BOOK REVIEW: The Vegetarian, by Han Kang

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BOOK REVIEW: The Vegetarian, by Han KangTitle: The Vegetarian by Han Kang, Deborah Smith
Published by Hogarth
Published: February 2nd 2016
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 188
Format: Hardcover
Source: Borrowed
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Han Kang’s The Vegetarian is a slim novel that is packed with things and ideas that leave the reader thinking long after the book is closed. While I found the characters and the varying points of view interesting, I found that something was missing. Something that feels lost in translation. I think it’s incredibly impressive that Deborah Smith studied Korean for seven years and then translated this book, but I think that her limits definitely showed in her translation. Some parts of it felt clunky, and some parts of it felt skimmed over. What I felt was lacking was a cultural significance as to why the members of Yeong-hye’s family found her vegetarianism so fundamentally shocking.

But most of all, I liked the different insights from other people in Yeong-hye’s life. I thought it showcased the difficulties one woman faced in the midst of a very personal decision. Her decision was never taken seriously, no matter what her reasons were for making it. Yeong-hye lost everything because of her fastidious decision to become a vegetarian, and her decision affected her entire family, essentially cracking the family’s foundation.

It’s a short novel, and it’s certainly worth reading if you enjoy reading prize-winners, international/translated fiction, and fiction about the lives of women in the aftermath of the choices they make.

BOOK REVIEW: The Swans of Fifth Avenue, by Melanie Benjamin

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BOOK REVIEW: The Swans of Fifth Avenue, by Melanie BenjaminTitle: The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin
Published by Delacorte Press
Published: January 26th 2016
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 368
Format: eBook
Source: Netgalley
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Melanie Benjamin’s The Swans of Fifth Avenue is a delightfully gossipy look into the lives of a handful of New York City socialites and Truman Capote from the 1950s to the 1970s. Admittedly, I knew nothing of Truman Capote’s life outside of the film Capote with Philip Seymour Hoffman, and even then details are a little bit fuzzy. I know he wrote In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s with a smattering of short stories, but other than that, I’m a bit lost. I think that helped me a bit with the novel, going into it without knowing much, because it helped shape that fairy tale sort of quality I found in it.

I really liked Babe, and I like that she found some companionship and love in her friendship with Capote. I liked the life Benjamin brought to each of the women Capote befriended. Parts of the novel were told through the eyes of each of these women, and each of their points-of-view added to an excellent character study. These sheltered, beautiful “swans” of New York trusted Truman Capote with their thoughts, ideas, and secrets, and he ultimately betrayed all of them, including Babe, his closest friend out of all of the swans. Capote’s insatiable desire for gossip and his inability to keep it to himself led to some serious consequences. I couldn’t help but see that the driving question behind the entire story is why does one friend betray another? What drives all of them to backstab and spread secrets and lies? I think, perhaps, if you have it all and believe you have nothing left to do with your lives because you’ve “accomplished everything,” what more can you do with your life? Maybe for all of them, in their sheltered lives, all they wanted to do was to create a little drama to distract them from their terrible husbands and other disappointing or awful aspects of their lives.

New York’s high society in the fifties and sixties seems so far gone, but it wasn’t, not really. Beyond the fancy apartments, jewels, all of the designer dresses and shoes, Melanie Benjamin showed us that beyond the perfect veneer, the rich and famous were human just like the rest of us, dealt with similar heartbreaks and dramas the rest of us see in day-to-day life, but we’re so far removed from their world that it seems like a perfect fairy tale to us.

The Swans of Fifth Avenue has made me want to read Capote’s work, especially the pieces he wrote about the Swans and has made me want to read more about this era, because it’s an era in which I’m entirely unfamiliar.

Thank you to Netgalley for a review copy!

BOOK REVIEW: Bradstreet Gate, by Robin Kirman

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BOOK REVIEW: Bradstreet Gate, by Robin KirmanTitle: Bradstreet Gate by Robin Kirman
Published by Broadway Books
Published: April 5th 2016
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 336
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Blogging for Books
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The copy on the back of Bradstreet Gate compares the novel to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. That’s really what drew me in to choose the book in the first place, and I felt surprised that I hadn’t heard about the book until I saw it as an option on Blogging for Books. The only comparisons I found to The Secret History were the simple fact that this novel revolves around a group of students attending Harvard (and what comes after) and that there is a death/murder of a student. Other than that, the comparison ceases to be relevant.

Bradstreet Gate is a character novel, and there is no blatant revelation over who killed Julie Patel. It could have been Storrow, it could have been Alice, and it could have been Charlie, but nothing is ever made quite clear and I found that entirely frustrating. Halfway through I thought it might have been Alice because of her stilted relationship to everyone else on campus, but as the novel progressed and Charlie became more and more successful with weird little hints and recollections of “what he did,” I have to wonder if Charlie was the one who did it. He was the little brother, the one his father “[looked] for ways to be rid of him.” Charlie had a strained relationship with his father, and his father always referred to his youngest son as “the judge.” Charlie’s the one who shows an interest in Georgia, who has a relationship with Storrow the professor, and he shows a passing interest in Julie Patel and later finds out she has a boyfriend. In his frustration over Storrow’s relationship with Georgia, Charlie could have very easily staged Julia’s murder to destroy Storrow, which did happen. On the other hand, Storrow had a military history and had the working knowledge to execute a flawless murder.

The writing was clean, but I found everything structural in the novel to be lacking clarity and cohesion. The characters lacked depth and resonance (as in I didn’t really feel anything at all towards any of them), the plot and pacing seemed jumpy, like one moment it was one day and years had passed in the next paragraph. I felt like I had to read the last several pages just to make sense of what happened and to see if I’d missed some important, revelatory detail. I didn’t. It just sort of ends, falls off, and nothing’s really resolved.

However, after reading the essay in the back of the book, there is some connection thematically to some of the content of the novel. Kirman writes that she had a charged friendship with a professor of hers as a student with whom she had a relationship ten years later, and it got me thinking of this novel in the sense that she is trying to come to terms with that relationship and the attraction students have to their instructors. At the beginning of the essay, she writes, “Why did people speak of falling in love? Why was the experience of romantic enchantment described as a fall?” In that context, and if that context was advertised with the book in the first place, I might have gone into reading the book differently. The essay in the back of was my favorite part about the book, and I’ll be thinking about some of the ideas she presented for quite a while.

“What George Eliot understood so well about young women – and intellectualism and naïveté and practical life and corporeal desire – can be revealed, also, by experience. Reality inevitably assaults our fantasies and brings the objects of our infatuation down to earth, whether we wish it to or not.”

“Possibly he was after the same idea that I’ve introduced here: the fall from grace accomplished by Eve, thanks to her wish to taste of wisdom reserved for God alone. Such a wish may not drive everyone who falls, head over heals, but I suspect it is present whenever some co-ed finds her pulse quickening as her dark, magnetic professor looks her way, and she begins to dream only about him, and to ignore the boys who sit beside her in the dining hall or stalk the showers of her dorm. Rules may discourage her from doing more than dreaming – they might try to rescue her from her own desires – but now and then she’s bound to fall. That’s just part of the story of being young, human, and hungry: tempted to seek knowledge beyond what is permitted, in the highest places and forms, and in the lowest, too.”

Book provided for an honest review by Blogging for Books.

BOOK REVIEW: Eleanor, by Jason Gurley

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BOOK REVIEW: Eleanor, by Jason GurleyTitle: Eleanor by Jason Gurley
Published by Crown
Published: January 12th 2016
Genres: Magical Realism
Pages: 384
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
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Eleanor opens with a woman named Eleanor, trapped in her home life as a mother and desiring to go swim in the ocean. At the end of the prologue, Eleanor, stripped to nakedness, walks into the ocean and never returns. Agnes, her daughter, feels the loss of her mother for the rest of her life. When she has twins, Agnes names one of her daughters Esmeralda while her husband names the second daughter Eleanor. It becomes obvious as the novel progresses that the children each parent names are their individual favorites. The young Eleanor beings to realize this after a horrific accident kills her twin sister. After her parents’ divorce, Eleanor stays with Agnes. Agnes, in her grief, falls into an alcoholic spiral as she cannot handle seeing Eleanor everyday because her surviving daughter is the exact image of Esmeralda and a reminder of her own mother’s death and disappearance.

Eleanor cannot live up to her mother’s expectations, and that knowledge affects her relationship with her mother and her father. As she ages, strange things begin happening to her. Eleanor falls out of time, disappearing into the space beyond time. Sometimes she is gone for seconds or minutes, sometimes she is gone for much longer. When she is in this space beyond (or between??) time, Eleanor meets an entity that we as readers know has been watching Eleanor for a long time. Eleanor is given the option to change everything, a decision with which she struggles but eventually accepts.

I won’t spoil it, but the option of a resent and the whispery, time-free monsters that human language cannot define is so similar atmospherically to Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. If you liked that novel, I totally recommend this one, and if you enjoy magical realism, I wholeheartedly recommend this one. It’s lyrical, magical, and a little bit heartbreaking. It’s a read that will keep you thinking about what happens and what could happen long after you read the final page.