Book Review – “The Mistress of Spices” by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

the-mistress-of-spicesI originally happened upon the movie adaptation of The Mistress of Spices a few years ago while perusing a going-out-of-business sale at my local Blockbuster (R.I.P.). I liked the film well enough that when I later visited the Half Price Books that is just a few doors down from that now-defunct Blockbuster, I saw the novel and snatched it right up. I knew it couldn’t be bad; the book is almost always better than the movie, right?

Of course. Both versions have their own merits, but I can honestly say that the book is so different from, and much better than, the movie.

The story revolves around Tilo, a woman who has basically lived a few vastly different lives within her short existence. Each phase of her life is so unique that she adopts a new name upon each transition, although I find it hard to remember any but “Tilo” since that is the name she uses for the longest time. She is born into an unremarkable family, but with the innate power to grant wishes. Her gift makes her family the most powerful one in the village, attracting the attention of some vicious pirates. They eventually burn her village to the ground and kidnap her, yet she becomes their pirate princess in time, taking on a new name. Eventually borne away from the pirates as well, not-yet-Tilo lands on a mysterious island and learns how to manipulate spices from an ancient crone called the First Mother. When we first meet her, she is already in what is basically her third incarnation – Tilo, a mistress of spices who has just woken up in a magically constructed shop, inhabiting the body of an old lady and communing with spices in order to help people.

Tilo does her best to cater to everyone who comes into her shop, letting the spices speak to and guide her in helping abused wives and unhappy, bullied children. She never leaves the confines of her shop, but is happy knowing that she is living a life of service, and will never want for anything. However, her whole world is turned upside down when a beautiful American man comes into the shop, seemingly able to see past the old lady facade to Tilo’s true self. Oooooh!

Now, I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about the movie version. It skips over some of the major plot points in the book, and while that’s not unexpected, it’s a little annoying. The star of the movie is the beautiful, young Aishwarya Rai – already a huge departure from the book, since Tilo is supposed to be a young woman trapped in an old lady’s body…. Thanks, Entertainment Industry. I mean, the movie is good, and if you want to see it, I’m sure you can find it somewhere. It’s fluffy and light and doesn’t capture the depth or beauty of the book, but it’s an enjoyable watch nevertheless.

I’ve only read one other book by the very prolific Ms. Divakaruni – Sister of My Heart – and I remember liking it, but this book is already much more memorable to me. Her writing style is very lyrical and sensual, and the manner in which she weaves the real world with the mystical one is reminiscent of Isabel Allende. The imagery in The Mistress of Spices is so incredibly rich and colorful, I can still see Tilo riding on the backs of sea serpents, sassing the First Mother during her magical spice training on a remote island, summoning the courage to go against the spices’ wishes in order to fulfill her own, scooping out mounds of turmeric, packaging up fennel seeds for a customer, and even standing nude, clutching a single red chili as the walls of her shop tumble down. So many images continue to reverberate in my mind, which to me is the sign of some seriously imaginative storytelling.

I also find Divakaruni’s approach to the immigrants’ stories fascinating. The entire book is populated with immigrants, mostly Indian families living in California. The struggles and horrors that I imagine many non-native people face in America are fleshed out in agonizing detail through the people that Tilo meets and helps. To be sure, there is no glossing over bullying, racism, and violence here. I had to close the book a few times because I was so upset by these fictional people’s very real experiences. But just as the awful experiences are laid out in detail here, so are the joyful, lovely, and loving moments. I became so invested in the characters that watching them fall in love, narrowly escape terrible situations, and find their own personal versions of happiness truly felt like such a triumph. I eagerly plowed through the last few chapters to see if this character had managed to leave her abusive husband, or if that one had found his way out of gang life. I felt like I knew them and only wanted the best things to happen in their lives.

The central love story involving Tilo is pretty compelling as well. Her struggle to reconcile her past choices with her wishes for the future makes up much of the book, and that struggle is so relatable. As Tilo begins to grapple with this newfound love and what it might mean for her lifestyle, she finds herself becoming less in tune with the spices (less objectively magical) and more human. Yikes, haven’t we all been there – trying to hold on to our personal truths while becoming engulfed in something/someone else. This was probably the most accessible part of the story for me, if only because I often get consumed with things (typically my working life and how much I hate the daily 8-5 grind) and only remember who I am and why I’m here in snippets. Tilo’s ability to balance it all and stay true to herself to the end was inspiring for me. Basically, this book spoke to me on another level, which, in my opinion, is what good writing is meant to do.

All in all, this is a wonderful and engaging book. It will remain on my shelf, until I loan it out to any friends in need of a richly detailed, satisfying story.

 

Recommended For:

Fans of Isabel Allende and/or magical realism. And those who, like me, enjoy the story so much that they can’t quite bring themselves to give movie adaptations away . . . even if they are a little inferior.

The Mistress of Spices Movie
santabanta.com

 

Book Review – “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne

Cursed ChildI’m not going to reveal any Cursed Child spoilers here. I don’t want to ruin it for people who haven’t experienced the story for themselves. But there are a lot of things that happen in this script, so I will delve into the plot some. If you haven’t read the story yet and want to be totally surprised when you do, skip this review for now.

When Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was published in 2007, I was reasonably satisfied with the ending, but devastated that the series had finally ended. At the time, I was honestly kind of disappointed that the series concluded with Harry, Ron, and Hermione all grown up and sending their own children off to Hogwarts – I wanted to see what life was like a year after The Battle of Hogwarts, how they were adjusting, how the wizarding world had changed. I almost felt robbed of the ending I felt I deserved, and resentful that the distant future had already been laid out for me – I wanted to be the one to imagine what happened as they grew older, I wanted to decide their fates and the names of their children (I love J.K. Rowling, but “Albus Severus”? I can’t get over that mouthful. And seriously, what pressure to put on a little kid!) But in retrospect I realize that my feelings stemmed from my own desire to see the possibility of the trio’s adventures continue – a need for the story to not really be over.

Well, little did I know that the story was indeed not really over. When I found out that there was a sequel coming out in play format, I was simultaneously excited and apprehensive. I’ve often thought about how lucky I am to have grown up with these characters, to wait for the books to be released and witness history happening, to finally be alive at the same time as a favorite author and to see her clear up any ambiguities or misconceptions about the universe and characters she created. I was excited and grateful for the privilege of getting to see the author create more content in the here and now. But another part of me said “let sleeping dogs lie.” I had accepted the ending of the series and didn’t want the story to be tarnished. But, obviously, my curiosity won out, and I somehow managed to walk right in and pick up a copy of the book/script at Target on the day it was released (everywhere else was sold out and had people waiting on orders – FYI, always try Target!).

I was immediately surprised and pleased to find that story picks up exactly where Deathly Hallows leaves off, with Harry, Ginny, Hermione, Ron, and Draco dropping their kids off at Platform 9 ¾. At this point, Harry is a man stretched too thin – he has too much work to do at the Ministry, is trying to be a good parent with almost no example to follow, and is still navigating the trappings of a celebrity life he never asked for. Ron is still Ron – irreverent, always eating, always a beat behind, but still a strong and loyal friend. And Hermione is the freaking badass she always was, wielding the strength and authority she was always destined to wield. (I pumped my fist and shouted when I found out where she had ended up, career-wise.)

The Potters, Weasleys, and Grangers are all related at this point, so their kids are all brothers, sisters, and cousins, and there are too many of them for me to keep up with, honestly. But the story centers on Albus, Harry’s youngest boy, and Scorpius, Draco’s only son, who strike up an unlikely friendship on their first train ride to Hogwarts. Albus is the most like Harry (kind and unsure, but bold, reactive, and hotheaded at times) and, of Harry’s three kids, feels the pressure of his father’s accomplishments to most. Scorpius is witty, very intelligent, and instantly likeable (he’s basically Ron and Hermione combined, oddly enough), but bears the weight of coming from a family of former Death Eaters, and of his father’s expectations for a type of greatness he’s not sure he’s capable of. So these two boys bond over their shared “outcast” status. The story jumps years at a time, and we witness Albus grow closer to Scorpius as he drifts further from Harry.

It has to be mentioned that Harry is, unsurprisingly, suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. We are subtly and sadly reminded that he grew up in an abusive home, that his whole existence has been riddled with struggles, that things will probably never be easy for him, and that his demons will never truly leave him. So, on top of everything else, as the distance between Harry and Albus widens, Harry starts to experience pain in his scar again. Uh-oh.

When Albus is about to begin his fourth year, a Time-Turner prototype is recovered from dark wizard Theodore Nott’s home. Because all of the Time-Turners were thought to have been destroyed during the battle at the Ministry of Magic, this is a huge discovery. Of course, rumors start to fly, and Amos Diggory pays a visit to the Potters’ home, with his niece and caretaker Delphi in tow. While Harry refuses to even acknowledge to Amos that a Time-Turner exists, Albus hatches a very Harry-like plan to, with the help of Scorpius and Delphi, right some “wrongs”. Unfortunately, Albus, Scorpius, and Delphi are no Harry, Ron, and Hermione, and there is no Dumbledore to oversee their shenanigans…. Yikes. Suffice it to say that things go very, very wrong.

I won’t go any further plot-wise, for fear of ruining the spectacular, gut-wrenching ending. But I will say that although I’ve never understood the love for and obsession with Draco Malfoy that many people have (I find it kind of disturbing, as he was an incredibly cruel, unsympathetic character for about 6 books, and imagine it has something to do with good-looking Tom Felton’s portrayal in the movies), in this play we see Draco in a new and forgiving light. I suppose there was always a kernel of good in there, and his goodness is allowed to grow and shine here. I actually ended up really liking the sucker. Who would’ve thought? Also, I laughed a lot, felt a true and profound sadness for Harry, and cried twice while reading: once during a scene between Harry and Dumbledore’s portrait, and once very close to the end. I’ll leave it at that.

If you love the wizarding universe and you haven’t managed to or wanted to or really felt compelled to read this, please do so. I was ambivalent at first, but I was so moved and satisfied by this addition to the series. The only thing that would make it better would be seeing how they manage to pull all of this off on a stage.

 

Recommended For:

Potterheads who can’t afford to fly to London to see the play, but feel like getting their little hearts ripped out again by words on paper.

On Representation – “Ghostbusters”

 

Ghostbusters
ghostbusters.com

I’ve been thinking a lot about representation in the media lately. As I get older, and as I witness the increasingly terrible things happening by the hour in our country and around the planet, I have begun to open my eyes a bit more and think more critically about what’s being presented to me in the media every day. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve just questioned things in general (“But why?” was my favorite question), but witnessing such dramatic changes in the world recently has gotten my wheels turning even more. So I’ve felt compelled to write a couple of posts about representation in popular culture, specifically in the movies and TV I’ve been watching recently.

This past Friday, I went to see the new Ghostbusters movie. I was pretty excited about seeing it, since I was really enamored with the original two films when I was little. I have adored Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy (and Paul Feig) for a long time, and was pumped to see an all-female cast reinvent a classic movie I love. And my excitement didn’t wane at all during or after the movie – it was absolutely great. My favorite character was Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), a constant source of comic relief who was given to frequent bursts of genius and bouts of odd behavior. She just spoke to the bizarre weirdo in me, and her unabashed strangeness was refreshing; it’s nice to see a character who is so comfortable with herself from beginning to end. In general, the movie was funny, had well-rounded characters, was filled with impressive special effects (which I normally don’t care about), included cameos by all of the previous cast – minus the lovely and much-missed Harold Ramis, of course – and managed to honor the original storyline while building something fun and new. Five stars out of five, would see it again, for sure.

Now, unless you’re totally disconnected from all media, you know that there has been a lot of hullabaloo about this movie. There have been a lot of misogynistic, ignorant, and frankly stupid things said and written about these Ghostbusters all being women, not to mention the barrage of hatred and racism that Leslie Jones has been dealing with, and it’s all so incredibly frustrating. So the Ghostbusters are women instead of men – boo hoo. It truly makes no difference, and I am over the whole “women aren’t funny” nonsense – it’s so early ’90s. These chicks are damn good at what they do, a lot of which is being funny. Each character is nuanced, each has her own interesting backstory. This isn’t the treatment that women have historically gotten in movies, including the original Ghostbusters, where women were largely just props or love interests. We so rarely get to see four women who are the stars of a major motion picture, let alone women who are allowed to be flawed yet unequivocally brilliant. These ladies aren’t concerned with finding the right outfit to wear, and oh my god, it’s so nice to see women who aren’t obsessed with falling in love or finding the right man. Those things are not even a fraction of what I worry about in life, nor are they the things the women around me spend their time fretting over, so it’s nice to see reality actually reflected on the screen.

And as far as Leslie Jones goes, what exactly is so wrong or different about her? There are women of color all over this country. Some have – gasp – even been in movies before! Why the attacks? What do these trolls find so threatening about her? I don’t get it. Her portrayal of Patty Tolan is fantastic – a tough, opinionated, smart woman whose intense working knowledge of the city’s layout is integral to the film. The character holds her own, supports her friends, and has great comic timing, just like her three counterparts. She did a great job. This hatefulness is upsetting, and yet another unfortunate reminder that racism is alive and well, as if we needed another reminder – but that’s a conversation for another day. I’m just flabbergasted by all of the negative nonsense I’m reading, and I’m not going to spend any more time trying to suss it out or bestow more attention on it than is deserved. There was so much hateful bile being spewed before this thing even came out, I doubt a lot of naysayers will even see far enough past their own noses to appreciate the movie for what it is. The film has been made, it is what it is, and if spending my hard-earned money to see it was a political statement, then  I’m happy to have done so.

Before I saw the movie, I came across a photo taken by a guy named Zach Heltzel in this Buzzfeed article that really spoke to me. In the picture, there are two little girls dressed as Ghostbusters (they were apparently part of a red carpet performance) who are meeting Kristen Wiig, and the adoration on their faces is palpable. They are seeing themselves in her, that they can also be the badass heroes of the story. That it isn’t about winning the boy or besting your rival, but about really smart ladies working together to kick butt and save New York on their own. It’s a touching photo. We all consume so much media these days, it’s important for kids to see adult versions of themselves sometimes, to see that they have the option to be models and movie stars but to also be scientists and bosses in control of their own lives.

Ghostbuster Girls
@zachheltzel

As a little girl, I wanted to be a Ghostbuster, despite being very afraid of ghosts. My sister and cousin and I would jump around on my cousin’s bed and listen to the soundtrack on repeat. We would beg our Granddad to play “Cleanin’ Up the Town” on the piano while we danced around and pretended to bust ghosts. We were three little girls who didn’t care that the Ghostbusters were boys, because we were fortunate enough to grow up in a family that assured us we could do and be anything we wanted, not in spite of, but because we were girls. But that mentality was not one that the general public has ever really shared, and it’s important for everyone to know that they can be ones making change for the greater good. And it still would’ve been nice to see a lady who was actually fighting the good fight with them back then, not just Annie Potts managing their calls from behind a desk or the love interest Sigourney Weaver, who was strong but also a secondary character susceptible to possession (in more than one sense). 

Watching the reboot this past Friday, it was exhilarating to see these four intelligent, tenacious, imperfect, hilarious women doing cool stuff. I felt a bit like the adorable little girl staring up at Kristen Wiig in Zach Heltzel’s picture, honestly. Because now, as an adult, I actually get to see myself in the Ghostbusters too, and it’s pretty cool.

Book Review – “Beautiful Darkness” by Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoet

Beautiful DarknessWell, Beautiful Darkness most certainly lives up to its name. This short graphic novel has beautiful artwork by Kerascoet entwined with some truly dark subject matter written by Fabien Vehlmann. I got a sense of the story from the cover of the book, which shows a tiny blonde girl peeking around a gigantic grey hand that appears – accurately – to belong to a dead person. However, I didn’t anticipate it being as raw and dark as it is. When I finished this short book, I was left thoughtful and, frankly, pretty bummed out.

The story begins with three squeaky clean, charming little people living a fairy tale life, when they are suddenly hit with a deluge of pinkish fluid that forces them out of their habitat. Chaos ensues, and we see more of these little people fighting their way to safety. The facts of the story are not completely spelled out, but in just the first five or six pages, we see these people crawling out of the orifices of what is revealed to be a dead schoolgirl lying in the forest.

We immediately begin to see these hordes of tiny people rebuilding their lives outside of the dead child’s body. They construct homes with her school supplies, eat her crackers to survive, and start breaking off into different factions. Subsequently, the best and worst facets of human nature are explored through the lives of these factions of small people, and through our speculations about the horrors that this young girl has clearly experienced. We can only infer what terrible things have happened to the little girl as we get further into the story, but we visually witness the equally horrifying ways in which these little people begin to behave. Death is commonplace, murder is just a fact of life, executed with little thought and no remorse, and only the most cunning survive.

As the story progresses, we witness the young girl’s body transform and decay while simultaneously watching the main character, Aurora (also the name of the dead little girl), change from a kind, youthful, hopeful girl into a hardened, disillusioned survivalist. And as a result, the ways in which the reader comprehends the story begins to change too. Because the landscape is mostly painted from the small people’s point of view, it’s only once we’ve acclimated to the darkness of the story that we begin to realize that things are not immediately what they seem. I had to go back and really study the artwork to get that the pink fluid forcing the little people out was actually blood filling the dead schoolgirl’s nose, and that the little fishing pond they find is not filled with tadpoles but is actually made of semen. Yikes.

This book is so complex and intentionally vague that it is completely open to interpretation. I couldn’t decide if these little people living inside of the girl are different aspects of her personality, or different aspects of human nature in general. Or both. For example, the little Aurora is loving and helpful, seeming to represent the best in people, while her larger and equally beautiful counterpart Zelie is cruel and conniving, representing the worst. Jane, the only small character who is an adult, is sad, resourceful, wise, and knowing. I took her to be the lost adulthood of the murdered schoolgirl, which is heartbreaking. But I could be totally wrong – and that is part of what’s so intriguing about this book. It can be interpreted in so many different ways, and leaves several unanswered questions that we are left to puzzle over long after the book has ended.

My interpretation is that Beautiful Darkness is basically the human experience writ tiny. It manages to realistically detail the best and worst aspects of human nature in all of their beautiful and gruesome glory. This is a deeply affecting story that is definitely not for the faint of heart, but is a short and absolutely worthy read.

Recommended For:

Adults who will appreciate striking, lovely artwork juxtaposed with weighty subject matter.

5 Books That Changed My Life

I just got back from a little summer vacation in the tiny, sleepy, hot-as-hell, artistic town of Marfa, TX. The trip afforded me lots of free time, especially because the WiFi in the casita where my beau and I were staying was not the best (which was decidedly for the best). Almost everything in Marfa closes at around 8pm, so there was plenty of time to sit back and catch up on some books I’ve been needing to finish. I even had time to delve into a new, weird “children’s” book that I’m not totally certain is actually for children.

There was also a lot of quiet time for me to chill out and contemplate my life – specifically where mine is going at this very moment. I quit my 8 year, steady job about 8 months ago, and I’m trying to decide exactly what I want to do now. This break from steady work brings up a lot of things that I never really had time to think about when I was working my butt off every day, and I’m trying to decide in what direction I’d like my life to go. I’ve been freelancing and thinking about the things and creative pursuits I love the most, and attempting to decide how to make them into careers. In these ruminations, I’ve realized that if I know one thing, it’s that I love books. They have made an enormous impact on my life, so much that I might even venture to say that books are basically my life. So this thought pattern led me to evaluate which individual books have changed the course of my life over the years (maybe in the hopes that I’ll stumble across another one that will knock me onto the correct path).

It’s undeniable that every book I’ve ever read has changed me in one way or another, but there are really only a handful of books that I can say have truly changed the trajectory of my life. Today I thought I’d share these books as a way to sort of commemorate where I’ve been. Though I wouldn’t say that these are my all-time favorite books or anything, they have absolutely each altered my world at some point in my life.

I’ve listed these books in my own personal chronological order, from the first I discovered to the latest ones to affect me.

1) One Monster After Another by Mercer Mayer

 One Monster After AnotherThis is the first book I learned to read by myself. I was very close to my grandmother, and she was a voracious reader who passed her love of literature on to me. She spent her retirement watching me, my sister, and my two cousins while our parents were at work, and it was in this time that she taught 3- or 4-year-old me (obviously can’t remember the exact age) to read. I remember sitting on Grandmother’s lap and making her read One Monster After Another to me over and over while I turned the pages and memorized all of the words. I read this story about one letter’s fantastical, roundabout journey until I made the connection between letters and words, and could read the book on my own. As you can see, my copy of this book has been read to death, and I imagine it will only get worse if I ever have children. I don’t care. I’m keeping it forever. It jump started my life’s passion.

 

2) The Baby-Sitters Club Series by Ann M. Martin 

http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-book-news/article/54772-scholastic-releases-baby-sitters-club-e-books-with-classic-covers.html
publishersweekly.com

Yes, this is a series and not an individual book. As a kid, I was absolutely OBSESSED with the Baby-Sitters Club books. It’s the first book series that I ever started collecting, and it was at this point that I distinctly remember starting to carry a book (usually more than one) with me at all times to read. Reading this series also helped me acquire the skill of being able to keep story lines separate and read more than one book at a time. But what was the most revelatory for me about this series is that it definitely shaped my views on girls and on female friendship. The main characters in these books are strong, diverse, enterprising girls who know what they want and work for it. They are cool, creative, and smart, and I wanted to be all of them (except Mallory, who I suspected was unfortunately the most similar to me). They also drove home that women and girls should support one another instead of tearing each other down, the latter of which is unfortunately what we too often see on TV, in magazines, online, and subsequently in our own relationships. These strong female role models with their ideal, yet still realistic friendships have definitely stuck with and shaped me. (Also, fun fact, I’m not really a fan of Kirsten Dunst, but I think it’s worth mentioning that she was the model for the little girl on “Claudia and the Phantom Phone Calls” cover.)

 

3) Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

 Pride and PrejudiceI was deep into the Baby-Sitters Club books when my sister introduced me to the wonders of Jane Austen. I was at an age when everything I did started to feel stupid and baby-ish, and felt like I needed to be reading things other than kids’ books (oh, budding adolescence). My sister had read Pride and Prejudice in one of her English classes and, promising I would like it, basically forced me to drop what I was reading one summer and pick it up. And I am so glad she ripped the BSC book out of my hands (speaking in hyperbole here), because reading Pride and Prejudice changed my world. It basically introduced me to the vast world of classic literature, and to the notion that there were a multitude of well-written, mature books in existence that I had no idea could be so readable and just so . . . good. I remember putting down the BSC books and never picking them up again (somewhat sadly, because I still think I developmentally should have continued reading them, but c’est la vie). Though Jane Austen is undeniably one of the best, the Bronte sisters speak a little more to my soul; however, I never would have had the pleasure of discovering this about myself had it not been for Jane Austen’s most acclaimed novel. I literally shudder to think of what I might be filling my head with now if I had never read Pride and Prejudice.

 

4) Quiet by Susan Cain

Quiet

This is arguably the most important book on this list to me. I am generally a pretty *quiet* person, but I absolutely love to talk to people about Quiet. I can honestly say that I am a completely different person after reading it. In 2013, at the tender age of 28, I finally stopped apologizing for who I am, and it is thanks to this book. To those who are closest to me, it’s old news that I’m shy and an introvert (the two are not synonymous), but this is usually at least a little surprising to people I’ve worked with or interacted with in social settings. I’ve gotten pretty good at hiding my true nature, mostly because I’ve spent my whole life (see: 27 years) exhausting myself, trying hard not to be shy and withdrawn in basically every school and social setting. In reading Quiet, I found out that I’m an HSP (highly sensitive person), innately shy, and an introverted introvert (there are indeed other combinations of extroversion and introversion, I’m just the furthest to the introvert side). And I no longer apologize for any of it, because I’m convinced that it’s how I was born. Though my parents thankfully never asked me to be anything other than myself, our extrovert-idealizing society did and still does demand other patterns of behavior from me. It was such a sad revelation to see that I had basically spent my life apologizing for who I am, and such a relief to accept that I didn’t need to do it anymore. I bet that almost any true introvert can relate to the feeling of shame that goes along with not wanting to go out with friends sometimes (or almost ever), or fearing working in an open office plan, or avoiding public speaking at all costs. The sort of self-acceptance I have experience is beyond measure. I’ve often said that I should be a spokesperson for this book, because it quite literally changed everything about my life. After many, many years, Quiet has helped me learn that there is nothing wrong with me, and I have finally made peace with the very core of myself

 

5) The Vegetarian by Han Kang

 VegetarianOkay, so the book itself is amazing, enough so that it inspired me to write a “professional-sounding” review that I’ve shared here on this blog. But on its own, the book would not necessarily have made this list (although it’s fantastic and probably the first piece of truly frightening literature that I’ve enjoyed as an adult). What is so personally important about The Vegetarian is that the review I wrote for it recently landed me my dream freelancing gig, which is reviewing books for a major publication. If finding out that your creative pursuits can get you work isn’t life-changing for an artist, I don’t know what is! Reading, writing, and getting paid to do both has been my dream for a very long time. My first review hasn’t been published yet, so I don’t necessarily want to say which publication I’m contributing to, but I’ll definitely share it here when I’m officially published. Needless to say, this book has changed my life and will always remain dear to me.

 

So those are my five life-changing books! I do, however, have to mention somewhere in this post . . . the Harry Potter series. Of course. I didn’t include it because I feel like EVERYONE talks about how it changed their lives, and I wanted to offer something different. For the record, though, Harry Potter is such an important series to me, for many reasons that would take far too long to list. Suffice it to say that growing up with this series has changed how I read, write, think about the world, and view others. It offers solace when I need it, and is always a joy to return to. It’s amazing that reading words on a page can make me feel like I’m going home, no matter where I am or how many times I revisit the story. What’s more life-changing than that?

 

Book Review – “Vaclav and Lena” by Haley Tanner

Vaclav and Lena
goodreads.com

Vaclav and Lena is gorgeous from beginning to end. The writing flows easily and the story is sad, but lovely. We meet Vaclav and Lena when they are 10 and 9 respectively, practicing for their first real magic show. They are both Russian immigrants, and it’s immediately clear that they are best friends who love each other very much. Though they have been friends since they were small, they are at the beginning of their prepubescent years, and their bonds are just beginning to be tested. Tragedy strikes right before their big magic show, when Lena mysteriously vanishes and leaves Vaclav confused and completely devastated. Seven years later, a long-awaited reunion reveals how they have both changed: Lena is damaged but recovering with her devoted adoptive mother, and Vaclav is a handsome, popular fellow. They are, however, still fundamentally the same two people, and they still deeply love each other. This love very quickly gives way to an impetuous romance, which threatens to be ruined yet again by the secrets surrounding Lena’s disappearance.

We don’t get the full story until the last quarter of the book, but when the pieces all finally start to fit together, we realize, along with Vaclav, that things haven’t always been quite as they seem. This book provides an interesting look into immigration and the emotions that swirl around such an upheaval. Vaclav, Lena, and both of their families deal with a lot of uncertainty and fear, and their stories give a realistic look into some of the difficult things people do and sacrifice for a better life.

Although I loved this book, there were a lot of ideas crammed in, which in my opinion tended to dilute the importance of some of the major themes. For example, the love of magic is a major thread running through the story, and it is probably meant to show Vaclav’s innocence and childlike wonder – which presents a stark contrast to Lena’s worldview. Although sweet and kind of cute, this enduring fascination with magic becomes a bit of a stretch as Vaclav moves into adulthood and the darker elements of the story are revealed. After a while, it starts feeling like the whole magic theme is just that – a theme. To me, the bones of the book were peeking through, and it temporarily yanked me right out of the narrative.

The love story was also a bit hard to swallow, but only because it reads kind of young to me. I’m a little more than a decade away from 17, so the speed and intensity with which they jumped into their relationship was hard for me to read without rolling my eyes. But I was a teenager once, and all of this is definitely an appropriate reflection of what love is at that age. Vaclav and Lena’s relationship definitely embodies the kind of passion I longed for at 17, and as a high schooler I absolutely would have devoured that section of the novel whole.

Regardless of its few faults, at its core, this is a beautifully told story of profound love, hope, and belief. Vaclav and Lena are at the center of it all, and the love that they hold for each other is the foundation of their lives. It helps them find each other, it roots them, and it protects them. The only redeeming force in their lives is love, and in the face of some genuinely dark subject matter, that’s incredibly heartening to see.

 

Recommended For:

Those who like a good love story but can handle some details about abuse.

Book Review – “Delicious Foods” by James Hannaham

Delicious Foods Let me start by saying that this book is not to be missed. It upset me, made me shout rage, and had me punching my fist in the air yelling, “Yes!” I read several sections out loud to my sister, who became invested in the trajectory of the story just through the bits and pieces I shared with her.

Despite the compelling story, it did take me quite a while to read Delicious Foods. I borrowed it from the library and renewed it once, which is to say that it took me around two months to read. Truthfully, this was partly because I was dealing with my own issues, but also because Delicious Foods is simply a harrowing read. This is an undoubtedly intelligent, complex, moving book, but was just difficult for me to get through. The story is enthralling, but is also intentionally violent and off-putting. It is by no means supposed to be a pretty story, but I tend to empathize too much with the characters in such well-written books, and I had to take a break every now and then to reorient myself with and appreciate my much happier life.

The story revolves around Darlene Hardison, her son Eddie, and the drug Darlene is addicted to – “Scotty” or crack cocaine. The story is told from each of their perspectives, with Darlene’s and Eddie’s chapters told in the third person, and Scotty’s chapters told in first person. It’s unusual to hear from the perspective of a drug, but Scotty has his own clear voice and tends to give a clearer, more brutal picture of what’s going on in the world than Darlene and Eddie sometimes can.

The prologue of the book begins with Eddie driving like mad, trying to keep a car steady while bleeding profusely from the ends of his wrists. We don’t know what’s going on at this point, except that he has just escaped “the farm” and has recently had his hands cut off. Undoubtedly a jarring way to start a book, but what’s even worse is that poor Eddie is more worried about getting pulled over and arrested for driving a “stolen” car with no license than about the fact that he may very possibly bleed to death. It definitely sets the tone for the rest of the book. Not until about 300 pages later do we find out what has led Eddie to careen away from Delicious Foods like this, hand-less. In the intervening pages, we witness how one major tragedy in Darlene’s and Eddie’s lives sends their future into a tailspin and lands them at Delicious Foods.

This book, perhaps most ostensibly, is a modern-day slavery story. The ways that Darlene, Eddie, and the rest of the workers at Delicious Foods are treated (mistreated, left untreated), kept ignorant, in debt, and in the dark, all hearken back to the days of American slavery. The workers are all minorities, mostly black. They sleep padlocked in a chicken coop on bunk beds that have rusty coils poking out of dirty mattresses. The farm’s owner has his own mansion (master’s house) on the premises – “Summerton” – where Eddie and his mother are eventually invited on dubious pretenses. The workers are all supplied with a steady stream of “Scotty” to keep them addicted, needy, and complacent, despite their inhuman, unlivable conditions. It is appalling, to say the least.

I had to keep reminding myself that this story is set in the present-day American South. I am a descendant of slaves on my dad’s side of the family, and kept thinking about what terrible obstacles some of my ancestors must have overcome for me to even be born. Without going too in depth about this theory, my opinion is that this book is at least in part a quiet commentary on American consumer culture. I think Hannaham is saying a lot about how, to this day, we as a culture still profit from the effects of slavery, from poverty and the disadvantaged. It’s unfortunately not hard to believe that a lot of the food we eat and clothes we wear are products of such dubious practices. This book serves as a good reminder that we are not so far removed from the days of slavery.

Toward the end of the book, we are fortunately rewarded with some forms of redemption, comeuppance, and hope for the future, small as they may be. Suffice it to say that if I wanted to write a dissertation on all of this book’s layers, I could easily do so. But that’s not what this blog is for, so I’m going to stop here. Please just read the book.

Recommended For:

Those who can handle some graphic violence and enjoy gritty tales of survival, slavery narratives, and eye-opening literature.

The Antidote to Reader’s Block is YouTube

I’ve been suffering from reader’s block for about a month now. “Reader’s Block” is not a technical term, but I’ve got it. I was on a roll with reading for quite a while, finishing about a book a week. Then, all of a sudden, I just couldn’t go on. It’s not like I don’t have interesting stuff to read – I have several large, overflowing bookcases full of books, as well as three tomes scattered around my house that I keep touching and staring at forlornly. I’ve been anticipating reading those three books for months, but…. I just haven’t had the will. I’ll pick up a book, read a page or two, then put it back down. This happens to me from time to time, and it’s usually related to some deep ennui. Unfortunately, this listlessness has extended to my writing, which explains the lack of blog posting.

Not everyone experiences this kind of melancholy, but I am personally all too familiar with the sadness and guilt that comes from badly wanting to read a book but just not feeling up to it. So, as an antidote, I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube.

Judge if you must, but I am fascinated with people’s lives (which may explain my proclivity for writing). And food.  And makeup tutorials. And the UK, which I may or may not have mentioned before. What better place for all of those things than YouTube? This ennui has allowed me to spiral into YouTube oblivion, and I’ve had generally positive results. So, I want to share the top five channels I use to escape my blues.

 

1. Kaushal Beauty     

Kaushal Beauty
kaushalbeauty.com

Kaushal’s channel is the first one I ever subscribed to. I am a biracial lady with medium skin and not a lot of makeup knowledge, so I stumbled upon Kaushal while searching for eyeshadow tutorials for my skin tone. And What. A. Find. She LOVES makeup, and I love her.  An English darling with a winning smile and infectious personality, I have now plowed through approximately 98% of her videos. She is a very talented makeup artist, and seems genuinely kind and positive. I came for the makeup tutorials and stayed for the sunshine. And, honestly, for more tutorials, because she’s pretty damn good at what she does.

2. Rachel Khoo  

rachelkhoo.com
rachelkhoo.com

I started watching Rachel Khoo’s cooking shows on The Cooking Channel a couple of years ago, and I liked her instinctively. She cooks and shoots in her own, real kitchen, is not overly concerned with putting on a show or amping up her personality for the cameras, and has an appealing personal style. Her history is super inspiring (leaving fashion PR, moving to France without knowing a stitch of French, taking patisserie courses, and graduating from Le Cordon Bleu), and her food is to die for. She doesn’t update this channel much anymore, instead focusing on her fancy new website Khoollect, where there’s a lot of engaging and intelligent writing on food, beauty, fashion, travel, books, and more. I love absolutely everything she does and highly recommend signing up for her Khoollect newsletter. She’s basically just a badass boss, and watching her makes me feel like one too.

3. & 4. Samantha Maria and Samantha Maria Vlogs

Samantha Maria
samanthamariaofficial.com

I’m sort of cheating with these two channels by the same person, but you can’t really have one without the other. Samantha is a long-time YouTuber, and it’s easy to see why she’s remained so successful. A luminous spirit, she mostly films about beauty, fashion and styling on her main channel, and vlogs about her everyday life and jealousy-inducing vacations on her vlog channel. It sounds like it could get kind of boring, but definitely does not. Samantha somehow makes daily coffee runs, video editing, movie-going, and dog walks with two precious pups addicting to watch. She is also incredibly busy, constantly updating her style blog and running a small clothing line with her ruddy-cheeked fiance Jason. What I find most appealing is her genuineness, though; she’s not afraid to talk about how hard it is to make friends, how lonely freelancing sometimes is, and how crippling anxiety and depression can be – all things I can relate to. She is an everyday person turned YouTube star, and is so incredibly humble. I just like her. She doesn’t have it all figured out, but she tries to have fun and lives a life many of us dream of. Sam makes me want to be sunnier, more positive, and more grateful for my life every day.

5. Nerdy Nummies with Rosanna Pansino  

Rosanna Pansino
rosannapansino.com

I think Ro’s channel is pretty impossible not to have seen if you’re a nerd and watch YouTube. She’s bubbly, silly, a little geeky, and despite the cutesy title, actually makes some pretty legit and delicious-looking desserts. I love seeing her make treats that appeal to my personal dorky preferences, like Totoro macarons, Adventure Time tarts, Harry Potter Liquid Luck drinks (non-alcoholic and spirited), and Zelda-inspired Triforce lemon bars. She also hosts a wide range of special guests (Neil deGrasse Tyson, anyone?) and does hilarious food-related challenges with her sister and friends. I’ve taken a pass on her music videos (definitely a little much for me), but I’m down with most of her other stuff. She makes me smile and even inspires me to bake more, which I love to do. My sister even bought me Ro’s recently-released cookbook, so maybe I’ll make some of my own nerdy desserts next time I’m feeling down to pep myself up.

 

And that’s it! Those are my top gloom-reducing YouTube channels. This method of self-medicating seems to be working; I’ve been able to crack open a couple of books and legitimately start reading again. The only problem is that now I can’t stop watching these women’s newest videos,  so I get caught in the ol’ YouTube loop again and again. But there are worse things in the world. If I’m able to read and write again, what’s the harm in indulging in a little makeup tutorial or four? Right…?

Book Review – “The Vegetarian” by Han Kang

The Vegetarian has a striking cover. Shallow though it seems, that was the first thing I noticed and liked about this book. It would catch my eye every time I visited my favorite local bookstore, so I would pick it up and read the dust cover again and again. The premise was interesting, and I don’t have much experience reading the works of Korean authors, but I somehow always talked myself out of buying the book. Luckily, my boyfriend unwittingly got it for me as a birthday gift, most likely because I’m a vegetarian and he thought I could relate to whatever was inside. And I’m so happy he did, because I ended up loving this book –The Vegetarian not because of my personal food preferences, but because it is so very, very good. There are many layers to The Vegetarian, and I imagine it could be interpreted any number of ways; I’m pretty positive I could write an entire critical essay on this book. It is incredibly nuanced, and I felt a range of emotions – some identifiable, some not – while reading. I was mystified. I was hopeful. I was sad. I was genuinely frightened by the time I reached page 15 (though as someone who can’t even watch the preview of a contemporary horror movie without having nightmares, you can take that with a grain of salt). In sum, I was so moved by this book that I was compelled to write a more serious review of it.

The Review:  

Han Kang’s The Vegetarian is a haunting, quiet, and strange piece of literature that both frightens and fascinates from the first page. The three-part story centers around a woman named Yeong-hye whose recurring, carnivorous dreams impel her to renounce meat and and adopt a vegan lifestyle. However, as Yeong-hye becomes more detached from her physical body and the world in general, we see her lifestyle choice slowly morph into something more sinister.

Each section of the book focuses on one person in Yeong-hye’s life as he or she attempts to make sense of her radical behavior. Yeong-hye’s husband, brother-in-law, and sister are the most deeply affected by her actions, and we witness their utter and complete helplessness drive them to make a number of rash decisions, with devastating consequences. Forced to look at the ugliest parts of themselves, those closest to Yeong-hye begin to slide into their own personal versions of madness and despair.

Over the course of the book, even the reader becomes estranged from Yeong-hye’s truest thoughts and motives. While she calmly slips further away from the corporeal world and deeper into the spiritual one, we learn more about the abuses Yeong-hye has faced, and how they have led to this moment in her life. The question is not whether she is losing her mind, but instead whether her method of finding and accepting her truest spiritual self is worth the cost to everyone involved.

Reading The Vegetarian is like stumbling through a dark forest teeming with unknown beasts; there is a monster lurking in the shadows, and only in the end do we truly begin to see its many rows of teeth. Kang has crafted a moving, unsettling, unpredictable story that begs to be read over and over again.

Recommended For:

Those who enjoy magical realism, haunting story lines, and books that can (and should) be read repeatedly.

Book Review – “Me Talk Pretty One Day” by David Sedaris

Me Talk Pretty I’ve had Me Talk Pretty One Day on my bookshelf for a long time. Like, since a few years after it came out . . . so I’m talking over 10 years. And I haven’t gotten around to reading it until now. Whoops. I’ve skimmed over this book on my shelf so many times, thinking, “Eh, nah. Not in the mood.” I’ve also nearly donated it on several occasions, but always held onto it because of the sheer number of glowing reviews I’ve heard over the years. Honestly, I’ve also kept it partly because I felt bad for the poor book, just sitting there for so long with no love. Don’t ask me to explain the strange inner politics of the book lover, just suffice it to say that I couldn’t get rid of it.

Well, Me Talk Pretty wasn’t quite as revelatory as I expected it to be, but in all fairness, how could it be after 10 years of buildup? The book was, however, still a very good, short read. It is an established fact that David Sedaris is a hilarious man, a practiced self-deprecator, and a great writer – so, in other words, a good comedian. I found the essays in this book to be consistently funny and succinct. BUT, for some reason, more than once I found myself impatiently checking to see how many pages I had left to read. It may have been because I had unreasonably high expectations for just how funny the stories would be (I imagined I would be rolling around on the floor with laughter the whole time), or because I was a little anxious to start a different book. Either way, though the book was entertaining, I found myself totally engaged in some of the stories and speed-reading through others.

However, I did laugh out loud more than once about tiny, ridiculous little things in the book. I don’t often outwardly emote when reading, but some of this stuff struck me in just the right, silly way. A few shining examples are: David whispering “Go on, scoot! Shoo!” to a huge, unflushable turd someone else left in his friend’s toilet, fearing that he’ll be blamed for its existence. His life in a French village as “the guy who says ‘bottleneck’”/”the grown man who . . . frightens the horses with his screaming”. His dad obsessively squirreling away food, specifically a banana so old it looked like a  shriveled piece of cat crap. These types of things, which are obviously so much funnier in context, and in his offbeat voice, really got me just right.

All in all, despite a few moments of restlessness while reading, I’m glad I never gave Me Talk Pretty away. I’m glad I finally read it, and glad that I waited 10 years before cracking it open, if only for the outdated technological references.

I am also grateful that, thanks to the Sedaris family, I have a “Fuck-It Bucket” full of candy in my house. Read the book to find out what this magical bucket is – it’ll only take you a day, and you won’t regret it.

Recommended for those who want a short, comical, bizarre, silly, and oddly heartwarming read.

Bucket