The Vegetarian by Han Kang: Review

41nsvhy8t2bl-_sx322_bo1204203200_Title: The Vegetarian
Author: Han Kang
Genre: Fiction
Country: S. Korea
Rating: 5/5

Yeong-hye begins having vivid nightmares and believes that the only way to abate them is to become a vegetarian. Her culture is very meat-based in meals and she is quickly judged by the public as it’s very unusual to become a vegetarian if not for strict health reasons. Yeong-hye does not seek to apologize for her choice nor does she try to explain any reasons why. Unfortunately, her decision into vegetarianism is not received well by her husband or her family. The men in her life (namely her husband and father) not only reprimand her for her decision but seek to physically punish her as well.

The perspectives Kang chooses are the characters surrounding Yeong-hye. The decision to not give Yeong-hye her own voice in a chapter (although she is given snippets of thoughts) is very important and reflective of the society Yeong-hye lives in. As a woman she is not given a voice and when she finds her voice and exercises her power of control over herself, it’s suddenly an affront to the patriarchal men in her life. Kang’s writing style is brutal and does not shy away from topics of abuse and sexual assault. It’s hard to read at first but necessary as readers navigate the mysterious “why” of Yeong-hye’s choices and our attempts to understand how her life unfolds.

What little of Yeong-hye’s voice and perspective readers get is beautiful as it is disturbing.

“Something is stuck in my solar plexus. I don’t know what it might be. It’s lodged there permanently these days. Even though I’ve stopped wearing a bra, I can feel this lump all the time. No matter how deeply I inhale, it doesn’t go away. Yells and howls, threaded together layer upon layer, are enmeshed to form that lump. Because of meat. I ate too much meat. The lives of the animals I ate have all lodged there. Blood and flesh, all those butchered bodies are scattered in every nook and cranny, and though the physical remnants were excreted, their lives still stick stubbornly to my insides.”

As Yeong-hye seeks to live her life without apology or explanation as is her right, we see her through the lens of her brother-in-law who sexually fantasizes about her. Kang shows how patriarchal cultures automatically sexualize a woman’s body even when the body is not inherently sexual. For instance, Yeong-hye’s decision to not wear a bra is sexualized by her husband constantly and as Kang infers, society. This constant barrage of sexually describing a woman becomes uncomfortable in the first chapter, but readers are forced to see how a personal choice becomes demonized. Socialization can greatly oppress people and in this book it’s apparent with women in particular.

One of the most interesting things with Yeong-hye’s turn to vegetarianism is perhaps her constant parallel to ecofeminism. She’s eaten many lives to sustain her without a second thought. She’s eaten animals who had no choice but to die. In the same vein, Yeong-hye has been socialized to follow the rules: to eat meat without question, to wear a bra, to deny herself. In a sense, society is eating her without her expressed permission. The way that a society treats nature and animals around it can also express itself in the treatment of women. Since the rise of patriarchal tradition, culture, and religion, and the decline of the divine feminine which usually coincides with “mother nature” readers see how women are raised in their own slaughterhouses so to speak. Yeong-hye is abused repeatedly without a second thought or a feeling of remorse from the men around her and the women do not take action and stand up for her directly. The cycle is continuous. Perhaps then the only choice a woman has is when and how she is to die.

Ultimately Kang writes in a way that you will be thinking about The Vegetarian for a long time.

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Truly Madly Guilty Review

Titl9781743534915e: Truly Madly Guilty
Author: Liane Moriarty
Genre: Fiction
Country: Australia
Rating: 2/5

Summary: Clementine and Erika have been friends since childhood and continue to keep one another in their lives. Erika is the godmother of Clementine’s children, even. But one day when they get invited to Erika’s neighbor’s barbecue, something goes terribly wrong that shapes three families for the rest of their lives. Complete with secrets, dysfunctional families, resentment, and drama, Truly Madly Guilty dives into the ugly and the beautiful of the human condition.

My Reaction: Truly Madly Guilty begins during Clementine’s presentation about what happened at the barbecue through Erika’s perspective. Readers are left in the dark as to what actually happened at the life-altering barbecue until ~60% into the book. Moriarty does not spare any details from the mundane lifestyles of both Clementine and Erika. The perspectives alter in each chapter although the book is written in third person limited.

The mystery of what happened at the barbecue is supposed to fuel the reader’s imagination and interest into the novel, but unfortunately, Moriarty’s need for describing every little detail of every little thing we do in life outweighs the excitement of anticipation. We are left in the dark grappling for: what the hell happened? It’s frustrating and I often wanted to give up on the book.

When it gets to the last 40% of the novel, the pace picks up very nicely. Suddenly readers can spiral into the drama of what happened that day and how / why it changed all three families involved. Compared to the beginning of the novel, the ending is like finally jumping off a plane to skydive while the beginning is like the anticipation but mostly dread of actually getting to the jumping part.

It is the end that saved this book from a 1/5 rating. Moriarty does do very well on describing the human condition and the human psyche but she does it in such a dull, mundane way that I struggled in caring. I did enjoy some of the backstories, mostly Erika’s, but it isn’t a saving grace for the novel by any means.

Unfortunately there were no quotes I liked well enough to highlight and I do not believe this would by any means qualify for literary fiction. There is nothing very insightful that Moriarty gives me as a reader.

The author also has a penchant to tie everything together with a nice little bow on top, and while it’s generally nice that author’s can tie things in together, it’s on the rather dull/obvious side of things. For instance, it’s raining throughout the entire novel until one day it clears up and the sun is out. The metaphor is tiring and trite at best. The other tie-ins are eye rolling ones that aren’t complex at all. And then there are some things, like Clementine’s mother’s resolve at the day of the barbecue that never come to light. There are many things left unsaid or unfinished in the novel.

By the very end things return to the mundane and there were probably about 100 pages of actual good, exciting writing. Not that Moriarty is a bad writer by any means, her prose is generally good by qualifications, but it’s boring and not insightful. But this book could have easily lost 200-300 pages and it would have been a good novella.

Trigger Warnings Review

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Title: Trigger Warnings
Author: Neil Gaiman
Genre: Fiction > Short Story / Poetry Collection
Country: England
Rating: 1/5

Summary: Gaiman writes on several different subject matters. The short stories often deal with the fantastical, including fairy tale spinoffs, a Doctor Who short story, and a short story continuation of American Gods following the main protagonist Shadow. The stories are meant to be disturbing and some of them even include tentacled monsters or faceless creatures.

My Reaction: A waste of time. I always love Gaiman’s ideas and I’ve read a couple of his books, but I can never get behind his writing style. It seems trite and elementary most of the time. The title is very misleading and Gaiman includes in his introduction his thoughts on trigger warnings, which in my opinion, shows that he doesn’t understand what TWs are for. In any case, there is hardly anything that could use a trigger warning. He also includes a synopsis of each short story before the stories begin which screams: I don’t trust my readers!

There is no short story that I can say that I remotely enjoyed. The Doctor Who short story is all right, but I found it annoying that Gaiman borrows so heavily from what is already on television. Most of the short stories end abruptly without much explanation which is supposed to add to the air of “disturbances” but it falls short. The characters are hardly worth remembering. I remember Shadow from American Gods, but that’s because I’d already read the novel.

Gaiman has good ideas but his overall ability to achieve a writing style that compliments his genius is lost. I had to really push my way through this book. There were no memorable quotes, probably the best part of the collection was the preface. There were some laughable quotes that, in my opinion, showcase bad writing, such as: “Her ship’s deck would be painted red, to mask the blood in battle.” If Gaiman trusted his readers any, he could easily omit “to mask the blood in battle.” It’s cliche, readers will get your meaning Gaiman, believe me!

I believe this seals the deal on me and Gaiman: we will never be. I truly looked forward to this collection because I love his mind, but … it didn’t pan out.

A Tale for the Time Being: Review

Ozeki writes through the lens of her 16-year-old protagonist and her family’s recent relocation back to Japan. Nao is a very straightforward but comical narrator; somehow Ozeki pulls off writing about very triggering topics such as suicide in a serious but “lighthearted” manner. The first half of the book is very easy to read; it’s very fast paced and keeps you alert. The second half is just as good but the writing style turns much darker very fast. I even had to put the book down a couple of times just to refocus myself.

This story is about cruelty. Cruelty of a world pushing you to the brink of you wanting to exist; cruelty of people who refuse to accept you; cruelty of corporations and their greed by refusing to respect your hesitancy in gaining profits through war. It’s about people pushing back from the status quo that is accepting war, accepting torture, accepting executions, etc. And in a way, this story is very much about life. There are several characters that interweave through time and they all respect life so much but yet nearly all face the choice of having to or wanting to kill themselves.

It is very easy to connect with Nao; her narration style is very informal and engaging. Anyone who’s gone through high school knows how cruel other students can be to one another and how important it is to reject bullying. It’s very heartbreaking to see how much her life is ruined because of her classmates and her continual struggle to pull herself back to the surface. Nao isn’t a perfect character and I really appreciate how Ozeki characterizes her callousness toward her father’s troubles. Bullying is a circle and the bullied can also create cruelty unto others.

Ozeki submerges the reader in Japanese culture. If you have the Kindle version as I do, the links to the notes come in very handy and I suggest that you read this book in its entirety which includes the appendix. The novel also submerges the reader in Zen Buddhism which I believe helps keep the novel’s peace. There are very dark times but I began to rely on some breathing techniques mentioned in the book and found it easier to read during the second half.

This book will probably be triggering; Ozeki does not shy away from the harsh reality of the world which entails: sexual assault, rape, suicide, war, and genocide. At the end of the day you realize how cruel the world actually is, how cruel people can be (which is an astonishing amount). And then you must make a decision on how you respond to the cruelty around you.

A Tale for the Time Being has some fantastic quotes. Some of my favorite are:
“What is the half-life of information?”

“During the physical examination in October, the recruiting officer ordered us to “switch off our hearts and minds completely.” He instructed us to cut off our love and sever our attachment with our family and blood relations because from now on we were soldiers and our loyalty must lie solely with our Emperor and our homeland of Japan. I remember listening to this and thinking that I could never comply, but I was wrong. In trying to stop your tears, I was already obeying the officer’s command to the letter, not out of patriotic allegiance, but out of cowardice, in order not to feel the pain of my own heart, breaking.”

“Think about it. Where do words come from? They come from the dead. We inherit them. Borrow them. Use them for a time to bring the dead to life.”

“Killing people should not be so much fun.”

“If you start snapping your fingers now and continue snapping 98,463,077 times without stopping, the sun will rise and the sun will set, and the sky will grow dark and the night will deepen, and everyone will sleep while you are still snapping, until finally, sometime after daybreak, when you finish up your 98,463,077th snap, you will experience the truly intimate awareness of knowing exactly how you spent every single moment of a single day of your life.”

A wonderful book and a must-read. 5/5

Homegoing: a Review

Gyasi really showcases her writing capabilities in Homegoing. Readers begin with two sisters and how their paths diverge: one becoming sold into slavery and shipped off to America, and the other remaining within Ghana. From there, each chapter introduces someone new who is related to the two sisters. And from there readers explore an entire line of ancestry.

The writing style is beautiful and the story in its entirety flows very well. Each chapter basically functions as a short story, but the tie-ins are very prominent so it helps to have that back-end knowledge. While for me it was hard getting into all of the chapters since I would form connections with other characters, it was still rewarding. Gyasi’s message really hit home with me.

Nearing the end of the book I stopped and it just hit me. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I realized suddenly that while now it’s generally unacceptable to sell people into slavery and there’s no breaking up of families in that regard, that families today suffer so much because the likelihood of being reunited with unknown family members is highly impossible. You might have family still in Ghana while the other half of your family is in the States and you might never know it. What an intense, scary, and tremendously terrible feeling! Gyasi does very well to point this out and to showcase the different struggles, particularly the black experience in America.

The Ghana lore from the Asante tribe is wonderful and moving. It also put things in perspective for me as I was already familiar with the spider god, Anasi thanks to the novel by Gaiman, Anasi Boys. But knowing the different traditions within a tribe and how slavery and white America has taken away that unique-ness of African-Americans is very sad. One quote sums it up from the book: “black is just black.” It’s very similar treatment America gives their own indigenous community with the blanket term of Native American without recognizing the different tribes. Seems to be a theme.

Some of my favorite quotes include:
“Weakness is treating someone as though they belong to you. Strength is knowing that everyone belongs to themselves.”

“You cannot stick a knife in a goat and then say, Now I will remove my knife slowly, so let things be easy and clean, let there be no mess. There will always be blood.”

“The British were no longer selling slaves to America, but slavery had not ended, and his father did not seem to think that it would end. They would just trade one type of shackles for another, trade physical ones that wrapped around wrists and ankles for the invisible ones that wrapped around the mind.”

“The British had no intention of leaving Africa, even once the slave trade ended. They owned the Castle, and, though they had yet to speak it aloud, they intended to own the land as well.”

“The white man’s god is just like the white man. He thinks he is the only god, just like the white man thinks he is the only man.”

“The white man told us he was the way, and we said yes, but when has the white man ever told us something was good for us and that thing was really good? They say you are an African witch, and so what? So what? Who told them what a witch was?”

“Forgiveness, they shouted, all the while committing their wrongs. When he was younger, Yaw wondered why they did not preach that the people should avoid wrongdoing altogether. Forgiveness was an act done after the fact, a piece of the bad deed’s future. And if you point the people’s eye to the future, they might not see what is being done to hurt them in the present.”

5/5 from me – a very insightful and impacting novel with a wonderful story!

Tidewater: Review

Tidewater by Libbie Hawker explores Pocahontas’ life. Starting from early childhood when John Smith arrives and following Amonute (one of Pocahontas’ actual names) until death, Hawker does not disappoint in showcasing what we know about Algonquian culture. From richly described rituals to fashion, readers get it all. (Note: even Hawker admits that some of these rituals are fictitious, made up because of how little we know about the rituals and rites of Algonquian women; in reading this book please be aware that it does not fully reflect true culture and should be read as mostly fiction).

Hawker uses some myths to her advantage, such as Pocahontas saving John Smith (most historians agree that this likely did not happen at all). Just as she uses myths, Hawker definitely goes out of her way to show the truth as much as she can. Readers will engage in the struggles between the tribe and the white man (man is appropriate as the colony was established without women or children until they reached better security). Hawker does not leave out the details either, particularly in the latter half of the novel where we witness terrible atrocities.

The beginning part of the novel is much weaker than the last half of the novel. In the beginning, Hawker doesn’t trust her audience and continues to use very weak verbs. Much of the descriptions should have been cut down. I think that this book was much than it should have been if we focus on details alone. Certainly the details about Pocahontas’ lifestyle, beliefs, traditions, etc., are appropriate and wonderful, but Hawker enjoys describing typical seasonal scenery in an unusual depth.

If you make it to the latter half of the novel, this is when Hawker really shows off her writing capabilities. We see the true struggle emerge between the tribe and the white colony; we see different plots, better writing in general, and true reactions/horrors the characters must face. The battle comes alive and meets a tragic end for Pocahontas. We see racism at its finest in England when she visits, and we see the hope die with her. Peace as it was momentarily realized, can not and did not last.

Considering my struggles through the first half, while assessing my appreciation for Hawker’s obvious research (not only in the Algonquian names, but the way she changes characters’ names as with tradition, and how she does not stray from writing about other very real people that shaped the Tidewater area), I give this book a 3/5 stars. If you can stick with the writing in the first half and the frustration of Hawker insisting on telling you what you already know, the second half is definitely worth it. If a writer’s purpose is to engage the reader and make them want to learn even more about their subject, then I think Hawker’s done a wonderful job at just that: I want to know more about the tribal lifestyle, rituals, and rites. This is a good fictional book to introduce you to important people and ways of the tribe along with showing you the realities of the struggle.

 

Currently continuing Tidewater. The subject fascinates me, of course, but damn the writing. Can we just give a shout out to authors that actually TRUST their readers? Tidewater is all about pointing out the obvious and not letting readers use their minds. And it’s a very dull read so far. Also why the hell do we have Smith’s perspective? No one cares about Smith. We’ve known his story for centuries…

An Unnecessary Woman: Review

Alameddine introduces readers to an elderly woman named Aaliya who is divorced and lives alone in her beloved city Beirut. She translates books (usually first translated into English or French) into Arabic and stores them in a small closet, never mentioning her work to anyone.

The book follows her thoughts and what’s happening around her. Readers may be frustrated by the book because: 1. Alameddine enjoys writing the way Aaliya’s mind works which is usually very jumpy and interrupting, 2. Aaliya is very widely read in all world literature and consistently employees quotes or opinions on pieces of work or the authors.

If you as a reader are not well read in terms of world literature, this will be a difficult book for you to follow as it was for me.

The writing style is definitely different. Alameddine never once separates the book by chapters so that it is a long-flowing narrative. It’s a very interesting and intriguing choice to me and I know he does it on purpose. Perhaps to see how the flow of life is continuous and never pausing.

As frustrating as it may be to keep up with Aaliya’s wonderful but choppy mind, she’s a character that instills admiration. She breaks cultural norms and barriers, she’s an independent woman living by herself through times of war and beyond, she’s very highly educated of her own accord, and she’s very determined. Even at her lowest while the spark may dim, it’s never all lost.

For me personally this book was very hard to get through. Page 200 and beyond is written more cohesively and it’s paced better. Although I wouldn’t say I personally enjoyed or liked the book, I respect it very highly and that’s why I rate it 3.5-4/5 stars.

I can’t just give one number because Alammedine writes very thought provoking, beautiful sentences like:

“Does reliability reinforce your illusion of control? If so, I wonder if in developed countries (I won’t use the hateful term civilized), the treacherous, illusion-crushing process of aging is more difficult to bear.

He huffs and puffs, displays the anger of Achilles and the countenance of the little pig.

“The peasantry, when it wishes to escape peasantry, has always, for centuries, across all borders, escaped into a uniform.
Alain Robbe-Grillet once wrote that the worst thing to happen to the novel was the arrival of psychology. You can assume he meant that now we all expect to understand the motivation behind each character’s actions, as if that’s possible, as if life works that way.

“One reason we desire explanations is that they separate us and make us feel safe …

If you think that Marcello of The Conformist becomes a porcine fascist because he killed lizards when he was a boy, then you assure yourself that you can never be so.
Even though I may not ever read the above mentioned authors, Alammedine does well to make his point when he wants to through Aaliya, which makes the novel more bearable and readable. But he doesn’t do this every time, and therefore I feel as if I missed an entire universe-layer of the book that I have to discover first in order to get everything out of An Unnecessary Woman.
In lieu of the many thought provoking sentences, the very bold claims (such as relating Noah’s ark to nazi philosophy), I’ve rated it higher than I feel as if I enjoyed it. But that’s the old argument of art, isn’t it? Is art for the masses or is it for the very well educated? Obviously this book makes its own decision and is destined for more enjoyment by the latter.