Tag Archives: book review

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.

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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: The boat rocker: a novel by Ha Jin

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Having enjoyed Ha Jin’s Waiting, when I saw this book on my local public library’s shelves, I immediately checked it out. Jin is a Chinese author who writes realistic novels about everyday people and their difficulties and daily struggles in life. The boat rocker focuses on Chinese expatriate Feng Danlin who is a journalist in New York city, trying to eek out a living by exposing truth in a world in which people love flashy headlines and are less interested in details.

Jin’s writing is engrossing and fluid, making for a fairly quick read. In addition, the novel contains many poignant quotes about society, government, politics, and the media. Although it’s written about China, it could apply to any country including the US right now.

In such circumstances, a decent citizen should stand up to the government. History has taught us that no country is qualified for the moral high ground. An intellectual’s role is not to serve the state but to keep a close watch on it so that it may not turn abusive, oppressive, justice, freedom, and equality as universal values.

The story is mysterious and draws the reader in. Danlin’s ex-wife is promoting her first novel which will be translated into 30 languages right away and touting the fact that she already has a movie deal worth millions for it. He knows it’s a lie and that while there may be a book, there’s no way it’s good enough to warrant the praise she’s claiming, so he sets out to disprove her lies by exposing them in cutthroat articles interrogating the false claims. However, it’s unclear just what’s going on and who is controlling it, and just how high up the scheme goes.

The tone itself feels like a mystery novel in some ways but it is not a whodunit in the classic sense and there are no bodies or clues to examine. This ambiance adds to the charm of the novel and gives it more depth. It’s not just a story of a man jealous of his ex-wife’s success and trying to ruin her good fortune; she is conniving and exaggerating reality and those around her that are enabling also have much to gain in the US as well as China and they hope all over the world if her success is believed by everyone.

In the end, Danlin is let with not much as money and power prevail over the truth-seeking journalist who won’t quit. But he continues to fight, no matter what, for what is right. While not the happiest ending, it seems like the most fitting for not only this novel but in the present given all of the current events.

Recommended?: Yes, to everyone especially those concerned with recent current events and the media in the United States. While not directly related, certainly the topics and issues brought up in the novel do have some parallels and are interesting to consider.
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Read: The dinner: a novel by Herman Koch

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Dutch novelist Herman Koch’s The dinner: a novel is an eerie read that becomes more horrific over the course of the meal. While it’s true that the characters have dinner at a fancy restaurant, The dinner has as much to do with food as Die hard has to do with Christmas. It’s the backdrop but has little to do with the plot.

Since the novel was translated into English, I will give the benefit of the doubt that the occasional clunkiness of the writing is due to the translation. So, I will set aside discussing the writing itself. 

As far as the story goes, it starts off slow and the reader is trying to figure out what exactly is going on along with the main character Paul. Paul and his wife are meeting his brother and his wife for dinner but with his brother’s political aspirations, dinner is as much about image as the purpose of that dinner if not more. The reader realizes as the night progresses, along with Paul, that the agenda is to discuss the poor decisions and bad behavior of their teenage kids and how to deal with it. But they have anything but a frank discussion and from Paul’s memories it is clear that he and his brother have a rocky relationship.

SPOILERS TO FOLLOW

The manner in which the truth of what the sons did unfolds is presented in a meandering way. Small, unclear pieces begin to fill in and then as more pieces are add, the shock value only continues to increase until it surpasses any additional meaning and the reader becomes numb to the facts as the parents try to resume their typical lives as if nothing happened. The sons, it’s revealed, murdered a homeless woman sleeping in an ATM machine that they wanted to use; the verbally and physically abused her before killing her and it was filmed by a grainy security camera, as well as a cell phone by the brother’s adopted son who was now blackmailing the boys for money. While their actions themselves are horrific, it’s almost more shocking the extent that Paul, his wife, and his brother’s wife go to scheme and protect the boys working against the brother who wants to come clean so he can be elected Prime Minister. This family certainly has issues and they are well conveyed.

The entire novel consists of one evening of the four parents having dinner at the fancy restaurant. All additional scenes are Paul’s memories as he contemplates how they got to this point and his strained relationship with his brother. It makes sense in a way for the setting to be such a public venue where they are on display but it is odd as it’s revealed what the true topic of discussion, although it’s clear that no one wants to actually talk about what their sons did.

At times, it felt too much but I felt compelled to read on, but it continues to get more and more awful. Paul is violent, even towards his brother, and his son is following in his footsteps. This makes him a difficult first-person narriator to read. However, in the end, he pulls back and shows maturity in knowing that he must have restraint despite what others expect from him.

Recommended: For anyone who can’t get enough of shocking dramas and escalating situations. There’s lots of violence and physical abuse as the novel progresses, with quite descriptive passages, which aren’t for everyone. Most readers probably won’t enjoy this novel but it’s a creative idea so I will look into Koch’s other books at some point.

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Read: The Night Stranger: a Novel by Chris Bohjalian

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The Night Strangers: a Novel by Chris Bohjalian is a mix of a pilot’s post-traumatic stress after a failed water landing and loss of most of passengers and crew and a New England small town scary story. Chip and Emily Linton move with their two twin 10-year-old girls from Philadelphia to a Bethel, NH for a new start and to keep Chip from the media’s critical eye. Haunted by ghosts of passengers in a creepy old house with its own torrid history and besieged by nefarious yet friendly rural townspeople, this family was doomed from the start.

Since the premise is so detailed, let’s start there. At first, choosing to include a failed water landing in Lake Champlain seems like a throw-away, attention-grabbing background for the main character Chip, Bohjalian truly makes it his own and uses all factors of such an event in his novel. The best use is his desciptions of the wet ghosts and how Chip can feel the water and see it soak into carpet and leave puddles on floors. That alone shows that he integrates that stark, bold fact (that could so easily be otherwise over-the-top and meaningless) so well into his story that it becomes a core part. Similarly, the herbalists (a.k.a. witches) could also have become a stock, stereotypical cult but once again Bohajalian makes them unique to his world and distinct in their own way. The use of greenhouses and the all-natural lifestyle help develop a new take on the classic witch and coven.

The overall story and mood of the novel are reminiscent of the original Stepford Housewives movie, especially with the herbalists unrelenting desire to make the Lintons part of their group. However, the rest of the town knows better than to become friends with them so they are left to their own insular group. Emily was warned briefly when she first arrived to the town but everyone feared interfering once the herbalists began courting the new family with twins.

The book itself alternates between chapters written in third persons and second. The third mainly follows Emily Linton but sometimes focuses on the twin girls. The second person is solely for Chip Linton and meant to bring the reader in closer to him and his experiences with the tormenting ghosts. For me, though, second person forces me out of a story as it is so imperative and commanding (“You see…”, “You feel…”, etc.). I think too much instead of just following what the character is doing; it reminds me that I am sitting in my chair reading and so distracts me from the story, just enough to pull me out of the moment caught up in the book. Maybe for other readers it is different, but it’s not a literary device that I enjoy although I understand why Bohjalian uses it.

Overall, The Night Strangers is a strange, enchanting read. I started the book witha physical copy and then switched over to an audiobook which had a female part reading the third person and a male voice for the second person. This made the story more compelling since it alternates fairly often and kept my interest even more. The writing itself is also quite lovely, for the most part. These are part of what kept me reading despite this type of book not being something that I would normally pick up.

Recommended?: It depends. If you like an eerie read, one filled with ghosts, witches and warlocks–I mean herbalists, a haunted house, possession, murder, and some horror then this book is for you. Bohjalian also doesn’t shy away from describing injuries in detail so there is a bit of gore as well. Since he has so many other novels, there is a variety of his works to choose from if this particular one isn’t enticing. He’s more well known for some of his other works and his latest The Sleepwalker is due out in January 2017. I will certainly keep him in mind when I want a quicker read in the future, although he will be farther down the list than others since there are just too many books that I want to get through.

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