Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

The historical scenes in this book are outstanding.

3/5 stars.
ebook, 432 pages.
Read from January 1, 2017 to February 8, 2017.

This should have been published yesterday, my apologies. This novel showed up on my radar as it has recently won the Giller Prize and was also nominated for the Booker Prize. Once I read the premise, I was excited to see what this historical-fiction would hold.

Marie (Li-Ling) is a first generation Canadian who is unfolding the story of two different generations of her family.  Her family, originally from China, lived through the Mao Cultural Revolutions and the following generation was there for the Tiananmen Square protests. When her estranged older cousin Ai-Ming comes to live with after escaping the aftermath of the protests in China, Marie starts to learn more about her father, Kai, and her Uncle Sparrow who is Ai-Ming’s father, through a series of notebooks. Sparrow and Kai were both accomplished musicians, with Sparrow being genius composer.  The two of them shared an immensely close bond. Kai moved to Canada and started a family while Sparrow remained in China and gave up composing. In secret, Kai went to visit his friend and never returned after taking his own life. The notebook also details countless other family members and their tragic stories in China during these tumultuous times in history.

If the description of this novel seems convoluted, it’s because the plot line is too. The storyline jumps around a lot and it is hard to keep track of the numerous family members in the story.  There are also extensive conversations about music and composers, which I imagine would be great if you were familiar with them, but as I am not, I found parts of this novel to be extremely dry.  I felt very frustrated with this novel. On one part, the historical aspects and scenes of this story are outstanding. Thein creates some phenomenal imagery and at times I felt as I deeply immersed in the story. There are also some very memorable characters and relationships in the book but you had to wade through a family tree to get to ones that mattered. I do not feel that this story was told as well as it could have been. The notebook concept was not delivered very well and at times I felt confused and bored by what I was reading, which is a reflection of how long this novel too me. The story and concept of this novel are award-winning however, the writing is not.

I can say that there were times I considered putting this book down, however there are some golden scenes in this book that made up for it, the ending especially. This book is still worth reading and I would recommend it to history buffs or historical fiction fans.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Is this strange book? Yes, but it’s also a great book in which you can’t deny its beauty and potency.

4/5 stars.
ebook, 160 pages.
Read from May 20 to 24, 2016.

Is this strange book?  Yes, but it’s also a great book in which you can’t deny its beauty and potency. This book came up in my newsfeed as the latest Booker prize winner and after reading the description, I knew I had to read it.  The book was originally written in Korean and translated to English.

Set in modern-day South Korea, Yeong-hye is an obedient and unremarkable wife. The perfect kind, in the opinion of her husband, who is narrating the first portion of this story. That is until Yeong-hye is shaken by a dream that convinces her that she must become a vegetarian. While to many westerners, this is an unremarkable lifestyle choice, but in Korea it is not very well understood nor is it a popular in a country where following societal norms is very important. By becoming a vegetarian, Yeong-hye is being quite rebellious and disagreeable. Her husband and family believe this to be a phase but Yeong-hye just becomes more adamant about her choices and more passive aggressive in her actions resulting in some violent and cruel outcomes.

After a horrible intervention with her family Yeong-hye attempts suicide and is hospitalized which results in her selfish husband filing for divorce.  Yeong-hye’s has also, unknowingly, become the object of muse, fascination and sexual desire to her brother-in-law, who is an artist that does little to support his very busy entrepreneurial wife and their young child. His pursuit to create his sexual and prolific masterpiece will have dire consequences for Yeong-hye and for her sister.

“Only Yeong-hye, docile and naive, had been unable to deflect their father’s temper or put up any form of resistance. Instead, she had merely absorbed all her suffering inside her, deep into the marrow of her bones.”

I believe this book to be a reflection of women and their place in society in Korea as well as stigmas in regards to mental health. This book is a reflection of the consequences of being passive and obedient and the result of holding in these negative feelings and emotions and what that can do to someone’s well-being.

The first two portions of the book are narrated by men, the last is by Yeong-hye’s sister. In the first two portions of the book you get an idea of the expectations of women through the eyes of Yeong-hye’s husband who just wants her to be complacent and obedient. He has no shame in taking advantage of Yeong-hye when he believes that she is being disobedient. He is also envious of his brother-in-law who literally just gets to play around with his art all day and not work, while his wife works long hours and then is expected to cook and be the main care provider for her son.

“She’s a good woman, he thought. The kind of woman whose goodness is oppressive.”

The second portion that is narrated by Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law. He has a envisioned a piece of art that centers around Yeong-hye but it verges on pornography. Yeong-hye is fascinating to him and he desires her. He is selfish and does little to pause and think of the consequences his actions might have outside of creating this perfect piece of art. He does little to think that he may be taking advantage of Yeong-hye since she is unwell or what the consequences would be for Yeong-hye and his wife.

“Perhaps the only things he truly loved were his images—those he’d filmed, or then again, perhaps only those he had yet to film.”

Finally, in the last portion of the book, Yeong-hye’s sister speaks. She is the only one who has attempted to help Yeong-hye and she is exhausted. She has been responsible for running a business, raising a son practically on her own, and is now trying to take care of Yeong-hye.  Yeong-hye’s sister is almost jealous of the fact that Yeong-hye is not bothered by her actions and not fitting in with a societal norms, despite her deteriorating mind and body, as it is a freedom that she has never known. The chapter is full of reflection from Yeong-hye’s sister and it evokes so much sadness and sympathy for both of the women’s circumstances.

“She was no longer able to cope with all that her sister reminded her of. She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there.”

The lack of Yeong-hye’s voice in her own story is a reflection on women struggling to have a voice in their own lives within a restrictive society of social norms. Through the choice to become a vegetarian, Yeong-hye starts to shed everything that society expects of her, however, with no way to express and deal with the emotions and turmoil inside of her, she becomes mad, or free, in Yeong-hye’s own perception.

Disturbing, beautiful and poignant. This book is worthy of the award it received. The writing is elegant, delicate and poetic even as it deals with such moving material. Had I the option to read this book in one sitting I would have. I was moved by the characters and turmoil of Yeong-hye’s spiral to madness/freedom. Her story will be one that will stick with me forever.

When Everything Feels Like The Movies by Raziel Reid

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3/5 stars.
Paperback, 176 pages.
Read from February 19 to 20, 2015.

This is now the second book I’ve been able to get through in this year’s Canada Reads 2015 shortlist. This book was not what I was expecting and based on the controversy surrounding the novel, it sounds like it wasn’t what a lot of people were expecting, especially for a Governor General’s award in Children’s Literature. The author, Raziel Reid, is one of the youngest recipients of the award at the age of 24.

Jude is a teenage boy who happens to like other boys, he also prefers to wear dresses, massive heels and outrageous make-up. In his head, he pretends he is a famous celebrity. In fact, he pictures his whole life like it’s some kind a movie. His every action is just another scene while his stripper mother, promiscuous best-friend, and the boys, including his crush, Luke, who bully him are his co-stars. Even in the darkest parts of this book he masks his pain with glamour. Jude has an over-the-top personality that covers up his noxious up bringing and daily life which, make the tragic ending that much more unbearable. Jude just wants to be loved and when he asks his crush to be his valentine, there are horrible and unnecessary consequences.

Sadly, I can see people who would struggle with just Jude’s character alone, which, in this day and age shouldn’t be an issue. However, the real controversy isn’t so much that Jude is a gender bender, it’s the graphic language, sexual references and sex scenes. To be fair, the content is very crude at times but it fits with the novel and with characters.  Barbara Kay, of the National Post was particularly outraged with the book’s content and wanted it to have its Governor General’s award stripped, claiming that the award “wasted tax dollars on a values-void novel“. For a book that’s labeled as a young adult, I suppose I can see why people might get a bit heated about it but I don’t think the sexual content is abnormal and shouldn’t be treated as if it is.  Jude lives a tragic life, but sadly it is the norm for many homosexual teenagers and it’s a demographic that needs attention. So it shouldn’t be wrong to write about something that’s true, regardless of how awful it can be. If you don’t believe that a story like this could have any truth, than read Emily M. Keeler’s article,  which is a counter piece to Barbara Kay’s. It discusses how the plot of this novel mirrors the tragic and real life murder of a Larry Fobes King, a young gay teen who was killed in 2008 after asking his crush if he wanted to be his valentine. The author, Raziel, was obviously aware of this horrible and tragic event and was inspired to write a story that reflected what it may have been life living as Larry before he died.

“It’s sickening to me that the moral panic surrounding the book regards teens reading about blow jobs and not its painfully, stylishly wrought portrayal of kids being bullied to death, or growing up with fear because it’s not safe for them to be who they are.” – Emily M. Keeler

I also think that the author, Raziel Reid, purposely made the content graphic for that extra shock factor. This book is supposed to be outrageous and the sexual content helped deliver that. Additionally, I think the author was also making a point that gay sex is something that everyone needs to be more comfortable with. Just as we don’t shutter with all the very graphic and straight media content that teenagers are exposed to, homosexual love needs to be the same. The problem is that a lot of adults don’t want their kids reading content like this, even if their kids are already thinking it or doing it, parents still don’t want their kids exposed to anything that might encourage it. Especially homosexual content or anything that they might perceive as out of the ordinary. Personally, I believe that more novels need to describe the homosexual or gender bender experience so that in the future nothing about a character like Jude will ever be questioned, made fun of or undermined. If Barbara was able to get past her own gag-reflexes in terms of the sexual content of this novel, she might have been able to see a young and troubled gay youth dealing with hate the only way he knew how, with love. That there are more values in this novel than she has her whole miserable article. 

Thank you to Raziel Reid for bravely writing this piece and for writer’s like Emily that say it like it is. This piece is worthy of its award and its novels like this that are truly breaking barriers in a still very conservative society. With the two books I’ve read so far for Canada Reads 2015, this one has my vote at the moment.  Barriers smashed.