Book Review: Strange the Dreamer

Spoiler Free.

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Going into my last finals week (ever) I was looking to read something relaxing and fun. I wanted something low commitment but still interesting enough to give me a break after a long day of studying.

Strange the Dreamer is not the book I should’ve read.

Instead of casual and fun, I got a whirlwind of fascinating and moving storytelling. I couldn’t put it down once I got to around the hundredth page. Screw tests and essays, I had to find out the mysteries of the lost city of Weep. 

The characters are fantastic–in both senses of the word. Not only are they beautifully written, but they all have elements of fantasy that make them so interesting. Lazlo Strange is a wonderful character to follow throughout the novel, as is the other narrator (who shall remain a secret). He is every book nerd’s dream (no pun intended), and he is also just a kind soul. It feels a privilege to be part of his narrative. Just a nice guy who loves to read and wants to help in any way he can.

Laini Taylor has created a remarkable world full of dazzlingly real and complex characters. Lazlo is wonderful, but I especially liked the “god spawn”–children of the gods who have survived a horror and are entirely shaped by it. Taylor has crafted such a range of people that you spend the entire novel going back and forth, seeing both sides, and unsure what the solution should be.

By the end, I was crying. I was entirely immersed in the world and involved in the characters. And that ending. Wow. I stayed up into the night to finish it, and this review has taken so long because I needed to recover from how much the book moved me. The themes of inter-generational hate, how fear of a thing can be passed down through the ages. 

With this book, knowing less is better. You want to come into this world completely fresh, with no prior expectations besides to be amazed. It’s a wondrous work, and Taylor’s masterful writing allows you to fully submerge yourself in it. You struggle with the characters, you feel their pain and indecision. 

Strange the Dreamer ended up being the perfect book to launch me back into reading for fun, and I cannot suggest strongly enough that you read and experience it. Experience it and fall in love with it as I did. Please read this book. It is so important.

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50 Book Challenge

50 Book Challenge

This year, I decided I’d do the 50 Book Challenge, a classic for those who think they read a lot until they physically keep track of it and realize they’re wimps. I’m one of those people. I thought I read books left and right, but damn do I feel inferior now. It’s April, and I’ve only read eight so far. Pathetic. This challenge probably won’t end well…

Here’s a list of the books I’ve read this year in the unattainable hopes of succeeding at the challenge.

  1. How to Win at Feminism by Reductress

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A book made entirely out of sarcasm is the book for me. Basically, the website Reductress has written a book that makes fun of the weak form of feminism that seems to prevail. I’m talking about the kind that gets abused by companies to sell products, or by celebrities to gain popularity. I think I’ve heard it referred to as “bubblegum feminism”. Reductress tears this perversion of an important movement into pieces, letting everyone know that actions speak louder than words.

  1. Scandalous Women by Elizabeth Mahon

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I’ve already reviewed this book a couple weeks ago, but it was definitely a delightful read. I thought that it focused a little too much on white society women who were only scandalous when judged against their lovers, but I also read a lot of stories about some very interesting people. Worth a read.

  1. Hausfrau by Jill Essbaum

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Hausfrau is reminiscent of Anna Karenina, but set in the present in Switzerland. The protagonist feels completely isolated as an American expatriate living in a country where she knows nobody but her husband and doesn’t understand the language. She has multiple affairs while her husband works at a Swiss bank and leaves her wanting so much more. Being inside her head was such a thought-provoking experience. She was a complex, multi-faceted character who felt the anxiety and boredom of her life intensely. A wonderful book, very moving.

  1. The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

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Originally, I borrowed The Poisonwood Bible from the library by this author. It’s her best-known book that was already on my To-Read list, but I was going back to school before I could even pick it up. I have a friend who let me borrow The Bean Trees, however, and I read it during my week alone in my house. It was a great savior from mind-numbing boredom and talking to myself. It’s ideas about family and responsibility is lovely. Taylor is at a diner in the middle of escaping her dead-end town when a Native American woman places a baby in her front seat and leaves. From that moment on, Taylor is a mother to the kid, going through all the struggles of having a child without any documentation. The book has a lot of themes that are extremely relevant to what’s happening in the world right now.

  1. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

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Again, I wrote a whole review of this book some weeks ago. It’s a generational story about a Korean family displaced in Japan. They go through poverty, discrimination, and intense loss and somehow manage to hold themselves together. This book was perspective-changing, and I’d highly suggest reading it. Pachinko was also a different book by a Korean American, fulfilling some of my goals to diversify my reading this year.

  1. Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur

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Kaur is one of those Tumblr poets, but she’s extremely talented. This book has four parts, each one chronicling the stages of a doomed relationship. If you’re going through a breakup or have been recovering from one, as I was when I read this, Milk and Honey might feel like someone finally understands the pain you’re in while reminding you that things will get better. It’s simplistic, with illustrations that hit you right in the heart.

7/8. Beloved and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

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These were books I’d heard so much about and was desperate to read. My English department has a class on Toni Morrison’s books, but it didn’t fit into my schedule. So, I’ve been doing my own little course on Morrison by reading the majority of her work. She’s a prolific author, and stories like Beloved and The Blueset Eye refuse to shy away from incredibly difficult topics. The books make you uncomfortable while giving a rarely acknowledged perspective on slavery and racism in America. Morrison is another writer with a simplistic, honest style that makes you feel every word. These were a privilege to read, and I’ll be reading more of Morrison in the future.

book review: Pachinko

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Book cover art
Pachinko is a game of chance. Rigged each morning so that only certain machines will win, the public comes en masse to try to win big. Very few win it all.

It’s an apt metaphor for the family Min Jin Lee has created with her beautifully-crafted book, Pachinko. The story of a Korean family who moves to Japan, it primarily follows Sunja as she navigates being a poor Korean, a single mother, and an even poorer Korean expatriate. The book switches narration often between characters, but always returns to Sunja. She is a young Korean girl who falls pregnant by a man who is already married. When a missionary proposes to her in exchange for saving his life, the couple go to Japan to work in a church. Unfortunately, Japan is not welcoming to those it has colonized. Sunja and her husband face endless bigotry as they try to make a living, as do Sunja’s two sons and, eventually, their sons.

Throughout the novel is a running theme of female strength. Not in an overt way, but instead in praise of the women who quietly run their entire family. Sunja’s mother has a motto: “a woman’s lot is to suffer”. Continually, the women in Pachinko are the ones keeping everything together, keeping the family afloat. When her brother-in-law forbids it, Sunja and her sister-in-law create and run a successful business to keep the family from starving. When the family must seek shelter during World War II, the women work for their keep on a farm safe from the bombs.

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Continuously, these women work for the bare minimum of livening, but they do it for their families. All in a country that, quite honestly, hates them. Sunja’s sons deal with bullying and discrimination at school, leading to another theme about identity. Noa, for example, spends most of his childhood wishing he was Japanese and feeling conflicted about his Korean ancestry.

Pachkino tells the story of one family, but it is a representation of each Korean family that was told Japan would bring them success only to be severely disappointed, and still clawed their way back up from the bottom. It is an underdog story, but the stakes are so much higher. Min Jin Lee has made a fantastic, moving, and important book.

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Author Min Jin Lee

let’s talk about damaging books

Like all thirteen-year-olds, I loved Twilight. I thought Bella and Edward were the be-all-end-all of love stories. I read those books ferociously and argued with anyone who tried to tell me they weren’t the next great American series.

Then I got older.

Aside from the fact that the books are written so poorly a monkey could’ve made them, they’re hurtful to the young girls who read them. And I’m not being sexist (marched for women’s rights and everything in January), it’s just statistics. Young girls picked up those books faster than a new LipSmackers lip gloss. Overwhelmingly, these were young girls going through a difficult and confusing time in their lives, looking for something to escape into and idealize. I know several people who, as they’ve grown, have realized just how much these books messed them up.

The character of Bella. She’s blank. I’ve heard it often said that the reason so many girls loved her character was because she didn’t have one. She was this amorphous blob that any young girl could put her own personality onto Bella and feel understood. Here’s why that’s a problem: you start to think you’re her.

As a twelve-year-old, I was feeling weird and shy, generally of the “look at me and I’ll spontaneously explode” variety. I didn’t think I was particularly pretty or funny, although I had some moments, and I loved to read. I had brown hair, brown eyes, pale skin, you know the drill. Bella not only looked like my physically, but she acted like me. Nervous, uncomfortable with attention, she’s every preteen girl. Not only that, but everyone wants to date her and be her friend. She comes to a new school and in a matter of days has three boys falling over her, and that’s not including Edward or JACOB.

I’m sure Stephanie Meyer didn’t mean for this to happen, but she included Bella’s weight in her description.

The problem here is that when you’re specifically writing to younger girls, you have to be careful what you include. For instance, that horrific mess of a book, Beautiful Disaster, shows a textbook abusive relationship as something to yearn for. Although Meyers does the same thing, she also creates damaging beauty expectations for girls.

For instance, I and at least one other person I know started dieting to reach the weight of 110 pounds—Bella’s weight. Because if we could look like her, people would want to be our friends, too…right? Boys would want to date us, we’d be popular and universally liked. As a preteen, that feels like the most important thing; being accepted. At a time when your limbs feel like rubber and your face looks like an angry over-heated bagel, someone giving the perception that a certain character with very specific body measurements sticks in your head. I would have made myself grow to five foot four, if it were possible. Alas, I’d have to stick with not eating to get the goal Bella weight.

Now, let’s get into that abusive relationship.

It’s played off like he’s just protecting her, and of course he has to! How is she supposed to deal with rogue vampires and werewolves? It calls for extreme measures.

Like removing parts from her car so she can’t see her friend. Or WATCHING HER SLEEP by breaking into her home for months before they’ve even had a real conversation. It’s downright disturbing. It’s the stuff you see in thriller films, where the love interest is secretly a freaking psycho.

But, young me thought this was the epitome of love. That was what I was searching for in everyday life. The impression those books and characters made on me was so strong, it was actually damaging to my development. I was withdrawn and moody because that was how Bella was, and apparently people liked that. I was starving myself to get to what I thought was the perfect weight. I was completely changing my personality to fit what I thought people wanted, getting my cues from Twilight.

I think authors often forget the affect literature can have on the audience, especially the unintended audience. But, at the same time, I’m really not sure how they’re supposed to consider that. At what point does it become censorship, or a limitation of freedom of the press? Where is the line between protecting kids and smothering them? How are they supposed to account for a very young girl taking too much out of a book? And does the blame lay entirely with the author, who simply wrote a story, or does it lay with the culture in general? I’m inclined to lean towards the latter.

book subscription boxes: Book of the Month

Can I just say, I’ve rarely seen such a gorgeous book? I got my first book subscription box book, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, and it’s glorious. The front cover has these lovely green and blue pastels with reds and oranges in the center illustration. That’s a high quality hardback, right there. And it has BOTM printed on the front cover in a very subtle, classy symbol. The same is on the spine, and on the back is printed “I Heart BOTM” with “February 2017” in smaller letters bellow it. It just feels crisp and new.

Once you take off the dust cover, you have a hardback with the Book of the Month colors, and, again, BOTM printed in the bottom right corner. Honestly, it looks so nice. “February 2017” is reprinted, as well. Basically, this book is everything you love about hardbacks with some special nuances thrown in for nostalgia sake. I’m definitely keeping this book, and it’ll always be fun to look at it and remember where it came from. It’s almost like a bit of my own history, as who I was when I ordered it, read it, etc. comes back to me when I look at the book (yes, it rhymes).

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Book of the Month is a really simple service. Through a link of an affiliate, I was able to get my first book for just $5.00. You may remember me saying this already, but I’m honestly just so excited to have received such a beautiful copy of a book for so little. To be honest, I’m very relieved not to get the little doo-dads and trinkets that come with a lot of other book boxes, mostly because I’m not interested in them. They’ll sit on my desk and gather dust until I throw them out—and you’re paying more for them! Book of the Month just sends the book and a personalized bookmark with a message from one of the selectors. Let’s be real, I’m here for the books and nothing else!

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Image from: http://modernmrsdarcy.com/book-month-club-review/

I’m pretty sure part of the reason they can send such beautiful books for such a low price is specifically because they don’t mess around with nick knacks. I fully appreciate this. I’m a pretty simple person with simple tastes, and Book of the Month really reflected that. I paid for lovely book, got it, and am 100 pages into reading it. Hint: it’s absolutely spectacular.

The selectors are definitely skilled, because Pachinko is a wonderful book. The story telling is great, and there’s a very nice balance between dialogue and description—not an easy task for a writer. Lee’s characters are honestly good people doing their best, working with what is presented to them. The family aspect of the book is key; children do wrong, but the family stays close. They stay loved.

I can’t wait to see what happens next, as the new family is off to Japan for the next section of the story. I enjoyed this book box with all my nerdy, bibliophilic heart!

Next up: Bookishly’s Tea and Coffee Club

books i’ll be re-reading

As I talk to other people who love books and get more involved in the book community, I notice that there are a lot of book that I’ve read, but not appreciated. You know the feeling, when you read a book six years ago and you’re pretty sure there’s a reason everyone loved it, but you failed to catch the hype. Maybe you were too young (I often was) or maybe you were just distracted. Regardless, I want to give these books another chance to influence me.

I know for a fact that getting through this list will take me forever. It’s kind of exhausting to be an English major and do all the reading for classes and then pick up a book and read during your free time. I love reading, but once I’ve done all of my reading for my homework, I often just want to turn off my brain.

In an attempt to really enjoy these books as I reread them, I will take my time. Here’s the list!

  1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Jane Eyre is one of those novels that is extremely well known for how important and meaningful its quotes are. And yet, somehow, when I read it in eighth grade, it failed to make an impression on me. I know for a fact I read it cover to cover, but I also know I took long pauses in between, saw reading the book as a chore, and generally was in a terrible mood for all of that year. This might have influenced my opinion on the book.

I want to love it. I love Wuthering Heights to distraction, and though I know they’re very different books, they’re beloved for a reason. I’ve read some quotes online from this book, but somehow I don’t even recognize them. This is one book I’m very sure I will enjoy so much more upon re-reading.

  1. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

This is a book I know I enjoyed at the time, but I have zero memory of what happens (besides the end). I read it in school for class, so it was a segmented reading process, as we’d read fifty pages for class, have a discussion, and then read fifty more. I’d lose my enthusiasm and it was hard to keep the plot line in my head. If I read it again

  1. The Princess Bride by William Goldman

I absolutely love this movie, but I read the book in sixth grade and I have no memory of what happened. Judging from the book, there was a lot of subtle humor that I missed. This is a cultural classic, it is an immensely beloved book. As someone who strongly believes in reading the book first, I’m pretty angry that the movie has stuck with me far more than the book. I had to read it for summer reading before middle school (a LONG time ago), so I think that had something to do with my lack of memories, but I want to reread this book so I can properly appreciate it!

book review: Scandalous Women

While Heathrow Airport in London, waiting to board my flight back to the States after several amazing months travelling and studying in Europe, I found myself in the worst situation known to reader-kind.

I had nothing to read.

Thankfully, there was a shop with books only a few feet away. My plane was delayed and I needed a distraction. Into the shop I went.

Among all the bestsellers and YouTuber books was a section about history. As I’d just spent three months going to historical sites, I was drawn to this section for a few more moments of history before I returned to the US. On the shelf was a book that caught my eye: Scandalous Women: The Lives and Loves of History’s Most Notorious Women. Bingo.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon’s short, historical book was very enjoyable. Firstly, it was about some pretty badass women, which I will absolutely always enjoy. Joan of Ark, Cleopatra, Calamity Jane, and Ida B. Wells are only a small selection of the historical figures covered.

Second, it told the truth about these ladies. Cleopatra got the reveal she deserved. After centuries of old men turning her into a sex symbol, she got the credit she was due as a statesman and leader of her country. The woman was willing to do anything to keep Egypt independent, and she succeeded for quite a period of time. This is in comparison to countless other countries that fell to Rome quite early on. And then she was erased by men who were threatened by her. Ask anyone who Cleopatra was, and they’ll reply that she was the lover of Mark Antony. Ask them about her skills as a leader, and you’ll often come up with nothing.

Can you tell I’m a fan of Cleopatra?

Finally, the book was short. The stories were nicely condensed. Despite only being less than 300 pages long and covering over thirty fascinating women, Mahon is able to make each story easily readable and quick.

That said, the ratio of white women to women of color in the book is a little staggering. The section that features the most women of colors, “Amorous Artists”, is very near the end Even the section called “Warrior Queens” has only Cleopatra listed, when in fact there are countless queens around the world who could have been used.

The issue with this lack of diversity is not only that there are people whose stories are missing, but also that the stories begin to sound…similar….after a while. Most of the women were born into poverty, found love and fortune, then lost it and ended up alone and desolate. There are only so many stories I can hear about the same situation in one single book. Asian and African women are completely missing. I attribute that to a lack of intense research, as it cannot be hard to find pioneering women who stand out from history in either of those continents. I feel like the book missed an opportunity to talk about women who aren’t quite as well-known in the West, but notorious in other geographic regions. I would be insanely interested in reading something like that.

Scandalous Women is an interesting work. It covers so many periods and countries (in the West, mostly). The book is great on many accounts, but I did begin to feel the stories were repeating themselves. In addition, the writing style wasn’t that sophisticated (I’m a firm believed that slang doesn’t belong in anything not written in first person). But, I would definitely read another book by Elizabeth Mahon, especially since I think time will help her writing style grow and improve. The more you write, the better it gets. Simple as that.

I also really appreciate that she picked a topic that many people dismiss. These are women that actually had immense power and influence, and they are often pushed aside for the male figures, or to extol their sex appeal. This was a refreshing change.