august reads!

okay, i read a lot in august, so i will keep these as brief as possible …!

thirty-two.  cover, peter mendelsund.

(we are all, in fact, not that which we hope to be, but rather that which we actually do.)

SIGH.  this book is soooo beautiful.  i mean, it’s a collection of covers mendelsund’s designed over the last nine years, and i was pretty much salivating as i made my way through this, poring over the pages carefully and reading everything thoughtfully.  it was a wonderful experience, and i’m glad to have this on my shelves.

thirty-three.  without you, there is no us, suki kim.

was this really conscionable?  awakening my students to what was not in the regime’s program could mean death for them and those they loved.  if they were to wake up and realize that the outside world was in fact not crumbling, that it was their country that was in danger of collapse, and that everything they had been taught about the great leader was bogus, would that make them happier?  how would they live from that point on?  awakening was a luxury available only to those in the free world.  (70)

this book fucking broke my heart.

there’s actually a lot i want to say about this book, so i’m just going to leave this here and come back to it later.  i’m planning to reread it again soon, so i will come back to it.

(this is being published by random house on october 14, 2014, and i highly, highly recommend it.)

thirty-four.  the birth of korean cool, euny hong.

“i still don’t think korean food is fine dining,” he [hooni kim] said, which made me raise my eyebrows.  “the best food in france is cooked by the three-star michelin chefs.”  by contrast, “i think the best food in korea is cooked by the mothers and grandmothers.  there is a history of restaurants in certain countries.  korea doesn’t have that.  korean dining food history is jumak — home-cooking, casual street food, market food.”
“looking, hearing is one thing.  tasting, touching is another.  smelling and tasting is the heart and soul of what korea is.  as much as pop culture wants to globalize, food is the best way for koreans to share their soul and culture.”  (88-9)

i liked this book, and i didn’t.  it was informative in certain ways (i give hong massive props for explaining han), but it was also pretty shallow — i wanted hong to go deeper and provide more analysis (i suppose).  i did deeply appreciate her insight into how heavily the korean government is invested in its culture as an export product, though, and hong also did a great job at providing context and historical background throughout the book.  she also has this wonderful dry, sarcastic humor that made me laugh out loud from time-to-time, too.

in the end, though, i have to admit that i wasn’t convinced of hong’s argument for korean “cool.”  maybe i’ll come back to this, maybe i won’t — we’ll see.

(the above quote made me smile.  it reminds me of a brief post i wrote earlier this year about the korean way of eating, which i think is unique and wonderful and encompasses so much of korean culture.  i absolutely love the korean way of eating.)

thirty-five.  colorless tsukuru tazaki and his years of pilgrimage, haruki murakami.

and in that moment, he was finally able to accept it all.  in the deepest recesses of his soul, tsukuru tazaki understood.  one heart is not connected to another through harmony alone.  they are, instead, linked deeply through their wounds.  pain linked to pain, fragility to fragility.  there is no silence without a cry of grief, no forgiveness without bloodshed, no acceptance without a passage through acute loss.  that is what lies at the root of true harmony.  (322)

this is the most grounded, solid, earthly novel written by murakami, i thought as i read colorless tsukuru tazaki.  i kept waiting for the surreal elements to come heavily into play, but they didn’t, not in a very prominent way at least, and i have to admit — i loved how solid this novel felt.

at the same time, though, tsukuru tazaki is still a very murakami novel.  tsukuru himself is very much a murakami main character, and he’s stuck in that place of isolation and confusion that causes him to depart on a journey to seek answers and discovery, like most murakami main characters.  there’s something very bittersweet about tsukuru’s discovery, though, and the ending felt very open but appropriately so — i think that, if murakami had gone about trying to give us hard closure, it would have felt forced and rather self-gratifying.

i enjoyed this a lot, more than i thought i would to be honest, although i had no idea what to expect as i went into this.  i didn’t even read the excerpt that was published pre-publication or any blurbs about it, and i enjoyed going in totally blind.  i’ve read a few comments elsewhere about colorless tsukuru tazaki being a good introduction to murakami, and i would agree with that.

thirty-six.  mr. penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore, robin sloan.

kat gushes about google’s projects, all revealed to her now.  they are making a 3-D web browser.  they are making a car that drives itself.  they are making a sushi search engine — here she pokes a chopstick down at our dinner — to help people find fish that is sustainable and mercury-free.  they are building a time machine.  they are developing a form of renewable energy that runs on hubris.  (209)

this was SO much fun to read.  the narrator’s voice is truly unique, and i love how sloan drew in “real life” things like google and integrated them fully into his world.  it’s a fun, amusing adventure tale that integrates technology in a very natural way, and you meet interesting characters along the way — and i don’t know what else to say!  it was tons of fun, and i just had a really good time reading it, which doesn’t actually happen very often.  like, i enjoy reading (obviously), but reading mr. penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore was pure fun.  there’s no other way for me to put it.

also, the cover glows in the dark, and the book is beautifully designed (great font), so everything about this book is pure win.

thirty-seven.  ajax penumbra 1969, robin sloan.

“the measure of a bookstore is not its receipts, but its friends,” he says, “and here, we are rich indeed.”  penumbra sees corvina clench his jaw just slightly; he gets the sense that mo’s clerk wishes they had some receipts, too.  (22)

read this immediately upon finishing mr. penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore and thought it to be a lovely companion piece.  (:

thirty-eight.  us v. apple, judge denise cote.

ok, yes, i know this isn’t actually a book, but it’s 160 fucking pages, and i read the whole damn thing, so this counts — IT COUNTS.

objectively, this is a well-written brief (and i never think attorneys are good writers).  it’s cohesively laid out, and judge cote does a great job at presenting the facts in the appropriate slant (as we are taught in legal writing).  she even lays out the legal standard step-by-step, and it’s all very clearly written, so i give her credit for that.  and it was more fun than i thought it would be because judge cote definitely has a flair for the melodramatic, which i found hilarious.  she should write legal thrillers.  and publish them with amazon.

that said, i’m not really going to write much else about this, other than it read very much like a forgone conclusion.

thirty-nine.  men explain things to me, rebecca solnit.

we have an abundance of rape and violence against women in this country and on this earth, though it’s almost never treated as a civil rights or human rights issue, or a crisis, or even a pattern.  violence doesn’t have a race, a class, a religion, or a nationality, but it does have a gender.  (“the longest war,” 21)

read this on the plane back to new york, felt myself sick to my stomach because this is the current state of the world, where there is so much violence against woman that is written off and diminished and, via indifference or silence or willful ignorance, condoned.  this book of essays isn’t all about violence against women, but it is about women.  and it’s a great, necessary collection — slim but bursting with truth, both horrifying and hopeful.  recommended.

forty.  never let me go, kazuo ishiguro.

“how could i have tried?” ruth’s voice was hardly audible.  “it’s just something i once dreamt about.  that’s all.”  (226)

this is one of those reads where i just want to note that i’ve read never let me go again but refrain from commentary.

(also the covers for the buried giant are out, and … sigh.  i’m not keen on either the US or the UK covers.  though that in no way diminishes my excitement for it.) 

forty-one.  jane eyre, charlotte brontë.

“i don’t think, sir, you have a right to command me, merely because you are older than i, or because you have seen more of the world than i have — your claim to superiority depends on the use you have made of your time and experience.”  (230)

read this mostly on my iPhone because, over the last few months, jane eyre has been my go-to omg-when-is-the-bloody-G-train-coming book.  i enjoyed the slow-burn read, though, and i’ve read jane eyre enough times that i could step away from it for days (or even weeks) and pick it up without having to re-situate myself.

jane eyre is that book from my childhood that made me fall in love with literature, so i will always hold it close to my heart.

forty-two.  rebecca, daphne du maurier.

it seemed incredible to me now that i had never understood.  i wondered how many people there were in the world who suffered, and continued to suffer, because they could not break out from their own web of shyness and reserve, and in their blindness and folly built up a great distorted wall in front of them that hid the truth.  this was what i had done.  i had built up false pictures in my mind and sat before them.  i had never had the courage to demand the truth.  (263)

i finished jane eyre on my flight to nyc and decided that i had to read rebecca again because, you know, one gothic novel about a young girl and an older man naturally makes you want to read another gothic novel about a young girl and an older man.

du maurier does such an exquisite job of getting inside the narrator’s head.  i laughed out loud at quite a few parts over how her imagination runs away with her, as she gets lost in these fantasies and imagined scenarios, and they’re funny because they’re so dramatic and so symptomatic of the young, lonely, isolated mind.  i love the world du maurier creates, too, the enchantment that is manderley with its specter of rebecca hanging over everything — it’s so rich and lush and almost otherworldly, set apart on its corner on the coast.

it was interesting rereading this because i knew what would happen.  i knew the truth about rebecca, and i knew to anticipate certain scenes, so it colored the reading experience in a different way, which i found enjoyable.  that’s one of the fun things about rereading books, isn’t it — going back to it and seeing how you’ve changed and, consequently, how the book has changed, too, because the best books are those that reflect us back to us after all, aren’t they?

currently reading acceptance — taking my time with it because it’s the last book in the southern reach trilogy.  it is SO GOOD, though, and i’m loving it and looking forward to reading the whole trilogy again to see what i’ve missed.  also reading sweetness #9 and your face in mine and just picked up a tale for the time being, green girl, and a short history of women.

and mcewan’s new novel comes out on tuesday.

ah, there’s so much to read!!

july reads!

july reads!  the common thing about all my july reads?  (they’re all written by women, but also) i read each book from cover-to-cover in one sitting.

twenty-eight.  the hen who believed she could fly, hwang sun-mi.

just because you’re the same kind doesn’t mean you’re all one happy family.  the important thing is to understand each other.  that’s love!  sprout ran on, elated, bursting into song.  (106)

this is one beautifully made book — seriously, it’s beautiful, and the illustrations are fantastic.

… y’know, i’ve been sitting on this july reading recap because i’ve been trying to figure out what to say about this book.  it’s an allegory, and it’s great, and there’s a whole lot in it to talk about, and yet i can’t come up with words.  i think i need to read it again, chew on it some more, and actually write things down after i’ve read it because it’s a slim little book but there’s so much packed into it.  i definitely recommend it, but i think i’ll have to come back to this later after i’ve read it again.

on a related aside, i’ve kind of hit a point in my reading of korean literature where i’ve tired of reading in-translation.  it’s not that the translations are bad or poorly done because they’re not, but i think there are limits in translation because there are things that inevitably get lost in that scramble between languages.  and, as someone who can read korean and wants to get better at it, there’s also a sort of kick-in-the-ass motivation there, too.  which is why i did buy the english translation of gong ji-young’s our happy time but set it aside to read it in korean … it takes me much longer, but there is no better way of improving my korean, soooo …!

twenty-nine.  my salinger year, joanna rakoff.

regardless, there was something about that modest advance, that initial rejection, that soothed me.  salinger had not always been salinger.  salinger had once sat at his desk, trying to figure out what made a story, how to structure a novel, how to be a writer, how to be.  (222)

read this on the fourth of july whilst sprawled out on my sofa with a delightful breeze coming in through the windows — i have to admit that, while i enjoyed it tremendously while reading it, this isn’t a book that really stuck with me.  it made for a great read in the moment, though, very engrossing, though i honestly didn’t care much for her coyness (i can’t think of a better word for it) — it’s not like you can’t google salinger’s agent/agency, so all the masking of identities seemed a little coy to me.

thirty.  everything i never told you, celeste ng.

and then, as if the tears are telescopes, she begins to see more clearly:  the shredded posters and pictures, the rubble of books, the shelf prostrate at her feet.  everything that she had wanted for lydia, which lydia had never wanted but had embraced anyway.  a dull chill creeps over her.  perhaps — and this thought chokes her — that had dragged lydia underwater at last.  (247)

this was incredible.  SO incredible.  i knew nothing about this when i purchased it, but i was browsing at greenlight when i picked it up and was intrigued by the title and started flipping through it.  and, then, when i got home and started reading it, i couldn’t stop until i was done.

it’s amazing.  it’s a beautiful, heart-breaking portrait of grief and loss and how our expectations of the people we love can become burdens and how no one really means to fuck anyone up but it just happens and how it’s out of our control.  it’s a beautiful look into family and lost dreams and the ways we try to reclaim our dreams through other means, and i actually very rarely say this, but it’s also a wonderful depiction of being asian-american because ng isn’t obvious about it or draws attention to it in a fingerpointing “this is crucial” way.  the characters’ asianness is simply part of who they are; it’s not what defines them.

there was a lot that resonated with me personally, too, so that didn’t hurt.  i highly, highly, highly recommend this.

thirty-one.  california, edan lepucki.

she would have understood, too, that all the talking in the world couldn’t give everything away, that a person was always capable of keeping secrets.  it might have saved her from feeling betrayed by her husband here at the end of the world.  (110)

if i were to point out a specific thing i’d say made me love calfiornia, it’d be how prescient it felt.  it’s a dystopian novel, yes, but it feels very present-day, and i think it’s because lepucki presents a world that seems very real, like this world could very much naturally head into the direction of the world presented in the novel.  like, this is a dystopian novel that doesn’t feel like a reach or like it’s set in some distant future but one that could feasibly be the world of tomorrow, and, on that level, it was also really fun to read as someone who has lived for a very long time just outside los angeles and is familiar with the specific locations she references in the novel.

the other thing i loved about california is its portrait of a marriage because i found it to be refreshingly honest.  i can’t say i necessarily liked either frida or cal, but, at the same time, even as i type out those words, i wonder why that’s so important to note (i’m not keen on all this whole “likability” thing that keeps being talked about; characters should feel like real, fleshed-out people; and real, fleshed-out people aren’t always solely likable or unlikable).  the important thing (i think) is that both frida and cal feel like real people in a real marriage — not everything about it is perfect, and they both fall privy to the mistake of keeping secrets and assuming things about the other.  their marriage suffers from this lack of communication, even if some of this withholding is done with the intention of somehow protecting or helping each other through it, and, all throughout, i was rooting for the both of them and mentally groaning whenever they would decide not to communicate when they really needed to be talking to each other.

i also had the privilege of hearing lepucki twice (in one week, no less!) when she was in nyc for her book tour, and she’s also super fun and awesome in-person.  :D

(haha, also, at mcnally, lepucki was asked what she was reading next, and she said she’d just gotten everything i never told you, and, in my head, i was all, OMG you’re going to love it; it’s SO AMAZING.)

currently finishing up another read of never let me go (ishiguro is doing an event at the 92y next march, and i have tickets, and i am SO FRIGGIN’ EXCITED) and just read/examined peter mendelsund’s cover and am reading euny hong’s the birth of korean cool.  which, meh title, but i’m interested in the content, and, at the same time, i’m so personally close to k-pop because it was my adolescence that i’m weirdly very protective of it and get very bristly when reading analyses about it.  even when the person writing about it is korean.  haha interesting, the things you learn about yourself, eh?

may + june reads!

may + june!

twenty.  the emperor’s children, claire messud.

“you mustn’t idealize, that’s all.  that’s all i wanted to say.  you’ll marry a man, not an idea of one.”  (annabel, 252)

three things about the emperor’s children:

one:  to be quite honest, i wasn’t as enraptured with the emperor’s children as i thought i would be.  i don’t know why my expectations were so high, but i almost stopped reading halfway through because i found i couldn’t connect very well with any of the characters and found them all a little annoying and patronizing but in ways that people are annoying and patronizing.  which is a pretty good testament as to messud’s writing — she’s a good writer, there’s no question about that.

two:  i think i got frustrated mostly with how the story is told.  the novel hops amongst the characters, resting briefly with one then another, and it was like watching a slideshow, being given a few minutes with one slide before being zipped on to the next.  i liked it at first but then rather quickly found myself wishing i could reach into the book and hold us with a character, let us dive deeper, get more time with danielle or marina or any of the other characters, and really get acquainted with them — but the novel never gave me that and kept hopping along like a little bunny eager to get to everyone.

three:  that said, messud does a great job at tying all these story threads together and bringing them to a climax with the towers falling.  the build-up is pretty satisfying, and i liked the aftermath, how 9/11 affected all these characters’ lives, in ways that i didn’t quite expect.  that said, though, i did find the ending a bit incomplete.

idk.  it wasn’t one of my favorites.

twenty-one & twenty-two.  annihilation and authority, jeff vandermeer.

that’s how the madness of the world tries to colonize you:from the outside in, forcing you to live in its reality.(annihilation, 108)


a girlfriend who had gleaned some sense of his job had once asked, “why do you do it?” — meaning why serve such a clandestine purpose, a purpose that could not be shared, could not be revealed.  he’d given his standard response, in a portentous manner, to poke fun at himself.  to disguise the seriousness.  “to know.  to go beyond the veil.”  across the border.  even as control said it, he had known that he was also telling her he didn’t mind leaving her there, alone, on the other side.  (authority, 195)

ohhhhh these were SO fabulously creepy.  i inhaled annihilation on a flight out to california because i couldn’t put it down, then made good headway into authority before the plane landed and finished authority while in portland over the next few days.  i couldn’t get enough, and now i’m impatiently waiting for it to be september because acceptance will be published then.

one giant thing i love about the southern reach trilogy is that the three books aren’t written in the same voice.  (or ok these two weren’t; i don’t know how acceptance will be told.)  i’m not a big fan of trilogies because i find that very few stories actually need to be told in trilogies (extra length = sloppier stories) (this is a generalization, yes), but vandermeer went about the southern reach trilogy in a cool way — the biologist narrates annihilation, and authority focuses on control — and it’s great, not only because it changes things up between books, but also (and maybe more importantly) because the different narrative voices add to the stories.  like, annihilation works so well because it’s told from the perspective of the biologist, and it’s a very narrow, limited perspective because the biologist is new to area x, too.

but, then, as we go into authority, we, as the readers, have a slight edge on control (the main character of authority) because we’ve already been privy to the biologist’s experiences while he hasn’t— but, at the same time, there’s all this bigger picture stuff we don’t know, and it’s nice to get a more expansive view of the southern reach and area x through a wider third-person narrative.  i know i’m sitting here being super excited about narrative form, but it’s just done so well, and i loved both of these books and cannot freaking wait for september to roll around and spit out acceptance.  i want to know what happens!!!  and why things have been happening!!!  i want answers!!!  vandermeer, don’t go lost on me; don’t you dare!!!

also, charlotte strick did SUCH a rad job on the covers and end pages.  these books are GORGEOUS.  i wish they’d been released in hardcover.  T_T

(in general, FSG’s amped up its book design game in the last few years, and i am fucking loving it.)

twenty-three.  the interestings, meg wolitzer.

but, she knew, you didn’t have to marry your soulmate, and you didn’t even have to marry an interesting.  you didn’t always need to be the dazzler, the firecracker, the one who cracked everyone up, or made everyone want to sleep with you, or be the one who wrote and starred in the play that got the standing ovation.  you could cease to be obsessed with the idea of being interesting.  anyway, she knew, the definition could change; it had changed, for her.  (524)

yup.  i read this for the third time in nine months.  couldn’t help it.  i was in california when i felt an overwhelming need to read this again, so i went out and got it and plowed my way through it again.

sigh.  i love that the interestings is many things at once.  it’s a story about friendship, and, more than that, it’s a story about female friendship.  it’s a story about envy.  it’s a story about talent and potential and how talent and potential can go many ways — it can blossom and grow, nurtured through hard work and discipline, or it can fizzle out, turn out to have been nothing much at all, or it can be put aside and replaced with something else.  it’s a story about families and growing up, but my favourite one this time around — it’s about marriage.

the interestings is awesome because it’s one of those rare portrayals of a healthy marriage.  it’s not a perfect marriage (but there is no such thing, is there), but jules and dennis have a good marriage — and, though i am someone who has never been married, i find it realistic and encouraging.  they have their conflicts, and, at one point, you think they’ll separate because they won’t be able to overcome this conflict, but they get through it — and i like that wolitzer doesn’t gloss over the mundane or the less glamorous aspects of marriage but paints an honest picture that is, yes, optimistic but has integrity in its portrayal.

i also love how the interestings really is about jules and ash’s friendship, and part of me loves that as a woman because women’s friendships are often shafted, reduced to petty competition or jealousies.  and i’d say that it really is jules and ash’s friendship that makes me continue to come back to the interestings because i love the evolution of their friendship, how it keeps going even after they’re married and have kids and are living vastly different lives.  and it’s not in a way that’s passive on their end — jules and ash both have to commit, in a sense, to the friendship, to let it grow and change as they do, too.  friendship isn’t passive; it’s a relationship; and, like all relationships, it requires sacrifice and work and commitment, too — and i like that wolitzer portrays that so deftly in this friendship.

one of my favourite quotes is one from ash as she’s toasting jules and dennis at their wedding:  “i’m not losing you.  marriage, i don’t think, is like that.  it’s something else.  it’s a thing in which you get to see your closest friend become more of who she already is.”  (269)  i think that’s so beautiful and what i’d hope from my closest friendships if i ever get married.

also, here’s my obligatory “i love ethan figman.”  i swear, i’m not going to stop saying that whenever there’s any mention of the interestings because i’ve never felt about a fictional character the way i feel about ethan figman.

twenty-four.  still writing, dani shapiro.

the writing life is full of risk.  there is the creative risk — the willingness to fall flat on our face again and again — but there is also practical risk.  as in, it may not work out.  we don’t get brownie points for trying really hard.  when we set our hopes on this life, we are staking our future on the contents of our minds.  on our ability to create and continue to create.  we have nothing but this.  no 401(k), no pension plan, often no IRA, no plans — god knows — for retirement.  we have to accept living with profound uncertainty.  (179)

i don’t typically (or ever?) read books on writing, but i picked up still writing when i was going through a really rough time writing.  (i blame it all on netflix.  no joke.  which is why i cancelled netflix two weeks after restarting my subscription … and i’ve been 150% better since.)  still writing basically was like shapiro had taken everything the illustrator friend and i have been discussing about the creative life and put it into a compact, dense little gem of a book, which was exactly what i needed earlier this month.

i liked it.  i’ll probably come back to it and revisit when i’m in need of encouragement.  still writing didn’t necessarily shed new light on the creative life for me, but it was great in that it made me feel less alone.  sometimes, this whole creative venture can feel horribly isolating, especially when you’re in the writing phase, so there was a sense of solidarity to be found in these pages, like, hey, you might feel alone right now, but you are actually indeed part of this community of people who just know deep down that they must write or draw or do music, etcetera etcetera etcetera.

i’d definitely recommend it for any creative being, too.  shapiro doesn’t try to glamorize anything, and neither is she dire and cynical — simply very pragmatic and honest and encouraging.

twenty-five.  how to read a novelist, john freeman.

now he [eugenides] and franzen are at the top of america’s heap of novelists.  it’s a position eugenides doesn’t guard, and he knows that eventually there will be a new wave.  he can even in some ways see it coming.  “now and then there’s a literary party and i see these guys looking at me, guys i used to be, and i’m sure that they are in that same ferment and state, and ambitious and talking, showing their work to their friends, and i’m sure it’s still going on.  the look in their eyes that i see is the same i expect my eyes looked like back in 1992.”  (334-5)

ok truth?  i didn’t actually read all the interviews in this book.  which wouldn’t have been difficult to do because there are only fifty-five interviews and they’re all pretty brief (but no less good for being brief), but i still didn’t read them all.  i read the ones of all the authors i’ve read/like, so there’s definite bias there, but i’m still sticking this on here because this is how i roll with non-fiction collections such as these, and how to read a novelist is going to be one of those books that i come back to over and over for inspiration/encouragement/blah blah blah.  i can feel it.

i find myself thinking of interviews along the same veins that i think of writers who write in first-person;  there are many who are good at it, but there are very few who are great at it.  with interviews, maybe part of that falls on the editor of the publication, too, because there are few publications that consistently turn out good interviews (e.g. the paris review is indisputable king when it comes to awesome interviews; interview generally has good ones; and i’ve loved the ones i’ve read on guernica) (btw apparently guernica is planning a print publication, wahoo!). 

freeman’s pretty great.  i wish these were longer, though, because they’re really only a few pages each, and they were a little too bite-sized, which made me sad because i wanted more.  they’re very full bites, though, and it’s a good collection from a great spectrum of authors.  i’ll be holding onto this for a while.

twenty-six.  the silent history, eli horowitz, matthew derby, kevin moffett.

without names they’d be gone.  (francine chang, 492)

the silent history was absolutely incredible.  i spent all weekend doing nothing but reading it because i didn’t want to stop, and i absolutely loved it and was sad when it was over, even though it was dark and i was reading outdoors (by the light spilling from a cafe), so it was probably good for my already-nearly-legally-blind eyes that i finished it.  

two things: 

one.  the voices — the silent history is told in the voices of at least 24 different people, and i say “at least” here because i stopped writing them down at 24.  and, yet, these 24 different people sound like … 24 different people.  that’s bloody incredible.

two.  the silent history feels very contemporary.  you have a premise that sounds sci-fi-y — a bunch of children born without the ability to speak — but it presents this phenomenon in a way that’s very timely and relevant and also in a way that represents the width of the human spectrum.  in that way, the use of multiple voices served the novel incredibly well because we’re presented with all these different perspectives and fears and motivations.  it felt like a documentary (which i suppose was the point) and, as a narrative, as a novel, like a social commentary done in a way that doesn’t really read like one.

i feel like the silent history would be loads of fun to read as a book club.  different readers would take issue with different things, and i’m aware that that’s pretty true about all books — as readers, we have our own complex histories that inform our reading — but there’s a lot in the silent history that could be picked at and discussed.  like, for me, i was taken with the mass inability to see beyond the knowable and the familiar and the ways that the dominant society tries to override and force the minority into the familiar — generally, this terror of the Other where the Other’s happiness or contentment is inconceivable simply for being different.  the Other doesn’t have to harm the “majority;” it simply has to exist for the majority to feel threatened and react defensively, most often by forcing conformity.

also, as i was reading the silent history, i kept thinking about how sometimes it’s surprising the characters you find yourself sympathizing with most.  i was all for theodore (flora’s father) and had little patience for nancy (spencer’s mother).  i couldn’t really stand patti but found her laughable and a more than a little pathetic, and i was largely indifferent towards francine.  i couldn’t stand burnham and was rooting for calvin all the way, but i didn’t feel much for flora (she was too good) or for spencer or even for their kid.  david vaguely annoyed me.  i remember reading a criticism of a criticism once and how the criticism (that was being criticized) focused too much on how the reader felt, and i laughed a little because i think that a lot of reading really is about how we feel while reading.  it’s how we feel about these characters and their stories that takes a piece of writing and gives it a charge — it’s what makes us care and gets us invested — but, yes, on the other hand, i suppose one should be more objective when one is an official reviewer.

which i am not, so i get to sit here and talk about how a book made me feel, and the silent history made me feel nice things inside, even while being a sort of dark novel that raises lots of serious issues.  very good.  highly recommended.  go for it.

twenty-seven.  the isle of youth, laura van der berg.

their parents didn’t seem to know they’d been gone, or catch the strange smells they brought home.  the farm was more than two hundred acres, and dana figured they thought their children were out on the land, like they’d always been.  but their children were learning quickly.  they were learning that the outside world and the pleasures it held weren’t so bad.  they were learning that they had never really believed in God; they have only ever believed in fear.  (“lessons,” 78)

i thought i’d like this a lot more than i did.  i don’t know why; i just expected a lot more from it when i started it.  the writing is good, and i loved that they were stories about women in bad/messy situations and how they not necessarily overcame them but dealt with them.  i did appreciate that.  maybe it was just that i got to the second to last story and was just like, “damn, this book is just bumming me out.”  i don’t know.  i don’t really have many things to say about it?

in case you hadn’t gotten the memo, i’m currently obsessed with FSG originals.

went to mcnally jackson today and picked up gong ji-young’s our happy time, hwang sun-mi’s the hen who dreamed she could fly, and francoise sagan’s bonjour tristesse.  excited to start them, yey yey!

march + april reads!

march + april!  and, yes, sometimes, i read on the ipad.  very, very rarely, though.

eleven.  portrait of an addict as a young man, bill clegg.

his words, his caressing hand, carlos on top of me, the drugs and vodka roaring through me — shame, pleasure, care, and approval collide and the worst of the worst no longer seems so bad.  one of the most horrible things i can imagine — having sex, high on drugs, in front of noah — has been reduced to something human, a pain that can be soothed, a monstrous act that can be known and forgiven.  you’re okay, noah reassures me with his soft voice and gentle strokes, and for a few long minutes, i am.  (133)

i read this and ninety days within 24 hours.  clegg’s a pretty adept writer, and i liked how he used the third person when it came to talking his youth — it didn’t read like a shtick but created a nice sort of hazy distance between clegg the adult and clegg the child.  i also appreciated that he isn’t writing to make apologies or excuses for his addiction and its consequences but simply telling his tale the way it happened, no concern for making himself look better or more sympathetic.  which worked because i wasn’t very sympathetic towards him and felt myself growing frustrated and irritated with him.

this was an interesting read in that it made me step back to question how i might react if i had a friend in a similar situation.  i admit that i didn’t like all the answers i discovered, but it’s refreshing when you read something that challenges you as a human being — i’d say that it really is a testament to clegg’s own stark naked honesty that i had to stop to ask myself what i would do and that the answers, in turn, challenged me to be more supportive and understanding of friends who are struggling.

twelve.  ninety days, bill clegg.

so i return to new york, see the studio on 15th street, and even though the rent is pretty cheap, i can’t afford it.  the landlord and broker need all that money.  since jean and dave are out, and because most of my family is broke, i ask elliot.  the first time in my adult life i’ve asked anyone for money, and elliot’s yes is as uncomplicated as if i’d asked him for a french fry off his dinner plate.  as uncomfortable as the asking is, as grim as the circumstances are that bring me to the question, the yes is a miracle.  the yes, with all its confidence and kindness, is like jane’s kiss on the street near one fifth, or jean’s bags of food.  it cuts through the plaque of shame and reminds me that somewhere underneath the wretched addict is a person worth being kind to, even worth betting on.  and i do not look like a good bet, that much is clear from any perspective, but when i tell elliot i don’t know when i’ll be able to pay him back, he just says, i’m not worried.  i know you will.  (74)

i’d say i enjoyed this more than portrait of an addict as a young man, not because ninety days depicts his struggles to get clean — i’m not really that interested in redemption stories — but because it got me in the heart with the emphasis on community.  getting sober wasn’t something clegg did on his own; it was the people beside him who made the difference, whether it was by providing him with groceries or by struggling themselves to get sober or by simply waiting for him to get sober, to get back to work.  there’s such a poignant beauty to that, and something convicting there, too, because it’s so easy to get wrapped up in our own worries and selfish needs, too absorbed with wanting something in return for our “generosity.”  the stark naked honesty from portrait is here, too, and a whole lot of love and a whole lot of gratitude, and it really was a beautiful, humbling thing to read.

thirteen.  my education, susan choi.

“come on, regina  you ‘love’ me, you want to come set up house?  you ‘love’ me, you want to be joachim’s other mommy?  you want to pay half my mortgage?  you want to bake little pies every day?  what is this bullshit?  what more do you want?  you have me.  quit the ‘gimme.’

“what ‘gimme,’” i whispered, my throat walls grown thick.

“your ‘i love you’ is like ‘gimme, gimme,’” she said, pulling into her driveway.  she turned off the engine and we listened to its tick-tick dying noise as if marking the hours before dawn.  then she seized my hand and at her touch i yanked her close, a tug-of-war stalemate across the gearshift of the saab.  “i want you here, too,” she whispered.  “i want you sleeping with me, in my bed.  i want that even though it’s insane, and my life goes to pieces if we get ourselves caught, i still want it.  can’t that be enough?”  (95)

my feelings re: my education are … not smple:  i found the narrator, regina, both fascinating and irritating (she cries a lot), and i wasn’t necessarily that sucked into the story, but i enjoyed the book overall.  it made me want to read more susan choi (i promptly went out and bought the foreign student and american woman) because i ended up really liking/enjoying regina’s voice in my education, even if i were ambivalent about her (again, too much crying).  i found her arc immensely satisfying, though, loved the way she grew up and matured, and i actually liked the big time jump in my education — i think it served the story well, and i’m not really a fan of big time jumps in general because i tend to find them lazy, whether in novels or in korean dramas.

i felt pretty ambivalent about my education while i was reading it, kind of thought the story was a little whatever, but the further i got into it, the more i didn’t want to stop — the more i liked that there wasn’t a high concept or complicated narrative.  i’ve also heard susan choi in conversation twice in the last few months, and i came away from both events being more curious about her and wanting to hear more from her, although she was really more the moderator at both, because she’s very smart and very poised and has an awesome haircut, which never hurts.  it’s always a plus when you like the author, i say, and susan choi’s definitely on my radar now — i’ll be keeping an eye out for any other events/readings she does in nyc!

fourteen.  the interestings, meg wolitzer.

but when she looked over at ash and ethan, she often felt a small reminder of how she herself didn’t entirely change.  her envy was no longer in bloom; the lifting of dennis’s depression had lessened it.  but it was still there, only closed-budded now, inactive.  because she was less inhabited by it, she tried to understand it, and she read something online about the difference between jealousy and envy.  jealousy was essentially “i want what you have,” while envy was “i want what you have, but i also want to take it away so you can’t have it.”  sometimes in the past she’d wished that ash and ethan’s bounty had simply been taken away from them, and then everything would have been even, everything would have been in balance.  but jules didn’t fantasize about that now.  nothing was terrible, everything was manageable, and sometimes even better than that.  (363)

you know, it really says a lot about a book if, as you’re flipping through it for passages you pencilled, you want to sit down and read it again.  even though you’ve just read it again for a second time in less than twelve months.

i still love ethan figman.

the paperback launch for the interestings was held at powerhouse, and meg wolitzer appeared with susan choi, and it was fun listening to wolitzer talk about the book — how she, too, had been in love with ethan figman, so much so that he wasn’t flawed, that she wrote the book in order, that she tries to get to know her characters first.  she also likes to read something great while writing, not really into the fear of being derivative, and thinks that flashbacks and flash-forwards are false constructs because we’re constantly toggling the past, present, and future in our lives — and there was more, but that’s all i feel like typing up here now.

i wrote about the interestings more in my 2013 reading recap, which you can read here.

fifteen.  drifting house, krys lee.

he says, “appa, i can read now.”

he can read, and you were not there to teach him.  (“the salaryman,” 108)

READ. THIS.  seriously.  read it.  it’s fucking incredible, easily one of the best books i’ve read this year.

there’s a thread that runs through this collection, not necessarily a narrative or thematic thread but an emotional, atmosphere one — it starts with the first story, and, as you continue reading and getting further into the book, the thread pulls tighter, pulling you in tighter and upping the unease that’s been hovering around you as you’ve been reading.  it’s a great unease fed by lee’s atmospheric prose — don’t be deceived by its seeming simplicity — and her stories are narrow in scope but so profoundly deep emotionally.

one of the things i absolutely loved about drifting house, though, is that lee has one foot firmly in korea and one foot firmly in america.  i mentioned that briefly before, but that’s actually a very difficult line to straddle, i’ve found — usually korean-american authors tend to skew more american, which, but lee manages to depict both cultures in language that captures both korean and english, not only in diction but also in tone and voice.  and she does it all with such finesse and ease — there’s nothing clunky about drifting house.

i know this might sound a little weird, but it’s late, so forgive me .  basically, you should read it because it’s a great, incredible, unique book with a great voice, and i am so stoked for her novel, whenever it’s released!

sixteen.  the corrections, jonathan franzen.

he was remembering the nights he’d sat upstairs with one or both of his boys or with his girl in the crook of his arm, their damp bath-smelling heads hard against his ribs as he read aloud to them from black beauty or the chronicles of narnia.  how his voice alone, its palpable resonance, had made them drowsy.  these were evenings, and there were hundreds of them, maybe thousands, when nothing traumatic enough to leave a scar had befallen the nuclear unit.  evenings of plain vanilla closeness in his black leather chair; sweet evenings of doubt between the nights of bleak certainty.  they came to him now, these forgotten counterexamples, because in the end, when you were falling into water, there was no solid thing to reach for but your children.  (335-6)

this was a second read, too — i first read the corrections back in 2011 — and i’d say i enjoyed it just as much as i did the first time around.  i still dislike most of the characters (caroline’s the worst; denise is my favourite; and i have a soft spot for alfred), but i have to give it to franzen for writing these full, human characters in a full, lived-in world — ugh, he’s so good, and what i [almost] resent him most is that he makes it read so easy.  the effort isn’t there on the page, letting itself be known; the words flow easily, naturally off the page; and his dialogue is pretty damn great, too.

the thing with the corrections is that you put up with these unlikable characters for 400-, 500-some pages, but the payoff is great when the lambert children finally put their shit together and grow the fuck up and become adults.  there’s a nice redemption there, and it’s not the sort that feels excessively tidy, like franzen is trying to make up for the book by sweeping up the end, but it’s a human redemption, the way that, sometimes, it really is one event that makes us sit up straight and pay attention and take responsibility for ourselves, our families, our lives — and, seriously, it’s pretty damn gratifying.

seventeen.  sleepwalking, meg wolitzer.

it was children who did it, who drained the life from you, who made you run around the room playing piggyback until you were out of breath.  it was children who scared you as no other people could.  the first time lucy had tried to kill herself and ray had been called ashore by the local coast guard, he had seen helen standing all alone on the dock, clutching herself tightly, and he had known without any doubt that it was about lucy.  he had been able to tell from the urgency of the way helen stood, and when he got off the boat he had slipped into her arms and wanted to stay there forever.  (128)

sleepwalking is wolitzer’s debut novel, published when she was twenty-two, and it was reissued recently with a new cover that uses the same type that her other books use.  first novels are interesting to me (franzen’s first is bizarre, but that might be because i had such a strange experience reading it) because it’s interesting to see where writers begin and how they grow, and you could definitely see the youth in sleepwalking, though you could also see the potential and how wolitzer would go on to write the interestings.

to be quite honest, i found sleepwalking pretty mediocre, nothing that spectacular or interesting.  i kept wanting more to happen, but nothing really did, so it was a rather anticlimactic read.

eighteen.  freedom, jonathan franzen.

she has embarrassingly inquired, of her children, whether there’s a woman in his life, and has rejoiced at hearing no.  not because she doesn’t want him to be happy, not because she has any right or even much inclination to be jealous anymore, but because it means there’s some shadow of a chance that he still thinks, as she does more than ever, that they were not just the worst thing that ever happened to each other, they were also the best thing.  (569)

this was a second read, too — i also read freedom back in 2011 — and i liked it a lot more this time around.  my vague memory of freedom the first time around was that there was too much politicizing, too much of franzen ranting about his own sociopolitical views, but i didn’t find it to be so excessive this time around, although i did still think some of it could have been edited down.  not so much to interfere with my enjoyment of it, though — i basically spent a weekend ploughing through freedom because i didn’t want to stop.

my favourite arc in freedom is that of patty and walter’s marriage.  i think both characters do some terrible things to each other, but they learn from their terrible mistakes and find their ways back to each other, in a sense redeeming each other.  i do think the death in freedom was a cop-out — it was too convenient, too easy — and i’m still not sold on whether or not it was necessary (or effective) to have a third of the novel be written in “patty’s” voice, but i wasn’t that bothered by it during either of my reads.  i derived much enjoyment from joey’s plights, though — they were funny only because joey’s young and does grow up and learn from his stupidity — and, generally, if you were to ask me what freedom’s all about, i’d probably say that it’s a book about redemption, about these characters doing all these shitty things to themselves and to each other but redeeming themselves and each other, and it’s all pretty damn satisfying.

and you know, something franzen just does so well — he sets a general stage, introduces the characters, and then he pulls these long threads from that, zeroing in one character and then another and then another, and you’re kind of wondering how these all come together, but then he does it, weaves all the threads together, and creates this whole, complete narrative.  it’s fucking great to read and a whole lot of fun.

i love franzen.  i enjoy his nonfiction voice, his sense of humor, his perceptions and self-examination, his awareness, and rereading the corrections and freedom made me realize how much i love and miss his fiction voice.  does he deserve all the crazy hype he gets?  i don’t know; i can’t say; but is he good?  hell yes, and i’d even go so far as to say that he’s better than most, at least in creating these big, expansive, human worlds with real human people — and, hey, it’s been four years since freedom, so that makes it five more years to go until we get a new novel from him?

nineteen.  tongue, jo kyung-ran.

the thousands of taste buds on my tongue wake up one after the other.  taste is the most pleasurable of all human senses.  the happiness you get from eating can fill the absence of other pleasures.  there’s a time when all you can do is eat.  when eating is the only way you can prove that you’re still alive.  large raindrops splatter onto the table, signaling the imminent arrival of a squall.

to eat or not to eat.  to love or not to love.  that is the question for the five senses.  (108)

this took me a while to get through.  i found it interesting because it’s about food and there are some great passages about food in it, but i also found it a little slow because the narrator seemed stuck in the same place for the majority of the book — and, when she did get into action to seek out revenge, it was abrupt, like she’d jumped suddenly from point a to point e.  i could see what jo was doing by laying a gradual groundwork, but, even so, maybe it was too subtle, maybe it felt too much like groundwork without enough structure, because i would’ve loved if the narrative had built more and led more gracefully into the ending.

the ending was fantastic, though, and it was still an interesting read, and i did ultimately enjoy it, although i guess we’ll see how memorable it was.

currently, halfway through the emperor’s children and american woman and started the lullaby of polish girls.  i don’t have any kind of “theme” as far as reading goes at the moment, just that i’m still aggressively avoiding books written in the first person and constantly looking for books that are beautifully written — and, okay, this is long enough, and i need to sleep, so good night!

february reads!

four books, all women, yey!

seven.  man walks into a room, nicole krauss.

he struggled against the urge to call anna.  he wanted to hear her voice, to test out how it sounded in the hollow space of the desert, to perform his own experiments ont he nature of absence.  but something in him didn’t want to give in to it, didn’t want to admit to whatever else it was that made him want to call her.  in the end he picked up the phone and dialed anyway.  she wasn’t home.  it was nine o’clock at night in new york, too late for her to be at work and too early for her to be asleep, which meant she was somewhere out in the glowing city.  (136)

another of those books i reread every once in a while, and it never disappoints.  man walks into a room is more “traditional,” which isn’t surprising because it’s a first novel, and, maybe, in that way, it’s a little less exciting than krauss’ more ambitious the history of love.  there’s a quietness to man walks into a room, though; in heavier hands, it could have been a, well, heavier story; but krauss is so deft in exploring this idea of loss — and there’s an ease to this slim novel that i think i find rather soothing. 

also, this is still one of my favourite passages ever:

He wanted to shut it off and sit in the dark once and for all, to cup his hand over the phone and say, Tell me, was I the sort of person who took your elbow when cars passed on the street, touched your cheek while you talked, combed your wet hair, stopped by the side of the road in the country to point out certain constellations, standing behind you so that you had the advantage of leaning and looking up? — and so on with a list that would keep her talking through the night. But he didn’t ask because he didn’t know if he wanted the answers. It was better, he felt, had felt from the beginning, not to know. He only wanted to pose the questions, as if just caring enough to ask might give absolution.  (140)

eight.  frankenstein, mary shelley.

'yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation; i am alone.'  (223)

frankenstein is one of my favourites overall and also one of my favourite classics.  it’s very … neat, like tidy neat, in the way that i feel some classics tend to be (dracula feels that way to me, too, and even wuthering heights and jane eyre), but it explores the human condition in interesting and, even, frightening ways.  one of the more interesting points in the novel for me is when frankenstein is creating a companion creature and he’s suddenly thinking about the potential consequences of his work, suddenly placing upon himself the greater good of the greater world.  also when he says in his narration, “i was guiltless, but i had indeed drawn down a horrible curse upon my head, as mortal as that of crime.”  (167)  because i couldn’t quite consider frankenstein as being entirely guiltless, but then that makes you wonder what guilt is because, technically — technically — he didn’t do anything wrong.

nine.  i’ll be right there, shin kyung-sook.

"miru writes down everything she eats."  myungsuh answered for her.

everything?  miru ignored my stares and continued writing it all down.

"why do you do that?" i asked.

"because then it feels real," she said.

"what does?"

"being alive."  (110-1)

luckily, this one didn’t have me weeping in public places.  it did bum me out a little, though, because it’s a pretty sombre book, but not in a cumbersome, heavy way.  there’s a lightness to it that keeps pulling you forward, that says that, yeah, the characters in this book were in a hard place and lost a lot, but that, even so, they were still okay.  that, no matter how much things changed, at that moment, they’d still had each other.

it wasn’t a perfect novel, though, and, for much it, i felt like i was being held at arm’s length.  nonetheless, this is a book that’s sat with me, one i want to revisit in a few months because it’s left an impression and i want to come back to it, see how it feels after some time has passed.


"human beings are imperfect.  we are complicated, indefinable by any wise saying or moral.  the guilt, wondering what i’d done wrong, will follow me my whole life like my own shadow.  the more you love someone, the stronger that feeling is.  but if we cannot despair over the things we’ve lost, then what does it all mean?  but … i don’t want that despair to damage your souls."  (professor yoon) (294)

ten.  the night guest, fiona macfarlane.

to put it very bluntly, this was a disappointment.  maybe i’d gone into it with too high expectations because i’d seen favourable reviews floating around at the end of last year, and, when i bought the book at housing works, the guy ringing me up was super ecstatic about it, saying that his co-volunteer had read it and said it was so creepy.  thus my expectations.

it started off promising enough, but, as i kept reading, my interest kept flagging, until i hit the middle of the book and realized i felt nothing for the book, except some anger towards frida.  and then i had a moment of, oh, this book is going to end this way, isn’t it? — and, lo and behold, i was right.  it wasn’t an interesting sort of predictability, either, so, by the end, i was literally just flipping pages just to get to the end.

currently reading jo kyung-ran’s tongue, which is making me all sorts of hungry because the narrator is a chef and the book has thus far been stuffed with these wonderful passages about food.  thinking that maybe in march i’ll try to read modern korean authors because i have a few novellas to read, as well as hwang sok-young’s the old garden, which is a pretty hefty volume, and kim young-ha’s black flower.

also thinking that i really should get on with challenging myself and start reading korean literature … in korean.  i mean, if i really want to get better at this language …..!!!