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.

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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

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.