Reaction- The Mermaid from Jeju by Sumi Hahn

Audiobook provided by Netgalley for review.

The Mermaid from Jeju is a beautifully written story perfect for fans of Pachinko- transportative and full of atmosphere, this multigenerational story humanizes the Korean conflict post WWII.  Rife with tradition, spiritualism, mysticism, the novel tells the story of Junja, a haeneyo (mermaid), or pearl diver, on the South Korean Island of Jeju.  The writing is magical while never feeling fantastical; rather, it captures the culture and tradition in order to connect the reader to both the characters and setting.

The story is told in a non-linear format, opening in America on the day of Junja’s death as the mother of adult daughters.  It then goes back to her youth and follows her coming of age against the background of war and its effects on an occupied people.  The first half of the novel is definitely stronger than the second half, which jumps back and forth in the timeline, whereas the book previously followed a fairly linear progression after the initial jump back in time.

The audiobook experience was lovely.  Multiple narrators brought the story to life; I found the pace of their narration to be comfortable and natural (as opposed to the too-slow style audiobooks are typically produced with).  However, I found my attention wandering more during the second half of the book.  I am not sure if it is because of the format, or because of the change in the tone of the story, but I think that had I read it physically I would have enjoyed the entirety of the novel to a higher degree.

I recommend this book to fans of World War II fiction looking to broaden their reading to regions outside of America and Europe, as well as those looking to explore the after effects of the war.  I also recommend this book to fans of multigenerational family sagas, or books that follow characters over a lifetime.

Reaction- Mind of Winter by Laura Kasischke

In Mind of Winter we spend Christmas day with Holly and her 15 year old daughter Tatiana. Tatiana, or Tatty, was adopted as a baby from Serbia, and Holly wakes up at the start of this book with the obsessive thought that “something had followed them home for Russia.” I hope you like that sentence, it will be repeated about a thousand times. Initially, I attempted listening to the audiobook format of this book, but the narrator put a strange emphasis on the ending of the word “Russia,” so as it turns out… I hated that sentence. So much so that I had to abandon the audio format and pick up a hard copy from my library.

The entirety of the novel spans a single day, Christmas day, on which a blizzard leaves Holly and her moody teenage daughter home alone- her husband having trouble retrieving his parents from the airport, and their usual holiday guests unable to make it over in the unusually fast and heavy snow storm.

There are no chapter divisions in the novel, just page breaks marking where the stream of conscious like narrative returns to the present day before veering off again into the past- Holly’s own as well as the experience of traveling with her husband to adopt their daughter. In my opinion too much time is spent on these reflective periods. The story would have worked wonderfully as a short story or novella. Instead, the 15 hour plot ends up filling nearly 300 pages, many of which are, in all honesty, skimmable.

The story aims for inclusion in the horror genre with Holly noticing something unusual happening to her daughter; the girl’s mood becoming darker and darker, her behavior more and more bizarre as the day progresses. However, the overall atmosphere fails to deliver that spooky creep factor associated with horror. The tension stems less from the sinister transformation in the teen, and more from the revelations that Holly is a terrible mother with a history of medical anxiety.

The reveal of the novel is delightfully twisted, and the vague ending is near perfection. But the tedious route to get to that dark destination impeded my overall ability to enjoy the novel. I gave it 2 out of 5 stars on Storygraph, and ticked content warnings for Suicide, Terminal illness, Cancer, Death, Medical content, Medical trauma, Child death, and Chronic illness, Addiction, Alcoholism, Animal death, and Infertility.

Reaction- Writers & Lovers by Lily King

The genius of Lily King really snuck up on me in this book, the first I’ve read from her (it will not be the last). The simple nature of her writing does not detract from the beauty of her prose, but makes it easy to fall in rhythm with the plot without realizing just how intoxicating the story actually is.

The main character, Casey Peabody, is described as an inspiring writer at the end of her youth in love with two different men. That last bit is a stretch- more accurately, she becomes romantically interested in two men at different stages in life, and through her relationships with them she allows herself to imagine the diverging courses her life could take.

I suppose this is a coming of age story, though “coming of age” is a term I typically see associated with younger characters; at 31 Casey’s main struggle is reconciling her creative aspirations of youth with her adult needs of medical insurance, financial security, proper living arrangements, and healthy romantic relationships.

The story beautifully balances grief and anxiety with hope and determination. It opens with Casey dealing with the sudden death of her healthy mother, an experience that mirrors Lily King’s own. I recommend watching the Politics & Prose virtual author event from April 2020 in which King describes writing this novel, it is available on YouTube here.

Moments when Casey wanted to share something with her mother but then remembered she can’t call her anymore were heartbreaking. King also included an interlude of a chapter on the relationships of famous authors and their mothers that was so very endearing. This element of sadness, along with Casey’s ringing anxiety (culminating in a panic attack at work written so well I could almost feel it alongside the character), is countered by her driving devotion to her creative dreams; she is determined to see her novel through. Her confidence in herself to this end, while not complete at all times, was refreshing. Late in the novel another character admiringly calls her a gambler… a high roller… for putting so much faith in herself, and I just loved that analogy.

The setting of the novel is late 90s Boston, but I found I kept forgetting that. Every once in a while a mention of Harvard would remind me where we were, and the use of landlines and answering machines would remind me of when we were… but I feel like the atmosphere of the time and city were not very developed (a small gripe, but I love both Boston and the 90s so I will mention it).

It took me about halfway through the book to fall in love with it and really appreciate all it was doing. I think for a while I held myself back from the book because of a portion where Casey has gotten herself some health insurance and plays catch up on long overdue doctor’s visits. I am close in age to Casey (34 to her 31) and so I am also at the point where I went years without seeing doctors for anything other than my pregnancies, but now need to get in the habit of regular visits and it is a source of great anxiety for me. So for that extremely unique to me reason I nearly put the story aside. I am so glad I continued on, and now I am looking forward to reading more from the author.

Have you read Writers & Lovers yet?Please comment with your experiences with this book or recommendations on which Lily King to read next.

Reaction- Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

Before I get started on Earthlings, I feel the need to revisit my experience with Sayaka Murata’s previous novel, Convenience Store Woman. I was blown away by that book! In my reading of it, I brought my previous work experience as a job coach into the way I realized the character. I supported clients with various diagnoses, including those on the autism spectrum. It was these clients in particular I saw represented in Murata’s character, Keiko; in the routines she developed for herself, in the way she mirrored actions that she had learned were expected and accepted, and in the way she found great relief in the regimented practices inherent in the operation of the convenience store. I haven’t heard any other reviewer of the book make any mention of neurodiversity being represented in the novel, so it’s more than possible I saw something that wasn’t there.

In Earthlings, Murata once again crafts a story around a character on the outside of what is acceptable in mainstream society (referred to in this novel as “the factory”). While in Convenience Store Woman she was able to convey otherness in a way that endeared the character to the reader and made society’s obsession with conformity the major conflict,Β  the plot of Earthlings devolves into complete chaos.Β  It’s absurd and, quite frankly, pointless.

The main character in Earthlings, Natsuki, believes she is a magician, granted powers by a stuffed hedgehog which is actually an alien from the planet Popinbopia. Her cousin, Yuu, believes he is an alien and that he must find the spaceship that will bring him back to his home plant. Later in the novel Natsuki’s husband, Tomoyo, also becomes obsessed with this idea of being alien. The story contains on the page mental, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse that make you think, “Ok, it is totally reasonable for the character to dissociate in this way.” But because the story is told in first person by this unreliable narrator, there is no sense of understanding that her delusions are actually coping mechanisms. Instead we watch from a distance as one after another terrible choice is made and the characters learn nothing, only to become more and more carried away by their fantasies.

The story is gory and obscene in a way I was unprepared for… but I can accept that as the author’s choice. I can’t accept, though, the utter lack of development. At one point I thought- well, maybe Murata will use the unconventional marriage of Natsuki and Tomoyo to demonstrate compassion and adaptive practices that will help them, if not assimilate, at least succeed in living parallel to mainstream society (like we saw Keiko do in CSW). There was a point when I was actually endeared by the way they accepted and supported each others idiosyncrasies. Instead Murata turns their relationship into a shit-show of absolute insane proportion…. and they take poor Yuu down with them.

This was not an enjoyable read. Not because of the content (which itself was not fun, but whatever…authors can push boundaries as much as they want, totally fine!) but because ultimately I feel like the reader walks away from this mess with nothing. I want to address a blurb on the cover by Elif Batuman (an author I am unfamiliar with). They wrote, “I loved this book! It easily converted me to being an alien. Radical, hilarious, heartbreaking.” I have to wonder if we read the same book. I’ve seen mentions of this book’s “humor” in other places… where’s the joke? I love dark humor. I thoroughly enjoy satire. There was nothing funny here. And at no point did being an alien seem like a good idea. Sure, they made valid points about society being a factory obsessed with fitting in… but never did being an alien feel like the right choice either.

Read Convenience Store Woman. It’s wonderful.

I won’t tell you NOT to read this one but, at the risk of being spoilery, be prepared for abuse, sexual assault of a minor, incest, violence, and last but not least- cannibalism.

Reaction- Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

I learned about this book through the National Book Award shortlist discussion video on the YouTube channel, Ink and Paper Blog, and was able to get a copy from my library.

The synopsis describes a vacationing family who are approached by the owners of the house they rented with news of a blackout in New York City. Who can be trusted? What has happened to the world beyond this isolated vacation home?

My initial impression was one of reserved optimism. I got a sense of the author’s talent, but also a sense of his ego: I knew that he knew he was talented. I feel like it is very obvious when an author is showing off his vocabulary, or how “above it all” he is. I also think that this tends to come across in gratuitous use of sexual language where it really has no place; vulgar thoughts that have no point and sex scenes that are emotionally distant. We get it, we get it… “vacation makes you horny.”

Even with these issues, I was immediately hooked. Alam crafted an intensely suspenseful and unsettling atmosphere. I posted my first thoughts of the book on Instagram, likening the book as a whole to the character, Schmidt, from New Girl; one sentence would have me cringing and demanding a dollar for the douche jar, but another sentence would have me relating to the endearing sentiments of parental love and spousal appreciation.

As I read on, I realized this book was not the dark literary fiction I was expecting… this book is a thriller! I don’t typically read, let alone enjoy, thrillers. While not exactly a fast paced plot, the suspense makes this quite the page turner. And while this book is not really horror, I found it terrifying! Alam did a FANTASTIC job getting the every day, baseline, fear level of parenthood in general down on the page. That sense of fear is then elevated by the position the characters find themselves in. What is scarier than parenthood, but parenthood at the end of the world?

The parents in this novel have to put on brave faces for their children, feel the overwhelming instinctual drive to protect them… but from what? They want to get to safety and normalcy somewhere else, and yet they can’t help but retreat into the perceived safety of the walls around them. Stay home, stay safe. Sound familiar? I truly believe that the experiences of this past year put me in a position to really relate to these circumstances, different though they are.

Because the narrative follows a small group who have to idea what is going on, the author relies on interjections of the “little did they know…” variety. It was annoying, but necessary. Eventually the reader knows more than the characters, while still not knowing exactly what happened.

It doesn’t feel quite right to say I “enjoyed” this book. It wasn’t fun. It wasn’t easy, or pleasant. It played my anxiety like a fiddle. Honestly, had I read it the week before Christmas, when I first got it from the library, it might have been something I would have to DNF. It reminded me of when, back in April, I would randomly cry and wish I had never read Station Eleven. It is a very bleak, worst case scenario elevated by isolation and complete lack of communication/information from the rest of the world. My gut reaction upon finishing was to say: “Did I like it? I think so. Did I hate it? Yup!” I hope that makes sense, because I stand by that assessment.

Ultimately I do recommend this book. I used the CAWPILE fiction rating system developed by G at Bookroast and came up with a 4/5 star rating.

2021 Reading Goals

New year, same me…meaning same desire to return to blogging, and the setting of other bookish resolutions.

Switch from Goodreads to The Storygraph

I am really impressed with the way The Storygraph analyzes reading moods and includes community opinions on plot elements as part of the review process (I’ll add some screen shots for an example).  I also like the reading challenge portion of the web app.  It makes it easy to track and participate. I don’t care for Goodreads groups and found it kind of clunky and disorganized for things like bookclub/read-along discussions, so I would like to see if Storygraph can improve on this as the site develops.

Use the CAWPILE rating system

Something I noticed flipping through my reading log was that my ratings were pretty bullshit.  I found that if I am rating a book I have low expectations from to begin with, I tend to give them higher ratings than books I expect to love and read a little more critically.  At the risk of being a genre snob, I’ll give an example: The Overstory by Richard Powers and Anxious People by Fredrik Backman were rated 4 stars, while Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage and In a Holidaze by Christina Lauren got 5 stars.  Yes I enjoyed all of those books, but I feel like those 4 star books are actually much better books than the 5 stars I just mentioned.  Soooooo…. I want to try and use the CAWPILE rating system (created by G at Bookroast) to be a little more objective across genres when I am rating books for myself.

Prioritize books from my own library

I say this every year… but I really need to read the books I own.  I have chosen some year long reading challenges to help me with this goal (which I’ll share in just a little bit….keep reading).

Write better reviews

I want to be better about including more than “I liked this, 4.5 stars!” in an instagram caption. Writing more thought-out reactions as I finish books should help me remember more about what I read and encourage better engagement with the bookish community.

Participate in year long reading challenges

  • Storygraph challenges
    • Read 100 books
    • Around the World in Seven Continents
  • If You Got It Read It
    • Hosted by The Spine Breakers on YouTube
  • Buzzword Reading Challenge
    • Created by Booksandlala, (to be tracked on Storygraph)