(sometimes, i pester the cat while she's napping on my bed.)
five. kim thúy, mån (random house canada, 2014)
in less than a second his face appeared, and at that exact moment i was in the present tense; a present without a past. (117)
mån tells the story of a vietnamese woman (mån) who’s abandoned as a baby and eventually marries a vietnamese man in toronto. he owns a restaurant, and she’s a skillful cook, catching the attention of a caucasian woman who befriends her and opens up new opportunities for her that lead her to a man in paris. this is such a trite description of the book.
i loved the format of the book — how each section has a “theme” word that’s printed in both vietnamese and english in the margin. the narrator’s voice has a magical quality that i loved and greatly enjoyed; it brings a haunting sheen to the novel; but, in the end, that’s kind of all it was — a sheen — because, ultimately, mån fell flat for me. there wasn’t any conflict, no tension — everything seems to happen so easily for the narrator, and her actions don’t have any consequences. it makes me think of the michael cunningham lecture i attended earlier this month — a character is driven by desire, by want for something — but mån doesn’t seem to want anything, which in turn means that i, as the reader, don’t have any reason to root for her or want things for her.
six. jenny offill, dept. of speculation (knopf, 2014)
but she does get irritated when her college sends around the memo at the end of the semester about how to recognize a suicidal student. she wants to send it back marked up in black letters. how about you look in their eyes? (106)
if i were to summarize dept. of speculation, i’d describe it as “notes on a marriage and an infidelity.” the book is told in short notes written from a wife to her husband, and the voice shifts roughly halfway in after the husband has an affair, switching from the first person to the third — and i’d have to say that that’s when the book started losing me. i understood the shift in my head, and i liked it theoretically, but it didn’t quite succeed on the page, feeling abrupt and distancing, the latter of which maybe was the point because it was the narrator distancing herself from her husband’s affair. that said, the shift also distanced me, the reader, from the narrative, and made me a mere spectator.
dept. of speculation was an engrossing quick read, though, and i did appreciate its exploration of marriage and the ways an affair breaks it in splintering ways. i loved the mentions of her daughter — those were easily my favorite parts of the book, and i was sad there wasn’t more of that — but, in the end, now that i’m a few weeks away from it, i think i’d have to say that i found dept. of speculation to be a book without much cling, fizzling away once i’d finished it and leaving no residue behind.
seven. patricia park, re jane (viking, forthcoming 2015)
“that’s real rich, you know that?” he [ed] shook his head. “you’re telling me i need to fix my relationship with my daughter, when look at you! do you hear the way he [your uncle] talks to you?”
i’d actually thought it was one of our more pleasant phone conversations.
“for one, he hollers at you — although that’s not new to you, the way you hold the damn phone away from your ear. he wasn’t even on speaker. but then he expects you to come at his every beck and call. and guess what? you come running.”
“does he even pay you to work?”
i wasn’t officially on the books — that wasn’t the way we did things at food — but sang would always pack me with groceries when i went home, and he’d give me the periodic handout. in fact, ed had just eaten one of sang’s apples that morning.
“well, does he?”
“do you clock in and out to watch devon?”
maybe it was a cheap shot, but his question felt that preposterous. you don’t keep a tally of expenses with family.
ed let out an exasperated sigh, the way he sometimes did with his daughter. “i just hate watching the way he treats you. and don’t even get me started on everything with your late mother. you know he’s still holding all that against you.”
i hadn’t actually broached the topic of my mother — and father — with my uncle since i’d returned from seoul. i continually debated whether to bring it up, but things had been going so well between us (okay, as well as they were probably ever going to go) that i’d held off. i didn’t want to rock the boat.
“he’s a man of his generation,” i snapped. “you try working fourteen hours on your feet all day. you try operating in a language that’s not your native —”
“stop defending him!” ed interrupted. his tone was so sharp that i shrank back. he must have seen my stricken look, because he softened his voice. “he should love you for you. not in spite of. but that man talks to you like he doesn’t have an ounce of respect for you.”
ed’s words stung me into silence. (286-7)
re jane is a half-korean orphan who was sent to flushing, queens, to be raised by her uncle’s family after her parents died in korea. after graduating college, she’s jobless and without prospects when her friend suggests that she take a job as an au pair for a caucasian family in brooklyn. she makes the mistake of falling in love with the husband, ed, and a series of mishaps sends her around the world to south korea where she discovers a different life as well as family and the truth about her parents before eventually returning to queens.
i love how park writes about koreans, korean-americans, and korea from the perspective of a korean-american. i also love how she writes about culture clashes, the above passage being an example of one. i love the relationships, how she captures the complications of korean families that don’t seem to make sense to non-koreans and also how she captures that as well as the confusion, sometimes, of being korean-american and caught between two cultures, two worlds, that don’t seem to understand or mesh with each other.
i cried ridiculous amounts while reading this, in pretty much every scene that had to do with korean families and that convoluted expression of love. hell, i’m tearing up writing this, just thinking about it because there’s kind of nothing like the korean family to tug at my heart — and i don’t mean to make all of this sound so othering, these distinctions between “korean families” and “non-korean families,” but the truth is that cultures are different, and i think there’s something wonderfully beautiful and messy about that. (there’s also something so awesome about the fact that we can have books that portray different cultures and different families and different people, and reading re jane often made me think, YES! a thousand times, YES! in some ways, i’ve been waiting for a book like this for a long, long time.) i also have no qualms in stating that i do fiercely love and am proud of the culture i come from, even while i find so much problematic about it, and i appreciated that re jane didn’t try to present a perfect, glossy image of korean culture but showed it also for its flaws and weirdnesses and the ways that it fucks you up, too, as a 1.5- or second-generation korean-american.
however, i so intensely dislike the whole “modern re-telling of jane eyre” bit because it seems so obviously a bit, like someone decided that the novel needed something “relatable” because readers wouldn’t connect with it simply being a story about a korean-american girl finding herself. the most unnatural parts of the book are the parts that obviously hearken back to jane eyre, like all the moments the narrator tries to pull off referring to the reader as “reader” or the descriptions of ed that clearly make you think “mr. rochester,” and they feel unnatural because they feel like they were thrown in there to make re jane a “modern re-telling.”
(it was clever to name re jane’s father currer bell, though. that was a good, quiet reference to charlotte brontë.)
i don’t fault park for this, though, because the whole “modern re-telling” thing feels clearly like a marketing thing, and, though i had some issues with some of the writing here and there (the beginning reads very literally, like “here’s a step-by-step account of my day”), i found re jane to be engrossing and funny and heartwarming, and i’d definitely recommend it.
eight, nine, ten. megan whalen turner, the queen of attolia (greenwillow books, 2001), the king of attolia (2006), the thief (1996)
“… but, gen, i know my decisions are my own responsibility. if i am the pawn of the gods, it is because they know me so well, not because they make up my mind for me. […] we can’t ask the gods to explain themselves, and i, for one, don’t want to.” (eddis in the queen of attolia, 171)
“if she pardons people because she loves them, someday someone that she loves will betray her and all of attolia with her. a queen must make sacrifices for the common good,” relius said.
“and if what she sacrifices is her heart? giving it up a piece at a time until there is nothing left? what do you have then, relius, but a heartless ruler? and what becomes of the common good then?”
“the queen could never be heartless.”
“no,” said the king. “she would die herself, relius, or lose her mind first and then her heart. could you not see it happening? or is your faith in her strength really so blind? everyone has a breaking point. yet you never stop demanding more of her.” (the king of attolia, 288)
oh, thank gods, i thought. they’re going to leave me. all i wanted to do was lie in the dry prickly grass with my feet in a ditch forever. i could be a convenient sort of mile marker, i thought. get to the thief and you know you are halfway to methana. wherever methana might be. (the thief, 30)
this is not the order of the books but the order in which i read them. the thief is actually the first book of the series, but the friend who recommended this series to me has a thing for second books and, thus, started me on, surprise surprise, the second book … which i loved so much, i immediately sought out the others.
i’m feeling lazy (bad book blogger!) (but i also don’t know how to summarize this without spoiling it?), so y’all can google a summary if you are so inclined.
these books aren’t badly written, but neither are they without prominent flaws. there’s a lot of explaining in the queen of attolia — there’s a war being waged in the story, but it’s pretty much all presented in tactical explanations — and nothing really happens in the king of attolia. on top of that, a lot of key things in the books simply seem to happen or pop up out of nowhere.
that said, though, these books are fun, and i loved the main character, eugenides, to pieces. there’s also a strong feminist streak to them, what with badass queens (both attolia and eddis) who protect their kingdoms while spurning husbands and tactical marriages, and i particularly loved attolia for all her toughness and loneliness. i was also intrigued by turner’s treatment of gods and how they’re actively involved in the characters’ lives, but the bottom-line really is that i had loads of fun reading these books, and i still think about eugenides and attolia all the time. i do love me a good love story.
eleven. diana wynne jones, howl’s moving castle (greenwillow books, 1986)
“go to bed, you fool,” calcifer said sleepily. “you’re drunk.”
“who, me?” said howl. “i assure you, my friends, i am cone sold stober.” (374)
i might as well throw this out there: i’m not keen on the ghibli adaptation of howl’s moving castle. not at all. i don’t even know how miyazaki got from this delightful book to his heavy-handed movie about war and such — what’s the point of an adaptation when you’re taking such wide, wide liberties?
the book, though — the book is enchanting. we follow sophie hatter, the eldest of three girls, as she’s cursed to be an old woman by the spiteful witch of the waste, leaving her home and ending up at howl’s moving castle, where she installs herself as the new cleaning woman after making a bargain with calcipher, a fire demon. howl is a vain, kind of silly wizard who slithers out of everything, but he’s also kind-hearted while being non-committal, taking in a young apprentice, michael, without “officially” taking him in — and, together, they make an odd family of sorts as howl continues trying to slither out of finding the king’s brother and confronting the witch of the waste.
it’s a sweet book and a funny one, too, and i love it more every time i read it.
twelve. chimamanda ngozi adichie, we should all be feminists (knopf, 2014)
some people ask, “why the word feminist? why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or something like that?” because that would be dishonest. feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general — but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender. it would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. it would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women. that the problem was not about being human but specifically about being a female human. for centuries, the world divided human beings into two groups and then proceeded to exclude and oppress one group. it is only fair that the solution to the problem should acknowledge that.” (41)
this is from adichie’s 2012 tedx talk, and, to be quite honest, i don’t know how i feel about printing speeches in book form. i feel like it’s become a thing in recent years, and, while part of me enjoys having these awesome speeches as books, the other part of me sort of side-eyes the cost (though, to be fair, this one is priced at $8). (then again, the first part of me is like, at least do it the way FSG did with franzen’s commencement speech and put it in a collection.)
regardless, though, everyone should read this. or listen to it (link to youtube is above). and, seriously, if you don’t get why we need feminism after reading/listening to this (and rebecca solnit’s men explain things to me), idk what to say to you.
thirteen. chimamanda ngozi adichie, americanah (knopf, 2013)
“the only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. we all wish it was not. but it’s a lie. i came from a country where race was not an issue; i did not think of myself as black and i only became black when i came to america. when you are black in america and you fall in love with a white person, race doesn’t matter when you’re alone together because it’s just you and your love. but the minute you step outside, race matters. but we don’t talk about it. we don’t even tell our white partners the small things that piss us off and the things we wish they understood better, because we’re worried they will say we’re overreacting, or we’re being too sensitive. and we don’t want them to say, look how far we’ve come, just forty years ago it would have been illegal for us to even be a couple blah blah blah, because you know what we’re thinking when they say that? we’re thinking why the fuck should it ever have been illegal anyway? but we don’t say any of this stuff. we let it pile up inside our heads and when we come to nice liberal dinners like this, we say that race doesn’t matter because that’s what we’re supposed to say, to keep our nice liberal friends comfortable..” (ifemelu, 359-60)
americanah is a beautifully sprawling book that mostly follows ifemelu, a nigerian, who travels to the united states to go to college. to a lesser degree, it follows obinze, her boyfriend from secondary school, who tries to get his papers in england but ends up back in nigeria — and, in some ways, it’s a love story, but, mostly, it’s a story of their lives, how they leave their home country and go to these other nations where they are suddenly black, where race suddenly matters in simultaneously complicated and reductive ways.
i loved americanah, but i admit i wonder if i loved it for itself as a novel or for how adichie writes about race. i liked ifemelu, but i don’t know that i was that invested in her emotionally or that i really cared what happened to her, not in a cold indifferent way but in a way that assumed that she would be fine and, therefore, did not require my concern. i did find myself liking her less when she returns to nigeria and picks things up with obinze again, just like i found myself liking obinze less, too, and part of me wished that we could have spent more time exploring that conflict, more of the small, personal things, because i found some of the things between ifemelu and obinze to be a little clunky — but that’s kind of the only big criticism i can think of because i was totally engrossed with this book, finishing it in twenty-four hours.
the awesome thing about americanah is that it’s not trying to be a novel about race; it just happens to be telling a story that has to do with race; and it does so deftly and skillfully, not in heavy-handed, didactic ways but in rich, vibrant portraits of its characters’ lives. similarly, adichie also writes just as naturally about modernization and social norms in nigeria — and, altogether, she’s woven a living, breathing world filled with nuances and complication and humanity, and it is pretty damn magnificent to behold.
fourteen. laura van den berg, find me (FSG, 2015)
once we are touching each other, how can we be expected to stop? soon i am flat against his bed, my scrubs around my ankles. my legs are parting and then he is on top of me, pushing. it’s daytime and there is no lock on the door, so we are quick, but i will never forget the feeling of blood flooding my body or our hot grasping hands or the way his eyes rolled back as we slipped into a place where time has no meaning, where we forget all about hunger, where we are so completely alive it seems impossible that we will not live forever. (98-9)
a pandemic has swept through the states, one that causes silver sores to grow on people’s skin and makes them lose their memories before they die. joy, the narrator, is offered a place in a hospital with a select number who are thought to be immune, where staff in hazmat suits study them and monitor them in search for a cure. eventually, in the second part of the book, she leaves the hospital and travels down to florida in search of her mother.
i wanted to like this. i tried so hard to like it. instead, i almost ended up dropping it halfway in because i couldn’t connect with joy or the story at all, but i pushed through, basically skimming/flipping through the last seventy-five pages for the sake of getting to the end. ($26 will incentivize you to push through sometimes.)
the thing is, van den berg’s writing is lovely. i respond positively to it on a technical level, and i enjoy her prose a lot. unfortunately, a story isn’t about just writing, and i think the novel started to lose me as it became increasingly clear that nothing was going to happen. it started off positively enough, and i think it helped that the first part of the book also had to give us joy’s backstory, so it didn’t feel as stagnant — but, then, as the pages went on and joy was still in the hospital and nothing was really happening, i started to lose interest, and i started to lose it fast.
one reason i pushed on, though, was that i hoped things would start moving when joy physically got on the move and left the hospital and started making her way from kansas to florida. unfortunately, though, part two suffered from a very literal, step-by-step telling that told us a lot movement-wise but nothing much deeper than that — and then joy and her friend, marcus, ended up stuck at a place called the mansion, which meant more pages of nothing happening, and, by then, i was skimming/flipping and hoping to hit florida.
i do love the premise of the book — as someone who’s personally obsessed with loss and memory, i was really intrigued by the idea of a pandemic that not only killed people but also did so while taking away their memories. that’s fascinating to me. unfortunately, though, find me failed to deliver, even if it does have such a beautiful cover.