Book Review: Smart Women

20170813_154412.jpg

“When you’re without problems,” Claire said, “you’re dead.”

Smart Women, by Judy Blume

Summer is drawing to a close here in Vancouver, and what with working five days a week and attempting to cram every summer activity into precious weekends (namely hiking), I haven’t prioritized reading as much as I should. I recently picked up this book at the library – intrigued because while I’d heard a lot about Judy Blume growing up, I’d never actually read any of her work. I thought this would be a nice introduction to her as an adult, since I’ve found that attempting to read children’s novels as an adult can be a trying experience. The things I like about reading fiction – masterful, detailed prose and the carefully illustrated subtleties of life and relationships – are often lacking in fiction intended for younger, less experienced readers.

Smart Women draws the story of two divorced mothers, Margo and B.B., who live in Boulder, Colorado. B.B.’s ex-husband, Andrew, ends up moving to Boulder, which is the inciting incident of the novel’s plot. There are a variety of characters, including Margo and B.B.’s children, their romantic partners, extended family members, and other Boulder residents, with various subplots.

Although the subject of the novel is obviously intended for adults, I found this book disappointing, especially for my first foray into Blume’s bibliography. Now, I didn’t have the loftiest expectations for this book. I knew I was getting into chick lit, but I’ve read and enjoyed chick lit before, specifically Sophie Kinsella, who despite the genre’s somewhat shallower subject matter, always infuses humor, subtlety, and even gravitas into her books.

Smart Women instead read like a children’s novel, despite the adult subject matter. I found the characters to be shallow husks and stereotypes – Margo and B.B. as two stereotypical divorcees, Michelle as a rebellious teenager, and so on. If the characters weren’t stereotypes, they were simply devoid of any personality. Andrew, B.B.’s ex-husband who ends up dating Margo, is a major character, yet I couldn’t describe a single aspect of his personality. Blume also attempts some character development, especially for the younger characters such as Michelle, Margo’s daughter, but it is half-hearted and clunky, coming seemingly out of nowhere. I felt no sympathy for the characters.

The whole novel, which attempts to focus on something very real – two families attempting to merge together in times of crises – fell flat to me. It failed to capture the nuance of family dynamics or even the reality of being a woman in a believable way. There were several plot points that simply seemed thrown in that had no impact, either on me as a reader or on the story as a whole.

YES OR NO?: NO. I didn’t have high expectations for this novel. I simply wanted something light-hearted and quick that I could enjoy over a few days. Instead, I slogged through this novel, constantly forgetting the names of characters and their relationships to each other due to the lack of characterization. I haven’t read Blume’s other work, but I would pass on this one.

Book Review: Alias Grace

20170730_103000

He thinks, with a certain mordant irony, that she may also be the only one who would satisfy all of his mother’s oft-hinted requirements, or almost all: Grace is not, for instance, rich. But she has beauty without frivolity, domesticity without dullness, and simplicity of manner, and prudence, and circumspection.

Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood

A few years ago, when I was taking a course at the local university, I had a classmate who wanted to pursue a career in publishing and was an avid reader and collector of old and rare editions of books. Once before class, when the class was discussing the latest episode of Game of Thrones, she remarked that she didn’t watch TV (with a clear attitude of superiority) and preferred books.

This bothered me. I don’t particularly love Game of Thrones (although I’m a huge fan of the novels), but I hate when books are considered to be a superior art form over movies or TVs. As a child, my parents took me to the library every Saturday morning to encourage me to read, but we also watched lots of TV (especially Korean programming, which is probably why I can still read Korean fluently) and movies. Books encompass so many genres, authors, and titles, so I’m not sure how someone could claim that books, as a single entity, are superior to all TV or movies. I’ve been impressed by so many shows over the past three or four years. Like a good book, a good show inspires me to think, to consider, to scrutinize.

One show I was especially gripped by this year was Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Having read the original novel a few years ago, I was skeptical of the adaptation, but I loved it. I was blown away by the performances by the lead actresses, as well as the expansion of the world created by Atwood in the novel. It caused me to reconsider the different roles women have in society, the relationships between women (whether camaraderie, familial, romantic…jealousy), and the roles men play in furthering (or hindering) gender equality. These were already issues I was interested in, but the series sprouted new ideas for me.

I found similar themes in Alias Grace, the latest Atwood novel I finished. This is my fifth Atwood work (after The Handmaid’s Tale, the Oryx and Crake trilogy, and The Heart Goes Last), and I loved it. Since the other works were mainly dystopian, I was cautious of reading historical fiction by Atwood, especially since I’d tried to read The Blind Assassin a few years ago and ended up abandoning it midway. However, Alias Grace is as topical and poignant today as it was when first written. It shares with the works listed above what I love most about Atwood’s works: exploring familiar themes in a slightly distant world.

Alias Grace tells the story of Grace Marks, a young woman who works as a maid in Toronto, who ends up being convicted of the murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and suspected of the murder of his housekeeper and mistress, Nancy Montgomery. While Grace Marks is an actual historical figure, Atwood adds a doctor, Simon Jordan, to Grace’s narrative, providing an audience for Grace’s story. Dr. Jordan, who hopes to learn more about Grace and possibly diagnose her with a mental illness (also to further his own research), asks to listen to Grace’s entire life story: immigrating from Ireland to Canada, working a variety of households as a maid, and eventually being incarcerated for the murder of Thomas Kinnear.

What is especially brilliant about this narrative within a narrative is that while we hear Grace’s story through Grace, it is told to Dr. Jordan – therefore, this maintains the ambiguity of whether Grace committed the murders or was an unwilling accessory, since Grace’s true intentions are not revealed. It becomes clear over time that Grace is brighter than she lets on, and that as a young woman of low social standing, she has learned how to speak and behave in front of men, specifically those like Dr. Jordan. The addition of Dr. Jordan, while instrumental in showing attitudes that men had towards women in different roles (maids, widows, mothers) in the mid-1800s, also sheds light on the history of perspectives on mental health, especially concerning women, and the power men, and especially doctors, had over women’s lives. Overall, the novel is engaging and while being fairly predictable (if you read up on the actual historical Grace Marks beforehand), the addition of the fictional Dr. Jordan provides some unpredictability and suspense through Atwood’s clever embellishments.

YES OR NO?: YES. A little dull at first, Alias Grace provides a compelling, historical narrative, with relatable perspective on the role of women in society, whether today or in the 1800s. I’d recommend it if you’re a fan of Atwood and interested in historical fiction and gender issues – I’m personally pretty excited for the TV adaptation this fall.

Book Review: The Vegetarian

20170625_195956.jpg

She was no longer able to cope with all that her sister reminded her of. She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there.

The Vegetarian, by Han Kang

A few years ago, I read Please Look After Mom. I don’t remember the last time I read a Korean novel before that, but suffice it to say it had been a few years. I read Please Look After Mom in English, because although I can read Korean, I knew attempting to read it in Korean might slow me down. Plus, I was curious about how certain words and ideas would be translated into English. I often resort to speaking a mix of English and Korean when in conversation with anyone who understands both languages, since it’s difficult to express certain ideas in both languages. Despite not having lived in Korea for more than ten years, and sometimes feeling disconnected to my culture, I thoroughly enjoyed Please Look After Mom.

The Vegetarian is a novella written by the Korean writer Han Kang. My dad, who often encourages me to explore Korean books and media, mentioned the novel to me, saying that it had won the Man Booker International Prize. When I stumbled onto the book at my local library, I picked it up. It happened to be under 200 pages, so I thought it’d be a quick read. Despite its length, though, The Vegetarian takes some mental energy to get through.

The titular vegetarian is Yeong-hye, a typical Korean housewife who decides to turn to vegetarianism after a disturbing dream. Her decision causes irrevocable damage to her relationships with her husband and family, especially her older sister (who coincidentally shares my name) and brother-in-law. The premise itself is closely tied to contemporary Korean culture, which generally views vegetarianism as a somewhat foolish, unnecessary luxury, other than for Buddhist monks. As a country that experienced extreme poverty until fairly recently, refusing to eat meat is often seen as “being picky”, rather than a valid choice.

I found similar themes in The Vegetarian as in Please Look After Mom, specifically the role of women in Korean society. While Yeong-hye is not a mother, she is a stay-at-home wife whose tasks of cooking every meal for her husband and helping him put on his suit in the morning define her existence. Her husband, and later, her family’s insistence that she cook and eat meat as to avoid discomforting her husband and his business associates is symptomatic of the traditional Korean expectation that a wife sacrifice her personal desires to support her husband. The novel challenges Korean society’s views on family, marriage, sex, and mental health by having Yeong-hye cross almost every line imaginable.

Other than that, there are many passages in the novel that are somewhat gruesome, due to the subject matter of Yeong-hye’s aversion to meat. There are instances of self-harm and sexual assault that made me feel uncomfortable and sometimes queasy. However, I believe this is an important book: one that sheds light on Korean society, while also effectively portraying universally relatable ideas.

YES OR NO?: YESThe Vegetarian is not for everyone, due to its subject matter, which can be graphic and upsetting. However, I would recommend this book for those that are interested. It is short, compelling, thought-provoking, and I believe that you should read something that makes you uncomfortable once in a while.

Book Review: White Oleander

20170618_160349Loneliness is the human condition. Cultivate it. The way it tunnels into you allows your soul room to grow. Never expect to outgrow loneliness. Never hope to find people who will understand you, someone to fill that space. An intelligent, sensitive person is the exception, the very great exception. If you expect to find people who will understand you, you will grow murderous with disappointment. The best you’ll ever do is to understand yourself, know what it is that you want, and not let the cattle stand in your way.

White Oleander, by Janet Fitch

A few years ago, I read Twilight, mostly out of curiosity. It was insanely popular at the time, as well as derided, so I wanted to form my own opinion of it. I found it dull, somewhat problematic, but not terribly offensive. One aspect of it that was particularly memorable to me (that I’ve since encountered in countless other young adult novels) was the heroine’s utter lack of personality. I thought this was simply due to the author’s lack of talent (Twilight is certainly lacking in many ways), but it’s an intentional move in much of YA literature. The hero or heroine is drawn without any distinguishing personality traits, so that the reader can insert themselves as the protagonist.

White Oleander is a novel about a young woman, but it’s far from YA fiction. When Astrid Magnussen’s mother, Ingrid, is imprisoned for murder, she becomes a part of the foster care system. White Oleander follows Astrid as she transitions from home to home, questioning her relationship with her mothers, learning to adapt to each situation, and suffering terrifying abuse. It’s an eye-opening look into life as a child in the foster care system, which I personally had little foreknowledge of.

Initially, it appears that Astrid is somewhat like your average YA heroine. It’s difficult to determine what her personality is, exactly. But as time goes on, it becomes clear that Astrid’s personalities change depending on her current environment – as she moves to each foster family. My favorite chapters were those detailing her life with Claire, who provides the resources for Astrid’s artistic ability to flourish, while still providing an example of how dysfunction still exists in an upper-class environment. Astrid is a layered, believable, and sympathetic character whose story I could not stop reading.

In addition to the detailed and realistic characterization, White Oleander is written in a lovely, poetic prose. There are some poems included as part of the novel, since Astrid’s mother, Ingrid, is a famed poet. I generally skim over poems and songs when an author chooses to include them, but I found myself genuinely intrigued by Ingrid’s (and, therefore, Fitch’s) use of words and ideas, even for such ugly ends. While Astrid does not comment on her own writing style, the narration is similarly lovingly crafted, poetic and elegant. The novel is also surprisingly easy to read. Even with the constant revolving door of characters, it’s surprisingly easy to keep track of who’s who.

My only problem with this novel is the ending, which I wasn’t entirely satisfied by. (But are any of us fully satisfied by any ending?) It seemed a bit contrived, and a tad unrealistic compared to the rest of the plot. Although, I suppose, White Oleander leaves Astrid’s life in a spot of uncertainty, which I suppose is true to the rest of the novel. I was, however, satisfied by the character development Astrid goes through, and the agency that the ending allows for her.

YES OR NO?: YES. This book was selected for Oprah’s book club in 1999. When I mentioned this to an acquaintance, he jokingly said, “Well, if Oprah liked it, it must be good, right?”…but I can’t see how this book is not worth a read. I picked this book up on a whim but was immediately engrossed. I would highly recommend this book for its plot, prose, and characters.

Book Review: The Man in the High Castle

20170529_1649222.jpg

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

20170518_154001

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

clone tag: -3110398015685053350

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.