looking back, looking here. (10 books i loved in 2016)

‘kizzy, i am scared of everything, all the time. i’m scared of my ship getting shot down when i have to land planetoid. i’m scared of the armour in my vest cracking during a fight. i’m scared that the next time i have to pull out my gun, the other guy will be faster. i’m scared of making mistakes that could hurt my crew. i’m scared of leaky biosuits. i’m scared of vegetables that haven’t been washed properly. i’m scared of fish.’


‘i never thought of fear as something that can go away. it just is. it reminds me that i want to stay alive. that doesn’t strike me as a bad thing.’ (chambers, pei, 243)

january 2017 is almost at an end, and i’m a week into being back in california, and i feel like a ghost, just floating here, going through the motions of living but severed from everything — from home, from purpose, from hope. as the bleakness and homesickness set into my bones, here are attempts to anchor myself to something, to food, to books.

of the 60-odd books i read last year, these are the 10 i loved, that stuck with me over the months. they’re listed in the order i read them, starting with kleeman in january and ending with lee in december, and, if i were to sum up 2016 in reading, i’d say that 2016 was a year of bodies, and it was a year of silence. all ten of these books have to do with bodies in some way, whether it’s the value placed on bodies, the diminishing of people to only their bodies, the utility of bodies, the killing of bodies, the domination of bodies, and there’s a lot of silence thrown in there, too, silence in secrets, silence from god, silence as survival.

it was a year of asking myself how it is we define ourselves, how societies define us in accordance with the role they need us to play. it was also a year of asking myself who i was, what i believed, who i desired. like i wrote in my previous end-of-year post, 2016 is the year i walked away from faith and outed myself, and, in many ways, these are the books that carried me through much of that heartache and fear and anxiety.

and, so, without further ado:

  1. alexandra kleeman, you too can have a body like mine (harpers, 2015) [review]
  2. park min-gyu, pavane for a dead princess (dalkey archive press, 2014) [review]
  3. becky chambers, the long way to a small angry planet (hodder & stoughton, 2015) [review]
  4. esmé weijun wang, the border of paradise (unnamed press, 2016) [review]
  5. endo shusaku, silence (picador, 2016) [review]
  6. krys lee, how i became a north korean (viking, 2016) [review]
  7. sarah waters, tipping the velvet (riverhead, 2000) [review]
  8. garrard conley, boy erased (riverhead, 2016) [review]
  9. sady doyle, trainwreck (melville house, 2016) [review]
  10. corey lee, benu (phaidon, 2015) [review]

i kind of don't know where to start with this.

“humans can be so foolish. they don’t realize the light comes from themselves. they think the whole world is lit by a single lightbulb, but in fact a myriad of small lightbulbs must be lit for the world to become a brighter place. they keep themselves buried in darkness while continuing to envy the ones with light. seeing the darkness in everyone else around them, they give all their votes to the ones who are lit. this explains why poor people give their votes to dictators and why average people love the actors on screen. they don’t believe in their own light. they don’t believe

in each other’s light. they don’t hope; they don’t attempt to discover. and that is where the source of the world’s darkness lies.” (park min-gyu, yohan, 128-9)

i suppose, then, here is this: my favorite book of the year was park min-gyu’s pavane for a dead princess. park gives us three twenty-somethings who work in a department store and become friends, and they’re three young people who exist on the fringes of capitalist korean society, outside the desired standards of beauty and wealth. park essentially takes korea to task for its materialism and its singular standard of beauty, and, maybe, there’s a little too much politicizing, too much blatant criticizing, too much theorizing, but there’s also a lot of empathy and humanity in this novel.

korea is a funny topic for me, and my parents ask often if i hate being korean because i seem to hate korean society so. i counter that, no, i actually love being korean, and i take a lot of pride in korea’s history and the strength of her people and the vibrancy of her food and food culture. however, at the same time, korean society is one that is tremendously flawed and heavily patriarchal, toxic and narrow-minded and causing a great deal of harm to its people, to its children and youth. as i keep telling my parents about my relationship with korea and about everything else, the existence of one does not negate the truth of the other, and my heart aches for korea because i do love her, and, in many ways, for reasons both obvious and not, i will always be drawn to her.

corey lee’s benu, titled after his san francisco restaurant by the same name, reminded me of this. lee brings korean flavors and traditions into his food in thoughtful, creative ways, and i was blown away by the care he exhibits for food overall and korean food and culture particularly. he draws inspiration from other foods and cuisines as well, so it’s not like his cooking is solely korean-inspired, but there’s something about the way he’s negotiated his relationship with his korean ethnicity that i found so relatable.

one thing i love about asian america is the sheer breadth of it, how we all have different ways of being asian-american, of identifying with (or not identifying with) our asian heritages, and one effect of that is that i appreciate when i come across people with whom i can relate. i am not trying to say that my way of being asian-american is the “right” or “good” way to be; i don’t believe at all that there is a “right” or “good” way to be asian-american, just that is right and good for us individually; and i’m honestly not one to place that much importance in having to relate to someone. i often think it’s given more weight than necessary and, when applied the wrong way, used to justify a kind of narrow-mindedness, and i rarely ever seek it out, but i do admit that there is a comfort there sometimes — there is something nice about familiarity, after all, and i am not one to deny that.

anyway, benu is this lovely blend of personal history, korean history, and northern californian sensibility, and it is one stunning book. i’d expect no less of phaidon.

my mouth hurt from speaking english. the muscles around my lips and my cheeks ached. in my dreams, voices stretched into long, silly words that meant nothing, and i woke up saying “milk” or “glass” before tumbling back into the sleep of nonsense dreamers. soon i vomited over and over at the side of the road while david reached over and rubbed my damp neck, and then i craved all kinds of things: hot buns filled with pork, cold and briny seaweed, red bean popsicles. the sudden craving was monstrous, like a thing already in my mouth that could not be tasted or swallowed and just between my frozen teeth with a jaw stuck open, and my longing for these foods was not a longing in my stomach but something jammed deep in my throat. (wang, daisy, 58)

while we’re talking northern california: there’s esmé weijun wang’s the border of paradise, which delivers so gloriously on the “holy shit, what?!” side of the spectrum. i love a book that serves a good mindfuck because it doesn’t happen as often as i’d like, and i love it even more when the author does so in beautiful prose.

i also just personally love how i even knew of the border of paradise, so here’s a story, that i somehow stumbled upon esmé and jenny zhang at the same time a few years ago, somewhere on the internets, and i’ve been following them both since. i remember reading esmé’s journal entries about finishing her novel, signing with an agent, trying to sell the novel, etcetera, etcetera, so i was excited when her novel was published last year, preordering it at mcnally jackson and scuttling over once i got the email that it had arrived and was waiting for me behind the desk.

this is the thing that makes the internet a cool place to me, and there’s something really awesome about seeing something through its journey, especially when it’s a book, especially when you’re a writer yourself and this is a dream and ambition of yours as well. it’s also more the case when the writer is someone as vibrant and generous as esmé; she has a book of essays, the collected schizophrenias, that will be published by graywolf in 2018 after winning the publisher’s nonfiction prize.

(none of this has any bearing on my thoughts re: border or its inclusion on this list. i was actually a little nervous going into it because i didn’t actually know what the book was about — there’s a reason i’m not trying to write a summary; it’s kind of awesome to go into it blind — and there’s always the chance that a book will disappoint. luckily, i genuinely loved it.)

(also, if you’ve never heard of or read jenny zhang, please, please, please do; you will be the better for it. she’s written for rookiehere is a favorite piece; here is another — and she also wrote this fabulous piece for buzzfeed after the michael derrick hudson scandal. she has a book of short stories coming out from random house this spring, and i am so fucking stoked.)

so, there are authors you follow for years who write lyrical prose, and then there are authors who are able to create these wonderful lethargic, sticky moods — and i’ve yet to find another writer who does that as deftly as alexandra kleeman. i love the weird places kleeman takes us, and i love her voices and moods — and i say “voices and moods” plural because i also read her short story collection, intimations (harpers, 2016), last year, and i’m telling you: kleeman’s knack for atmosphere is exquisite. her stories are just as interesting and moody as her tones, and i like her as a human a lot, too. there are some authors you just want to be friends with, and kleeman happens to be one of mine.

and now to switch gears a little.

the world, to me, seemed utterly transformed since kitty butler had stepped into it. it had been ordinary before she came; now it was full of queer electric spaces, that she left ringing with music or glowing with light. (waters, 60-ish)

park’s pavane may have been my favorite book of the year, but garrard conley’s boy erased and sarah waters’ tipping the velvet may have had the biggest personal impact.

boy erased is conley’s memoir of his time in conversion therapy after he was outed to his parents (by the boy who raped him, no less). conley grew up southern baptist to a very religious family (his father is a pastor), and he writes poignantly about being gay and christian, about not only the fears and anxieties that come of being gay in a christian community but also about the personal clashes that occur within you when you’ve grown up with god woven into your life and, suddenly, he’s not there anymore.

unlike conley's, my faith is fully dead, and, when i read endo shusaku’s silence, i thought that here was a novel that explained to me why. silence tells the story of portuguese priests who sneak into japan in search of a fellow priest, and this is during a time when japan was brutally suppressing and excising christianity from itself, torturing people into renouncing god and killing them when they didn’t. the narrator struggles with god’s silence to the suffering of japanese christians, to the brutality they must endure in god’s name while god sits silent and does nothing and allows such violence and pain to continue, and, in the end, the narrator, too, must decide whether he will renounce god or not.

no, no! i shook my head. if god does not exist, how can man endure the monotony of the sea and its cruel lack of emotion? (but supposing … of course, supposing, i mean.) from the deepest core of my being yet another voice made itself heard in a whisper. supposing god does not exist …

this was a frightening fancy. if he does not exist, how absurd the whole thing becomes. (endo, 72)

when i think about silence, i think there is a cost for everything, and there is a cost for silence. silence breeds doubt, and it locks you inside your head, with your own fears and anxieties and insecurities. silence leads to brokenness, too, to broken relationships, to loss of faith, and silence is what cost me my faith, years of crying out to god and hearing nothing.

eventually, you start to feel like you must be mad, yelling at the skies and expecting an answer — and, even if there is a god, what’s the point if he won’t deign to engage with you? a world without god, then, is better than a world with a silent, cruel god.

in the end, in 2016, i did have to confront the frightening reality of a world without god — and it is a frightening reality, especially when you’ve grown up with god, when he was built into the foundations of your worldview. god is the basis of hope; it is his existence that allows you to see beyond this life, to “store your treasures in heaven”; and it sounds absurd to those outside faith, outside religion, but, when you grow up in that, when you believe it, live it, practice it for three decades of your life, the sudden absence of that leaves you bereft.

this is what i loved so much about boy erased, that conley gets this. and here is my favorite passage from everything i read this year:

“how do you feel?” my mother said. her hands were firmly fixed at ten and two at the wheel. this vigilance, this never taking a risk when you didn’t have to.

“i’m fine.” we’re all faking it.

“we can stop again if you need.”

“that’s okay.” it’s just that some of us are more aware of it.

silence. my big toe toggling the vent open and closed. with mark’s number in my pocket, i suddenly knew that what i was thinking was true. keeping a secret, telling a lie by omission, made it much easier to see all of the other lies around me. an expert liar was’ merely an expert on his own lies, but those of others as well. was this why LIA’s counselors were so good at challenging their patients, at calling them out? was this why smid and the blond-haired boy didn’t fully rust me?

“are you hungry?”

“no.” i can tell all of this to you later, after the ceremony. i just have to wait for the right moment.

“are you sure?”

“are you hungry?” but i’m afraid you’d be disgusted with me. i’m afraid you’d vomit again, right here in the car.

“a little.” the car turned a sharp curve, a stray pen tumbling out of the cup holder and rolling across the floorboard, a ping as it hit the metal bar beneath my feet. i could have picked it up, uncapped its top, and written my confession right then and there, had LIA’s rules permitted it.

“let’s stop, then.” i realize this now, that all of it might come down to me being afraid. that all of this supposed change is just to please him, to please you.

“i’ll pull into sonic. what do you want?”

“just some fries.” but i’m afraid of losing you. i’m afraid of what i’ll become if i lose you. i’m afraid because i think i’ve already lost god. god’s stopped speaking to me, and what am i supposed to do without him? after nineteen years with god’s voice buzzing around in my head twenty-four hours a day, how am i supposed to walk around without his constant assurance?

“an order of fries, please, and a coke.” beneath the speaker’s static, the clanging of metal in an invisible sink. “and a sonic burger.”

“can i get tater tots instead?” i don’t even know what i would look like to be gay. i can’t even imagine a life where my friends and family would want to talk to me if i was openly gay.

“make that tater tots instead of fries.”

“i’m not really that hungry.” i can do this. i just have to fake my way through until i can take my big risk, whatever that will be. (conley, 222-3)

and then there was tipping the velvet. (oh, tipping the velvet!) i’m slowly rereading it now, and it’s still tugging at my heartstrings in such aching ways. i wrote a giant post about sarah waters in august, though, so i’ll just link to that here.

i also did a compilation of quotes from sady doyle’s trainwreck a few months ago, so i’ll link to that here as well.

i also wrote about krys lee’s how i became a north korean, so i’ll link to that here, too. and i never really wrote about becky chambers’ the long way to a small angry planet, so i can’t link to that, but i loved it and keep recommending it, and i hardly ever read science fiction, so …!

you needed a vision of the future in order to get anywhere; you couldn’t live life thinking you were always about to fall off a cliff. i didn’t want to tell him i would never go back with him to the church: i would be going forward, forward by way of getting back to the kind of life i used to have, only this time i’d live it better. (kleeman, 281)

making pasta is something i’ve wanted to do for a while now, and one of the definite pros of being back at my parents’ in LA is counter space. marble(?) counter space. lots of marble(?) counter space.

i’ve always loved working with dough; it’s one of the most relaxing things i can think to do; and i love the physicality of it. i’m not one who likes using gadgets in the kitchen (i won’t even use a crock pot or a hand mixer), so i do everything by hand, kneading, rolling, cutting, and it has been my saving grace this past week. cooking, after all, has always been the best therapy.

like i said above, i feel like a ghost, and this is how i’m getting through these days. i cook. i think about what i’m cooking, how to get better, what to try next. i think about how i can challenge myself in the kitchen because, for some reason, i don’t doubt that i can try new things, new techniques, more complicated doughs and succeed (or, at least, not fail totally). i believe i’m capable of this, of learning, of practicing, of improving, in ways that i cannot yet believe that i will write fiction again, that i will feel whole again, that i will learn to live with my suicidal depression — that i can be loved, despite all the ways in which i am broken. i don’t have that faith, but, at least, i have a kitchen to turn to, hands to work with, hunger and curiosity to feed — and, above all, i have food.

even good things come to an end.

it was the via negativa way of figuring out i wanted to do with my life: i didn’t know what i wanted, but i knew what i didn’t want. (momofuku, 19)
benu is very much a restaurant that’s influenced by different cultures. like san francisco and its environs, which has the highest asian concentration of any area in the US, there’s distinct eastern influence. sense of place is expressed not so much in the locality of the products we use, but through the spirit and the cultural influences of our area that permeate our food. the cooking at benu often explores how asian flavors, ideas, and aesthetics can harmonize with western ones. in that way, i think it reflects a bit of my bicultural background as well. and in the process of establishing an identity for the restaurant, i came to a better understanding of my own. (benu, 23)

i imagined what it would be like if my ancestors had ended up in charleston, south carolina, a few generations before i was born. they would have eaten corn, they would have eaten grits, they would have cooked with bacon. or, if southerners were magically transplanted to korea, they’d eat jook instead of grits at breakfast. and you know a people who can handle the salty power of a country ham certainly could have gotten down with kimchi. i imagined a japanese cook making grits — you know he’d boil it in dash and season it with soy.

i guess these were all conversations i was having with myself. i didn’t want to be cooking shitting fusion food. i consoled myself by thinking about how vietnamese cuisine and cajun cooking adapted from french techniques into something that might have looked french but tasted totally different. but it was with this dish ["shrimp and grits"] that i decided — or accepted — that if we reached past “tradition” to create the truest and best version of a dish for our own palates, then what we were doing wasn’t bullshit. momofuku was going pretty strong at this point, but this is the dish that allowed us — or me, certainly — to really look outward and onward. (momofuku, 110)

how to talk about some shit? here’s some stuff in lists.

01.  these days, reading is done pretty much as pure escapism, and there is no greater, more gratifying escape than to slip into the world of food. food has its own language, its own rules, and, unlike other art forms, it’s firmly grounded because the elements of food come from the earth. the best chefs, i think, are sensitive to this, to the seasons, to the shifting and changing of the environment, just as they’re sensitive to culture and technique and the globally varied approaches to food.

02.  i recently read benu (phaidon, 2015) and chased that with momofuku (clarkson potter, 2009), and they’re both written by korean-american chefs (corey lee and david chang/peter meehan, respectively). they both take inspiration from korean food, but they also draw from chinese, taiwanese, japanese, vietnamese, french cooking and flavors and technique, paying respect to these sources but unafraid to toss out tradition and try new things. there’s a sort of mad scientist glee to their innovation, and i bloody love it.

03.  i love seeing what korean-americans (and, in general, asian-americans) are doing. we all negotiate our relationships with our ethnic identities in different ways — some of us reject it outright; some of us acknowledge it though it doesn’t play a large, obvious part in our lives; and some of us draw significant parts of our identity from it. it’s not just ethnic identity, either, because we also negotiate our relationships with our sexual identities, gender identities, etcetera in our own ways, and there’s no “right” way to do so. there is no “right” way to be asian-american, just like there is no “right” way to be LGBTQ or to be a woman. there is only the way that is right for you, and one of the great, exciting things for me in recent years has been to see and witness how we contribute and present our individual selves to the world.

04.  benu and momofuku are fun books to read back to back. lee and chang have their similarities — they’re both korean-americans of the same age who grew up (or spent significant amounts of their youth) on the east coast and have reputations for being intense in the kitchen and obsessing over details — but to dwell on or make much of these similarities would be to do both a disservice. the juxtaposition is interesting, though, because of the ways they diverge in so many ways; chang is more foul-mouthed and has a dry sense of humor while lee is more formal and restrained with his words (at least in writing). lee’s cooking is more elevated and refined, very little of which someone could attempt at home, while chang goes for the masses without muddling accessibility with low quality. none of this is meant as an inherent compliment, and none of it is meant as an insult because what benu & momofuku show us is that here is how two creative minds work. here is how they venture off on their own individual creative pathways and bring us something wonderful. here are two ways of being amongst the billions there are on this planet.

05.  it must be said: the recipe writing in momofuku is top notch; it has a character of its own. and the photography/design in benu is so fucking stunning. trust phaidon to turn out an aesthetic wonder of a book.

06.  the flip side of reading as pure escapism, though — at one point, the book ends. at one point, we run out of pages, and we’re ejected back into our realities, at which point, sometimes, the only option is to find the next book to chase the next high and avoid the crashing low. sometimes, though, we’re left in better shape because the reading has fortified us and given us better insulation. i suppose it’s a gamble of sorts, one we play while hoping for the latter.

07.  god damn, though, i love food.


a.  here’s a story photographs don’t tell:  these days, it’s about simple things, simple tasks — making a grocery list, walking to my favorite pie bakery and eating a slice of pie, cooking dinner. it sounds stupid, maybe, but, these days, i feel like i’m skating on thin ice, and i’ve got to keep moving or else i’ll fall through, except i’m just moving for the sake of moving and it’s exhausting and it feels like a matter of time before the ice gives way under me. this is what suicidal depression feels like.

b.  i get so scared attaching “suicidal” to “depression.” depression on its own — to the healthy mind — and, hell, maybe even to the depressed mind, though in a self-loathing, self-hating sort of way — seems relatively harmless. it sounds like something that can be overcome, although that’s really a product of how we’ve made depression fill in for basic human sadness when depression actually runs much deeper, more insidiously than that. you attach “suicidal” to it, though, and it immediately takes on a different tone. ooh, now we’re talking about dying, ooh, how dark, ooh, how melodramatic.

c.  one of the worst things about suicidal depression is silence. it’s not being able to speak, whether because it’s just not physically possible (seriously, sometimes, words just don’t come out) or because there’s so much fear attached to it — a fear of being dismissed, of not being taken seriously, of being taken too seriously. there’s also a sense of exhaustion attached to it, too, because there are only so many platitudes you can take. it’s guilt, too, guilt because you’re likely making everyone else feel like shit, because people might be trying to be there for you but you’re not being receptive, because you’re not taking to any of their solutions even if they seem practical and rational.

d.  here’s the thing to remember, though, the crucial detail that changes everything: the depressed mind, the suicidal mind, operates outside pragmatic rationale. it has a logic of its own, and it is a logic that sees and acknowledges dying as a viable solution.

e.  the thing about books that act as records is that they often come after the struggle. they come after the creators have survived, have achieved success, and struggle is something that can be viewed in retrospect. i wonder a lot about whether or not i should write so openly about suicidal depression now, if maybe this writing is best saved for later (if there is a later), for after this has passed (if it ever does), but i wonder, too, if this is a form of self-censorship. isn’t there value in putting these words down now and making them public? i want to say yes because i think it’s important not to attach the clause of survival to every story because, sometimes, the truth is that we don’t survive, and that’s why i think it’s important to see things for what they are, as they are, when they are, even if they’re in really dark places that scare us and put us off and make us uncomfortable. and so we find ourselves here.

f.  which is not to dismiss books that act as records, like benu and momofuku. we need records; we need stories that remind us that, sometimes, the only option is to fling ourselves off the precipice and take the crazy risks and work hard and trust ourselves even amidst the insecurities and the fears and the probabilities stacked against us. we need reminders of this, and, sometimes, we need them more than we do at other times, and i’m glad that they’re there. these books were a tremendous source of comfort to me over the last few days, and, in times like these, that means the world.

g.  oddly (maybe), my lasting impression from benu and momofuku was the thought, huh, i guess maybe there is a space in the world for me. this is why i want to create and write and share.

i knew it from the beginning, from when quino and i did everything ourselves, but by this point i knew the difference between momofuku and mcdonald’s: caring. caring about every detail. when you start to cook on autopilot, when you buy into bullshit people write about you, when you stop paying attention to details — not to mention big things, like seasoning — no amount of press in the world will make up for it. i preached this to my crew. what is the point of cooking at all if you’re not gonna do it right? (momofuku, 223)

x.  i often wonder who the market is for cookbooks, and i wonder this because i feel like i do not fit into that market. i so rarely cook from cookbooks, and i look at cookbooks as reading material — but it’s not like i’m losing sleep over this.

x.  that’s one thing i loved about benu so much because lee even directly says this in his introduction (which i’ve quoted before). it’s not so much about me attempting these recipes as it is gaining a different perspective, picking up some really cool knowledge about food and food production that i wouldn’t have come across in my average daily life, and learning to see culture (even my ethnic culture that i grew up with) in new ways. it’s learning to think of language in different ways because, like i said, food has its own language, and language, often, is something we take for granted.

x.  this was a thing i loved about both books, that lee and chang pay tribute to different aspects of korean culture, and this was one of my favorites from benu, and i will leave you with this:

the term haenyeo, or “sea women”, refers to the legendary female divers of jeju island, an island province off the coast of south korea. they free-dive into the deep waters for various edibles and play a major role in the seafood trade on the island.


it is generally accepted that the first known documentation of female divers in jeju dates back to the seventeenth century, during the joseon period, when the primary role of the haenyeo was to supply the royal court. their financial independence eventually helped to establish a matriarchal sub-culture that is unique to the island and in stark contrast to the rest of korea which has deep roots in male-dominated confucian thought. although it has become a dwindling tradition in modern times, with most haenyeo well into their seventies, the sight of these daring women and their floating buoys is still very much a part of the life on jeju island today.


as a chef, any encounter with the farmer, the fisherman or with anyone who has pulled up their own sleeves to get you the raw materials you cook with can be an educational experience. with these women, however, what i learned is not so much related to food or the products they supply. they are living emblems of korean cultural heritage and embody the resilience of its people and, in particular, the strength and self-sacrifice of its women. and for me, their unwavering spirit is much more beautiful and palpable than can be imagined through any folklore. (benu, 220)

[dec 5] here's a challenge.

ash twisted up all the courage inside herself and said, “i was waiting for you.” when the words came out of her they seemed to hang in a cloud of desire, and the texture of them surprised even ash. (lo, ch. xiii)

here’s a week’s challenge:  to read and write and post every day. five days, five posts, it’d be nice if it could be five books, but, ha, that’s funny.

at some point in these five days, we’ll get into why this challenge comes here and now.

“it may not be your dream, stepsister, but do not scoff at those who do dream of it.” (clara, lo, ch. xiii)

last night, i read ash (little brown, 2009) by malinda lo, a YA retelling of the cinderella story, except it’s set in a more fantastic realm where the boundary between the human world and the fairy world is blurred. it’s also different in that the cinderella figure (ash) neither falls in love with a prince nor is rescued by one; she falls in love with the king’s huntress instead and seeks her own freedom to choose and pursue her love.

i am not one who is enthralled by retellings, and i find the cinderella story to be a tired one, one that wastes unnecessary pages in the same set-up of girl losing mother, girl’s father remarrying, girl losing father, stepmother forcing girl to become a servant to pay off her father’s debts.

we know what happens in the cinderella story, and writers know that and yet (or thus) slog through establishing this tired background like it’s essential for the reader to slog through it as well. it’s not like i’ve read a lot of cinderella retellings, but i do wish we’d just get dropped into the story, forget starting from childhood, like how i don’t understand why korean dramas must invest episodes with child actors instead of just starting with the main characters as adults and weaving their backstories into the story.

ash, though — lo luckily doesn’t spend more pages than necessary on the set-up, and she also uses the pages to establish her world and to situate us within it, to make us familiar with the role fairy tales play in ash’s life. the book is well-paced and zips along nicely, integrating its own mythology with the cinderella story, such as with the fairy who takes the role of fairy godmother, except, in ash, he’s male and sinister and not quite so genial.

the novel really hits it stride when ash meets the huntress, kaisa, and ash starts falling in love. lo doesn’t make a big deal of this, though; ash doesn’t worry over her developing feelings for kaisa, except in the ways we wonder if our feelings are reciprocated; and, in lo’s world, there is no agonizing over sexuality or attraction — it is what it is, and it is love.

maybe it goes without saying that it’s refreshing to read a love story like this, to read about two women who fall in love and that’s that. it’s not to say that we don’t need narratives that show the struggle to recognize and accept one’s sexuality and orientation — as long as we live in the world we do, we need to hear those stories, and we need to listen to and recognize and work to heal that pain — but we need narratives like this, too, narratives that show this love to be normal, that postulate a world in which it is simply accepted and allow us the hope to continue working towards making that our reality.

… but what about the two books that are actually photographed in this post?

i read cookbooks like i read books, cover to cover, and i’ve recently been developing a taste for a certain kind of cookbook, one that’s more like a hybrid of cookbook and memoir, that’s there less to be cooked from and more to derive inspiration from. i like cookbooks that challenge us to look at food a different way, to look at food culture a different way, to look at its history and examine its place in the world and explore where else it can go. taking it a step further, in general, this is the food writing i love.

which isn’t surprising because what i’m drawn to in creatives is a unique way of looking at things. i’m interested in the ways that we bring our backgrounds and histories and tastes and preferences to something like a story or food or music and create something that is individual and vibrant and alive. i’m interested in how we each individually negotiate our relationships with our ethnic, gender, sexual identities because we all do so in different ways and that, in turn, shapes what we say through our work.

and i’ve found that those are the discussions about craft i’m interested in and those are the cookbooks i’m drawn to — and all this is to say that this is why i’ve been looking forward to reading corey lee's benu (phaidon, 2015) so much. i mean, lee says it himself:

there are recipes, but this is not a book intended to be cooked from. it is meant to archive and share with you something that our team works so tirelessly to execute every day. food is an ephemeral form of expression, and i want to document some of our hard work.

at its most ambitious level, i hope this book will spur chefs to make new and delicious creations with some of the ingredients that we use. and for diners, to seek out some new food adventures. i hope you enjoy it. (lee, 23)

so there’s an introduction of sorts. i’ve been reading benu slowly (for now; i could go into devouring mode tomorrow), so there’ll be more on benu as i read it over the next few days, and on o chonghui’s river of fire (columbia university press, 2012). i started reading the first story in the collection today, and it is delightfully strange. i’m looking forward to these five days.


i had lunch at danji today. it was good, not great, and a tad overpriced. truthfully, i wanted to like it more than i actually did, and the price was a contributing factor in my impression of the restaurant. to be honest, it's hard for me to find korean food (and tacos) i love in NYC when i grew up in LA, where korean food is excellent in flavor, quality of ingredients, and price. my expectations are unfortunately high indeed.

as she walked, she touched the trees one by one as if she were marking the path, as if her handprints left glowing traces on the bark. she felt a little guilty because she had lied to the huntress, and she wondered if the huntress had known, for ash had not been lost that day. (lo, ch. xi)