Book Review: Moonwalking with Einstein

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Memory is like a spiderweb that catches new information. The more it catches, the bigger it grows. And the bigger it grows, the more it catches.

Moonwalking with Einstein, by Joshua Foer

While I love to read and add to this blog, my day job is to churn out technical documents at a software company. I mean, it involves more creativity and planning than it sounds: structuring content, researching new features, and figuring out how to reuse my existing content as efficiently as possible. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I certainly enjoy it. There are times when the technical aspect of my job overwhelms me, which can be distressing – I’m often surrounded by people who assume my technical knowledge is beyond what it actually is.

I was once bemoaning this to my boyfriend, especially the level of concentration it takes me to understand technical concepts, and how it makes me feel stupid at times. He then insisted that I wasn’t stupid at all, and pointed out my sense of memory as an example. It surprised me – I’m aware that I have a good memory (friends often count on me to remember where we had brunch that time, and I have an uncanny ability to recall which actors starred in which movies), but I’d never counted that as a form of intelligence. It’s just been a part of who I am for as long as I can remember. Faces, names, movie titles, state capitals. While I have a “naturally” good memory, I also am obsessed with keeping track of things: through my journaling, photographs, and of course, this blog.

I’ve been trying to read more non-fiction lately, and this book seemed like a good fit for me. Moonwalking with Einstein, despite its misleading and pseudo-catchy title, is about memory and memorization. The book covers the mental athletes who participate in the World Memory Championships (yes, that’s a thing) by memorizing as much information as possible in a given amount of time, scientific cases of people with impaired and extraordinary memories, and Joshua Foer’s own journey to becoming the American memory champion.

I found most of the ideas presented by the book fascinating, although the book itself tends to be repetitive. For example, one key tactic to becoming a memory champion is to attach as vulgar and/or ridiculous (and therefore memorable) images to whatever needs to be memorized. In my opinion, Foer spends an inordinate amount of time detailing these ludicrous images. After a while, I didn’t find them entertaining and they were just bothersome to read through. Also, while I understand that including Foer’s own mastery of memory techniques serves to prove that training one’s memory is an achievable goal for the average reader, I wasn’t too interested in the author’s journey. There were also times when his somewhat mocking attitude towards the mental athletes (and their lack of fashion sense, or other oddities) felt mean and unnecessarily judgmental.

Other than the memory techniques, I was most interested in the cases of extraordinary and impaired memories that Foer researched. He had the opportunity to speak with Kim Peek, the real life inspiration for Rain Man. I watched Rain Man while in elementary school, and I’d never known that Dustin Hoffman’s character had been inspired by a real person, so that was interesting to read about. The historical perspective on memory was interesting as well, to consider that memorization was generally considered a trainable and valuable skill rather than a meaningless exercise for students.

YES OR NO?: YES, with some reservations. There are times that Moonwalking with Einstein feels like an overly long New Yorker piece (with not quite the same quality of writing), but mostly, it’s an entertaining ride. I read this book in about five days, which I think is an ideal amount of time. There would definitely be some information overload if tackling it in one or two days.

Book Review: Nemesis

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It was impossible to believe that Alan was lying in that pale, plain pine box merely from having caught a summertime disease. That box from which you cannot force your way out. That box in which a twelve-year-old was twelve years old forever. The rest of us live and grow older by the day, but he remains twelve. Millions of years go by, and he is still twelve.

Nemesis, by Philip Roth

My friends and I are now in our mid-twenties and tackling our first jobs out of school, and (at least for me) confronting the nine to five lifestyle (well, for me, more like seven to three). At first, I was bored by the repetitiveness of each day, my habits and routines. However, I’ve learned to find comfort and a sense of productivity in my routines. Repetitiveness is a key factor in many feelings I strive towards on a daily basis: a sense of comfort, productivity, and stability.

That’s a roundabout way to segue into how I’ve enjoyed my routine of discovering new books at the library lately. In this case, I simply was attracted to the cover (a bright, tempting yellow). With a title like Nemesis, I expected a sci-fi title. Instead, Nemesis is the story of Bucky Cantor, a young man who’s been marked exempt from military duty during World War II. A new grad, Bucky becomes a playground director in his hometown, during a balmy summer where the local children are succumbing to a polio epidemic.

At 280 pages, this is a fairly short novel, and one I could see polishing off on a hot, lazy summer day (much like the ones Bucky spends playing baseball with his charges). When reading this, I had a similar feeling as to when I read Revolutionary Road or The Remains of the Day: a weird sense of nostalgia for a time before even my parents were born. We all long for a time that seems familiar, and I guess having read so many WWII and post-WWII novels makes this time feel familiar to me.

The novel’s plot, while dealing with an epidemic, is not the stuff a Hollywood blockbuster, and its philosophical bent can get a bit heavy-handed. It’s a quiet, introspective novel. I loved the thoughtful, detailed prose, and the characters–realistic in their personalities and their reactions to the events around them. Imagine my surprise when Philip Roth, a writer I’d never heard of before (shame on me), turned out to be a Pulitzer winner. It’s easy to see why. Nemesis is masterful in its insight on human behavior, and is thoroughly engaging while not resorting to any cheap tricks plot or dialogue-wise.

The medical nature of the spread of polio isn’t a huge focus in this book – or, rather, the focus is the characters’ lack of knowledge on how polio is spread, and their terror around it. There are several people in my life who suffered polio at a young age and now walk with a slight limp. For me, it was thought-provoking to glimpse a world where polio is regarded with such fear and mystery, and reminded me of my privilege to live in the circumstances that I do.

YES OR NO?: YES. Short and bittersweet, Nemesis features detailed, weighty prose, a thought-provoking plot, and realistic, relatable characters. I’m looking forward to reading Roth’s American Pastoral when I get a chance!

Book Review: The Sacrifice

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How alone this was going to be. How she’d been shunted into it as a farm-creature–cow, calf, hog–is shunted along a chute into the slaughter-house. Because the mother Ednetta Frye had requested a black police officer. A black woman police officer. Black had always seemed harsh to her. African-American was a preferable term. And there was Negro,  no longer fashionable. If she was anything, she was Hispanic. In crude mouths, spic. Yet among Hispanic Americans she was “too “white”–not just her appearance but also her way of speaking, her manner. Her life had been, since adolescence, an effort to overcome the crude perimeters of identity. Her skin-color, ethnic background, gender. I am so much more than the person you see. Give me a chance!

The Sacrifice, by Joyce Carol Oates

One of my reading goals for 2017 was to read more books by authors I hadn’t yet read from. So when I visited my local library and saw The Sacrifice prominently featured on a shelf, I decided to pick it up. Joyce Carol Oates is one of those names I’d heard countless times, but never really pursued.

The Sacrifice revolves around Sybilla Frye, a black teenager living in the fictional inner-city neighborhood of Red Rock in Pascayne, New Jersey, who is discovered hog-tied, beaten, and presumably raped, with racist slurs written in dog feces on her body. After a hospital visit during which Sybilla and her mother, Ednetta, refuse to have a rape kit administered, Sybilla claims that her abusers were white cops. For a while, little seems to change in the Fryes’ world, until Sybilla’s cause is adopted by Marus and Byron Mudrick, a reverend and attorney duo (who also happen to be twin brothers).

I was interested in this book for a number of reasons. For one thing, I learned that the plot of the book is based on the real-life case of Tawana Brawley, who was discovered in a similar state as Sybilla, accused white men of the crime, and was subsequently sued for defamation by one of her alleged assailants. In the past few years, as my interest in social justice has grown, I’ve followed (and been outraged by) many similar cases, so I was intrigued in the book’s discussion of rape culture and of race.

It’s intriguing when a book whose topic sounds fascinating ends up boring you. What didn’t I like about this book? Theoretically, I should have sympathized with all of the characters: with Sybilla and Ednetta, living under the abusive thumb of Ednetta’s common-law husband, Anis; with Officer Iglesias and Ada Furth, discriminated against by seemingly everyone for their race and their aspirations; even with Anis, whose abusive behavior is directly linked to his troubled background. Yet, for some reason, I felt nothing when I read this book. It was honestly difficult for me to finish, even though, at 309 pages, it isn’t exactly a long read.

I believe that had more time been given to develop the characters, the themes would have resonated more. The novel is told from the perspectives of different characters, including the ones mentioned above, spanning a wide range of races and ages. Yet I didn’t feel that I got to know any character beyond the surface. Each character was imbued with some kind of superficial motivation, but felt like little more than a stereotype. There were also some characters who were only described in passing. These characters were then used to evoke an emotional response from the reader later in the novel, which simply didn’t work. I could  not muster up an emotional response to a character I didn’t feel like I knew, let alone cared about. I wished the novel had focused more on the central characters of Sybilla, Ednetta, Anis, and perhaps even Ada, to delve into their reactions to the crazy happenings around them, but instead, there was a stronger focus on driving the plot forward, especially in the second half.

YES OR NO?: NO. Despite my interest in the subject matter, I found this book unengaging. To be honest, I felt more engaged when reading the Wikipedia page on the Tawana Brawley case than reading this fictionalization. I’m willing to try reading more of Oates’s work in the future, but this novel failed to capture my interest.

Book Review: The Poisonwood Bible

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A first child is your own best foot forward, and how you do cheer those little feet as they strike out. You examine every turn of flesh for precocity, and crow it to the world. But the last one: the baby who trails her scent like a flag of surrender through your life when there will be no more coming after–oh, that’ s love by a different name.

The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver

Remember when at the beginning of the year, I promised to read more books than I had the previous year? That brings this year’s hopeful goal to 36 books, roughly three books a month. Well, I can tell you that so far, it’s been a rough start. I’ve been trying to improve my life in other ways (exercising more often, counting calories, trying to spend more time with my family) that by the end of January, I only managed to finish one book.

At the beginning of last week, though, I suddenly became more diligent about reading. Two things sparked this change. For one, I found Emma Watson’s Goodreads account, and that she’d read 39 books in 2016. That was three more than my count, and I figured that if someone with what I imagine to be a much more hectic, exciting life than mine managed to read 39 books, I could easily read more on a daily basis. I also read a thinkpiece where the writer professed how easy it is to change your mindset about something. He described how he’d always thought he needed a car, but one day he decided to bike to and from work instead – resulting in a new hobby he enjoyed, improved health, and more savings. I’d always avoided reading on the train to and from work, since my commute is only about ten minutes and I’d figured it wasn’t enough time for me to make a significant dent in my book. Still, I realized, ten minutes makes a difference when I hold myself accountable and read each day.

That being said, it took me more than a month to finish The Poisonwood Bible. Part of it was my own laziness, but part of it was the book’s dense prose. I’ve studied Heart of Darkness about three times now as part of different courses, and one aspect that instructors never fail to bring up is Joseph Conrad’s dense prose, attributed to English not being his first language, but also as a metaphor for the denseness of the African jungle. The Poisonwood Bible, set mostly in the Belgian Congo, is similarly heavy in setting and narration.

The novel is the tale of the Price family, consisting of Nathan, Orleanna, and their four daughters: Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May, who travel from Georgia to the Belgian Congo so Nathan can spread the word of Jesus to the people. Narrated between the mother and her four daughters, the novel provides diverse perspectives regarding race, colonialism, family, and the role of women, while also providing enough context to not alienate a reader like me who has little background about the history of the Belgian Congo.

I enjoyed this book immensely. Admittedly, it can be quite dense. Much of the novel is written from the perspectives of characters looking back on their past, and this results in a lot of description and introspection, rather than conversation and action. Although I personally prefer novels to contain more introspection than action, I found it sometimes overwhelming in this book. However, all other aspects of the book I found engaging, especially the characters, who have well-defined personalities, relationships, and depth (even Rachel, the shallowest of the Price clan, has understandable motives and hopes).

When I first finished the book, though, I felt ambivalent about how the girls were portrayed at the end. While they do undergo character development, I felt that each character remained essentially unchanged at the beginning of the novel, although decades pass between the beginning and the end of the novel. However, with further thought, I think that’s realistic – many people remain at the core the same person as a child and an as an adult. It also highlighted the instability in the area by having a character discuss government upheavals and political scandals while remaining with the same values and morals.

YES OR NO?: YES. There’s something in this book for everyone: history, women’s voices, colonialism, family, romance, and even science. My only wish is that the novel spent more time in the perspective of Orleanna. That being said, it is admittedly written with a narration that can feel heavy at times, and it may take you a bit longer to finish the book than anticipated (hopefully less than me!).

Book Review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

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Obey, obey, obey, then do what you want.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See

Whenever I look back on the books I’ve read and reviewed on this blog, they remind me of certain times in my life. I remember barreling through Coraline while on a plane home from Germany, soon after the Brussels bombings. Geek Love was one of the first books I read after having moved out from my parents’ house, and its depiction of a dysfunctional family made me belatedly grateful for my own. But what I love most about these reminiscences is the instantaneousness of the memory.

As I read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, there wasn’t anything too significant happening in my personal life. Everything was business as usual. However, worldwide, people were taking a stand. Making their voices heard about women’s rights. I didn’t participate in any protests, but the sense of community – a community of women and their allies – was palpable and warmly refreshing. As I read about the various protests that happened globally, I couldn’t help but relate it back to this book.

At its core, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a novel about women and their relationships. It’s also a piece of historical fiction, which is one of my favorite genres. While being familiar with the basic concepts in this novel like Confucian views and bound feet, I still learned a lot about China in the nineteenth century. Of course, as with all historical fiction, I took the actual events and chronology with a grain of salt, but I inhaled the words, the foods, and the general culture of the novel. The voice of the narrator, Lily, is genuine and engaging, without being too stereotypical and forced.

What I loved especially about the book was the variety of relationships between women it depicted: familial, friendship, rivalry, and romantic. There are fewer male characters, and due to the nature of Lily’s family, the novel never explores a male character as in-depth as any of the female characters. However, the way that Lily and Snow Flower choose (or are forced to) interact with the male characters is equally thought-provoking as the interactions between female characters.

Also, although in general Lily was portrayed as conservative and Snow Flower more adventurous, I appreciated that neither of them were entirely one way or the other – they both were realistic in that they made different decisions based on the current circumstances. In general, I found all the characters realistic and relatable. I loved that not all of the adult figures in Lily’s childhood were reduced to the stereotype of the strict Asian parent: while Lily’s mother is more stoic, her aunt provides Lily with a more nurturing, humorous maternal figure.

The only problem I had with the novel is that the summary I read led me to believe that the novel would focus more on nushu, a form of writing used only by women in the area of China where the novel takes place. Nushu is used as a plot device by allowing women in different households to communicate, particularly by the titular secret fan, but it never prominently figured as a plot point itself. It’s not terribly important, but I would have loved to learn more about nushu – perhaps if the novel took place during its development.

YES OR NO?: YESSnow Flower and the Secret Fan‘s engaging prose, realistic story, and fleshed out characters kept me curious – not only about the plot but also about the historical background of the novel. Its exploration of women, their relationships, and their shifting place in the society at the time is easily relatable and thought-provoking for any reader today.

What I read in 2016, and what I hope to read in 2017

Another year, another year-end post! Or year-start post, I guess, with my late timing…but in the midst of various celebrations (including wading into the ice-cold Pacific on New Year’s Day), I couldn’t find time to sit down and hammer out this post until tonight. All in all, 2016 was an eventful year. I worked, moved out of my parents’ house (although they thankfully still keep my fridge well-stocked), traveled, and, of course, found time to read.

In my wrap-up post for 2015, I mentioned that I’d like to read more works by female authors. Well, I’m happy to see that I did just that! 15 out of my 35 books were written by women. Still not quite halfway, but an improvement over last year. I also read five more books than last year, so all in all I’m quite pleased with the reading I accomplished this year. Below are listed all the books I read:

  1. AmericanahChimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  2. Modern RomanceAziz Ansari
  3. The Heart Goes Last, Margaret Atwood
  4. Wild SeedOctavia Butler
  5. Ready Player OneErnest Cline
  6. All Families Are PsychoticDouglas Coupland
  7. Hey NostradamusDouglas Coupland
  8. The Red TentAnita Diamant
  9. Geek LoveKatherine Dunn
  10. Tender Is the NightF. Scott Fitzgerald
  11. CoralineNeil Gaiman
  12. Carol, Patricia Highsmith
  13. The Remains of the DayKazuo Ishiguro
  14. Black Flower, Young-Ha Kim
  15. Christine, Stephen King
  16. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera
  17. China Rich GirlfriendKevin Kwan
  18. Crazy Rich AsiansKevin Kwan
  19. The NamesakeJhumpa Lahiri
  20. The Journalist and the MurdererJanet Malcolm
  21. Dance Dance DanceHaruki Murakami
  22. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the WorldHaruki Murakami
  23. Kafka on the ShoreHaruki Murakami
  24. South of the Border, West of the Sun, Haruki Murakami
  25. A Tale for the Time BeingRuth Ozeki
  26. DamnedChuck Palahniuk
  27. Mouse Guard: Fall 1152David Petersen
  28. PushSapphire
  29. Child 44Tom Rob Smith
  30. On BeautyZadie Smith
  31. The Grapes of WrathJohn Steinbeck
  32. My Name Is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout
  33. The GoldfinchDonna Tartt
  34. The Accidental TouristAnne Tyler
  35. Tipping the VelvetSarah Waters

Out of the books above, it’s hard to designate a single favorite. I would have to make it a tie between The Remains of the Day, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Kafka on the Shore. Stereotypical choices, I know, but these books lived up to their lofty reputations. On a related note, I’m sad that I now only have two more Murakami novels to read – although there’s supposedly a new one coming this year, so I’ll definitely have something to look forward to.

This year, I found myself visiting the library once again, although I still relied on my Kindle, especially when traveling. I found discovering new books and authors much easier at the library than on Amazon or whatnot: I simply could reach forward and grab a book when I found its title or spine intriguing. When browsing online, I find I’m too preoccupied with whether I’ve heard of the author, what the reviews of the book are like, and so on. More discerning and less organic. While my list from this year is peppered with new authors, there are still many authors whose works I’d already read before. My goal next year is to read more works by authors I haven’t yet experienced – to have at least 50% of my reading be by new authors, and of course, to read more books than I did the previous year. January is always an ambitious time for goal-setting, though, so let’s see if I stick with it.

Happy New Year, and hope your 2017 is filled with lots of reading!

Book Review: Black Flower

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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…