Edel Grace

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Book Review

Book Review: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami

Aug 6, 2018 | Comments

Disclaimer: Spoilers abound!

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami

Hyperkinetic and relentlessly inventive, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is Haruki Murakami’s deep dive into the very nature of consciousness.

Across two parallel narratives, Murakami draws readers into a mind-bending universe in which Lauren Bacall, Bob Dylan, a split-brained data processor, a deranged scientist, his shockingly undemure granddaughter, and various thugs, librarians, and subterranean monsters collide to a dazzling effect. What emerges is a novel that is at once hilariously funny and a deeply serious meditation on the nature and uses of the mind.

This novel alternates between two worlds. There is the “Hard-Boiled Wonderland” and “The End of the World.” The former takes place in reality, where the main character is racing against time to prevent “The End of the World.” Interestingly enough, the end of the world takes place in a single mystical village where people’s memories of their past life do not exist. It is a utopia where everyone is assigned a task to do until the end of time.

After reading this novel, I came to the conclusion that I read too much Murakami. There is something similar across many of his protagonists that I just can’t pinpoint. It’s nothing too general like the fact that they are all men with strange thoughts about sex and women (although a lot of them do have that in common). Maybe I’m just projecting but it seems like a large number of his protagonists are rather… Simple. Maybe even boring. They never think too strongly or feel too strongly. It seems like things are just simply happening to them and they are just bringing us along for the ride.

Which is why I breezed through the “Hard-Boiled Wonderland” chapters and absorbed “The End of the World” chapters as much as I could. The protagonist in “Hard-Boiled Wonderland” is pretty much the stereotypical Murakami leading man. In “the End of the World,” the protagonist is largely the same but also different.

There seems to be a real danger that the protagonist is trying his best to prevent. He does not want to lose his mind as he remembers it. Despite being really dull and drab in the real world, the importance of having emotions and memories is a great driving force for the protagonist. After falling in love with the emotionless librarian in the village, he is motivated to cling to his mind.

I was also pulled in by the fantasy aspects of “The End of the World.” The little village of people in an immortal land is just really interesting. I really wanted to uncover the mysteries of this world. The revelation in the novel was a bit of a disappointment but I enjoyed travelling and discovering the characters in this world.

However, being pulled back into reality is disappointing. While there was a real sense of urgency that I appreciated (really, I just wanted it to be over), I didn’t feel the weight of the risk as much as the risk of never leaving “the End of the World.”

I can’t really seem to make my mind up about this novel. I think this might be one of the better Murakami books but it still isn’t great. I probably wouldn’t reread this book, like I would say, Norweigan Wood.

Book Review: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Aug 6, 2017 | Comments

Yeong-hye and her husband are ordinary people. He is an office worker with moderate ambitions and mild manners; she is an uninspired but dutiful wife. The acceptable flatline of their marriage is interrupted when Yeong-hye, seeking a more ‘plant-like’ existence, decides to become a vegetarian, prompted by grotesque recurring nightmares. In South Korea, where vegetarianism is almost unheard-of and societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye’s decision is a shocking act of subversion. Her passive rebellion manifests in ever more bizarre and frightening forms, leading her bland husband to self-justified acts of sexual sadism. His cruelties drive her towards attempted suicide and hospitalisation. She unknowingly captivates her sister’s husband, a video artist. She becomes the focus of his increasingly erotic and unhinged artworks, while spiralling further and further into her fantasies of abandoning her fleshly prison and becoming – impossibly, ecstatically – a tree.

Fraught, disturbing and beautiful, The Vegetarian is a novel about modern day South Korea, but also a novel about shame, desire and our faltering attempts to understand others, from one imprisoned body to another.

I remember one time I participated in a blog hop where one of the prompts mentioned seeking out diverse voices, usually cultural. I was a little shocked that a lot of people said, “I don’t seek it out or make a point to find authors with a different point of view from mine.” I think there is a lot of different voices out there that you need to seek out because their voices need to be heard.

One of my friends started up a book club, #milliesbookclub, that would explore Asian American authors and their works. Being Asian American myself (Asian Canadian to be exact), I was extremely interested. For minorities, it can be easy to have your voice drowned out. In general, it’s easy to get lost in the literature industry regardless but it seemed important to intentionally seek out these Asian American authors. So out of this book club, The Vegetarian was chosen.

My first impression of this novel was that it was extremely Murakami-esque. Haruki Murakami almost always features peculiar women and these women almost always serve as some sort of motivator for the male protagonists. Murakami is frequently accused to using the manic pixie dream girl trope again and again and it was a little bit disappointing to see this again in another Asian author.

The male characters in this book were no different from how Murakami portrays his male characters. Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law is obsessed with her to the point of his destroying his marriage and taking advantage of her mental vulnerability. Yeong-hye’s husband forces himself upon her and selfishly only thinks of how her antics affect him. Yeong-hye’s father was abusive to her for her entire life, even displaying physical aggression towards her in her adult life. It’s no wonder that Yeong-hye retreats inward and pursues the notion that becoming a tree would bring the ultimate state of nirvana.

While I did find Yeong-hye’s passion a little ridiculous and self destructive, I have finally come to the conclusion (with a little bit of help) that it boiled down to a form of escapism and served as a great foil to Yeong-hye’s sister.

It maybe be obvious that Yeong-hye wasn’t so keen on the life that she lived due to all of the not-so-great males she had around her. I still don’t see the significance in becoming a tree but I do love how this demonstrates a positive attribute that Yeong-hye possesses which her sister does not.

Despite everything, Yeong-hye is true to herself. Compared to her sister, she is not a subservient and too obedient woman who is too polite to the point of irritation. Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law makes this observation as he wonders why his wife would not lash out at him for his absenteeism in the family and instead becomes a little bit too accommodating. This is also shown when Yeong-hye’s sister has a strong sense of duty towards her son which keeps her from succumbing to her depression whereas Yeong-hye is eager to let go of what little life she has left regardless of her obligations. Yeong-hye is more willing to break conventions as she only answers to herself.

Interestingly enough, most of the other members of the book club didn’t like this novel. I can see why. The male characters are disgusting and abhorrent. The fragile and subservient Asian woman stereotype is tiring. It’s a frustrating read that reminds you that society is pretty much still patriarchal and misogynistic. It isn’t empowering in the slightest, one of the aims the book club was created to begin with. Honestly, it’s the last book that I would ever thing Millie would like to read. However, there was something fascinating about this book that never let me put it down until I finished.

I became invested in Yeong-hye and her sister. I could have skipped all the sections about Yeonh-hye’s husband and brother-in-law easily. These two women wronged by the most important men in their lives struck a chord with me. The book made me want to know what became of the two sisters and how they could possibly rebuild their lives. I wanted to know what really went on their minds while we saw their husband’s points of view and who they really were behind who the men thought they were.

Ultimately, I think Han Kang made the right choice using male narrators for a good portion of the book because it really painted an accurate picture of the situation. However, it feels like she barely scratched the surface with the female characters but there was some sort of sense of redemption for the female characters.

If you can look past the social undertones in the book, I think it would be a good read. Most reviews I’ve seen focused on the oddity and weirdness of the situation and less on the characters, which is fine but you’ll never know how you feel about the book until you read it for yourself.

Book Review: Vital Signs by Tessa McWatt

Jun 19, 2017 | Comments

After thirty years of marriage, producing three now-grown children, Mike and Anna have settled into entrenched domesticity. She is skillful and poised and still beautiful, an instructor of English at the city college. He is a successful graphic artist on the verge of retirement, his awards and ambitions and accomplishments largely behind him. Though the couple’s erotic life has dimmed somewhat, he still considers her ravishing.

But their apparent balance is thrown asunder when Anna breaks the normal silence of their breakfast table with uncontrollable babble about hummingbirds. After an emergency consultation with a neurologist, they have a diagnosis: confabulation, or the scrambling of time, memories and language due to a dangerous aneurysm in Anna’s brain that could burst at any moment.

Not knowing how much time they have left with the beloved Anna, Mike and the kids rally together to support her through the terror of her disintegrating mind. But the unbearable strain of the situation is worsened by another worry that is haunting Mike: he suspects that his two eldest children, Charlotte and Fred, know of his past infidelity.

Several years ago, Anna and Mike took a trip to Egypt, hoping the shared adventure would thwart their mid-life marriage blues. Instead, the trip deepened the chasm, his sexual jealousy and insecurities swamping her attempts at intimacy. Their estrangement worsened when they returned home to discover that their youngest daughter, Sasha, was in hospital, having overdosed on drugs. Anna was furious with Mike for his cool response at the time, which she interpreted as unfeeling.

Two weeks later Mike began his affair, with a much younger woman dissimilar to Anna in all respects. He persisted in the romance for three years, feeling young and vital and once again in control, at least for a time.

The affair is long over but today, as Anna disappears into a terrifying collapse of time and language, Mike is wracked by his dilemma: should he keep his silence about the affair and spare his family more pain, or should he seize the opportunity to be wholly honest with the woman he loves, possibly in the last days of her life? Perhaps the answer lies in his drawings, the means of communication with which he is most comfortable. Can he codify his emotions into pictures? Can he articulate his love and regret and sorrow to his wife – and to himself – without having to say the heart-rending words out loud?

Narrated by a terrified male protagonist whose deep yearning for forgiveness might only be granted by a woman in the grips of dementia, Tessa McWatt’s Vital Signs is a thought-provoking and mesmerizing literary accomplishment – a compassionate and visceral study of a marriage at the brink of catastrophe.

I received this ARC copy of this book from First Reads back in like 2011 and I am completely glad I did. This book was the first First Reads books that I so desperately and truly wanted to win. I read the summary and immediately felt that this seemed like a book that I would love to pieces. I’m glad that my first instinct wasn’t wrong.

Around four hours ago, I looked into the mail and saw the package waiting for me. Immediately, I took it inside and opened it. Ever since then, I’ve been reading it, taking a few breaks to write down what I thought about it as I read.

The very first few pages were emotional to me, and I knew how much of a ride I was in for. I fell completely in love with McWatt’s writing. Everything was so beautifully written and captured me.

Every single one of the characters were incredibly real. Their feelings were real as well. It was heartbreaking to read but at the same time, some scenes were just so beautiful and touching.

I was incredibly moved by this novel. My only complaint however, are the pictures. I understand that the pictures serve an important part to the story, but they also distracted me from the story. They seemed very abrupt, and I didn’t really like their placement. But, they were very well done. I just wish it didn’t interrupt the flow as much. I did love the very last drawing though. It took me a while to figure out the meaning, but I came to love it.

Vital Signs is definitely a short and bittersweet read. I will have to make sure to buy it once it comes out. Spoiler alert, I eventually did years later under the impression that I never read it in the first place. Interesting how fate works. I re-read it and it was all extremely fresh to me. I am a little hurt that the book didn’t leave an impact that would last over six years. However, I’m glad I got to experience it again with a blank mind with little to no expectations.

Book Review: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Jun 13, 2017 | Comments

To many readers, who have perhaps known Frankenstein only at second hand, the original may well come as a surprise. When Mary Shelley began it, she was only eighteen, though she was already Shelley’s mistress and Byron’s friend. In her preface she explains how she and Shelley spent part of a wet summer with Byron in Switzerland, amusing themselves by reading and writing ghost stories. Her contribution was Frankenstein, a story about a student of natural philosophy who learns the secret of imparting life to a creature constructed from bones he has collected in charnel-houses. The story is not a study of the macabre, as such, but rather a study of how man uses his power, through science, to manipulate and pervert his own destiny, and this makes it a profoundly disturbing book.

Shelley is a lot like her mother. They both love characters who talk and talk and talk.

Honestly, I did not expect most of what happened in this book. Everyone “knows” the Frankenstein story: mad scientist raises the undead in a creepy laboratory in the mountains during a thunderstorm. It usually seems to end there. Some variations, Frankenstein actually makes a “female” version and, usually, the female doesn’t want anything to do with its male counterpart.

However, I learned that Frankenstein is much more than that. It’s a lot more gruesome and morbid than I thought it would be. I wouldn’t really classify it as horrifying in any way. Honestly, I was a bit bored by many parts of it. I sympathized with Frankenstein’s creation when he told his tale but it was still hard for me to picture him as anything but human.

I will say that I enjoyed how Shelley utilized the unreliable narrator. I can’t believe sitting down with someone while they recounted a story as long as this.

Overall, I’m glad I read it and got it out of the way but I didn’t particularly like the book itself. I don’t want to say “it was okay” AKA 2 stars because that implies there was something good about the book. Not to say there’s anything bad but it just wasn’t for me.

Book Review: Nine Island by Jane Alison

Jun 5, 2017 | Comments

Nine Island is an intimate autobiographical novel, told by J, a woman who lives in a glass tower on one of Miami Beach’s lush Venetian Islands. After decades of disaster with men, she is trying to decide whether to withdraw forever from romantic love. Having just returned to Miami from a monthlong reunion with an old flame, “Sir Gold,” and a visit to her fragile mother, J begins translating Ovid’s magical stories about the transformations caused by Eros. “A woman who wants, a man who wants nothing. These two have stalked the world for thousands of years,” she thinks.

When not ruminating over her sexual past and current fantasies, in the company of only her aging cat, J observes the comic, sometimes steamy goings-on among her faded-glamour condo neighbors. One of them, a caring nurse, befriends her, eventually offering the opinion that “if you retire from love… then you retire from life.

I’m a 22 year old who has had thoughts about giving up on love. Of course, this book intrigued me. What would a middle aged woman’s life be like alone and loveless? The protagonist, J, tries to sort out exactly what she wants in life after getting divorced and rekindling an old flame that ultimately went nowhere. At first her cat, mother, and neighbours seem to sustain her. But the past is always creeping up in the back of her mind. When is it okay to give up on love? One of the main characters profoundly remarks, “To retire from love is to retire from life.”

This book has given me a lot of food for thought. I hoped to gain some insights but I don’t feel any less confused or more confused after reading it. There seems to be a lot going towards trying to find love. I expressed my feelings of becoming a cat lady to a friend and she replied with, “But who’s going to take care of you when you’re old? If you die, your cats will just eat you.” She has a point, which Alison also touched on in the book. Most people who have a family are usually taken care of by their children. Sure, I could admit myself to a retirement home if I get that old but maybe it might be different if I had kids.

And as a human being with certain needs and urges, I thought that I could just, you know, take care of myself in that department when I’m older and alone. Alison also addressed this. Ultimately, it really depends if you’re okay with that and if you could sustain yourself that way. I think I could get by.

Of course, there’s also the loneliness factor. J focuses greatly on her work translating Ovid and her little side project of trying to save a duck. Her hobbies are a little off the wall but are they really hobbies or are they just distractions? I myself have a wealth of projects that should keep me busy and content but they don’t always fill as much space as I would like them to sometimes.

Human contact is also a must which J gets no shortage of. Her neighbours, her cat, her past flings, and her mother are all social outlets that she utilizes. I’ve entertained the idea of becoming a complete social recluse but I know that would not go out well. As much of an introvert that I (think I) am, I do enjoy being around people. I feel more human that way.

With all these thoughts swirling in my mind I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the arguments made in the book. There is really no hard conclusion that J comes to at the end. Maybe she’ll stumble into love one day, maybe not. At the moment, she seems pretty okay with where her life is. So is the moral of the story to just go with the flow and take opportunities where they crop up? I’m not sure.

While I did focus a little too much on the content, it’s not hard to notice that Alison’s writing is absolutely dreamy. Her words float around you and bite at you with clever quips and wise insights. Her characters are all a little quirky and feel almost not real but it’s not hard to believe people like these exist. I wish I could have slowed down a little bit more to absorb how well written this book was but I was too engrossed in the story.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. I ate it up in two days after a reading dry spell. God, who knew Jane Austen could be so boring sometimes (I was in the process of reading Northanger Abbey at the time)? So this little novel was a good change of pace.


A photo of me

My name is Edel Grace Altares. My programming interests include full stack development and back end development. My languages of choice are Python and Java. Outside of programming I enjoy crocheting, video games, cats, historical fiction, and reading.