37/17 A Little Life

By Hanya Yanagihara

The book is an absolute goliath. Goliath as in,

1: It’s a massive book. It took me more than two days to finish reading, and this was given that, well, it’s me, and I was reading non-stop.

2: It’s a monster. This isn’t a light read.  This is an intense, once you start, you might need to take breaks and have mugs of hot chocolate to feel a bit warm again sort of reading. I’ve put it down as a Must Read. But I do not know if this applies to you. Hell, I’m not even sure if that applies to me.

I really don’t know how to review this book or where to start. I found it because I was chatting to some people at the airport, and some man recommended this, and I just looked it up and started (abandoning said man for his book). As the tags would’ve informed, it’s a giant mess of triggers and heartache. It’s phenomenal. It’s disgusting. I’ll start with a note, specific to us and the warnings at the start, this is not a book that features someone who gets better. Mental health does not always get better. How we treat ourselves, no matter how much medication or therapy or outside love we get, does not always change us. This book exemplifies that. It’s hard for me to review, because as much as I want to recognise the importance of this book, the fact that it exists and that so many people are reading it, I am also aware of how unhelpful it can be for people in their own self-growth and journeys.

A Little Life is about four friends in New York City after they finish college: Jude, a lawyer with a dark past and “ambiguous ethnicity” (pet peeve, did not understand the need for this phrase); Malcolm, an architect from a rich, biracial family; JB, a somewhat spoiled black painter; and Willem, a white aspiring actor. Willem and Jude are particularly close, because both are poor and share a flat, but also because both are orphans. Despite their long friendship, nobody knows much about Jude’s past. The book is divided into second parts, and follows chronologically with several flashbacks. Over the first third or half of the novel, it uses the third person to show one of the men’s thoughts. But over the course of the book, it focuses on Jude; his own thought processes and how others interact with him.

Jude is troubled. His past is dark and his present is tainted by that to the core. If you’ve ever asked yourself, “Will my being raped at 16 have an effect on the absolute rest of my life?” then this book says, “Yes.” Trauma does not leave; it affects your mental, emotional, and physical health, and changes the way you navigate the world. Jude, of course, is a lot more troubled than just that (if it really was just that one incident than, damn, we screwed). It’s very welcoming to have this perspective in fiction, that you neither need nor are expected to be better; that when you are hurt so dearly, it is not unusual to fall into cycles of such abuse over the course of your life and it’s not your fault (because, even if Jude doesn’t believe it, the book is very careful to have all the other characters surrounding him absolute in their belief and love in him). It’s just maybe not very inspiring – to me – to read it.

However, the book doesn’t just tackle these heavy intangible issues. Jude suffers from chronic pain and a physical disability. I’ve never seen any book explain with such detail the every-day effects of having such a condition – the way Jude’s own desire to be independent are thwarted by his body as it grows weaker, and how his life is almost entirely structured around pain management; how, thus, his friends’ lives are too. We’ve had conversations about ableism, but this book really opened my eyes to the limits of my understanding, and the need for more to be done.

But, like I said, all the supporting characters are very literally there to support Jude. Their unwavering love, commitment, kindness, well – it reminds of you, honestly. And my other friends and family. But it also astounds me. Can anyone really have so much kindness around them and not believe it? Not think it’s real? I’m so grateful never to wonder this, and was filled with so much pain that he did. Mind you, I also read this in 2 airports and a plane ride, and I could not stop weeping.

You know, this book’s been lauded as “the long-awaited gay novel”, and I can understand why. It is such an important book, I’m so glad it exists. But I don’t think it should be our gay novel. LGBT media, both novels and movies, have had a long-standing trope of trauma. Their loves never last because the characters don’t, and I would like the ultimate gay novel to break that trope – be more The Notebook than The Titanic. We deserve that much. So, like I said, and I haven’t said enough but I don’t want to say more either – this book is hugely important and heart-breaking. I’d just make sure I was in a good place before picking it up.

(Or, in case this clarifies where this book is emotionally for me, I would speak to you and my boo about it. I would hesitate with anyone else.)

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37/17 A Little Life

36/17 Penance

By Kanae Minato

This as well as The Between are books I must have found together on some random Internet site, but Lord knows if I remember what it was. This is another one I’m glad to have picked up though.

Much like The Between, this book was a thriller written by a Japanese woman. She wasn’t writing about women of colour, she wasn’t writing about oppression or racism or sexism or any –ism, she was writing about a few people, you know? There was no big, overarching Japanese history or culture or anything vaguely macro – in fact, it was the opposite. It was micro. Even the women in the story, we see micro-snippets of what we can also presume were micro-lives, that didn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things and never pretended to. There’s a lot to love about how unassuming a story like this is.

Penance is about five children: Sae, Maki, Akiko, Yuko, and Emily, who grow up in a small town together. One day, they’re tricked into separating from their friend Emily by a stranger. Emily is found dead hours later. However, all four kids aren’t able to identify the stranger to the police – and Emily’s mother curses the girls, that they will pay for her daughter’s murder.

Now, the book is written from an adult perspective of each girl, years after the murder. One after the other, and the mother as well. Even from this onset, it’s such a sick book – instead of having your traditional third person narratives, or even the first, you have a range. You have a letter, or someone exclusively talking to someone, or an interview. Minato plays with mediums like nobody else (in fact, the closest story I can think of that just plays around with mediums so well is fanfiction of the Avengers) and she pulls it off. The thriller was just cool too. I didn’t see it coming. Any of it. Not even the first chapter. And you have these five characters, four just children when the murder happens, and it does such a good job of going into how they were feeling and what they were thinking then, but also how everything you are comes from everything you were. The book is the perfect example of the butterfly effect – they did things, said things, that nobody could have thought would have an impact, but did eventually. Just, haha, I just really didn’t see anything coming in this one. Got to read more Japanese thrillers cause they’re clearly kings of the genre.

36/17 Penance

32/17 Lucky Boy

By Shathi Sekaran

Lucky Boy is about Soli, an 18-year-old Mexican girl from rural Oaxaca who wants to go to the U.S. to live with her cousin there – and lands there weeks later, pregnant. Kavya Reddy is a chef a Berkeley sorority house who wants a child, but can’t conceive one. Kavya and her husband, Rishi, choose to foster a child, and end up with Soli’s infant son after she’s detained.

I don’t want to give too many details. See, this book is very difficult for me to even write about, because it’s an incredibly frustrating book. You spend a good portion of the book thinking, “Author, you have to do this right, stop this,” and eventually she does stop it, and she does do it right. Nonetheless, a very vexing read. It has several elements which I enjoyed: Soli’s life in Oaxaca is one that was so poignantly described. And she’s this naive teenager who just wants to enjoy freedom, and thinks she’ll get it North of the border, and that innocence is charming instead of annoying; she learns quickly, she’s sharp, and you feel throughout like you want to be on her side. Then you have Kavya, whom I also quickly empathised with, because she was old (ok, over 30, old for brown families) and didn’t have a child yet, constantly compared with better young women her parents knew, she was a chef instead of a doctor, she had a constant sarcastic, almost bitter, tone; you also felt for her, but never quite as sympathetic.

Then you’ve got this backstory of immigration across this horrific border – of what children have to go through, what their parents are willing to risk, what entire communities are willing to sacrifice to have one person do better and get better. You’ve got this corrupt system that’s abusing these people and separating families and tearing apart good lives. You’ve got people who could probably do more, but choose to look away, and people who do more even though it puts themselves at risk. It’s such great backstory, and I haven’t read anything like it this year.

That’s why this will be the only Must Read on this list that’s only a Good. Because it’s not like the writing is excellent, and the plot is almost straightforward (except for a few points). But it’s interesting, and it keeps you on the edge – because of that frustration, because you want the best for these women (even though one is so much more privileged than the other – but can a woman be a woman if she can’t even bear a child?) and it seems impossible to get there. I really do think Lucky Boy, even though it has a few moments of Rishi at the end that are so heart-tugging, is about women helping other women; pulling up other women; tearing down other women; all the complex and myriad ways women interact with other women. It has this really great layered intersectionality that’s subtler than with most books I’ve read – it feels like it has different people from different places because that’s what the story demands, not just because the author is forcing it that way. It’s good, solid writing. It’s also really great everything else.

32/17 Lucky Boy

27/17 Refuge

By Dina Nayeri

I hated the protagonist as much as I loved this book, top to bottom, in and out, cover to cover. I took screenshots and sent it to myself (I accidentally air dropped a page to some stranger on the tube, and we both laughed), and some to Lukas. I can’t even with this book.

This is the review I have taken the longest to write, because I am so unsure of how to write it, or even why I liked it so much.

First of all, it’s a beautiful story. At heart, it’s the story of a girl and her father, and how these things can be strained by things like age, distance, culture, change, and so on. These gave me moments of introspection and reflection, as I thought about how fairly I treated my own parents, and insight, because I thought she had the parental voice down perfectly and you see things from their point of view.

Second, it’s an honest, sincere story. The author was a refugee from Iran as a child (she in fact wrote a letter in The Guardian that became very popular – you don’t need to read it, because a lot of it is repeated in the book) and these are basically her experiences. I am writing these reviews while on my 50th book, which means the last book I read was the comic Persepolis that you gifted me. It is interesting because both are young women who flee Iran for greener pastures in the West. However, perhaps because her father in Refuge stays in Iran and a portion of the story is from his point of view or perhaps because her mistakes are made very clear from other voices in the story (particularly her parents’), I found her to be an altogether more sympathetic character than the lead in Persepolis. There is a real sincerity to this book that made me, even though I so disliked her character, to appreciate her struggles and try to see things from her point of view.

For example, she has her partner in the book, and they have all these difficulties – and you can empathize with both of them, which is such a difficult line to toe and really speaks to the reflection the author herself has given to things and how well this carries across.

Third, it’s gorgeous writing. Her father is a huge fan of Rumi and that poetry seeps through so much of the book – partially because it seems to be how her dad speaks all the time, poetically! For one example (there are so many, this is the first I happened to find):

As she was leaving, he called after her, “Khanom, can I ask you why you wanted a divorce? Was he an addict or a philanderer or what?”

She smiled. “Those are just reasons for courts.”

“What then?” he pressed. “Did you fall in love? Why the hysterics?”

She shrugged. “It’s a curse to be a bad fit. It’s like spending every day trying to force a hundred mixed-up lids onto the wrong jars. People think that’s not enough reason, but it’s the one thing that’s unfixable. It poisons everything.”

Fourth, it’s insightful. Now this is an odd one. But it looks at refugees and their lived experiences both in the US and Western European contexts, and there are a few differences that are worth appreciating. It also looks at Iran; it’s legal system, it’s countryside. It’s able to take a broad approach to the country because her characters traverse so much of it. Also, the relationship between her and her partner gave me so much to think about. I suppose it also happened to be that I read this book at just the right time.

I enjoyed this book so much, it left me not just satisfied, but thinking, in the best way possible.

Note: this is one of the few books where if an author is of hyphenated origin (Indian-American), I’m including that first part. I usually don’t, both to challenge ourselves further and in recognition of their privilege in being “American”, even if it comes second – but Nayeri was a refugee and the book is about exactly that experience. It is essentially the story of her life and I thought it was fair in this case to acknowledge those roots.

27/17 Refuge

22-23/17 Human Acts & The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness

Human Acts by Han Kang (Must Read) and The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness by Kyung-sook Shin (Very Good)

I tried to write these reviews separately, but realised my reading and understanding of them were so tied into each other that there was no point trying; I was repeating myself anyway.

I don’t know quite where to start with this. I remember picking Human Acts up in a bookstore that boo and I visited. We were supposed to go somewhere to meet his friends and we had an hour to kill. I sat on that chair in the corner and sniffled my way through this book without an ounce of shame. I was reading the next book on this list, The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness, at the same time. As in, I had the latter downloaded and was very slowly reading it, and happened to pick up Human Acts in the store because it was short enough for me to finish in two hours (I made boo wait for me to finish before I let us leave).

The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness is written by the same author who wrote Please Look After Mom, a book that I love. I actually didn’t realise they were the same author until Googling who wrote this book for the sake of this review. On hindsight, I can tell; there’s this tone of melancholy that seeps through both. PLAM is more nostalgic, the suffering and sacrifice of the old onto the new. And TGWWL just feels guilty, the entire thing is soaked in it. It’s about a woman, an author, who gets a letter from an old friend who used to work in a factory alongside her when they were teenagers, where they used to stand on the assembly lines making sweets. So it tracks Korean history over the past few decades and the industrialization, factories, urbanization, regime changes, etc. Like I mentioned earlier, it’s very long. And I prefer PLAM to this because it’s also quite slow. Her life drags along slowly, and because she’s exploring with such meticulous detail the things around her, the context, the physical location, her emotions, the people surrounding her – well, these things add colour and stunning visualization, but they also take time to put together, and that makes the entire book a slow read. It kind of trots along like hoofs on the ground, slowly but surely.

The book takes place in the present, with the author as she receives this letter from an old friend and how she feels and deals with it, and flashbacks to her time at the factory in the 70s. Like I said, it’s not fair – but I had to search a lot about Korean history while reading this, because it was entirely new to me with this book. The constant interruption unfortunately broke the flow of the book for me. Because the way the main character has distanced herself from her childhood and tried to block out that ‘factory girl’ part of her life, there’s also an odd sort of distance between the reader and her during the flashbacks to that time, which is when we expect to most keenly feel connected to her, since she’s young, vulnerable, and clearly exploited girl. But a combination of the distance between character-present and character-past, and perhaps the style of writing altogether, culminate in a lack of emotional connection to the things happening. Of interest, the actual author of the book, Kyung-sook Shin, also worked in a factory as a girl, so maybe her difficulty retrieving and revealing that part of her life bleeds into the writing?

Getting Human Acts was interesting because it also explores relatively recent Korean history, and it was – for me – interesting that a few of the stories I read I could go, “Oh, I know this element of history, because I remember it from the other book.” Because I happened to pick this up in the middle of the other, I had to Google fewer names because I had an ultimately better grasp of what was happening and where in history we were (who the ruler of the time was, what they did, what changes were occurring, etc.)

Human Acts is a painful book about a truly painful time in Korean history, the Gwanju Uprising, where locals gathered to protest the massacre of university students who had been protesting against the ruling authorities of the time. The book is almost a series of short stories, vignettes from the perspectives of different people (a boy in the middle of the student uprising, his best friend, an editor fighting censorship, a prisoner and factory worker, and the boy’s mother). Like The Vegetarian, it also uses the second person. The Vegetarian is a lot weirder as a book. This is almost too cold with how it handles reality. Personally, and from other reviews I read afterwards I know lots of people disagree, this just makes it all the more impactful – history and cruelty is also real, cold, and terribly ordinary, and I thought the book did a great job getting that across. Again, the author has inserted herself into the book (right at the very end) but in a way that I had to look up to see if it were true. I loved it. Thought about it the entire night through my bonding with boo’s friends, and months later remembered to ask Emily about it, even.

There’s no book quite like the Vegetarian, you know? It’s completely unique. Whereas Human Acts is more ordinary; I’m sure if I dug enough I could find other books that dealt with horror in this way. But it’s incredible. You learn a lot about what is probably an obscure part of history and, honestly, it makes you want to know more. Ultimately, they’re human stories, and you feel for them to your bones.

22-23/17 Human Acts & The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness

7/17 Please Look After Mom

By Kyung-sook Chin

This damned book, man. I can’t even. I wept. I cried. I bawled. And because I read this while I was visiting Edinburgh back in May, I did all that in the middle of Potterrow. Would be hugely embarrassing if I had much shame.

PLAM was my introduction to my deep, long-standing love for South Korean women and their novels and way of writing, one that I just cannot wait to continue in 2018 and after. It centres on a 69 year old woman who is separated from her husband in Seoul’s train station, and the efforts of her husband and children to find her. The book is unique because it’s told almost entirely in the second person. The whole thing is by “you” and about “you”, and sometimes this can be confusing (which sibling is this now? who are we talking about?) but that just lends more beauty to the narrative because their lives, as all families lives are, are so integrated that you learn so much about the others from any one. And at the same time, which is the crux of the story, you know almost nothing. Because how much do we actually know about our moms?

The whole book is made of lyrical, beautiful quotes that are supposed to and absolutely succeed in making you feel just as fragile and vulnerable as the people in the book, who are lost, and desperate, and just want their mama.

I have so many dreams of my own, and I remember things from my childhood, from when I was a girl and a young woman, and I haven’t forgotten a thing. So why did we think of Mom as a mom from the very beginning? She didn’t have the opportunity to pursue her dreams, and all by herself, faced everything the era dealt her, poverty and sadness, and she couldn’t do anything about her very bad lot in life other than suffer through it and get beyond it and live her life to the very best of her ability, giving her body and her heart to it completely. Why did I never give a thought to Mom’s dreams?

7/17 Please Look After Mom

5/17 The Namesake

By Jhumpa Lahiri

This book, just technically speaking, is amazing. It’s not a Must Read for me, because it personally didn’t connect with me as much as other books did, but it really just is Very Good Writing (TM).

The title of the book comes from the story itself: an Indian Bengali couple move from Calcutta to Massachusetts. They have a baby boy, and the nurse comes to ask them for a name for the birth certificate. In Bengal, they have a tradition where a child normally has two names – a nickname that all the family uses, and the real name that is decided, sometimes, months later, always given by an elder of the family (fun fact: my cousin who was born a few weeks ago also had to be given a name that was blessed by their grandmother, so this is quite common practice). Now stumbling with this American nurse forcing them to provide a name, and not getting a response yet from their letter to his grandmother, they decide to give him the nickname Gogol after the Russian author.

This is a really short summary of just one aspect of the book and it’s long so, as you can guess, this book is really long. But it’s incredibly fulfilling! There’s all these elements of his resentment of his culture and his parents that all of us can empathise with to an extent – because all of us have been 15 and hated our family for a bit – but for all that you feel for him, you also feel angry with him, you want and expect better of him, and he actually provides! It has such a beautiful, fulfilling ending; it just brought such happy tears to my eyes (which is a welcome change from the usual dying inside tears).

This book is a goliath – it tracks his life from infancy well into, I would guess, his early 30s? With detail too. His different romantic relationships. His relationship with his (of course, the centre of it all) his parents. His relationship with his culture and what it expects of him and what he wants from it. It’s obviously the sort of thing where I had moments of, “I have experienced this! My family is literally the same!” that really resonates. But I also think these themes of family and forgiveness are universal, and just from our chats I know you will appreciate his doting mother and his awkward father and his badass sister.

Of special mention: his romantic relationships were really well done. He has relationships with white women and then a brown woman and the way it delves into how and why these succeed and fail – like it’s in the little details. There’s a moment with the rich white family that’s super open and liberal where he’s having wine and they’re having intelligent conversation about modern art, and he juxtaposes this to his childhood, with Indiands crowded around a television set and shouting over one another, and he prefers the first; these little details of how you can go from appreciating something to resenting it, or vice versa, and these really tiny things that make up a difference in culture. And how they can impact a relationship. But also how ultimately it’s impossible to use “cultural difference” as a justification for a failed relationship because you have to really try to ignore the problems and be willfully ignorant – otherwise they do come up, and all you need to do is express them. These relationships are the encapsulation of:

Communication is key.

You know, at the start I said that there wasn’t a personal connection with this book. But on writing this and reflecting, that’s a lie. I don’t want there to be, because he’s this first-gen immigrant who for the most part resents his upbringing and culture, and I really don’t want to empathise with that because that lack of appreciation for family pisses me off. But honestly, it does ring true for a big part of my teenage-hood. I was this annoying character in the story of my life. So I will make it a Must Read. Because it’s a really damned good book no matter how much I don’t want to like it. And because I think it’s the sort of thing you can chuck at your child in 20 years to teach him about his future partner’s culture (i.e., my child’s culture, since our children are meant to be) and show them how love changes and fluctuates, but how, well family’s forever, right?

5/17 The Namesake