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Read: The namesake: a novel by Jhumpa Lahiri

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The namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri has been a book that I wanted to read for a while and when it jumped out again at me from the public library shelves, I decided it was time. Having read her short stories, I knew I was in for a treat.

The story is about a boy whose parents immigrated from India and he is first generation Indian–American. Due to unforeseen circumstances, he is given a nickname at birth but never receives a proper name. So when he goes to school, his father tries to get him to use the name Nikhil but he is so used to Gogol that he prefers the familial nickname even in public. As his father can never find the right time, he is not told the true story behind his name until much later in life which makes it difficult for him to appreciate it growing up. The story focuses on Gogol’s struggle through life.

Lahiri’s writing style is very evocative and entrancing. She focuses a lot on imagery and describes in great detail Indian food, customs, and culture, as well as how it is changed by living in America. Due to the details, the reader is drawn into the novel and feels as though they’re in the room with the family, living life with Gogol.

The novel has a slower pace than some. The reader is steeped in moments of his life before progressing on to the next phase and struggle. The pacing allows for much reflection as well as enjoyment in the details. It is easy to linger over a phrase or passage and re-reading it, contemplating it for a brief while.

Recommended?: For lovers of literary fiction, especially those wanting a taste of growing up first generation Indian-American. The story is at once heartwarming and strained with its depiction of the family, which only makes it feel all the more real.

Shelved: Sandman by Neil Gaiman

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Sandman is another graphic novel series, this one by Neil Gaiman. It is very famous, and was so from the time it was first published in 1989. The Wikipedia page details it's history well.

Having recently read the Saga series, Sandman is quite different which probably colors my reaction to it. It is very dark and dense, using every bit of space on the page for either a lot of text or illustration. That's not a bad thing, it's just a very different style. Many of the pages seem busy, overwhelming the reader with detail. Panels are heavily used, appearing more like a comic strip in someways. Saga though would often use a whole page to tell a scene of the story instead, with sometimes very minimal, if no, text.

The story itself revolves around a character called the Sandman, or Dream or Morpheus depending on who is talking about him. No matter his name, he rules dreamland and makes it possible so that people can sleep and thus dream. However, the story starts with him being accidentally captured by a cult whose spell went wrong, leaving the whole world without proper sleep and dreams for around 70 years. The main plot meanders away from Sandman and covers various other people, making it difficult to connect with the main character since he is barely mentioned and focused on for quite some time in the first volume. In the second volume, he is the main focus but by then I felt but I was barely connected to him as a reader and so didn't care very much whether or not he reclaimed his kingdom and built dreamland back up again.

About halfway through the second volume, I put the graphic novel down and have it picked it up since. I just didn't feel connected to the story or compelled to read more. Having not read Gaiman before, I wanted to give Sandman a chance since it is a very popular, famous work of his. Compared with more modern graphic novels, it just didn't speak to me. I know that it means a lot to many people, I just think I picked it up too late.

Recommended?: To Neil Gaiman fans and anyone who loves classic graphic novels. For the most part, the content is just dark but there is some brutality and a side plotline of brutal violence in a diner that lasts for quite a while. This is another adult graphic novel, due to its violence and sophisticated story, which likely would be too high level, slower-paced, and philosophical for younger readers anyway.

Read: Saga, volumes 1-7 by Brian K. Vaughan

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Saga is a graphic novel series written by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Fiona Staples. The story itself is gripping but the artwork is truly engrossing. A friend recommended the series and it was the perfect quick read when I wasn’t feeling well earlier this summer. Thanks to the public library’s subscription to Hoopla, I raced through the entire set that’s been published so far and now have to wait for the next!

Saga takes place in space, set in a very different universe from ours, with many different alien and creature races. They have spaceships for interplanetary travel and distinct cultures that don’t always get along. The two main characters include a man whose race is at war with the race of the woman that he comes to love while he is in prison. She is a guard who watches him and feeling drawn to him, busts him out and escapes. They marry and have a child which is at once both appalling to both races who are at war and shocking as they refuse to believe that such a union is possible between their two people. The main action of the plot is to catch these Marko and Alana and punish them for their crimes. Different people of all types are trying to track them down, including famous bounty hunters.

Very quickly the story balloons in the number of characters and plot lines. You start first with Marko and Alana who then have a daughter named Hazel, get multiple people chasing after them who are intertwined with others, and then we’re introduced to a whole different society who also has a vested interest in tracking them down, and on and on. However, as complicated as it gets, the story’s main focus is on Marko, Alana, and Hazel as a family. For a while, they get separated from each other and so it’s also a struggle about reuniting and what it means to truly be a family. This consistent, main plot line makes the story all the more compelling. It is through the tangents connected to them that we learn about their world and universe.

Very quickly, the characters are made into deep and complex people with touching and sometimes heart wrenching stories of their own. Even side characters have a lot of depth and the little bit we find out about them is meaningful and paints a fuller picture of them. There is so much emotion in that only the plot lines but also the characters, which draws me in as a reader even more. It is easy to connect with many of the characters and their situations. For being a graphic novel, there is so much packed into the limited dialogue and illustrations. It really does feel like reading a lengthy novel, in a good way.

While the illustrations are gorgeous, they can be very brutal and occasionally gory. This graphic novel is truly for adults only, as there are at times explicit sexual acts as well as graphic violence. They do further the story and showcase the true nature of certain people, but some of it can be difficult to read and, as this is a graphic novel, look at. Regardless, Staples’ drawings are incredible and for most of them, I could stare at them for quite a while, captivated by her unique style. Amazing.

Recommended?: For adults who love sci-fi, especially space, and complex alien and creature races. Considering that I haven’t read many graphic novels, I rank this series very highly among them and think it would be good for someone just getting into them. They are easy to read and, as long as you don’t mind the adult content, they are wonderful. I can’t wait for the next volume to see where the story goes!

Read: Sweetbitter: a novel by Stephanie Danler

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Enticed by the cover at the public library and my peaked interest solidified by the bountiful praise on the back, I settled into Sweetbitter: a novel by Stephanie Danler with bated excitement. However, it didn’t last long.

Set in New York, Tess moves to the city to escape her past–which we never learn about–and start a new life working in a fine dining restaurant. The seedy underbelly of the lifestyle of the restaurant staff is quickly revealed and wallowed in throughout the entire novel. Yet, during the day and evening, the staff pull of (mainly) flawless service and the guests are none-the-wiser about the mischief the staff gets into after hours. Heavy drinking and drug-use seems to be a requirement, along with varying co-workers hooking up. There isn’t much of a plot other that a year with Tess as she navigates the restaurant and life on her own.

The book itself reads like a soap opera. Now, whether that sounds appealing to you will likely determine if you would enjoy this novel. For me, it was a great airplane read for that reason since it is simple and a bit of a page-turner, even if it is awful to read about drug abuse and rough sex amid the dirty, gross corners of a fine dining restaurant. At the time, it sufficed. While Danler writes many beautiful sentences and descriptions, there are also trite and flat ones as well that make those passages drag on.

Tess as a character isn’t very likable which can make for a difficult read. She’s the typical early 20s, good-looking girl who gets hired immediately, whines frequently, and is stubborn to the point of annoyance. Yet, she takes on the restaurant position, reads and studies a lot to become knowledge about wine, and really tries to make it on her own in a new, big city. However, there’s just not enough there to like her, especially when she finally gets her way and dates the guy who treats everyone like crap, even putting up with his abuse “love” just to fulfill her infatuation that she can’t get over. While every book doesn’t have to have likable characters, there’s no real substance and growth to Tess in order for the story to pay off, at least for me.

Pitched as a foodie novel about restaurant life, it falls a bit short in that claim. The focus really is on people and relationships, which offers a strong core, but they all just happen to work at in fine dining and on occasion describe what an oyster or an heirloom tomato taste like. Even the wine descriptions are fairly sparse, although I think that the book is better off for trying to concentrate on the characters. There is a wide variety and Danler conveys them all fairly well, giving them more depth it seems than the main character.

All that being said, this novel is certainly a counterpoint to Margaret Atwood’s The handmaid’s tale. It was very odd to be reading both of these at the same time.

 

Recommended?: Not unless you love soap operas and/or The real housewives of [insert major city]. On GoodReads, there’s lots of love vs. hate (or more fairly apathy) for this book so most readers probably should skip it. If you just want a read that is pretty good, with an all-out party-hard, sleep-it-off-before-work drama then as they say in the restaurant biz: “Pick up!”

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Read: The handmaid’s tale by Margaret Atwood

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The handmaid’s tale has received renewed attention during the past few months, not only in relation to U.S politics but also since Hulu made an adaptation of the novel. Having not read Margaret Atwood yet, despite her being on my to-read list for years, now seeing the perfect time to do so. While excellent, The handmaid’s tale is also terrifying in its premise.

While set in the not-too-far-off-future, although the US is now the Republic of Gilead and much has changed in society. Women are no longer their own agents–they have limited rights and are entirely controlled by men. All are sorted into a handful of roles based on the imposed class structure: wives, handmaids, Aunts (teachers/trainers of handmaids), Marthas (servants), econowives (of low-ranking men), unwomen (infertile laborers), and Jezebels (pleasure women). If a wife cannot bear her own children, which is difficult after the government released a detrimental toxin, a fertile handmaid is assigned to the wife and each month they conduct a joint ceremony for the handmaid to conceive on the wife’s behalf with her husband. Any resulting child becomes the wife’s and the handmaid is sent to another house to try her luck again a producing another heir for another family in need. Somewhat like a surrogate but to a whole new creepy level, especially since the handmaid sits alone in her room all day with nothing to do until she is needed once a month except for her daily walks to the market to gather specific items for the household and even on those she is accompanied by another handmaid. Life is boring yet terrifying at the same time because if a handmaid steps out of line or offends, she can be sent to another house, sentenced to death, or shipped off to the manual labor camps.

Margaret Atwood weaves a compelling tale from the very beginning, slowly drawing the reader in as the main character Offred (“Of Fred” as in property) is reluctant to share her painful story. Offred is part of the first generation of handmaids in the new, surreal Gilead and is told that it will get easier for future generations who know nothing else. The main propagated reason for the new structure is that women are now “free from” men’s abuse and violence which keeps everyone safe instead of being “free to” do whatever they want which allowed men to take advantage of women and brutalize them. Though not a satisfying answer, it was impossible to struggle against the new regime when women’s rights were stripped and they couldn’t even use the money that they earned from their own jobs; only husbands and other male family or friends could. Without money, it is hard to survive on your own when everyone is being rounded up and assessed for sorting into the new class structure of society.

There are many historical, even current, parallels throughout the novel. Atwood’s realistic details make the story all the more terrifying. The most obvious is the rounding up and control of women, however, there are others that are more subtle and noted only in passing. In order to explain the upheaval,  Islamic fanatics are falsely blamed for the over-through of the government and the regime change. There is just enough truth in these related events or sentiments that it the novel feels eerily prescient and just plausible enough to make it a terrifying read.

As unappealing of a story as this might seem, it is a timely read. Atwood crafts beautiful, descriptive sentences that counteract the difficult topics that she writes about. This helps to balance out the darkness that the pages contain and make it easier to get though the novel. It is not an easy read but it is enjoyable above all things and most importantly, the handmaid’s tale is a warning of frightening possibilities so what better way to ensure that they never happen by reading, thinking, and talking about them especially with others.

While the story itself ends somewhat abruptly without a concrete ending, Atwood provides a Historical Notes section at the end which is crucial to the novel. It is a transcript of a lecture by a professor many years (150 I believe) discussing the authenticity of The handmaid’s tale and speculating who the narrator truly was and trying to determine which Commander housed her. The chance between the story and the highly academic writing is jarring but it does more neatly wrap up the novel, albeit still leaving some to the imagination.

If you want to learn more about the story, its genesis, and what Atwood currently thinks about The handmaid’s tale now that it’s 30 years old, check out her recent article in the New York Times.
Recommended?: Yes! Preferably before watching the Hulu adaptation, too, since while I have heard good things about it, there are also significant changes even to the pacing and reveal of the story. There’s a suspense in the novel that it seems the show doesn’t provide, from what I have heard. Plus, I always believe that books and short stories are better than their adaptations.

The handmaid's tale book cover

Read: Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut

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Kurt Vonnegut has been on my list for a while, especially since he is my uncle’s favorite author. After seeing him this winter, he recommended starting with Welcome to the Monkey House. What a great suggestion!

Welcome to the Monkey House is a collection of short stories. Other than labelling it fiction, there is no consensus on what type of stories make up the collection. They are a combination of varying sorts, some military in theme (but not about war or battles) while others are science fiction. Even then, the range for both includes stories that are more realistic to fantastical and magical realism. The variety is remarkable, with each story being distinct from all others.

The sheer imagination in every story gives each such a weight that they feel more like mini novels than short stories. Vonnegut crafts detailed worlds, norms, cultures, and characters that enrich the handful of pages that encapsulate them. Even within the limited space, Vonnegut takes the reader far beyond by expanding the bounds through his in-depth, comprehensive stories. Due to the heft of each, reading the collection took me extra time as I never knew what was coming next and needed a break before jumping into the unknown of a new story. While the variety was certainly enjoyable, it also made for a choppier reading experience as there was no overall commonality other than examining humans and the human condition. The sci-fi stories that were dystopic and bleak were of human creation (or folly)–either overpopulation and highly advanced medicine, or strict social norms, or a division between a new way of life and the old. No monsters or aliens enslaved everyone or caused in-fighting; we did that to our selves.

While most of the stories start in medias res, Vonnegut’s detailed and vivid writing quickly gets the reader up to speed, which is crucial as these are short stories. Vonnegut focuses on action and uses minimal dialogue to tell the tales, without offering too many explanations. Vonnegut is a master storyteller, that is clear.

Recommended?: Yes! This collection is great especially for anyone new to Vonnegut. I can see why my uncle suggested it as my first encounter, as it gives the reader a taste of all the different types of stories. In just 330 pages, there are 25 stories and many are 6-7 pages. It is just incredible what he accomplishes in so little space. I look forward to picking up a novel of his to see how it compares–first up, Slaughterhouse 5.

Welcome to the monkey house book cover

Read: The Wangs vs. the world: a novel by Jade Chang

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I must confess, I had seen this book around recently and finally curiosity got the best of me and I just had to read it. I’m not sure what it was exactly, I don’t believe I had read any book reviews but there was just something about the title and the cover that intrigued me. What a great novel!

The Wangs vs. the world is about a Chinese American family who has lost almost everything due to their father’s bad investments and the 2008 financial crisis: their home, their money, their cars. With only the little money on hand and an old car that they had sold for cheap to their family friend/nanny, dejected Charles Wang, his second wife and his high school daughter set off on the necessary road trip across America to pick up his forced-to-be-a-college-dropout son and head to his oldest daughter’s farm house in upstate New York. Each family member deals with the loss and coming to terms with their new reality in their own way and Chang captures each character’s worries and struggles well.

Jade Chang’s writing is vivid and engaging, channeling lots of passion especially with Charles. The descriptions and dialogue are well-crafted, often packing a punch or digging deep into emotions that make the novel feel more true to life. To me, this type of writing makes reading very enjoyable and the pages nearly turn themselves.

One decision that some readers may dislike is the inclusion of the Chinese language used in dialogue in the novel. While there isn’t a translation provided, typically the content around it help to understand what was said without one. However, Chang uses the Romanized Chinese instead of the traditional Chinese characters so it is easy enough to look up the translation if desired. This didn’t bother me at all and in fact it added more authenticity to the story. Overall, it is a very very small portion of dialogue. If anything, there probably should have been more of it. Also, the chapters are numbered in Chinese, which is a simple touch as a constant reminder that they are Chinese Americans that stand out in the county.

While the novel rotates between the several characters with common themes of love and lust, worrying about the past and future, the main theme is family. With all of its complications, it is clear that each of the Wangs comes to realize that it is the most important part of life and sometimes it takes adversity to point it out.

Recommended?: Yes! Many readers will enjoy this novel, whether you are Chinese American or not. Family is family, no matter who you are so everyone can find something to connect with in the novel. The same can be said about the other main themes. Since this is her debut novel, I can hardly wait to see what else she writes!

The Wangs versus the world book cover