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Words of a Bibliophile

"It's only words, and words are all I have, to take your heart away." —Bee Gees

Lion by Saroo Brierley

Lion (Movie Tie-In) - Saroo Brierley

A nice, quick memoir about something that for many small children might be one of their worst nightmares: getting lost and not being able to go home. Five-year-old Saroo unwittingly went so far from his hometown in India, and then went event farther across the world as he was adopted by a couple in Australia. Armed with his childhood memories, advanced technology and a hefty dose of luck, he managed to trace his way back home as an adult. Although some inconsistent details confused me, it's quite a good read that's written in a simple, straightforward manner, which makes it also accessible to a younger audience.

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

People of the Book - Geraldine Brooks

This engrossing read traces the fictionalized history of a real-life ancient Jewish manuscript found in Sarajevo, Bosnia and the people – Jews, Muslims and Christians – who shaped its destiny, from the 15th century up to the present day. The details about the restoration and conservation of old books are quite fascinating. Richly steeped in history and meticulously researched, the story jumps back and forth between chapters set in different countries and eras with different characters. Some of these characters are sympathetic and likeable, some others not so much (one example of the latter is Hanna, the main character in the present era, who comes across as annoyingly judgmental to me). When reading novels structured like this I would sometimes be more drawn to certain story lines more than the others, but Brooks spins her tale so well that after a few pages of each new chapter I always found myself captivated, no matter how I may feel about the characters. I've had a secondhand copy of this book in my stacks for years but only got to it this year, when it's starting to look like it's well on its way to becoming an ancient manuscript itself. I'm very glad I gave it a chance.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko - Min Jin Lee

I had heard before about the people called the zainichi (ethnic Koreans in Japan), but I'd never read any books about them. This historical novel brings the spotlight to the lives of these Koreans who live in Japan and their struggles with identity, discrimination, racism and a sense of belongingor not belonging.

The main character Sunja and her family move to Japan before the Korean War, which prevents them from coming back. But it's hard to simply make a living due to the limited occupations available to them, so many Koreans turn to work in pachinko or arcade game parlors. Before reading this book I had no idea that the pachinko business (and also yakiniku) in Japan is dominated by Koreans because it's considered a second-rate employment which many Japanese won't touch. It's also difficult for these people to become Japanese citizens although subsequent generations are born in Japan, while returning to the now divided Korea is also not a simple matter as for many of them Japan is the only home they've ever known.

The story is compelling and I became genuinely invested in the principal characters. However, the writing is pretty weak and stilted with too much telling. As the story progresses through generations it spends too much time on the plot lines of minor characters when I'd rather hear more about Sunja and her family. Luckily the ending pulls things back into focus and provides what I felt to be an appropriate conclusion for such a complex topic.

Despite its flaws this book sheds light on an important issue, one that probably not too many people are aware of but deserves a wider audience. I think The Calligrapher's Daughter would be an interesting companion read for this, as it focuses on Koreans who stayed and survived the Korean War.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondō

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing - Marie Kondō

Some of the tips in this book can be quite useful, while a few others are a bit ridiculous. KonMari's method is arguably partly rooted in Japanese culture and spiritualism, but some of the more bizarre techniques seem to stem from her own ritualistic, OCD-like behavior -- which I do get in a sense since I have such tendencies of my own although much less severe, but she takes things to a whole new level by treating objects like living beings with feelings to consider. She does this in the most serious manner but I couldn't help seeing it as comical.

The book advises to keep only the things that spark joy and discard the rest. So I just took the ideas from it that I found useful, had a little amused chuckle and then went on my merry way. I didn't even have to think about discarding the book since I was only reading it after my sister borrowed it from a friend.

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

The Eyre Affair - Jasper Fforde

I first heard about this book when I read Jane Eyre about 10 years ago and only got around to reading it now. Many people seem to enjoy it including some of my friends, but I found it to be a little less than engaging and not much of a page-turner. Ironic, since there's a minor character actually named Paige Turner in it.

I couldn't decide what the tone of the story is supposed to be. It keeps flip-flopping between the light and humorous (witty puns and names like the one mentioned above, literary trivia, random funny stuff from cloned dodos as pets to quirky secret societies) and the serious (veterans of an ongoing war, murdered innocents, an all-powerful corporation which has the English government in its pocket). I liked the Jane Eyre parts, but I'm sure I missed a lot of the other literary and historical/political references.

Thursday is a fierce lady but somehow I was more interested to learn further about the diabolical, mind-bending, bulletproof villain Acheron Hades and how he got his powers. One plot hole that bugged me was that things can happen in the background of the novel Jane Eyre that don't affect the story line as long as Jane doesn't know about them, because the novel is written in her first person point of view. But Thursday is also the first person narrator of this book and there are chapters seen through other people's points of view which she can't possibly know about. Overall I give this 2.5 stars, which I might round up or down later depending on how generous I feel.

Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty

Truly, Madly, Guilty - Liane Moriarty, Caroline Lee

I think the dual timelines don't really work in this novel. The chapters switch between the ill-fated 'Day of the Barbecue' and two months afterward until halfway through the book. Obviously this is intended to build suspense but Moriarty spends too long skirting around what actually happened at the barbecue while continuing the present narrative and discussing the consequences, and at some point I just wished she would reveal everything already.

There seems to be so much hidden bitterness between the characters -- between husband and wife, between friends, between one couple and another. It was uncomfortable to read but I guess that's the point of the story: to uncover what's buried beneath the layers of people's relationships (which Moriarty does exceptionally well), and it's not always pretty.

A Midsummer's Equation (Detective Galileo #6) by Keigo Higashino

A Midsummer's Equation - Keigo Higashino

It would seem odd to say that what feels refreshing about this murder mystery is starting it without knowing who the criminal is. You might wonder, isn't that the whole point of mysteries, to find out who did it? But in the other two Higashino books that I've read before, the murderer's identity is quite obvious from the beginning and the focus is on how they did the crime. That is not the case with this novel.

The story opens with a controversial plan for an undersea mining exploration at a struggling resort town, pitting some environmentalists against those who are pro-development. So when a resort guest is killed, at first I thought the murder would be related to the issue. But the crime turns out to be a lot more personal than that. I was totally clueless and couldn't guess what happened as the story goes to unexpected directions, uncovering secrets piled upon more secrets. What I liked most was how our Detective Galileo, Professor Yukawa, develops a bond with the little boy staying at the same resort with him and becomes a kind of science tutor slash life mentor for the kid.

SPOILER ALERT!

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

On Beauty - Zadie Smith

As a modern adaptation of Howards End, for which I only gave 2 stars, I surprisingly liked this a little better than the original. The plot and characters aren't exact parallels—there are feuding families here too, the Belseys and the Kippses, but the main story focuses on the interracial Belsey family and their internal conflicts, while the Kippses are merely supporting players.

One of my problems with Forster's original was that I felt the larger themes within the book overshadow the characters themselves, but that is not the case with this. Smith's characters are well-developed and rise above the themes (racial, cultural, political) that they represent, although not all of them are likeable. Father Howard Belsey has a sorry excuse for a middle-age crisis, daughter Zora hides her insecurities by being an unbearably opinionated know-it-all, and youngest son Levi searches for a true identity by faking his accent and pretending he was raised in the streets instead of in a well-educated middle class suburban home. I only sympathized with mother Kiki, the big woman with a bigger heart, and earnest eldest son Jerome.

While the story interested me and some parts are quite funny, I dreaded getting an unsatisfactory conclusion similar to the original and was ready to deduct a star in case that happens. I would've thrown this book in disgust if, for instance, Kiki forgives Howard for his first infidelity and never finds out about his second. Luckily Howard gets the ending that he deserves (Howard's end—get it?) though a bit messy and mostly vague, but that's how real life can be.

SPOILER ALERT!

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere - Celeste Ng

What an engrossing read that packs an emotional punch. Ng does a great job with the omniscient point of view, making us understand each of the characters even though we might not sympathize with some of them. Both the parents' and the children's sides of the story are equally engaging, although I could relate to the teenagers in particular, having grown up in the 1990s like them. I felt this to be a very human story. Everyone, both kids and adults, makes mistakes, no matter how strictly some of them follow the rules and try to create a perfect life.

At some point I was tempted to give this a rare 5 star rating because I was enjoying it so much, but I settled with 4 in the end since I wasn't satisfied with a few things. All of the characters have their own flaws but Mia becomes a rather too perfect, all-knowing character by the end. I also wished that all the Richardson children's secrets are revealed to their mother so she can treat them more fairly and not think that only her youngest child is capable of doing something wrong. But I still liked this very much. Lots of topics to think about and discuss, from motherhood to teen dynamics to interracial adoption. I will definitely check out Ng's first book.

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

Before We Were Yours - Lisa Wingate

I really liked this one. The writing isn't spectacular and sometimes veers toward cheesiness or melodrama, but it's still a real page-turner. Due to the awful things that happen to the children in the book (kidnapping, neglect, and abuse—to name a few), at some point I expected even worse to happen to them, and the author is very good at maintaining that feeling of dread, building even more suspense as the book goes on. The fact that this is inspired by a true episode in history adds a deeper dimension to it.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian - Sherman Alexie, Ellen Forney

This was a very quick read. I found the reading level a little lower than I expected compared to some of the YA books I've read. It was partly because of the writing style with the short paragraphs, but also a lot of developments in the story felt simplified or shortened, making it seem a bit slice-of-life in a way. The main conflict of the story is how the 14-year-old Arnold Spirit a.k.a. Junior becomes a "part-time Indian" by going to an all-white school outside his tribe's reservation in a bid to better himself, but I felt I read less about his studies than about him being part of the school's basketball team.

Overall I liked the book, though. I don't really know much about Native American Indians, and their portrayal in what little I've come across in books, TV and movies often focuses more on their spiritual beliefs or myths/legends. So it was eye-opening to see from the inside what real life is like on a reservation. There's a lot of hopelessness in this book with all the poverty, alcoholism, violence and lack of education, but at the same time it also offers hope.

SPOILER ALERT!

Howards End by E.M. Forster

Howards End - E.M. Forster

At the center of this novel is the contrast between two upper-class English families in the early 20th century, the cultured, idealistic Schlegels and the capitalist, materialistic Wilcoxes. I was expecting drama mixed with romance and maybe a bit of comedy along the lines of A Room with a View, but the drama ends up being more serious than I thought, with some unexpected topics including adultery, illegitimate pregnancy and manslaughter. The book contains larger themes about the social, economic and political situations of the era, but in my opinion they tend to overpower the actual plot and characters. The narration goes off on rambling meditations on these themes a little too often.

The Schlegel sisters, Margaret and Helen, reminded me a bit of Elinor and Marianne from Austen's Sense and Sensibility, and I thought the elder sister Margaret would be the more sensible one like Elinor. But she proves me wrong when she decides to fall in love with old Henry Wilcox—at best insufferably patronizing and at worst a hypocritical, sexist jerk. The ending is also unsatisfying and seems too good to be true. After a convenient time skip, Helen and Henry suddenly stop disliking each other in the final chapter after doing so throughout most of the book. Margaret, whom I was cheering for when she resolved to not forgive Henry for his wrongs and to leave for Germany with Helen, has a change of heart and absolves him. And so they all live together (unrealistically) happily at Howards End. All in all, I liked this the least out of the four Forster novels that I've read.

Parade by Shūichi Yoshida

Parade - Shūichi Yoshida

I initially expected the worst thing about this book to be merely that nothing much happens, as it's a slice-of-life story about modern urban people. But some details about the characters don't quite add up or are not explained clearly, and there are also other small inconsistencies within the storytelling (simple things like a TV being turned off before a character leaves a room, but in the next scene the TV is somehow on again in the empty room without explanation). Despite that I was actually considering giving this an extra star at some point, mainly because I liked the relationship between the characters: five young men and women gathered together by circumstances to share an apartment in Tokyo. Although they say they are "playing at being friends", underneath that there seems to be something genuine between them.

But then the ending serves a unsettling twist which made me question what I had thought about the characters and their relationship. I guess that was probably the point of the whole book, to unnerve and disturb the reader, but it still didn't make me like it.

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of All Things - Elizabeth Gilbert

One thing I can say is that Gilbert definitely can write. She weaves her tale expertly and even makes it sound like a 19th century novel. The amount of meticulous research that must've gone into this book, richly detailed with history and science, amazed me. The story itself is good, although I felt the parts discussing the realm of the spiritual (even almost veering toward magical realism, in my opinion) go on a bit too long. I liked the basic premise of a woman who, despite many disappointments and unfulfilled dreams, still makes the best that she can of her life and never stops searching for meaning.

The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie

The Body in the Library - Agatha Christie

A quick and fun novel to round out my 2017 reading. This cozy little mystery focuses on the psychology of the characters involved, including a few convincing red herrings that fooled me once again. I chuckled at the meta reference when a boy says in a scene that he's a fan of detective stories and got autographs from authors including Agatha Christie. That boy has good taste.

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry - Neil deGrasse Tyson

While I am in fact often in a hurry as the title of this book says, I probably would have been better suited to a book called Astrophysics for Dummies. Physics has never been my forte, so some of the more complicated stuff in this book felt a bit out there for me, both literally and figuratively. Yet I still appreciate Tyson's effort, with his light touches of humor, to bring astrophysics closer to the everyday person who might just be a little curious about the universe. Now I feel like revisiting my city's planetarium to refresh my connection to the cosmos.

"We do not simply live in this universe. The universe lives within us."