Book Review: China Rich Girlfriend

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Isn’t it all relative though? To someone living in a mud hut somewhere, isn’t the $200 you paid for those Rag & Bone jeans you’re wearing considered obscene? The woman buying that couture dress could argue it took a team of twelve seamstresses three months to create the garment, and they are all supporting their families by doing this. My mother wanted an exact re-creation on her bedroom ceiling of a Baroque fresco she saw at some palace in Germany. It cost her half a million dollars, but two artists from the Czech Republic worked on it every day for three months. One guy was able to buy and furnish a new house in Prague, while the other one sent his kid to Penn State. We all choose to spend our money in different ways, but at least we get to make that choice.

China Rich Girlfriend, by Kevin Kwan

China Rich Girlfriend is the sequel to 2013’s Crazy Rich Asians, continuing the story of Rachel Chu, an ordinary Chinese-American woman who becomes wrapped up in the world of her fiance’s ultra-rich Singaporean family. Two years after the events of the first novel, Rachel and Nick return to Asia for more family drama, insane shopping sprees, and casually luxurious travel, mainly by private jet. Most of the more important characters from the first novel make at least a few brief appearances (with my personal favorite, Astrid, again enjoying her own storyline), with more irresponsible heirs and heiresses tacked onto the cast.

China Rich Girlfriend is an entertaining read, and almost identical to its predecessor in its endless namedropping, fast-paced plot, and sometimes nonsensical plot twists. This time, the majority of the narrative takes place across Shanghai and Hong Kong instead of Singapore. While obviously decadent and satirical in nature, the novel does offer a somewhat serious peep into the lives of second generation ultra-rich mainland Chinese and their relationship with Hong Kong and the rest of the world. Living in Vancouver, it wasn’t difficult for me to relate to Rachel in her incredulity at the excessive spending habits of her new friends.

That being said, this isn’t a book to read if you’re looking for thought-provoking literature. One of the reviews on the back describes it as a “beach read”, and that’s exactly what it is: a light romp between tougher, more time-consuming reads. There’s really no need to read the first book to understand what’s going on. The characters are paper-thin, the dialogue laughably trite, and the prose itself anything but subtle: characters often say exactly what they mean, whether to each other or to through the narration itself. One could argue that Kwan specifically wrote the characters as childish and petty, to make a point about their shallowness. However, even the more grounded characters, namely Rachel, Nick, and Astrid, are dull and predictable, with as much emotional complexity as a character in a Michael Bay movie. Characters often giggle or grin at inappropriate times, and all of them seem to have the same sense of humor or reactions, whether rich or poor.

YES OR NO?: YES if you want a light read. The book is good for what it is, although I wouldn’t give out any awards for its characterization, its prose, or even its plot! So really, what is its selling point? Maybe the descriptions of delectable Asian food…

Book Review: Hey Nostradamus!

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I never could see how anything good could come from the Delbook Massacre. Whenever I’ve heard people saying, ‘Look how it’s brought us all together,’ I’ve had to leave the room or switch the channel. What a feeble and pathetic moral. Just look at our world, so migratory – cars and airplanes and jobs here and there: what does it matter if a few of us who happened to be in this one spot at one moment briefly rallied together and held hands and wore ribbons? Next year half of us will have moved away, and then where’s your moral?

Hey Nostradamus!, by Douglas Coupland

When we talk about a novel being timeless, it’s usually in reference to a classic, like, say Romeo and Juliet – theoretically we can all sympathize with the tragic love story and being at odds with one’s family (if not with the title characters’ stupidity). When I read Hey Nostradamus!, however, I felt like the novel could have been written today. Of course, it is a fairly recent work (2003), but considering all the advancements and changes that have taken place in the past thirteen years, the novel is almost shockingly relevant.

The plot centers around a school shooting in North Vancouver, and the effects it has on the survivors and their families. The fact that school shootings are still as sorely relevant as they were in 2003, after the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, made me think back on the year so far: with such horrific events occurring all too often, it is now as good a time to read Hey Nostradamus! as any.

Hey Nostradamus! reminds us to focus on the victims and survivors of such attacks, their humanity, and their lives years after the event. The depiction of Jason’s life decades after the attack was realistic and prodded me to think more deeply about similar attacks that have happened in my lifetime. The novel, however, wasn’t too didactic – it still presented an interesting narrative, or rather, a set of connected narratives. The novel is told through the voices of Cheryl, who is killed in the attack; Jason, Cheryl’s boyfriend; Heather, Jason’s girlfriend; and Reg, Jason’s estranged father. Although the stories themselves take place years apart and therefore do not provide much overlap in plot, the characters are engaging, sympathetic narrators.

Another key thing that I enjoyed about Hey Nostradamus! was that it is set in Vancouver, a city that I (and of course, author Douglas Coupland) am happy to call home. In fact, the first time I encountered Coupland was at my brother’s university graduation, where I believe he was the recipient of an honorary degree. I can’t believe it’s taken me more than six years to finally pick up one of his books. After a lifetime of reading books set in supposedly more exciting locales like New York and London, I was happy to find references to familiar names like Lonsdale Quay, Agassiz, and Bootlegger. The fact that the story took place in my city only made the novel more poignant for me.

YES OR NO?: YESHey Nostradamus! is a relatively short read on a very heavy topic. Despite its length, it is definitely not a light read. The prose is simple to understand, and like any worthwhile book, the ideas linger in your head long after you’re done. Highly recommended.

Book Review: Dance Dance Dance

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What we seek is some kind of compensation for what we put up with.

Dance Dance Dance, by Haruki Murakami

A lonely and nameless protagonist, a missing girlfriend with perfect ears, and a precocious teenage girl. As an avid fan of Murakami, I’m more than familiar with his various tropes, and perhaps because of this, reading a Murakami novel takes me far less time than any other book. When something surreal or slightly supernatural happens, as it inevitably does, I’m rarely surprised and simply read on.

Three of Murakami’s earliest novels are considered the Trilogy of the Rat: Hear the Wind Sing; Pinball, 1973;  and A Wild Sheep Chase, the last of which I’ve read but haven’t reviewed. While Dance Dance Dance is a continuation of this series, it isn’t considered a part of the series itself. Personally, I enjoyed Dance Dance Dance much more than A Wild Sheep Chase, which I found unnecessarily convoluted and simply unenjoyable to read.

While reading Dance Dance Dance, I acknowledged the usual Murakami tropes and themes, yet I found the most fascinating aspect to be the theme of consumerism and commercialization, especially of people. Prostitution, especially the willing prostitution of upper middle-class, sophisticated women, is a common theme found in Murakami’s works, but the commercialization of people extends beyond this in Dance Dance Dance. The unnamed protagonist’s sole connection to the world appears to be through his work as a copywriter, and he is also paid to be a companion figure to Yuki. The novel is full of characters seeking other characters to relieve their own loneliness, rather than to actually enjoy their company, with many of these interactions having an admittedly transactional nature. Even with Ame and Dick North’s supposedly happy romance, Dick’s efforts at keeping the house tidy seemed to be necessary to continue his relationship with Ame. It made me think more closely about this question than I would have liked to – is all human interaction transactional? Is there a way to enjoy another person’s company without some sort of transaction taking place?

In addition to this, there are references to more conventional consumerism. The protagonist shops for groceries at Kinokuniya while complaining about its prices and luxurious brand image. Gotanda and the protagonist both view Gotanda’s Maserati as an unnecessary luxury, in some ways inferior to the protagonist’s Subaru. And even the new, gleaming Dolphin Hotel is a shadow of its former, shabbier self. Similarly, Gotanda’s luxurious lifestyle is shown to be just as devoid of real interaction as the protagonist’s. It’s the age-old message that money does not equal happiness, but somehow it is newly poignant, coming from Murakami.

YES OR NO?: YES. Compared to Murakami’s other works, Dance Dance Dance is simple and straightforward, other than the occasional moments of the supernatural. I think this book would also be a great introduction to a new Murakami inductee, since there’s no need to read the other books in The Rat Trilogy.

Book Review: The Goldfinch

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You can look at a picture for a week and never think of it again. You can also look at a picture for a second and think of it all your life.

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014, and by virtue of that, I was familiar with its cover long before I knew anything else about the book. It was always prominently displayed in bookstore entrances, and always checked out at the local library, even now, roughly three years after its initial publication. It happened to be sitting on the shelf when I stopped by the library a few weeks ago, and of course I snatched it up.

After slogging through nearly 800 pages, I have mixed feelings about The Goldfinch. It’s a modern Dickensian bildungsroman about Theodore Decker, a boy whose mother is killed in a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. While somehow miraculously escaping the wreckage relatively unscathed, Theo grabs Carel Fabritius’s painting The Goldfinch. The story follows Theo’s life as he wanders from home to home, dealing with his grief over his mother’s death, his PTSD from the attack, and his relationships with others affected by the attack.

I’m a fan of Dickens, especially Great Expectations, so I enjoyed the Dickensian nature of the narrative, which focuses on Theo’s character development. Theo, while not always likeable, is generally a shrewd, clever, and surprisingly compassionate character. His love for his mother and his kindness toward Mrs. Barbour redeem many of his more questionable actions.

In addition, the actual prose of the novel is detailed and simply lovely. I saw many reviews that were annoyed by the level of detail, but, for the most part, I found it helped me to imagine the works of art, furniture, and New York winters integral to the plot and to the themes of the book, which revolve around art and, as cheesy as it sounds, the power of beauty over one’s life.

That being said…I felt the book was unnecessarily long. Many passages, especially those detailing drug-fuelled romps, felt repetitive. I suppose it could be Tartt’s intention to make these passages irritatingly repetitive and cyclical to show the negative impacts of drug, but it was too much. I felt that the book would have benefitted from a much stricter editor to eliminate the repetitive passages, and especially to trim down that terribly preachy last chapter. I was almost falling asleep at that point, and I usually make it a point to thoroughly read the last chapter of any book I’ve put time into. I also felt that there were significant plotholes: for one, how did Theo manage to escape the scene of such a major crime scene with no one noticing him or finding him suspicious, especially on his trek home? Similarly, the novel, despite seeming to take place in the 2010s (?) also has a strange relationship with technology: smartphones and the Internet are hardly mentioned, even though there are many scenes involving characters communicating over vast distances and conducting research. It seemed off somehow.

YES OR NO?: As of now, I feel neutral about The Goldfinch. While it fulfills some of my criteria for a worthwhile read (detailed, skillful prose and interesting, dynamic characters), its length and repetitive story arcs bored me. Definitely not a must-read.