Tag Archives: fiction

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.

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