Book Review: The Man in the High Castle

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Even the I Ching, which they’ve forced down our throats; it’s Chinese. Borrowed from way back when. Whom are they fooling? Themselves? Pilfer customs right and left, wear, eat talk, walk, as for instance consuming with gusto baked potato served with sour cream and chives, old-fashioned American dish added to their haul. But nobody fooled, I can tell you; me least of all.

The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick

I majored in English literature in university, and my favorite classes were those that revolved around less-canonical titles. My seminar, for instance, was on Victorian detective literature (which covered much more than just Sherlock Holmes). Another class I took had a science fiction theme, although I recall our instructor deemed it a class on the “post-human”. We started with Frankenstein and ended with Octavia Butler’s Dawn, but the work that left the biggest impression on me was Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

When reading Androids, I was especially intrigued by how Dick portrays the novel’s value systems in contrast to our own: in a world of androids and humans, of real and electric animals, what does it mean to be real or fake? Which, if any, is more valuable? In the world of the novel, real animals have been wiped out and are now coveted, less as pets than as status symbols. Although imaginative, this new value system is strikingly logical, and I was impressed by how easily Dick portrayed the fragility of accepted value systems in the face of societal change.

Like AndroidsThe Man in the High Castle portrays a society disturbingly similar, yet dissimilar to our own. Instead of a future where humans have colonized Mars, The Man in the High Castle is an alternate history novel, imagining a world where the Axis won World War II. Jews live undetected, disguised; Germany has expanded their colonization efforts to the rest of the solar system; and characters obsess over a book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, an alternate history novel that imagines the world if the Allies won the war.

The society portrayed in the novel is fleshed out and substantial. The novel changes between the perspectives of different characters, so it can initially be difficult to keep track of who’s who, but this gets easier as time goes on. The depiction of multiple perspectives provides a comprehensive view of the world of the novel, as it includes Japanese, formerly American, and German characters. For me, I found the stories of Robert Childan, an antiques shop owner in San Francisco who caters to the Japanese elite, and Juliana Frink, a judo instructor who uses her sexuality to manipulate men and develops an obsession with The Grasshopper Lives Heavy and its titular author, the man in the high castle, the most thought-provoking.

One aspect of the novel that I enjoyed was how characters navigate this new  world. Childan in particular is in a tough spot. His shop is popular amongst elite members of society, namely the Japanese, yet he himself must be constantly on alert as to not offend his customers by adhering to Japanese social customs. Yet the accepted social customs of the day are not strictly Japanese, as Japanese, North American, and German customs have blended in the novel’s post-war society. Childan’s shop itself is a victim of this new societal shift, catering to Japanese occupants of San Francisco who want kitschy, outdated Americana to decorate their homes, as coveted, rare symbols of a culture now dying out. This struck me as insanely clever, and a fun poke at those who pretentiously display artwork created by other cultures in order to appear more cultured.

I also appreciated the character of Juliana, who is one of the novel’s few female characters, if not its only female protagonist. I found her character, if not entirely sympathetic or likeable, quite realistic as an attractive young woman in the novel’s society. I also liked that her enjoyment in her own sexuality is not depicted negatively (except sometimes by the other characters, which I found realistic), and that it even helps drive the central plot forward and gives the character agency. I would have loved if Juliana was fleshed out more, but I didn’t find her any more less detailed than the other characters. Since there’s such a large cast of characters, I found the amount of characterization given to Juliana and the other characters sufficient to keep the novel short and still thought-provoking.

YES OR NO?: A resounding YES. I became a fan of Dick’s work after reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheepand I will definitely continue reading his work after this novel. The novel is deftly written, concise, and still has me thinking about its themes days after finishing. Highly recommended.

Book Review: Good Indian Girls

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It was as if the dead woman had witnessed a final secret. A blissful peace wrapped her features and Lovedeep hoped she would look as pretty, as rested, as completed, as this woman did in the video. But what had she ever done? She felt suddenly small and stupid, that her life was coming to an end and this was all, this wasteland of an apartment, this unmarried life, childless. Who had she ever cared for? What accomplishments did she leave behind, what unspoken mercies done for strangers?

Good Indian Girls, by Ranbir Singh Sidhu

2017 has helped me realize the importance of setting measurable, trackable goals, whether in my personal or professional life, with the help of my trusty bullet journal. I’ve always been partial to record-keeping, and my bullet journal provides a customizable, lovingly well-worn space to do just that. My reading goal for 2017 was to read more books than I read in 2016, and to read more books by new authors. So far, as we approach the midpoint of 2017, I’ve read ten books (which, considering my goal of 36, is a little short), nine by new authors. The bullet journal makes it easy to see if I’m making enough progress, and whether it’s necessary to adjust my goals given the current circumstances.

I’ve been trying to dive into books without too much context, and so I picked up this volume mostly based on the title. I was interested in what I figured was a collection of short stories revolving around the immigrant experience, specifically that of young women navigating the cultural differences of their native India and their current countries of residence. I figured I’d easily relate to it, as I generally have with other immigrant narratives, while learning more about different facets of Indian culture.

But…a few of these stories deal with what I expected – namely, the titular short story, which concerns a woman named Lovedeep with an agonizingly empty social life. The rest of the collection follows characters of Indian heritage, of various religions and ages, in mostly preposterous situations. A particular story that stands out, which is by no means the most bizarre, concerns an ambassador’s wife who considers cooking her pet snake to serve at a dinner party.

To be blunt, I didn’t enjoy this book, although it didn’t have to do with the book’s attempts at magical realism. I have high expectations for short stories. In a way, short stories are much more difficult to write than novels. The author must convey meaning, craft characters, and deliver some sort of punchline in a small number of pages. My favorite short stories (Shirley Jackson’s “Charles”, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”, Roald Dahl’s “The Landlady”) all do this expertly. Yet, this book fails to do that. The writing style is often confusing, its symbolism and themes messy, and the characters forgettable.

YES OR NO?: NO. Ultimately forgettable, confusing, and a little uncomfortable, I wouldn’t seek out more of this author’s work based on this collection. Some of the stories were more enjoyable than others, but all in all, I wouldn’t really recommend this.

Book Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

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You don’t know what it’s like to grow up with a mother who never said a positive thing in her life, not about her children or the world, who was always suspicious, always tearing you down and splitting your dreams straight down the seams. When my first pen pal, Tomoko, stopped writing me after three letters she was the one who laughed: You think someone’s going to lose life writing to you? Of course I cried; I was eight and I had already planned that Tomoko and her family would adopt me. My mother of course saw clean into the marrow of those dreams, and laughed. I wouldn’t write to you either, she said. She was that kind of mother: who makes you doubt yourself, who would wipe you out if you let her. But I’m not going to pretend either. For a long time I let her say what she wanted about me, and what was worse, for a long time I believed her.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz

I’ve spent most of my life on the west coast, moving from Seattle to the Bay Area and finally to Vancouver, where I’ve been living now for more than ten years. But I was born in Seoul, a city whose complex and efficient transit system, assortment of inexpensive and sinfully delicious street foods, vast shopping malls, and plethora of skilled (and some criminally unskilled) plastic surgeons are second to none. Whenever I return to Seoul, which is usually at least once every four years, I’m always faced with the fact that the city I now call home is a sleepy hamlet compared to Seoul. In Seoul, there is always something happening, and the subway is always filled with people, whether at noon on a weekday or late in the night.

However, the Seoul  my parents speak of is vastly different. My parents grew up during the reign of Park Chung-Hee, a military dictator who ruled Korea for thirteen years and was assassinated by his own chief of security. (His daughter, elected as president in 2013, was recently impeached and is currently imprisoned.) My parents reminisce of a Korea plagued by a string of corrupt leaders, where poverty was rampant. Despite Seoul’s current reputation as a high-tech metropolis, I am reminded that the relatively cushy North American lifestyle I lead was made possible by the much harsher reality my parents underwent as students.

It’s funny how readily we relate to a person from a different culture. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao centers around the family of Oscar De Leon, an overweight, perpetually friendless Dominican-American growing up in New Jersey. The novel recounts the histories of Oscar, his older sister Lola, his mother Beli, and his grandparents, including depictions of the Dominican Republic under the reign of Rafael Trujillo. Now, I had never heard of Trujillo before reading this book, but the descriptions of the DR under Trujillo was as familiar to me as could be. While uniquely devastating and gruesome, I still related to the depictions of atrocities under Trujillo’s regime. In fact, I was significantly more interested in the stories of Beli and her parents, who were more directly impacted by Trujillo’s regime, than that of Lola and Oscar.

When I first picked up the book, I expected myself to easily relate to Oscar as the child of immigrants, and for the sense of non-belonging he constantly feels. However, I simply didn’t find Oscar sympathetic or interesting. His story arc, which generally consists of him flailing in self-pity and using unnecessarily verbose vocabulary, were dull. I’m no stranger to self-pity and depression, and while Oscar reminded me of some people I’ve known, I simply couldn’t wait to transition from his story to his mother or grandparents’.

That being said, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is engrossing and written skillfully. The writing, while switching perspectives between different characters, is a combination of English and Spanish, including slang – yet, for the most part, I could easily discern the meaning of the Spanish through context. It lends an authenticity to the novel while enhancing, not impeding, the reader’s experience. One of my biggest pet The Grapes of Wrath). Not here! I sometimes felt compelled to look things up on Google Translate, but for the most part, I cruised through the novel easily, despite my lack of familiarity with Spanish.

YES OR NO?: YES! The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is detailed, human, engaging, and provided me with a wealth of information about the history of a country I’d never before learned about. Despite the title, though, I found the sections on Oscar the least interesting, and would have preferred to learn more about the older members of his family, even his sister, Lola. That being said, I will definitely revisit Diaz’s work in the future.