Book Review: Black Flower

20161217_143940

In that moment, Paul had realized that his God was without doubt a jealous God. God had shown no power whatsoever in this fight, which had begun with a shaman. Though he knew that these people suffered for all the sins committed by Korea, Japan, and Mexico, God was as jealous as a sulky little girl. Father Paul closed his eyes. No one would ever call him Paul. He was no longer Father Paul. He was Mr. Bak, Bak Gwangsu.

Black Flower, by Young-Ha Kim

When I was a young girl, I remember being engrossed by historical fiction. I devoured the Royal Diaries series, mostly concentrating on women of European royal families: Elizabeth I, Marie Antoinette, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and so on. Despite being actively interested in historical fiction, my forays into learning about the history of my own place of origin, Korea, weren’t too numerous. I read a few books (all in English), mostly covering aspects of Korean history with which I was already familiar from various TV shows and movies.

That’s why Black Flower caught my eye. It tells a story I was previously unfamiliar with: that of a group of Koreans who immigrated to the Yucatan peninsula with high expectations, only to be greeted by a future as indentured servants. The premise interested me – it added something more to a narrative I was all too familiar with, as well as promising to teach me about a new aspect of my country’s history.

Well…I guess I did learn something new. However, I wasn’t enthusiastic about this book, and had to struggle to finish it. While I love historical fiction, I personally tend to place the emphasis on the fiction. A reader of effective, engaging historical fiction should be able to relate effortlessly with the historical content and feel inspired to do their own research. I read this book while also watching The Crown on Netflix, and I could immediately see the differences in my experiences. While watching The Crown, I often paused the show so I could google Churchill, Queen Elizabeth, and so on. I didn’t feel the same while I read Black Flower, which struggles to reconcile its history with its fiction.

Black Flower is narrated from the viewpoints of several characters, mostly the Korean immigrants, and later some Mexican officials as the tale goes on. There are many characters, and it became difficult to keep track of them all, even as someone who is familiar with Korean naming conventions. Due to the number of characters, none of them were fleshed out properly, and I often identified them only by their basic distinguishing characteristics: the orphan, the Catholic priest, the Japanese cook, and so on. I sympathized somewhat with their sufferings, but only on a surface level: I recognized that things were difficult for them, but I did not relate to them. The characters all appear to have the same personality and manner of thinking, and I couldn’t think of them as anything else but plot devices.

However, the book is also not effective at conveying the historical events of its story. I’ve most enjoyed historical fiction where I felt immersed, where characters gradually learn about the events as they happen. In Black Flower, it often seems like the author did a significant amount of research on his topic and didn’t know where to fit it in all, since no character would have had access to the information. The information is then awkwardly dumped in huge paragraphs reminiscent of middle school social studies textbooks. I found myself skimming these paragraphs. I love history, but once again, the author failed to be engaging. I think I would have enjoyed this book if it had focused more on its fictional aspect (perhaps by concentrating on a few central characters and expanding their relationships) or its historical aspect (by providing an entirely non-fictional account). Instead, the story was neither here nor there.

YES OR NO?: NO. This book was a bore, despite its fascinating historical source. Also, I’m not sure if it’s just the translation, but the prose was awkward, stilted, and a prime example of telling, not showing. I’m interested in reading more works by the author, but maybe not right away…

Book Review: A Tale for the Time Being

20161209_144943

True freedom comes from being unknown.

A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2013, A Tale for the Time Being is one of those delightful reads that discusses serious themes with heart, humor, and intelligence. It balances history (ranging from World War II to the dot-com burst to the 2011 tsunami), philosophy, science, relationships, religion, and so on. It’s one of those books that inspired so many thoughts in me while reading that it was difficult to find a single focus for this blog post.

In A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth, a writer of Japanese heritage living on a remote island in British Columbia, discovers a diary washed up on the beach. The diary belongs to a Japanese teenager named Naoko (called “Nao”) Yasutani, who’s recently moved back to Tokyo after having grown up in the States. The diary chronicles the callous bullying Nao faces at school, her father’s spiral into depression, her extended philosophical musings, and, most fascinatingly, her relationship with her great-grandmother, a Zen Buddhist nun. Meanwhile, Ruth attempts to uncover the origin of the diary, and of Nao herself.

Overall, it’s a fascinating premise, and an engrossing read. The aspect of the book that interested me most was its exploration of the roles of reader and writer. The novel is at turns narrated by Nao in first person through her diary, in third person from the perspective of Ruth, as well as some letters and emails from other characters.

When I read a book from an author whose work I haven’t explored yet, I tend to do some biographical research on the author with the belief that it’ll help me understand the book better. We all write about what we know. Well, with this novel, this biographical analysis is impossible to avoid. The character of Ruth shares not only her first name with the author, but also pretty much every other fact I could glean from the Internet. Both Ruths live on Cortes Island, are married to a Canadian artist named Oliver, are writers, and spend part of their time in New York City. Most of my lit professors deterred me from relying too heavily on the author’s biography as an inspiration for analysis, but clearly it’s unavoidable here. Ozeki’s choice to create a protagonist so similar to herself is obviously intentional and subversive. Her insertion of herself into a world of fiction toys with the idea that Nao, too, may be real, as the fictional Ruth is determined to ascertain. Once I discovered all the similarities between Ruth the character and Ruth the author, I couldn’t help but search for Nao as well, as well as read up on the 2011 tsunami…which I’m sure were part of the author’s intention.

So by inserting a version of herself into the novel, Ozeki creates multiple versions of herself: as writer (both of A Tale for the Time Being and inside the novel itself), as character (of the world inside the book), and as reader and interpreter (of Nao’s diary). Nao also adopts these roles, and she and Ruth subject these roles onto each other: they both write for each other as the audience and are also the consumers of each other’s words. The relationship between the two characters as reader and writer is symbiotic. The reading enables the writing, and vice-versa. And then there’s us, the reader of the complete work, as a third but necessary participant of the cycle. It reminded me of that age-old riddle: if a tree falls in a forest with no one to hear it, does it make sound? If no one reads to the end of a book, is there really an end?

YES OR NO?: YES. In addition to the above, A Tale for the Time Being contains all the necessary elements for me to fall in love with a book: memorable characters, intricate plot, and engaging prose. Even if you’re not interested in the somewhat paradoxical stuff I’ve written above, I’m sure you’ll still find something to relate to in the novel’s depiction of family, adolescence, community, love, depression…really. There isn’t much this book doesn’t cover.

Book Review: Carol

wp-1481039394800.jpg

I feel I stand in a desert with my hands outstretched, and you are raining down upon me.

Carol, by Patricia Highsmith

Whenever I consume any form of media, whether books, TV shows, or movies, I tend to focus on the representation of women (or, sometimes, the lack thereof). At times I have trouble reconciling my love for a show or book and its questionable treatment of women (East of EdenBreaking Bad). At times, I find a work that presents complex, interesting, realistic female characters, but suffers from plot and thematic issues. I don’t need (or even want) female characters to be paragons of virtue; I prefer realistic, clever, flawed, sometimes selfish women.

In the past few weeks, as I read Patricia Highsmith’s Carol, I found myself consuming other media with women at its center: Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, and Jessica Jones, both on Netflix. All three feature women as their protagonists, women who mostly fulfill my criteria of being realistic and flawed. The two women at the center of Carol are Therese Belivet, a passive and timid young woman attempting to start her career as a set designer, and Carol Aird, the object of her affections. I loved that I felt ambivalent about these women even as I sympathized with their situation. Therese was often frustratingly passive, while I found Carol overtly manipulative, brusque, and unkind. I felt the same about the characters in Gilmore Girls and Jessica Jones as well: they tended to create problems for themselves, and acted selfishly to get what they wanted. People often complain about characters who are too selfish, especially when it comes to female characters, but I find selfishness refreshing and realistic. It’s easy to care for a character with good intentions, but great writing makes you continue to care about a story that centers around a self-serving protagonist.

What I enjoyed about Carol, Gilmore Girls, and Jessica Jones was the focus on relationships between women, whether it be romantic like Therese and Carol, familial as in Gilmore Girls, and the numerous friendships and symbiotic relationships in Jessica Jones. A lot of media is noticeably lacking when featuring realistic female characters, and even more lacking when portraying relationships between women. Relationships between women are often reduced to familial relationships or that of romantic rivals. Even in Breaking Bad, which is one my favorite TV shows and often listed as one of the greatest shows of all time, the only noticeable relationship between two women is that between Skylar and her sister, Marie. For me, the fact that a show with such a wide cast of characters only really showcases one relationship between women is troublesome. Meanwhile, in less than 300 pages, Carol describes a complex and realistic affair between two women at different stages in their lives.

That being said, Carol is an enjoyable read, perfectly set in 1950s New York, yet still relevant today with its focus on a same-sex relationship and the associated stigma. Therese’s aimlessness and inability to find work as a young woman in her early twenties is also painfully relatable. It’s not the most exciting of reads to be sure, but I enjoyed its take on the relationships between women.

YES OR NO?: YESCarol is a short, enlightening read. As a fan of Cate Blanchett, I’ll be looking forward to watching the film adaptation as well.