I Want to Die But I Want to Eat Tteokbokki by Baek Se-hee

“I wonder about others like me, who seem totally fine on the outside but are rotting on the inside, where the rot is this vague state of being not-fine and not-devastated at the same time.”

There was something about the title and cover of this book that brought to mind Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation and a line from Madame Bovary: ‘She wanted both to die and to live in Paris’. Naturally, me being a fan of both of those novels, I found myself intrigued by I Want to Die But I Want to Eat Tteokbokki. This is a relatively short read which is made up of the transcripts from the author’s session with her psychiatrist over a 12-week period. While there are occasional breaks in this patient/psychiatrist dialogue, these are brief, lasting one or two pages and consist of the author musing on the words of her psychiatrist or offering her own words of wisdom. Now, on the one hand, I appreciated reading these sessions as they lead to discussions on self-esteem, depression, anxiety, peer pressure, one’s desire to fit in and be liked, toxic relationships, etc. Baek’s worries and everyday tribulations will likely resonate with many millennials. While I appreciate the honesty that radiated from these sessions, and from her willingness to confront, assess, and critique aspects of herself, I did grow a tad bored by them. I remember coming across a book (i think it was a book) where a character comments on how, most of the time, other people’s dreams do not strike us as interesting as our own ones. Well, this is how I feel about this book. Baek, understandably, finds these sessions to be enlightening as through them she gains self-knowledge and a more nuanced understanding of her mental health, I did not. As I said, I could certainly relate to some of the conversations they have around self-esteem and self-perception, but at the end of the day, these sessions were tailored for Baek, and I couldn’t help but feel a bit uneasy at being ‘invited’ in. Maybe because I have always associated therapists/psychiatrists with privacy, but there were several instances where I wanted to bow out and leave Baek some space. Part of me wishes that this book could have taken only certain exchanges from her sessions, and incorporated these into longer pieces where the author considers the issues they discussed. In short, I wanted to hear more from Baek, and less from her psychiatrist. If I were to record my hypothetical sessions with a therapist or whoever, I doubt anyone would want to read transcripts of it. And if they did, well, that’s kind of sus.
Anyway, jokes aside, this was by no means a bad book. I just think it could have benefitted from more original content (ie mini-essays/think pieces).

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan

In many ways Sex and Vanity was exactly the pulpy light-hearted read I was in dire need of. Kevin Kwan’s engrossing and entertaining storytelling made me speed through his book and I ended up finishing it in less than a day. As retellings go, this manages to be both (fairly) faithful and rather refreshing. What kept me from wholly loving this book was Lucie, the book’s central character. She’s the kind of self-absorbed, self-pitying, and milquetoast type of heroine that I have come to abhor, so much so that I actively root against them (especially since they are presented to us as likeable/good heroines who are not wholly responsible for their ‘bad’ actions).

Kwan’s reimagining of Forster’s A Room With A View features a contemporary setting and focuses on Lucie Churchill, a Chinese American young woman who is tired of feeling like the odd one out in her social circle. Her deceased father’s relatives are insufferably wealthy WASPs who see and treat her like an ‘oddity’ (the grandmother repeatedly refers to her as a ‘China doll’…yikes). To avoid being the subject of further gossip Lucie, now aged 19, has cultivated a good-girl image. Whereas A Room With A View opens in Florence, Sex and Vanity transports us to Capri where Lucie is staying to attend the wedding of her friend Isabel Chiu. Lucie’s chaperone is the snobbish and fussy Charlotte, her older cousin on her father’s side, who both in name and character is very faithful to her original counterpart. The wedding is decidedly over-the-top and Kwang certainly seems to have fun in envisioning the opulent foods & beverages and extravagant activities that would seem like musts to filthy rich ppl like Isabel and her cohort. As with the original, the two cousins end up in a hotel room with no view and are offered to trade for one with a view on the Tyrrhenian Sea by two other guests, George Zao and his mother (in the original it was George and his father). Lucie dislikes Gergeo on sight. She tells herself it’s because he’s too handsome and too un-American, but, over the course of the wedding celebrations, she finds herself growing intrigued by him.
As with the original something happens between Lucie and George that could very well lead to a ‘scandal’. This is witnessed by Charlotte who makes it her business to separate the ‘lovers’.

The latter half of the story takes place 5 years later in New York. Lucie is engaged to Cecil, who is ‘new money’ and therefore not wholly accepted by Lucie’s set. We are introduced to Lucie’s mother and her brother, who due to his gender and possibly his ‘WASP’ appearance, isn’t as scrutinized as Lucie herself is. Lucie’s future is jeopardized when George and his mother arrive in town. Lucie is horrified at the discovery that George knows her fiance and that the two will be forced to be in each other’s proximity at the various social gatherings they attend. Of course, even as Lucie tells herself she’s not interested in George and that he and his mother represent everything she does not want to be (the gal sure has a lot of internalized racism to deal with) she can’t stop obsessing over him.
Whereas the tone and atmosphere of Forster’s original struck me as gentle, idyllic even, Kwan’s brand of satire is far louder and sensationalistic. This suits the kind of people he’s satirizing, their obsession with status, brands, and reputation, as well as their lack of self-awareness. The rarefied world he depicts is certainly an insular one and while Lucie does experience prejudice, for the most part, the problems his characters face are very much rich people problems.
Given that this novel is far lengthier than Forster’s one I hoped that George would get his time to shine, or that his romance with Lucie could be depicted more openly. But Kwang prioritizes gossipy dialogues over character development.
Most of the conversations and scenes in this novel are of a humorous nature, and Kwang is certainly not afraid to poke fun at his characters (their hypocritical behaviour, their sense of entitlement, their privilege). Still, he keeps things fairly light, and there were even a few instances where the narrative veers in the realms of the ridiculous.
While there is no strictly likeable character, Lucie was perhaps the most grating of the lot. Whereas I excepted Cecil to be a conceited, condescending, wannabe-aesthete (kwang and forester’s cecils pale in comparison to daniel day-lewis’ cecil), I wasn’t prepared for such as wishy-washy heroine. While I could buy into the motivations of Forester’s Lucy (her self-denial, her inability and or unwillingness to articulate her feelings towards george), I could not bring myself to believe in Kwang’s Lucie’s ‘reasonings’. She acts like a child experiencing their first crush, not someone in their mid-twenties. Her antipathy towards George and his mother also made her into an extremely unlikable character. Her actions towards the latter, which as far as I can recall were not inspired from the original, made me detest her. Not only was her ‘plan’ was completely inane but inexcusable. She struck me as bratty, self-involved, superficial, vapid. At times she acts like a complete cretin. I could not see how other people could stand her, let alone how someone like George could fall in love with her.
Even if her character lowered my overall opinion of this novel, I nevertheless had a blast with Sex and Vanity. I liked how Kwang adapted certain plot elements to fit with his modern setting (instead of a book revealing that ‘scandalous’ moment, it’s a film; instead of the carriages there are golf carts). Part of me would have preferred it if Kwang had not made George and his mother ultra-rich given that in the original George and his father are certainly not well off. I also liked that in the original Lucy refuses Cecil twice, whereas here (as far as my memory serves) Lucie immediately accepts Cecil’s request.
Sex and Vanity is a gleefully ‘trashy’ comedy of manners. Kwang’s droll prose and drama-driven narrative make for the perfect escapist read.

my rating: ★★★½

Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations by Mira Jacob

Mira Jacob’s Good Talk is a small gem of a memoir. Jacob combines different media to discuss a number of issues and topics. Jacob transports to the page the difficult conversations she’s had with her son about race, while also recounting her own experiences growing up as a first-generation Indian-American.

Much of Good Talk takes place against the 2016 election, which doesn’t necessarily make for easy or enjoyable reading material, especially when we discover that her white in-laws are Trump supporters. Jacob struggles to ‘gloss’ over their political stance, especially when her son begins asking difficult questions about Trump and racism. While her husband, who is white, also struggles to make sense of his parents’ behaviour he does at times minimise Jacob’s experiences with discrimination and racism (chalking these episodes to misunderstandings or claiming that supporting someone who is openly racist and misogynistic doesn’t mean you are those things too). While many of the conversations that are depicted in Good Talk have to do with America (or at least view these topics through an American lens) certain, Jacob does also touch upon colorism in India.
In addition to discussing Trump and 9/11, Jacob also gives us insight into her private life, from talking about her family to her experiences moving in predominantly white spaces and to the everyday microaggression that results from that. The dialogues populating this memoir always rang true to life, so much so, that I felt as if I was truly listening to people talking. While Jacob does discuss serious topics, such as racism, sexism, islamophobia, discrimination, colorism, she often injects humor in these discussions. I especially loved her talks with her son and her parents. I’d happily revisit this and I’m looking forward to reading more from Jacob.
Candid, thought-provoking, and ultimately moving Good Talk is a quick read that is a must-read.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

“I’m thinking I could spend the rest of my life becoming an expert at forgetting.”

Heartbreaking, moving, and ultimately uplifting Last Night I Sang to the Monster is my favourite novel by Sáenz. While this novel explores themes and issues that are recurrent in Sáenz’s oeuvre, Last Night I Sang to the Monster is much darker and, quite frankly, more depressing than his other books. But, if you’ve read anything by Sáenz you know that he never sensationalises ‘difficult’ subject matters nor is he superficial in the way he handles ‘hard’ topics. Sáenz’s empathy and understanding of his characters always shine through. This compassion, tenderness even, that he shows towards them is catching so that within a couple of pages I find myself growing just as attached to his characters as he is.

Last Night I Sang to the Monster follows Zach, an alcoholic eighteen-year-old Mexican-American boy who is in rehab. We don’t know exactly the events that led to his being there but as the narrative progresses, the picture that emerges of his family life is certainly not a happy one (his father, an alcoholic, his mother, severely depressed, his older brother, abusive).

At first, Zach is unwilling and unable to discuss his past, and he finds it difficult to open up to his therapist or his fellow patients. He eventually grows close to Rafael, an older man who understands Zach’s sorrow.
I always admire how Sáenz writes dysfunctional families without vilifying or condoning neglectful parents. Here, like in many other novels by him, father-like figures play a central role in the main character’s arc. With Rafael’s support, Zach’s is able to begin his slow healing process which will see him confronting the events that led to him being in rehab. While his silences initially protected him from being hurt further, eventually, they became debilitating, alienating him from others and his causing him to retreat inward.
Zach’s damaged sense of self-worth, which results in a lot of self-loathing, is not easy to read. Yet, Sáenz’s conversational prose is really easy to read. This style also lends authenticity to Zach’s voice, making it seem as if we truly are in his head. Sáenz has a great ear and his dialogues reflect that. The realistic rhythm of the characters’ conversations makes their interactions all the more vivid and ‘real’.

Throughout the course of the narrative, Sáenz navigates loneliness, trauma, grief, acceptance, and belonging. Zach’s struggles are rendered with clarity and kindness, and so are those of the people around him.
There is no denying that Last Night I Sang to the Monster is a difficult and sad read. Yet, the relationships Zach forms with the other patients, as well as his personal arc, resulting in an incredibly rewarding reading experience.

my rating: ★★★★★

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Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

“A part of me wanted to run away from all the complications of being in love with Dante. Maybe Ari plus Dante equated love, but it also equated complicated. It also equated playing hide-and-seek with the world. But there was a difference between the art of running and the art of running away.”

This one gave me all the feels 😭

“Dante really was my only friend. It was complicated to be in love with your only friend.”

It was wonderful to be reunited with Ari, Dante, and the other characters from Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Seeing (or reading about) these characters again truly warmed my heart.
Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World picks up right after Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe and we read of the early days in Ari and Dante’s relationship. This section was probably my favourite in the whole novel, even if their summer isn’t entirely idyllic.

“I was depressing myself. I was good at that. I had always been good at that.”

Ari’s ongoing inner conflict about his identity and sexuality often results in him turning inward. While he is still prone to bouts of self-loathing and sadness, he has ‘grown’ since Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe and he has learnt not to shut himself entirely away from the ones he loves. His relationship with his father is much more open now, and it was really heartrending to see them bond, confide, and support each other. Ari also finds friendship in three fellow schoolmates, and their presence in his life is certainly a good one.
We see how the way in which the media and public (mis)perceive and talk about the AIDS pandemic affects Ari. As he already struggles with his self-worth, his masculinity, and his sexuality, well, the deaths within his community leave their mark on him. While most of the people close to him love him and support him, at school and through the news, he witnesses and overhears plenty of homophobic remarks. As he comes to learn that responding to other people’s hatred with rage and violence, well, it doesn’t really solve matters, he tries his best to quench his anger.
Ari is also still haunted by his older brother who is still in prison and, as the end of high school approaches, uncertain about his and Dante’s future.

“And I didn’t give a shit that I was young, and I had just turned seventeen and I didn’t give a shit if anyone thought I was too young to feel the things that I felt. Too young? Tell that to my fucking heart.”

Sáenz’s narratives brim with empathy. He is considerate, tender even, towards his characters, never dismissing their feelings or making light of their struggles. The characters at the core of this novel are truly beautiful, and support each other through each other’s ups and downs. He also conveys Ari’s fears and anxieties in such a believable way, making us understand why sometimes he reacts in a certain way or why his first instinct is usually to remain silent about his worries.

Sáenz’s prose manages to be both simple and lyrical. His conversational style is truly immersive and captures with authenticity Ari’s teenage voice. The chapters are often short and very dialogue-focused, in a way that reminded me of Richard Wagamese. Their stories are heavy on dialogues, which may very well annoy some readers, but I liked the rhythm created by the characters’ conversations and, in some ways, it made me feel as if I were listening in to ‘real’ people talk about ‘real’ things.

My one quip, the reason why I didn’t give this 5 stars, is the Ari/Dante dynamic. I not only wanted to see more of them together, but I just wanted more of Dante. Ari’s new friends (although likeable enough) seem to sideline Dante’s presence in the narrative…which made some of his later actions seem quite random. Speaking of which, that last 10% was a wee bit rushed (or maybe this was just me not wanting to let go of ari/dante).

Still, it was lovely to read about these characters again and I’m sure that fans of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe will fall in love with Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World. Sáenz writes about loneliness, acceptance, grief, and belonging as few do. Moving and poetic, Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World was definitely worth the wait.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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A Lover’s Discourse by Xiaolu Guo

On paper A Lover’s Discourse is the type of book that I generally like: we have an unmanned who recounts her relationship to her unmanned ‘lover’—a man she addresses as ‘you’. Our narrator met ‘you’ after moving from China to Britain in 2016. Recently orphaned and feeling somewhat alienated by her new environment the protagonist of A Lover’s Discourse enters into a relationship with a German-Australian man. They begin living together in a houseboat, but while ‘you’ finds freedom in this kind of ‘unmoored’ lifestyle, our narrator would much rather live in an actual house or apartment. While ‘you’ earns money as a landscaper, our protagonist works on her PhD.

The structure of this novel is what initially caught my attention. The narrative is comprised of a series of dialogues in which the protagonist and her partner discuss an array of subjects: British-related issues, love, sex, nationality, identity, landscaping, architecture…sadly their conversations aren’t particularly deep or compelling. Maybe I write this because I found both characters to be different shades of obnoxious: our mc isn’t particularly passionate or interested in anything. While I should have found her efforts to understand British customs and culture, as well as trying to master the English language, to be relatable, given that I am in a similar position, I disliked profoundly the way she was portrayed. She was acerbic nag. She makes generalisation after generalisation about other countries, her own country, and about men. Not only does she repeatedly use the word ‘peasants’ to refer to the residents of her hometown, but her tone, when using this word, left a lot to be desired. She comes out with obsolete comments that make me question why she would ever want to be in a relationship, especially with man, given that she considers sex to be a violent and invasive act that she doesn’t enjoy. Her navel-gazing was far from thought-provoking. She laments her boyfriend having to work, seeming to forget that he is their sole provider as she’s busy completing this PhD she doesn’t even particularly care for (she kind of forgets about her studies once she starts her relationship with ‘you’). Her PhD actually sounded quite interesting, and I wish that it had played more of a role in the narrative.
‘You’ is a condescending man who is kind of dull. He ‘explains’ things to our narrator, and he does so in an exceedingly donnish way.
Attempts are made to connect their ‘discourse’ to Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse and I wonder…why? These two characters didn’t strike me as the types who would care about Barthes’s writings.
Bland, uninspired, and repetitive, A Lover’s Discourse was a deeply disappointing read. Thankfully it was a relatively slim book.

MY RATING: 2 of 5 stars

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Ragged Company by Richard Wagamese

“We become eternal by being held in memory’s loving arms.”

After I read Richard Wagamese’s Medicine Walk, I was looking forward to reading more of his work. And Ragged Company did not disappoint. Similarly to Medicine Walk, which felt like a long conversation between a dying man and his son, Ragged Company presents its readers with a dialogue-heavy narrative. Amelia One Sky, Timber, Double Dick and Digger are the makeshift family at the heart of this novel. After enduring personal tragedies and hardships they now live on the street, referring to themselves as rounders, where they spend their days drifting from street to street, on the lookout for warm spots, food, and drink. During a particularly cold winter they start seeking refuge in movie theatres, where they find themselves being swept away by the films they watch. They repeatedly come across the same man, a former journalist called Granite, who also views films as an escape. After the loss of his wife and child Granite views films as an escape from the pain of his lonely existence. While not everyone is keen on his presence, Digger for one is particularly against ‘Square Johns’ (that is ‘respectable’ members of society), our rounders form a sort of companionship with Granite.
When Digger picks up a winning lottery ticket, for the value of 13.5 million dollars, their lives are irrevocably changed. Because they don’t have any proper identification they seek Granite’s help. Although their newfound wealth drastically changes their lives and lifestyles, they have difficulty assimilating back into society. They carry their trauma with them, and are all similarly haunted by their past. As each character tries to confront their past actions and mistakes, the bond between our makeshift family deepens. Things don’t go smoothly for all, and at times no matter how hard you try you won’t be able to forgive yourself for the terrible things that you did.
As I said this is a very dialogue-oriented story. Whereas in Medicine Walk descriptions of the natural landscape offer breaks in the father/son talk, in Ragged Company the focus remains on the characters’ conversations and arguments. Still, First Nation beliefs and teachings around spirituality illuminate its narrative.
Although this isn’t an easy or fast read, I loved it. Wagamese has a gift for creating realistic characters, and an ear for dialogue. Although he doesn’t loose himself in sentimentalities he demonstrates careful empathy when writing about his characters’ suffering. Because the story is set in 1980s the films our characters watch and discuss could easily seem dated or obscure, but thanks to Wagamese skill for conveying his characters impressions of these films they don’t (if anything he made me want to watch those films I didn’t know about). Plus Cinema Paradiso gets a mention!
If you happen to have read other books by Wagamese or you watched and enjoyed Satoshi Kon’s Tokyo Godfathers chances are Ragged Company is the book for you.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
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Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese — book reviews

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“In the Ojibway world you go inward in order to express outward. That journey can be harrowing sometimes but it can also be the source of much joy, freedom, and light.”

It is difficult to describe Medicine Walk as a work of fiction as this novel reads like reality. In a gracefully incisive prose Richard Wagamese tells a moving father/son tale. By turns brutally honest and deeply empathetic, Wagamese’s narrative explores the many undercurrents of this complex father/son dynamic. He renders with clarity Franklin Starlight’s tangled feelings—sorrow, rancour, pity—towards his estranged and alcoholic father.

“He wondered how he would look years on and what effect this history would have on him. He’d expected that it might have filled him but all he felt was emptiness and a fear that there would be nothing that could fill that void.”

Set in Canada during the 1950s Medicine Walk follows sixteen year old Franklin, referred throughout the majority of the novel as ‘the kid’, who lives on a farm with his guardian, ‘the old man’. When his father reaches out to him, Franklin finds himself unable to refuse him. Years of drinking have finally taken their toll on Eldon. Knowing his death is imminent, Eldon asks his son to travel alongside him to the mountains, so that he can be buried in the Ojibway warrior way, facing east. Franklin reluctantly embarks on this journey, and as the two make their way into the mountains, old wounds are reopened. He has few memories of his father, and in most of them Eldon appears as a chaotic and disruptive individual, hell-bent on self-destruction and far more interested in staying drunk than acting like Franklin’s father. It is ‘the old man’ who takes on a father role for Franklin. Still, Franklin has clearly suffered, and his relationship with Eldon is strained. It is perhaps his approaching death that makes Eldon finally open up to Franklin.

“His life was built of the stories of vague ghosts. He wanted desperately to see them fleshed out and vital. History, he supposed, lacked that power. ”

As his body begins to shut down, Eldon finds himself recounting his life to Franklin: his childhood, marked by poverty and loss, fighting alongside his best friend in the Korean War, what led to him to a path of spiralling alcoholism and self-hatred, before finally turning to his relationship with Franklin’s mother. Eldon’s troubled past brings about questions of cowardice and bravery, of loneliness and connection.

“The certainty of failure, the landscape of his secrets, became the terror that kept him awake.”

Wagamese’s story hit close to home as Franklin’s confusing emotions towards his father are depicted with incredible realism. Is it fair for Eldon to seek forgiveness when he’s about die? Should Franklin condone him in light of Eldon’s traumatic past? Wagamese doesn’t offer us simplified answers, letting his characters talk it out (with each other and themselves).

“The light weakened. He could feel the thrust of evening working its way through the cut of the valley and he watched the shapes of things alter. The sun sat blood red near the lip of the world and in that rose and canted light he sat there filled with wonder and a welling sorrow. He wiped his face with the palm of his hand and he stared down across the valley. Soon the light had nudged down deeper into shadow and it was like he existed in a dream world, hung there above that peaceful space where the wind ruled, and he could feel it push against him.”

In many ways Medicine Walk feels less like a novel that a long conversation: between a dying man and his child, between a man and his past, and between people and nature. Wagamese compassionate portrayal of addiction and shame, as well as his affecting examination of grief, family, history, forgiveness, and freedom, make Medicine Walk a book of rare beauty.

“He sat on the fence rail and rolled another smoke, looking at the spot where the coyotes had disappeared. The spirit of them still clung to the gap in the trees. But the kid could feel them in the splayed moonlight and for a time he wondered about journeys, about endings, about things left behind, questions that lurk forever in the dark of attic rooms, unspoken, unanswered, and when the smoke was done he crushed it out on the rail and cupped it in his palm while he walked back to the barn in the first pale, weak light of dawn.”

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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