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: 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.

Soft Peaks and food blogging in Vancouver

At the beginning of February, I received an invitation from Soft Peaks, an ice cream shop in Vancouver’s Gastown, cordially offering complimentary ice cream for me and a friend. If you’re from Vancouver and you’re at all active on social media, you must be aware of Soft Peaks. My Instagram and Facebook feeds have been clogged with photos of Soft Peaks’s organic milk creations, topped with luxurious toppings, and it’s been impossible to avoid when skimming food blogs (of which there are literally hundreds in Vancouver), which is how I torture myself when I have a hankering for a midnight snack.

So why did I receive this invitation? Was Soft Peaks being generous to random Vancouverites, spreading goodwill in the form of cups of refreshing treats? Actually, no. I used to write one of the hundreds of food blogs that I just mentioned, although I haven’t been active for more than a year.

I used to love food blogging. It gave me a creative outlet when my day job mostly consisted of writing fairly formulaic web articles. It also was a nice way for me to look back on meals I’d had, and, in the case of my travel posts, relive my travels a little.

But for some reason, I stopped enjoying it. There were a few reasons for this.

For one thing, I found I was in a rut. I focused on writing interesting preambles and conclusions, but my actual descriptions of the food I consumed seemed stale. I resorted to using the same analogies over and over again, and for the life of me, I couldn’t come up with so many ways to describe a negitoro roll.

There are many food blogs in Vancouver, many with excellent photos that show the food up close, making their readers’ mouths water with envy by exhibiting that perfect medium rare steak, that sweetly rounded scoop of salted caramel of Earnest Ice Cream, those perfectly seared pieces of aburi nigiri. I had a decent DSLR and I was capable of taking decent photos of my food, but I wanted my blog to be more about pictures. I wanted it to be about words.

Food blogging stopped being creative for me. I found I was going to restaurants simply based on what was trendy, and I wasn’t being adventurous in trying out new places based on my own volition. Vancouver, with its huge community of food bloggers, made me less confident that I could offer up something unique for potential readers.

With this blog, I hoped to be more creative, by writing about a topic I’ve always been enthusiastic about–books–while occasionally writing other posts as they occurred to me. Recently I’ve realized that reviewing books can have the same caveats as reviewing restaurants, and that I need to be more creative and motivated about producing content, which is my goal for future posts.

Oh, and going back to the ice cream at Soft Peaks–it’s delicious. I had the rocky mountain with caramel syrup, and my snacking companion had the Mudslide. It reminded me of soft serve I had in Myungdong on my latest trip back to Seoul. Perfect for a hot summer day, or even a chilly February afternoon. Sometimes there’s a reason that places become trendy, other than the pure aesthetics (ie. Instagrammability) of their food.