book review · Uncategorized

Book Review: Always and Forever, Lara Jean

Image result for always and forever lara jean Title: Always and Forever, Lara Jean

Author: Jenny Han

Pages: 336

Series? Yes (Final book in a trilogy)

Synopsis: Goodreads

Rating: 4/5

Mild Spoilers for first two books but spoiler free for the last one.

 


I started reading this book at 5pm on Saturday and kept reading until 1 in the morning with only an hourish break for dinner. In that 8 hour time span, my dear reader, I felt unbearable warmth, happiness and most of all nostalgia. And at the end, even though I knew it was the end, I still felt like there was so much more story left to these characters, that these characters have blossomed into people that I knew.

As with any last book in the series, I felt that preanxiety that comes with having such high expectations of a final novel. The story of this book’s inception is heartwarming in its own way. In an interview, Jenny Han spoke about how she was working on her new project but couldn’t because she kept thinking about what Lara Jean and Peter were up to.

Last winter, I was working on a new book, and I just couldn’t figure out how to unlock it. My mind kept drifting to Lara Jean and Peter, I kept thinking wistful thoughts, like, I wonder what those two are up to now. When I finished P.S. I Still Love You, I truly was done with the series. Always, it had been meant to be just the two. But I suppose time and space had made me nostalgic, because they were all I could think about. One night I called up my best friend and sometimes co-author Siobhan Vivian and asked her, would it be crazy if I wrote just one more book? She said not at all. She told me to try and see. So that same night, I started writing, and I couldn’t stop. I wrote until the sun came up.

-Jenny Han from EW article

There is something so natural about this story that I’ve never been able to find in other YA contemporaries. In this one, Lara Jean and Peter are in their final year of high school. They have graduation coming up and all the other things high school seniors look forward to: the senior trip, prom and of course the anxiety of college admissions. Lara Jean has plans for her future but they all start to unravel and she starts to question what is truly the right path for her.

I swear some scenes in this book took me back to some exact moments of my high school career. Not gonna lie, I kind of teared up a little when Lara Jean is anxiously opening up her email that determines whether she got accepted or rejected to UVA. Moments like these are what I’ve always loved about this series. Most YA contemporaries kind of skip this part or shove it in near the end as a sort of cherry on top of the icing at the end of the book and more often than not, they just get accepted into their dream school nbd. I just completely love the detail that Jenny Han puts into this series from the food (yaas to all the chocolate chip cookie baking in this one) to Lara Jean’s clothes (Lara Jean’s prom dress) and even to Peter’s lacrosse experience. Jenny Han even did research, people, research to make the college admissions part as true to life as possible. She even spoke to the Dean of Admissions and the lacrosse department at UVA.

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University of Virginia campus

It just encapsulates a high school experience that feels so authentic, like this is truly what a YA contemporary should be about. I understand that YA contemporary is not suppose to be 100% realistic, otherwise where the hell is my Peter Kavinsky but just adding these tiny details that you only subconsciously absorb brought me more into the story, this more visceral experience. And I love it. Some scenes just brought me back to my final days of high school, my final class of high school which I probably just spent signing yearbooks, my final day of walking the grass behind my school for AP Government. and having this sense of finality and this feeling of an end but also this anticipation that things are just starting for you.

I also love seeing that reflected in Lara Jean. Throughout this series, she has always been content with where she is but she’s realizing that she can open herself up to new possibilities that she never thought were right for her.

And on top of that, Lara Jean learns more about her relationship with Peter. I feel like this book was the perfect combination of the fluffiness and cuteness of book 1 and the angst and them dealing with real problems from Book 2. I just love how you can see how much they love and care about each other. They have to think about what every high school couple thinks about, if they’re even going to survive being apart and the delicate state of a high school relationship.  Peter’s arc also has a wonderful sense of growth. His dad makes a reappearance in this one and he has to decide whether to let him into his life or not. I really like how Peter’s insecurities are put to the forefront. Peter has always been one of my favorites in this series because he is not necessarily this arrogant boy with a heart of gold or this nerdy guy who will understand all of your Star Wars references or even this sickly sweet nice love interest who can do no wrong. Let’s face it, most of your favorite YA contemporary male heroes will fall into one of these 3 categories. I’m really satisfied with the way Han wrote this relationship that feels as though it’s always evolving and not this you-are-my-soulmate-that-I-found-at-the-age-of-18-and-we-live-happily-ever-after type of relationship. I love them so much.

And of course, without a doubt, these books always come back to family. It’s bittersweet and ever changing. There is so much change happening around Lara Jean that she doesn’t really even notice. How Margot is now slowly living her own life in Scotland, how her Dad is marrying Ms. Rothschild, and how Kitty is growing up. And although Lara Jean is consistently changing and figuring out more things about herself, she will always fall back on her family and their support. Her mother is still an ever present force in her life and she’s always thinking about how her mom would approach a situation even as she is learning to find her own way.

I will always love these books, for their authenticity but also just for their feel-goodness and how they always bring a smile to my face. I know I will be swooning over Lara Jean’s mundane adventures for many more rereads.

Let me know if I should read Jenny Han’s Summer I Turned Pretty series. I’m not sure how it compares to this one so any advice is welcomed! And of course, let’s discuss this book in the comments because I need to vent.

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Book Recommendations · book review · Uncategorized

Mini Book Reviews: Identity

I might be grasping at straws here by compiling all these books under the same theme but I think it works. All of these are relatively short books, no more than 304 pages and quick reads. They were all informative about some specific historical event and culture and by writing about violence, war, and family, the authors were able to see how these affect a person’s identity and sense of self. Enjoy! =) Let me know if you’ve read any of these, your thoughts or if you’re planning on reading them.

Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong

Goodreads | 89 pages | Poetry

Thank you to Copper Canyon Press for sending me a review copy. All opinions are my own.

Poetry is not my forte and still isn’t but I still like it and I think through this collection, I’ve discovered 2 really important secrets to help me appreciate it more and I think they actually just might help those who just can’t seem to get into poetry too. So,

  1. Read the poetry aloud.
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3.5/5

I realize this is really weird and will probably make you seem crazy. But just think of it like spoken poetry. I think orating it out loud just emphasizes each word and makes you see how each word fits together in the whole scheme of the poem. All strangeness aside, it’s actually quite cathartic.

2. Don’t try to understand it (at first).

The first time you go through this collection, don’t try to find meaning underneath each statement. In fact, I think poetry is less about meaning sometimes than the overall structure and phrasing of the words and the word choice in general. It won’t make sense but at the same time it’s really fascinating how the poet constructs the piece. How he can relate two such unrelated things and have it somehow work.

With those in mind, you’ll have a really good time with this poetry collection. This collection is all about how family shapes your identity, how your identity is an extension of your mother’s and your father’s. About finding your identity through culture, through sexuality, and ultimately through self.

Now here is your father inside

your lungs.

He also touches on the Vietnam War and Vietnam written with a fusion of Vietnamese and English in some of them such as in “Aubade with Burning City”, a piece that follows the evacuation of refugees from Vietnam while a Christmas song is playing on the radio.  Others are more about love bordering on the erotic; in fact he writes an “Ode to Masturbation” at one point and it was quite poignant (lol).The great thing about Ocean’s poetry is that he doesn’t technically have a defining structure like Emily Dickinson and her dashes. He will try out many different structures. One of the poems is written entirely in footnote, others more prose poetry. And hidden in these poems are gems of poignancy that are really beautiful. It almost feels as though this poetry collection is helping him find himself. It’s particularly displayed in one of my favorite pieces of this collection, “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong”, which sounds like a piece written to himself. And maybe it is.

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Excerpt from “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong”

 

I’m so excited to have finally read an Ocean Vuong work and I’m definitely going to check out his future works.

Born A Crime by Trevor Noah

Goodreads | 85 pages | Nonfiction, Memoir

If you’re going to read this memoir, I highly recommend the audiobook. Trevor Noah himself narrates it and his humorous and conversational voice really shines through.I honestly think this is one of the best, if not the best, entertainment celebrity memoirs I have ever read. This is true because first and foremost, Trevor Noah can actually write without sacrificing his humorous witticisms. Sometimes the conversational voices that celebrities use in their books sort of undermine the writing process in general because it is clear that the story was not meant to be a book, more better for a video or a podcast. But Trevor Noah’s story just works so well as a book. The opening of every chapter is followed with a little history lesson or framing device about South Africa which sets up his story in a relevant way. But the memoir, for the most part, revolves around his childhood in South Africa where he was quite literally “born a crime”. Born

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4.5/5

to a Swiss father and an African mother during the time of apartheid Trevor was obviously illegal and he talks about how he spent a lot of his childhood hiding, sometimes when he and his mother were walking down the street, and police were roaming the street, she would push him away and pretend not to know him for safety’s sake. It’s very clear throughout how much his mother means to him. How his deeply religious mother, a force of nature who eschewed tradition and propriety, shaped his open perspective of the world. In spite of the poor community he lived and the fact that he grew up very poor (his mother would park at red traffic lights to save gas), Trevor reminisces that he never felt trapped or limited to the ghetto because his mother always reminded him that the community he lived in was not all that the world had to offer him. He knows he was one of the lucky ones however.

 

People love to say, “Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” What they don’t say is, “And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod.” That’s the part of the analogy that’s missing. 

You really feel as though you knew his mother and by extension, Trevor as so much of his personality is shaped by her. Noah also discusses his struggle to belong in a certain community because of his race. He didn’t quite belong with the “whites”, not quite the “blacks”, and not even the “mixed” raced kids because they would think he would act like either a black or a white. The discussion of race was effortlessly integrated probably he has had to live by these race rules his entire life. But putting those aside, Trevor gets into some crazy shit mostly because he admits to being a troublemaker as a child.

All of this is told with the usual Trevor Noah humor very on par with his humor as host of the Daily Show. But he never tries too hard to cater to a certain audience or sounds too self-deprecating as sometimes celebrity memoirs will do and most importantly, he never writes as though he is wondering why he is even writing a book. Trevor Noah lets the audience know that this story is important to him and is important in general. Informative, sincere, and humorous, I highly, highly recommend.

Human Acts by Han Kang

Goodreads | 218 pages | Contemporary, Korean lit

I think I liked Human Acts even more than The Vegetarian and I think readers who didn’t like the Vegetarian should still give this a shot because it is definitely not as bizarre or surreal as The Vegetarian. It definitely leans more towards the gritty and brutal

Image result for human acts
4/5

tone. Written by several different perspectives within a 3 decade span, Human Acts tells a fictionalized story behind the very true student uprisings in Korea in 1980. Han Kang really delves into the concept of the body, how you can be separated from your body. How after torture, you can even be disgusted by your body. Is the body separate from the person’s soul?  To answer she eve writes one chapter from the perspective of a corpse which honestly I wouldn’t want any other author to write.

When they threw a straw sack over the body of the man at the very top, the tower of bodies was transformed into the corpse of some enormous, fantastical beast, its dozens of legs splayed out beneath it.

It works because there is something about Han Kang’s writing that is so visceral, that requires an equally visceral and immediate reaction. Her writing is so penetratingly vivid and poetic. I usually hate describing writing as poetic because it is overused now but it’s definitely true for Han Kang because I looked at the back flap and what do you know, she started her writing career as a poet so hence poetic writing which really helps the imagery of this book. Because of this, however, it can also become confusing because there is a lot of section breaks and it was sometimes difficult to discern how the subsequent perspectives were related to the previous ones but that’s a minor quibble. She also touches on the concept of nationality, the feeling of belonging to a nation but at the same time in disbelief at how your nation can ultimately betray you. This is explored by following these characters through the aftermath of the uprisings and how these acts of violence have scarring effects on a person and their memory. This book would definitely benefit from a reread to see how everything ties together. But, in all, such a brilliant book and one that already cements Han Kang as an exceptionally accomplished writer.

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book review · Uncategorized · wrap up

February 2017 Wrap Up

Surprisingly I actually read a lot in February considering it’s a month that always seems to go by much faster than the other months. It sometimes feels like February doesn’t even happen. However, I had a pretty good reading month so here are my thoughts on all the books 🙂

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3/5

The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi

This reminded me soooo much of The Wrath and the Dawn especially in terms of the characters. We have an independent young woman who doesn’t want to get married blah blah blah and a mysterious king with secrets and they both fall in love. But while Renee Ahdieh imbued her main characters with originality and individualism, I didn’t think Chokshi’s characters achieved anything past two dimensionality and superficial love confessions. Because the second half depended on my investment into these two main characters, suffice to say that I was skipping through
it waiting for it to end. I did, however, like the incorporation of Indian mythology and all these creatures of lore.

 

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3.5/5

 The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands

This was so much fun!! A historical fantasy that takes place during 16th century England following Christopher who is an apothecary apprentice. He and his friend, Tom try to solve the mystery of the murders that have been happening around their town. Omg guys, this was so cute and fun and full of middle-grade goodness. There’s a cute bromance, interesting puzzles and codes, some interesting historical facts, a fun mystery, and a lot of the main character being a little shit and getting into trouble every other page. Highly recommended for middle grade readers.

Reviews for these coming soon!
Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong | Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

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Image result for a rose for emily
4/5

A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner

This is a short story by the classic author William Faulkner. This was a good prelude to me reading As I Lay Dying next month which I’m excited to read since I’ve never read Faulkner before. This story very much follows the Southern Gothic writing tradition, following a black woman living in an old mansion alone except we only get to know her through the people around her. The ending was so creepy but again very much in style with the Southern Gothic themes. Faulkner is not a hard author to read in terms of language, it’s fairly simply, it’s just everything in between that’s difficult to decipher.

 

Nana Vol. 1 by Ai Yuzawa

Image result for nana vol 1
4/5

I haven’t read a shojo manga in so long but I heard that this series focuses on friendship than romance and it was so good. I think part of the reason why I adored this so much is because it’s more of a coming-of-age story of two flawed, university aged girls trying to find who they are as they navigate romance and friendships and all that good coming-of-age stuff. The first volume follows them in their separate storylines, the first Nana is just getting over an affair she had and moving to Tokyo to try and attend art school. The other Nana of the story is part of a punk rock music group. They couldn’t be any more different but they will eventually meet and become best friends. I love the mixture of typical shojo humor and the more emotional scenes of self-discovery.

 

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2/5

5000 km per second by Manuele Fior

 

This is a French graphic novel following two people who fall in love over a period of time. Life happens. They break up. And they meet again. This is a novel that was completely lackluster in the story department but so lovely in its artwork. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that it’s a monochrome palette painted with watercolor (my favorite style). It really rendered the setting of Egypt and Italy in a lively way.

 

Related image

 

Bryony and Roses by T. Kingfisher

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3.75/5

This is a beautiful Beauty and the Beast retelling that gives a lot of nods to the original French story but of course, gives an original spin to it. Beauty is a gardener who wanders into the Beast’s castle one day and the rest of the story goes from there. Contrary to many BatB retellings, this one actually addresses the subject of bestiality head on (subtly) and a lot of the sexist notions of Belle “fixing” the Beast. And what I really liked was that it puts Beauty on equal footing with the Beast. The Beast himself is actually a really considerate and mild-mannered person/beast without a mean streak or temper problem which is completely different from other renditions of the Beast which was refreshing. There’s an overarcing mystery about the magic mansion that Belle is trapped under that they both try to solve together. However, I was missing a central internal conflict that I’d hoped would propel more character development. Still, this was a retelling worth reading..or listening to because I did listen to this on audiobook. It is narrated by the same person who narrated The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski. I think her raspy, antique voice really fits this story.

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3.5/5

El deafo by Cece Bell

I mentioned this in my graphic novels recommendation post here. I definitely recommend this for younger readers. The artwork is very cartoony but definitely doesn’t detract from the overall theme of being ok with yourself and trying to learn that as a young child who is deaf.

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Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb

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4/5

I’m going to be doing a full review of this whole trilogy when I’m finished with it so I plan on reading the second one in March and third in April. But so far, this fantasy has impressed me a lot more than other epic fantasies of late although it still makes me wonder why epic fantasy authors are so obsessed with writing about whores. I seriously think the word whore appeared on every other page.

DNFs

Do No Harm by Henry Marsh

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3/5

As much as this book reveals about what it’s like to be a brain surgeon, I feel as though the author was holding back from revealing too much about his cases especially his failed ones. I suppose I understand that because he is still practicing (I think). But the problem is I can watch videos of these procedures and it would be better for me visually. What I wanted was the human side to these cases. But the writing was lackluster and he incorporated pieces of dialogue that were completely unnecessary and he would keep skipping around topics within the same chapter even though the previous topic clearly needed some more explanation. For most of the book, he talks about his cases but I felt like he was just listing them off and not going into too much depth about any one of them so that kind of frustrated me. Maybe it was also the fact that he was kind of an arrogant asshole most of the time. That doesn’t bother me so much as the fact that it feels like he uses the book to excuse himself rather than to grow. Maybe that’s just me.

Image result for imagine me goneImagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett

This is a story about a man who has depression and how his family copes with this. In as far as I read, I think it was a fairly good translation of what it means to be a person with depression but the writing and the family members were compelling to make me keep reading.

 

 

And that was my reading in February! Let me know if you’ve read any of these books, what you thought of them, anything really, I’d love to know!

 

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book review · Uncategorized

Book Review: The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis

to-ashley

I decided to give this book a shot after hearing it was such an insightful deconstruction of rape culture and everyday misogyny. Instead what I got was that odd feeling of reading a different book than everyone else and a lot of wasted potential.

Three years ago, Alex Craft’s sister was raped and murdered and now Alex spends her time getting violent revenge on those those who have wronged women. We follow two other perspectives: one is from Jack who is the school’s golden boy who’s really interested in Alex and Peekay, the preacher’s kid who befriends Alex. She is dealing with the aftermath of breaking up with her boyfriend and seeing him with someone else. Both Jack and Peekay form friendships with Alex throughout the book. It fits mostly into the coming of age of YA contemporary.

What could have been an amazing look at victim blaming and slutshaming in our culture right now especially in high school turned into such a generic story. Where did it all go wrong? First of all, one that thing that stood out to me was the overcliched romance. Popular jock (Jack) is in love with Alex, the outcast girl. Can it get any more cliche just from the setup alone? Jack’s perspective was all about how interested he was in Alex and what a special snowflake he thought she was

Other girls push the dress code, showing a solid few inches of cleavage or leggings that hug so tight you don’t need an imagination…But Alex is different, remarkable because her clothes are utterly nondescript.

But Jack’s perspective is apparently about more than just the generic romance. A lot of reviews I’ve seen have said that Jack stands for the male gaze and the ingrained problematic views that comes with that privilege. If that’s the case, then Jack’s point of view is completely useless because there is no sense of development or even reassertion of these so called problems. The quote mentioned above is a problem of sexism, of girls having to reject their femininity in order to be considered worthy, but Jack never changes this perspective throughout the book consistently commenting on how Alex is different. And simply stating a problem is not going to cut it if you want to start a conversation about this important topic. It’s like my friend telling me her house got robbed and not telling me how she felt about it. Aside from that, I never thought I really got to know Jack (what does he even like??) or for that matter any of the other characters including Peekay and even the main character herself.

Peekay spends the novel dealing with the aftermath of breaking up with her boyfriend. She gets the most development out of all the perspectives. Peekay is sort of a stand in for girl on girl hate. She consistently slut shames her ex’s current girlfriend  Branley (the hot IT girl at school). I liked her story the most as she comes to realize that Branley is just a human being who likes sex. I liked these aspects but they always felt only surface level to me, never reaching the kind of character depth that I was craving.

Alex, our main character, dishes out nuggets of wisdom on misogyny but it always feels out of place like the author put these thoughts here without any proper context. Plot events happen so that these nuggets could be placed. Like aha! this is an example of victim blaming wink wink. In fact, I wish the author just made a list of all the everyday sexism that exists and it wouldn’t have made a difference. As with the other main characters, I never felt I knew Alex. The fact that she gets revenge on her sister’s killer by murdering him (not a spoiler, it happens in the first two pages) doesn’t have any sense of weight let alone repercussion until the very end. That could be excused because Alex is a sort of wish fulfillment character, a character that acts on what some women feel or want to do about the injustices put on them but the whole reason she did this was because of her sister and I never even got to know about her sister. She is a vague presence in the novel and if the author spent even a little bit of time developing her, I would understand Alex’s motivations, her attitudes, and it would have made the story’s themes that much stronger.

Characters aside, the plot was again so much wasted potential. The “shady” characters devolve into stereotypical “back alleyway” stereotypes of rapists portrayed in the media. The book also ends in a “showdown” of sorts which completely reduces Branley to the jealous girlfriend type that is so common in korean dramas and completely degrading to her as a character. This book is suppose to be about sending messages as to how slut shaming and victim blaming and not judging someone by how many sexual partners a girl has and Branley was the target of a lot of those but in the end, her character was given no justice, reduced to another trope when the whole novel hints that she was someone other than what Peekay made her out to be, the deconstruction of the stereotypical “bitch”. The ending takes away from all that progress that the author was trying to tell us. There is no sense of growth, of realization, of irony or deconstruction of the social commentary that the author was trying to point out this entire novel! Instead, what I got was a sort of martyred wish fulfillment ending that feels false and doesn’t solve anything. These problems haven’t been solved yet so it’s fine that the book can’t solve it but it doesn’t raise any thought provoking questions either.

I get the author’s intent and I admire it; she talks about the subtle ways that society treats women compared to men. I also especially love this quote.

Tonight they used words they know, words that don’t bother people anymore. They said bitch. They told another girl they would put their dicks in her mouth. No one protested because this is our language now.

This is such a great concept to explore; it has multiple facets and ideas hidden in it. But it was just sort of thrown in there. Unfortunately, the generic story and generic characters and lack of any sort of development and nuance to both characters and plot just kill (pun not intended) any sense of an insightful look inside any of these issues she sought to criticize

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book review · mini book review · Uncategorized

Mini Book Reviews: Memoirs (and my favorite book of 2016?)

I’m really excited about this post because I gave all of these memoirs 4-stars which is a feat especially for me and this year of books. I love all of these and would highly recommend them.

Yes Chef by Marcus Samuelsson

Image result for yes chef marcus samuelsson

For some reason, I’m not all that into cooking but I love reading about food and the making of food. That appetite was probably fed by watching Ratatouille. My favorite part of that movie being, you guessed it, the food. In fact, my favorite scene of the movie is when Remy is adding all these ingredients to the soup that Linguini leaves out. So I initially wanted to read this because it’s the memoir of a professional chef but Samuelsson is quite the renowned chef having appeared on Masterchef and was a guest chef at Obama’s first state dinner.

Born in Ethiopia but raised by Swedish middle-class parents, Samuelsson was first exposed to extravagant home cooking through his grandmother. From there, he worked at some well known restaurants in Austria, Switzerland, and New York. Samuelsson is able to evoke this sense of coziness of his grandmother’s house but effortlessly conveys a dog-eat-dog world at Restaurant Aquavit where the upper chefs consistently humiliated the young chefs and one mistake could get you fired. It makes his memoir feel so rich and diverse. There’s no doubt that what makes Samuelsson so compelling to me is his undying ambition probably because it is so different than mine. He can come off as an arrogant asshole but I liked that he talked about the sacrifices that ambition takes. Few people are willing to work 16 hour shifts 6 days a week with little pay and endure humiliation to reach the top of the cooking world. Samuelsson could not even attend his father’s funeral. Besides the cooking though, his life is so interesting. He talks about how he reconnected with his birth father whom he thought was dead his entire life. He has lived in Switzerland, France, New York and has traveled the world trying out and currently owns a restaurant. He talks about all of this with such passion and occasional bouts of humility and it was quite inspirational in many ways.

Another thing that stood out to me was the fact that he wrote such a perfect balance between cooking and food jargon and his life stories. I feel like whenever you read about another professional not familiar to you it can become tedious because there is so much vocabulary you don’t know but Samuelsson combines it with enough context to make you want to look it up yourself. It’s a lovely ode to food.

Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick

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I’ve been a fan of Anna Kendrick ever since I watched 50/50 (an awesome comedy about a guy who has cancer). She’s absolutely hilarious on Twitter; I love her self-deprecating but snarky humor and we both like red pandas so I mean we are obviously soul sisters. Obviously..

This celebrity memoir is in my humble opinion a little different from other celebrity memoirs because instead of telling me their whole life story, she only told me snippets of some of the more entertaining stories of her going into theater and being an actress and how she got into the acting world because let’s face it I don’t want to hear every single thing you did as a child.

The best part about this memoir to me is that listening from her perspective you get the sense that she was almost thrust into this world because she always seems surprised that she has acquired recognizable fame but it just helps readers be put into her shoes, what it’s like for someone who has only become “famous” recently. She knew she loved acting but she didn’t know what it came with so to speak. I really liked the parts when she was talking about the first time she went on a red carpet (Twilight) or the first time she got a hair stylist.

I highly, highly recommend the audiobook for this. Anna Kendrick has such a sharp, clear voice and you can really feel her sense of humor based on what she emphasizes or when she lowers or raises her voices for certain parts when it’s suppose to be funny. Of course, if you don’t like Anna Kendrick, it’s not the book for you because her trademark is very apparent but even if you have a passing interest in her, I highly recommend.

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

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This might actually be my favorite book of 2016 because it changed me a little bit. The author, Bryan Stevenson, is a lawyer representing people on death row and life imprisonment and he recounts his experience working on these cases with the case of Walter (a wrongly convicted death row prisoner) as an overarching case throughout. His words are taut with tenderness and the self-righteous passion of what he felt justice should be. I have always believed the saying that no matter how bad a childhood a person has, he/she still has a choice to be good so there are no excuses for criminals to use their past as an excuse. But reading the accounts of the people Stevenson has represented (most of them poor and nonwhite), you realize that what they’ve been through shapes their actions so much and even after they had been convicted, the justice system continued to fail them.

One case in particular was especially heartbreaking to me: Trina grew up with an abusive and alcoholic father who repeatedly beat her, her mother, and her siblings. When he beat her mother to death, some of her siblings ran away. She ran away to her sister’s and her husband’s place but ran away again when her husband was sexually abusive. One day, she decided to sneak into some friends’ house at night; she couldn’t see, lit a match and set fire to the house killing everyone inside. She was thirteen when she was sent to life imprisonment. In jail, she was raped by a guard and became pregnant with a son. She had been repeatedly hospitalized for mental illness and intellectual disabilities which worsened when she was incarcerated. Though Stevenson does not excuse the crimes these people have committed, he pleads for the system and us to show compassion to those who might not want it or even to those society deems unworthy of compassion and mercy. These cases add a human touch to the abundance of legal procedures and trials that Stevenson employs to get these people out. These cases only prove that our legal system is fueled by racial and gender politics instead of being as objective as it needs to be. Stevenson covers all of these procedures and rulings as well as his experiences trying to protect those convicted though legal ruling. The result is equal parts frustrating and touching.

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book review · Uncategorized

Book Review: Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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Title: Signal to Noise

Author: Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Category: Coming-of-age, Contemporary, Literary, YA

Pages: 272

Synopsis: Goodreads

Rating: tealstartealstartealstartealstar(4.25)

In my little world of reading, I had forgotten how underrated a good coming-of-age story was and lately I find myself drawn to them more and more as I grow and change. Angsty me just really likes seeing fictional characters find themselves I guess and this book was no exception.

Signal to Noise takes place in Mexico City and is written in alternating chapters passing back and forth between the past and the present. At the beginning, it’s 2009, and our main character Meche has come back to Mexico City for her father’s funeral. We find out that she had left the city 15 years ago because of something that happened between her and her friends. She’s not happy to be back so she plans to settle her father’s affairs and leave.

Flashback to the past (1988), Meche and her two friends Sebastian (awesome name) and their friend Daniela are attending high school. Meche lives with a father who drinks to escape his unhappy marriage and a mother who is struggling make ends meet. Sebastian lives with an older brother who could care less what he does and an abusive father while Daniela lives in a relatively normal albeit conservative home. As in a lot of serious high school coming of age stories, they’re constantly bullied and sort of the outcasts of the school. They want what most outcast teens want: someone to notice them (preferably from the popular kids) and to catch the attention of their crushes (who just happen to be the popular kids). Well, luckily for them, they find out that Meche’s collection of vinyl records hold magical powers that inexplicably grant them wishes…

This book is such a rich story. It’s set during relatively contemporary times but it has the comforting and nostalgic quality of a fairy tale. From its interweaving of ’80’s music references to its love of Mexican folklore and Mexico City to its old-school moral proverbs, it has the perfect mesh of modern and vintage. I especially love the parts when Meche’s grandmother is telling her little fables and words of wisdom. It just added a touch of nostalgic magic that tied the story together. It also made the magical realism aspect seem more integrated and believable. The magical realism itself was pretty light and doesn’t appear until around a third of the way through the novel but it does play a big part of the story and I find that this aspect adds an air of urgency and possibility to the character’s desires even when Meche is wishing for something like a nice dress. I think the magic of granting their wishes just reminded me that although high school problems are temporary, when you’re living in it, they feel as significant as life and death.

“Why can’t music be magic? Aren’t spells just words you repeat? And what are songs? Lyrics that play over and over again. The words are like a formula.”

As an older reader, following these three friends through high school, some of their problems might seem trivial but it never feels that way. There’s a sense of desperation and hopefulness to them that you can’t help but want those wishes to be granted. Sebastian wants to buy new clothes but what the reader knows he wants is someone to tell him he’s worthy despite his poverty. Their friendship is instantly investing because despite being lonely and poor, they always find nuggets of hope in each other’s company and that’s what makes this book above all, a book about friendship. That despite the never ending hardships  whether it be estranged parents or fights with other kids and that feeling of alienation and powerlessness Meche, Sebastian, and Daniela feel in their daily lives as many kids do during high school, the fact that they have someone who just gets them is often enough to weather what feels like an inescapable hell.

You don’t get to rewind your life like a tape and splice it back together, pretending it never knotted and tore, when it did and you know it did.

Garcia has such a knack for revealing just enough information about a person’s character that you get a sense of their character right away. The way that she layers these characters is amazing because it’s not something that’s obvious and it’s only after finishing the book and seeing these characters as a whole that I was able to fully appreciate who they were. I find that in a lot of coming-of-age stories featuring high school protagonists, they’re sort of the self-sacrificing types who will do good. Meche is not like that. Meche can be charming and pragmatic but also extremely bullheaded to a fault. As layered and sympathetic as Sebastian and Daniela are, Meche completely shines as a main character. She can hold a grudge and is brash and reckless like no other main character I’ve read this year. You can see how amusing it is to pair her personality with Sebastian who is kind of like Daniel from The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon. He’s more of the quiet, reflective type who loves books and the written word. Daniela serves as more of the sidekick in this trio but she’s a fun character nevertheless. She spends her time reading romance novels and daydreaming about being swept off her feet. The three of them together is just a good time and I could see the remnants of who Meche was follow her into her adult self.

It’s kind of weird that writing a review would make me a like a book more but it did for this one. It’s truly one of the best books I’ve read in 2016 and I didn’t even mention that I did tear up at one point. I also think it’s perfect for a winter read because you can read it in one or two sittings and just get immersed into a tender and touching coming-of-age story.

 

book review · Uncategorized

Book Review: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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Title: The Sympathizer

Author: Viet Thanh Nguyen

Genre: Literary, Historical Fiction

Pages: 371

Rating: tealstartealstartealstartealstar

 

 


As a lover of stories, I think it’s always surreal but fascinating to meet an author of a book you like and it was no different with Mr. Nguyen. I got to hear him speak at a Critical Refugees panel a few months ago before I had even read this book, although I had heard of it. He served as a moderator for this panel and I was struck by his reflective, introspective questions. I suppose I was also fascinated because he was a Vietnamese immigrant who is an associate professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at USC, usually Vietnamese people pick careers in math and science in my experience.

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Left: Rapper praCH; Middle: Poet Mai Der Vang; Right: Viet Thanh Nguyen

From what I recall, he was very interested in asking the implications of being a refugee. The feeling of not belonging to either ideology. That contradiction is explored in our main character. He is a communist spy, half Viet and half French, who moves to the United States after the fall of Saigon and spends time with the General and his servicemen in order to send back information to his communist commander back in Vietnam.

I really liked reading about post-Vietnam war America and the attitude towards Americans for withdrawing from the war when the South still needed them. It was never more clear to me how much loathing the Americans instilled from the Vietnamese. He talks about Vietnam’s role in world history as cursed and bastardized, passed from Indochina to the French to the US and then to civil war. It parallels our own main character’s role in the book. Both are never really allowed to form their own identity. So the political atmosphere of the book really interested me. What also interested me was theme of being the Sympathizer. Our narrator is constantly torn between two sides, between his fealty between his two friends, between his half heritage, between the North and the South. Even as he is feeding information about the revolution’s side to the communists, he secretly feels sympathy for the Left. Even as he kills revolutionaries so he won’t be discovered, their deaths still haunt him forever. Seeing that dynamic made me see the merits of both sides, but also the failings and as you go on through the book, that juxtaposition can also be found with the bigger themes of the book like the relationship between America and Vietnam.

Why do those who call for independence and freedom take away the independence and freedom of others?

His character is a double-edged sword however because he sympathizes with both sides so in the end, I don’t know what his stance actually is, what he actually believes in although I did see more leaning toward the Left as most Viet people living here would lean towards. But I suppose maybe that’s the point.

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Last evacuees from Saigon before Fall; Picture from Time

Most of the time is spent in our narrator’s head so there is little room for other characters to develop and shine but they were colorful enough and served their purpose enough so that the book didn’t feel like it was missing something.

The writing was a little too quippy at times but I didn’t mind it. It had splashes of Kurt Vonnegut with somewhat dream-like sequences and hints of 1984 by George Orwell in it. I really like some of his turn of phrases where he turns sentiments you already know and turns it into something quotable.

“To live was to be haunted by the inevitability of one’s own decay, and to be dead was to be haunted by the memory of living.”

In the end, this book is really an ode to the Vietamese. And I think Nguyen captures the very essence, the “Vietnamese-ness” of Vietnamese immigrants which is probably not that helpful in describing this book but it’s true. It’s always in touch with the subtle similarites but also alienating differences between the two like the cultural barriers between immigrants and Americans, the inherent conservativeness versus the so-called looser ways of Americans. To see this brought up in a well-written style and to see this book receive the Pulitzer Prize gives me a lot of hope for more representation.

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