Category Archives: Uncategorized

Read: Return on investment: a novel by Magdalena Waz

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Return on investment is a ridiculous-ly good debut novel by Magdalena Waz. Equal measures of satire and thoughtfulness make this story a fun and captivating quick read.

Laurie, the central character, is one of many millennials living in Chicago, trying to makes ends meet while paying back student loans from college. The story revolves around her and her friends, questioning their current job choices and wondering about the hazy future. Laurie tries self-employed schemes, allowing her ambitions of setting her own minimal hours while maximizing profits to rule over logic and practicality. She does her friends into her latest endeavor and everyone is changed by their experiences.

Waz takes bold ideas, such as a job as a human breast pump (Laurie’s initial job attempt), and turns them into reality within the pages of the novel. As ridiculous as it sounds, she grounds it in detail and seriousness that the reader believes that such a job exists and has demand, at least for a while, in the Chicago of the story. Due to this strong growth grounding, the reader is able to believe the characters and premise of the novel.

The characters themselves also have depth and specifics that give them dimensions. Even with Laurie, she is complex and feels like a real person. They are all relatable to some extent, no matter what you think of their actions and personalities.

The format of the book is not usually something that I am a fan of but Waz uses it to her advantage and it really suits her story. The book itself is the length of a novel and each short chapter rotates between one of the four characters, with the exceptional n being one chapter for the party with all of them. Mark, Laurie’s boyfriend, is the only one who doesn’t get separate chapters since he’s mostly included in Laurie’s sections and he’s more stable in his job choice than the others. Of all of them, he doesn’t understand Laurie’s need for a non-standard, non-9-to-5 job. Due to the sections being so intertwined, and becoming even more so as the story progresses, they fit together as a novel instead of potentially being disjointed more as short stories with a tenuous connection.

Also, it’s fun to read a book written by a fellow classmate from undergrad. We both attended Lawrence University and overlapped for a couple of years.

Recommended?: Yes! It’s fast, funny read like no other. While satirical, there are thought-provoking moments as each character struggles with living their adult life, trying to make they own way in the world. As a satire, it isn’t a handbook for understanding Millennials, but it does offer some insights here and there throughout. I can’t wait to see what’s next for Waz!

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Read: Selection Day: a novel by Aravind Adiga

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Aravind Adiga is one of my favorite authors. He writes about different aspects and people of India, with vivid detail. While Selection Day follows this pattern, it takes focuses on brotherly competition and cricket.

Cricket is a sport that I know little about but after reading this novel, I feel that I understand the competitive environment and pressure to succeed. Selection Day is an opportunity for fame of all young Indian boys, trying to showcase their skills and be chosen for a professional cricket team. Like with all sports, though, hard work and practice are crucial but sometimes luck also plays its part.

Radha and Manju are competitive brothers, pushed by their single father to succeed at cricket at all costs in order to pull them from the slums and poverty. Despite his tough love, both brothers excel and are forced into further competition as teens as each earns a scholarship from a sponsor to further support and encourage their abilities.

As will all of his novels, Adiga crafts complex and realistic characters. This is true for all characters, no matter what the size of their role is in the story. Their motivations and desires, turmoil and struggles enhance the plot and makes the novel feel more real, more genuine. This is true for the relationships as well. Selection Day showcases Adiga’s skill in developing the relationships between the characters, especially the brothers.

This novel truly is a coming-of-age story, told with two brothers. This is a great twist on a classic genre. As with all such stories, the boy’s love lives and failed romances are side plots but still an integral part.

Recommended?: Yes, for anyone wants to travel to India between pages, enjoys reading coming-of-age stories, or wants to know more about the hidden side of cricket. Adiga provides a day-to-day insight on what life’s like, with all the beauty and grime that entails.

Selection Day book cover

Read: The vegetarian: a novel by Han Kang

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The vegetarian: a novel by Han Kang, translated from Korean by Deborah Smith, is nothing like you might expect for a book with this title. While well written, it is also an oddly dark and horrifying novel.

In Korea, meat is a key component of practically every meal. Even during our travels in Seoul, for breakfast one of the many bon chon (side dishes) is a cold marinated shredded beef; delicious and served with not matter what you order. Due to this, it makes sense that becoming a vegetarian can be a big deal that would be difficult for a family to understand. This is the premise of the novel, which evokes the worst case imaginable and life spirals ever downward because of this one decision. Certainly intriguing but also scary in its plausibility.

Yeong-hye wakes up from a startling, overwhelming nightmare about raw meat that made her feel revolted by meat upon waking up. The vividness and pungent stench from her nightmare instantly converts her to a vegetarian. The novel opens with the husband finding her standing in the kitchen, throwing out all meat and fish in the middle of the night. Soon he realizes that it is not a faze and that his wife is serious about being a vegetarian and won’t allow any meat at home so he no longer gets it either. She even keeps her distance from him, bothered by the smell of his sweat; even that is too animalistic for her now. Annoyed with her, the husband drags her family into the issue, sure that they can convince her to eat meat again and that’s where everything goes wrong.

Kang builds a compelling story in which all characters believe that they are right and remain stuck in their opinions. Instead of helping Yeong-hue, her family only makes the situation and her stubbornness worse. Her downfall is exploited by her brother-in-law for his own pleasure after her husband leaves her and her sister is all that is left but even her patience wears out. No one wants to support Yeong-hye as she is but it also becomes more difficult as her beliefs become more eccentric and she recedes deeper into herself.

Originally written as three novellas, the novel on gains three parts: Yeong-hye, the brother-in-law, and finally the sister. The main story follows throughout but it gets more complicated with each additional part. As crazy as the plot gets, it’s eerily plausible which makes it even more upsetting and in its own way horrifying.

Recommended?: Certainly for adults only, as there is sexual and graphic content. There is lots of drama in the novel and the plot keeps intensifying, which is typical of Korea television shows so it wasn’t too surprising but it certainly makes the book quite a page turner, despite being frightening. For my first Korean novel, it was a wild one but very good. I can’t wait to read more by Korean authors.

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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