books I loved growing up and find myself disappointed by the stilted dialogue and awkward prose often found in children’s literature. But Coraline is perfect. It is creepy without being overt, and I imagine not too scary for young readers. Gaiman masterfully sets a foggily eerie atmosphere for our heroine. The novel’s creepiest moments are subtle, thus leaving a long-lasting impression.

Although Coraline is a short novel, the character of Coraline is impressively fleshed out. Coraline embodies traits found in many heroes of children’s lit: precocious, bored with the tedium of her everyday life, adventurous, and misunderstood by the adults around her (down to the constant mispronunciations of her name – Coraline, not Caroline). Coraline’s precociousness and intelligence makes her relatable and likeable for adult and young readers alike. However, she is not annoyingly precocious or constantly mentioning her own intelligence or accomplishments (something that the heroine of Chuck Palahniuk’s Damned, which I read recently, is guilty of). She simply is Coraline.

Similarly, much of the novel’s internal magic is not completely explained, but I liked that aspect of it. It kept me thinking about it after I’d finished reading, and not simply because I was stuck on a plane. I could easily imagine how engaging it would be for a young reader. I especially loved the illustrations, which I thought perfectly suited the prose: somewhat whimsical, but in a stark and gruesome way. Although the aesthetic of the film version looks quite different, I’m looking forward to watching it when I get a chance.

YES OR NO: Definitely YES. A short read that I would recommend to readers of all ages. A beautiful book that, despite its simple language and straightforward plot, boasts intriguing prose clearly intentioned to subtly frighten its reader.