20 | My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

My Sister, the Serial Killer is Braithwaite’s debut novel about two sisters, Ayoola and Korede who live a privileged life in Lagos, Nigeria. Ayoola, the younger of the two, has killed three boyfriends and every time she kills, she calls her elder sister Korede panicking and claiming self-defense. Korede begins to have doubts about Ayoola telling the whole story, and when Ayoola starts dating the doctor from the hospital Korede works at and who Korede has a crush on, Korede begins to realize her sister won’t stop killing unless she turns her in. Her heart is split into two: protect her serial killer baby sister who she has always protected from their abusive father or save the doctor’s life and possibly other men in the future.

One aspect of the novel I really enjoyed was that though this was set in contemporary times with references to social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat (which Ayoola uses to post RIP messages about “missing” boyfriends), Braithwaite integrates Nigerian culture through particular phrasing and descriptions. I don’t know much about Nigeria, let alone any cultural practices or how English in Nigeria sounds but the author did an excellent job of making the novel accessible to English-readers even though the novel is set in Lagos (I did listen to the audiobook version, narrated by Adepero Oduye). The plot is also unusual, as it centers around two young-adult sisters and their complex relationships to men living in a social-media world where deeply patriarchal societal views collide with the internet age of displaying femininity and the male gaze through the screen. Moreover, as typically men are serial killers, it’s interesting to learn how Ayoola and Korede believe in the case of Ayoola being caught, she would be able to leverage of feminity to dispel any accusations. How could a five foot two woman possibly kill a man?

17 | The Vegetarian [채식주의자] by Han Kang

Winner of the Man Book International Prize in 2016, The Vegetarian is quite a horrifying novel to read as I often found myself clenching my teeth in agony as Yeong-hye, the protagonist, suffers. Narrated in three parts by Yeong-hye’s husband, Mr. Cheong, Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, and Yeong-hye’s sister In-hye, the novella reveals how Yeong-hye’s spiral downwards into schizophrenia, anorexia and mania affect each of their lives. The plot begins from the perspective of Mr. Cheong, as he explains that Yeong-hye, after experiencing a violent dream, suddenly renounces meat, finding her throwing all of the meat in their kitchen in garbage bags. When pressed, she simply says: “I had a dream.” She rapidly looses weight as her mind unfurls, also refusing to wear clothes and abide by conventional social norms, alarming her husband and her nuclear family. One day, at a family dinner, Yeong-hye’s father announces he has had enough of his insolent daughter disrespecting her husband’s and his own demands for her to eat meat. To the horror of the other family members, he forcibly grabs her, attempting to shove meat down her throat. After writhing away, she grabs a knife and slits her wrists.

The second part of the novella, Mongolian Mark, is told by In-hye’s husband, who realizes he has a perverted sexual desire to be with her. He convinces himself that as an artist, he has the authority to ask her to pose nude for him, so he can paint flowers on her body. His ultimate goal is to film them having sex, under a fabricated guise of artistic creation. He is disgusting; having witnessed her slash her wrists himself, he knows she isn’t sane, yet pursues her relentlessly and incessantly, pushing his wife and young son aside. Eventually he does make the film of the two of them; Yeong-hye at first feels that the flowers painted on both of their bodies has freed her from her bloody nightmare, but she realizes somehow he is raping her as he ejaculates inside. While he is asleep, In-hye comes to check on her sister, only to discover the film of her husband raping her sister. Yeong-hye is admitted to a psychiatric hospital while In-hye separates from her husband, unable to stomach what she now knows.

In-hye narrates the third part as she cares for her sister in the hospital and the reality of being a single mother sets in on her. She witnesses Yeong-hye begin to refuse to eat as Yeong-hye tries to become a plant, claiming all she needs is sunshine. Yeong-hye’s mental state worsens as predictably, the doctors do nothing but medicate her, even tranquilizing her in order to insert a feeding tube. In-hye’s life looses vigor as she struggles to stay afloat, contemplating suicide herself, but feeling she needs to live for her young son who is she says is still a happy child. Perhaps Yeong-hye turned out like this because their father abused her, her husband failed to protect her and her brother-in-law used her. In any case, there is no resolution at the end as Yeong-hye presumably looses her life because she refuses to eat.

Han’s prose is stunning, even translated in English. I was astonished how horrendous each of the male characters were portrayed as mysoginistic and egoistic beings who punished women at the expense of their carnal desires. One of the most gut wrenching lines was when In-hye’s husband says of her nude body something along the lines of it being something any man would desire as it was stereotypically beautiful, yet the body itself had renounced all desire. It was distressing how Yeong-hye says that nobody understood or listened to her, that all the doctors, nurses and her sister were the same. I wanted to help Yeong-hye, but her will to become a plant was so strong I had to let her go. In the end, I can’t say I liked the novel, but I appreciated Han’s explorations of mental illness, abuse and guilt and what the manifestations might looks like in a patriarchal and normative Korea.

12 | Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee

Published in 2007, this book is Min Jin Lee’s first of her Korean diaspora trilogy, the second of which is Pachinko. A 560 page long read, I found the style to be exactly like Pachinko (the first book featured on this blog), essentially long-winding narratives about different characters. Some readers find many of the characters to be irrelevant, boring or unnecessary, but I found each sucked me into the novel further.

The story’s central character is Casey Han, a 20-something Korean-American girl who just graduated from Princeton. Casey grew up in a humble apartment in Queens with parents who own a few dry cleaning businesses in Manhattan and a younger sister who is, by her parents standards, the perfect Korean daughter: pre-med student, easy to parent, disciplined and filial. Casey on the other hand is brash, often fighting with her parents and dating a Caucasian guy she met in college that her parents don’t yet know about. Over the course of the book set in the mid-90s, Casey experiences heartache after heartache as her father kicks her out for disrespecting him, the Caucasian boyfriend cheats on her and while she figures out what to pursue career wise. She’s gained expensive habits from being surrounded by wealthy-trust fund kids in college and managed to buy herself into debt on top of all this. Other story lines include Casey’s friend Ella, a young Korean woman who is docile and even-tempered, who finds out Ted, her pompous investment banker fiancé later turned husband turned baby-daddy turned ex-husband has cheated on her while pregnant with a red-haired busty secretary from work, Delia. Ella finds herself locked in a custody battle over their daughter, Irene, while realizing the man she now loves is her co-worker, David. There’s also Casey’s mom, Leah, who is the top choir singer at church. The new choir director Charles finds forty year old Leah exceptionally attractive and sets out to seduce her. Leah, an extremely conservative Christian woman has a crush on the director, has no idea how sexually charged his advances are, later finding herself in the back of her own car as he is raping her. There is a lot of sex in the book, yes, but I disagree with some reviewers calling this novel chick-lit disguised as literary fiction. Because all the characters come from various cross-sections of society in term of age, socio-economic status, education level, I found the book to really been a commentary on how various people experience and rationalize life: how they respond to interracial relationships, mysogyny, sex, marriage, capitalism, religion, luxury, privilege. The characters have wildly different coping mechanisms and ideas of what life is worth living.

I will say though, I felt like the story was missing end. Nothing was resolved, except on the last two pages, Casey seemed to somewhat make amends with her Korean boyfriend Unu, an unemployed finance guy with a dangerous penchant for gambling. I was surprised that the book ended there, as Unu was not one of the central characters. I wished there there was a little bit more in the ending, not necessarily a happy one, but more closure between Casey and her parents. I’m excited to see what Lee writes next, as she’s slated to publish the third book in the trilogy soon.

11 | To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

There are so many “modern classics” I haven’t read; it’s almost overwhelming. The ones that I did read in grade school, I don’t remember enjoying at all. I found them dry, characters not relatable and tedious to read when you were given reading quizzes on the content the following day. Questions like: “why did character X frown when character Y did Z” did not pique my interest, nor did they help me appreciate literature or cultivate any passion for reading. To Kill a Mockingbird wasn’t in my school English curricula so I picked it up at the library and decided to give it a go. I don’t regret reading the novel as it is considered one of the most highly regarded works of literature of all time and always included on those lists of “books you should read before you die,” but quite honestly, it was a bit of a drag to get through.

The story is narrated from Scout Finch’s perspective. She’s a fairly normal eight year old girl attached at the hip with her older brother Jem. Their father, Atticus, is the town lawyer, who both revere and respect. Unsurprisingly, where the story is set in the 1930’s Deep South, Maycomb County, Alabama to be specific, there is extensive racial prejudice and injustice ripe in people’s attitudes and the local justice system. A young black man named Tom Robinson is accused of raping a white girl– there are no witnesses except a white man’s word over a black man’s. We know how that turns out. Atticus is appointed to defend Tom and the townspeople ridicule and ostracize the family, including young Scout and Jem.

I can understand why this book is considered a timeless classic– themes of racism, classism and injustice will never grow old unfortunately. We will live in a time where the justice system is stacked against blacks, in favor of whites, and where rampant and brazen injustices run wild. However, the savior complex Atticus is given by Harper Lee rubbed me the wrong way. It felt like it could be a trope of sorts: an educated, privileged white man realizes all people are equal and cuts the black man’s chains to set him free. Additionally, Lee is a white woman, writing about a white family, but includes experiences of Tom and other black characters without having any lived experience as a black person. The fact that this novel is the story about racism in America to me is strange. There are so many works by African American authors who live with the legacies of prejudice, injustice and oppression, who are so much better equip to write about this topic. Ultimately, I’m glad I didn’t have to read this book in grade school. It would probably eat away at my soul if I had to remember why X happened Y after Z did– you get the gist.

8 | Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver

Oddly enough, I didn’t want the book to end yet I was glad it did. The plot didn’t hook me until halfway through when the three separate plots began to have some semblance of a fleeting relationship. Let me explain.

Kingsolver has three different stories going on at once. The first, titled “Predators,” is about a reclusive 47 year old biologist named Deanna Wolfe living in a remote cabin in the Appalachian forest where she spends her time wandering trials and tracking animals, particularly a pack of coyotes. One day, a hunter named Eddie Bondo catches her off guard, and soon, an off-putting romance (?) develops where the two have sex– a sort of animalistic sex and nothing more. There’s obviously tension as she lives to preserve nature and it’s apex predator as she knows that the removal, or hunting, of the apex coyote will leave the land in shambles. Eddie on the otherhand is actually visiting the area for a festive hunt… a hunt to find and kill all the coyotes, which are viewed by the farmers around the country as threats to livestock and nothing more. The second story is called “Moth Love” and is about Lusa Landowski, a young woman from Lexington who, after a whirlwind romance and marriage to a country boy named Cole Widener, suddenly becomes a widow due to a tragic accident. She is a trained entomologist and through affiliated with nature, was not prepared to inherit the family farm and work the land as Cole had. She’s entangled in a firestorm of Widener family drama as her bully sister-in-laws encroach on her space, their husbands begin making decisions about the farm against her wishes and the only sister-in-law who reaches out to her is dying of cancer. Lusa feels trapped by the overbearing Wideners and unsure of herself, yet she knows one thing is for sure, she will resume working the land somehow or another. The third story is titled “Old Chestnuts” about a grouchy old man named Garnett Walker who despises his happy-go-lucky neighbor Nannie Rawley. Nannie, an old timer in her 70s has experienced her fair share of tragedy during her lifetime and has channeled her energy into her farmland growing apples pesticide free. Garnett on the other hand has been heavily spraying pesticides for decades at the first sight of any insect.

All three stories eventually intertwine: when Deanna falls pregnant, she reaches out to Nannie Rawley and asks to stay with her on her farm. Deanna is Nannie’s surrogate daughter as years ago, Deanna’s widowed father had fallen in love with Nannie. Lusa eventually adopts her sister-in- law’s children; Jewel, the Widener suffering from cancer and the chemotherapy, had two young children, Crystal and Lowell, with a man named Shel who left some years ago with another woman. Turns out, Shel, the kid’s father, is Garnett Walker’s estranged son. While the story line is beautifully crafted, I felt it difficult to latch onto any one character as there were so many “main” characters, who’s stories wandered for a long time, without mention of one another.

Above all, Prodigal Summer is known for being an “ecological novel.” It’s clear Kingsolver is a trained wildlife biologist and grew up in Appalachia herself as details about the landscape, the culture and wildlife are so intricately detailed. The book is rich with poetic descriptions of birds, trees and flowers– especially given two of the characters were scientists themselves, Deanna and Lusa. Each character has a subtly different relationship with “nature”- Deanna views nature as an ecological whole. Removal of one specie, especially the keystone, would decimate the system. Eddie Bondo is a hunter and grew up on a Wyoming sheep farm. He sees predators as nothing but a nuisance. Lusa appreciates ecological systems but has a deep love and appreciation for insects– she knows that if they die, the system would be out of balance and collapse. Nannie embraces the good, the bad and the ugly parts of nature– for the hornworms, she sprays BT, and for the Japanese beetles, she just hopes they don’t come. Garnett just spray, with whatever industrial pesticide he can get his hands on. That’s just the way farming is done nowadays, he believes. What’s interesting is that each person’s relationship with nature is the summation of all their life experiences with it– Nannie had a daughter with a chronic terminal illness who died at age 15. She suspected the defects had to do with all the chemicals she was ingesting and her breathing in as it was sprayed by her neighbors and drifted over the hills each season. Garnett heard somewhere that pesticides cause cancer; his wife Ellen died of metastatic brain cancer eight years prior. But he didn’t believe there was a link. Deanna’s safe haven was the woods, where her late father taught her how to track animals and learn about her surroundings. I guess an “ecological novel” broadly catches ecological concepts and weaves them into a piece of fiction. Quite a fascinating way to learn and reflect on how and why people come to view nature a certain way. Something to be conquered, something to be balanced, something to be restored?

7 | A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

This is the first fiction book I’ve read this year and it was a rough one. My friend L.S. pretty much exclusively reads fiction so I decided to go for it and read something less depressing, especially given my recent reads. While walking through the stacks of my local library, I saw the binding art out of the corner of my eye and was immediately drawn to it- it’s such beautiful art! Plus, I had recently been to Japan (which and where much of the plot is centered around) and want to read more by women and POC authors so I decided to give it a whirl. Admittedly, I find fiction difficult to read sometimes because I’m an impatient person. I don’t give the book the time of day to develop the plot, the characters and the world the story takes places in– I’d much rather read nonfiction because it’s rooted in the real world and I understand the contextual laws and mores. So reading a fiction piece which, I also might add, had an element of magical realism, was a little bit of a daunting task, one I felt unprepared for.

The story is essentially a back and forth between pages of Nao’s diary that Ruth is reading and Ruth’s actions and thoughts as she is processing Nao’s diary. Ruth, a Japanese-American author, lives in British Columbia on a remote island with her ecological-artist husband Oliver, and one day while walking along a beach, finds a barnacle encrusted freezer bag with among other things, a diary written in Japanese, a watch and a stack of letters written in French. Ruth and Oliver assume the bag is debris from the 2011 tsunami off the coast of eastern Japan that killed thousands and literally swept villages away. Their theory is right, and as Ruth becomes consumed with the fate of Nao and her family, a series of dreams and clairvoyant happenings ensue, enabling Ruth to literally intervene in Nao’s life, and therefore influence what the diary says.

Nao, a 16 year old girl who was raised in Sunnyvale for much of her adolescence as her father was headhunted for a job in the tech industry, is depressed, bullied, and really living a horrible life. Her family relocated back to Tokyo after her father got fired from his job and lost their savings, resulting in her having to attend a local Japanese school, her 39 year old mother having to work for the first time in her life and worse, her dad becoming a hikikomori, a withdrawn recluse. Nao decides very early on in the story she wants to end her life, but before then, she wants to write a book about the the life of her 104 year old great grandmother Jiko, a Zen Buddhist nun who lives in a secluded temple in Miyagi Prefecture, on top of a hill overlooking the coast. Ozeki does not hold back when crafting Nao’s story; the diary recalls horribly graphic scenes such as Nao’s classmates cornering her in the bathroom, recording with their cellphones as they try force a male classmate to rape her and upload the footage online and another bit about Nao losing her virginity to a hentai, a pervert, as she begins working for the manager at a cafe in exchange for being able to use the space to sit and write her diary for free during the day. Ruth struggles reading Nao’s diary and worries about Nao’s outcome after the tsunami, so much so that she dreams of Nao and her family, trying to figure out what happened. Did she die in the tsunami? Did her father commit suicide? Did she commit suicide?

Towards the last third of the book, elements of magical realism and metaphysics are infused to the story as Ruth sees signs in her dreams, is able to place objects in Nao’s story, and experiences pushes and pulls both towards and away from various diary passages. Members of the small community she lives in, through both annoying nosiness and genuine curiosity, help her translate bits and pieces of the diary and the letters, and she finds they were not written by the same person. While the diary was written by Nao, the letters were written by her deceased great-uncle Haruki, a young philosophy student turned kamikaze pilot during WWII. Ruth realizes that she knows more of the truth about Nao’s family than Nao herself did, and is somehow able to intervene, helping Nao to see what her great uncle’s life was like, what happened to her father and why she never knew these things.

I know very little about Zen Buddhism, except for much of the meaning of the sutras seem lost in or obscured by English, reading as nonsensical and almost comedic strings of words. Most of the sutras Nao learns from Jiko have to do with life, death, impermanence, being and non-being. Jiko teaches Nao that the only way to understand one’s life, is to realize how fast time passes. That is what it means to be a time being. One who lives in the metric of time, and who will die. Ozeki forces the reader to consider what the parallels are between Zen Buddhism and quantum mechanics when she infuses into the dialogue concepts like superposition (whereby a particle can be in two or more places or states at once) and entanglement (whereby two particles can coordinate their properties across space and time to behave like a single system). Ozeki writes in the Appendices that perhaps Jiko can, through superposition, be both alive and dead, living through memory, stories and sutras and perhaps Nao and Jiko can be entangled as their paths criss-cross over the course of time. Honestly, physics concepts are exceedingly mind-boggling and tricky to me but so is Buddhism. It is being and non-being, existing and not, all at once.

Ozeki’s novel really forces the reader to understand what time is and what time it is. The back and forth, dream sequences, magical interventions, and interwoven stories skip and backtrack in time with no warning. When I first read the title, I kept making the mistake the book was called A Tale of the Time Being, but it is not of, it is for. The story is for the reader, the time being, not of, or about, the time being, or the time in existence. I hope you catch my drift. I really loved the portions of the book about Nao’s life as as young teenager in Japan and the fascinating societal expectations and phenomenons which Japanese culture has uniquely named and singled out, however perverted and perverse they are. The metaphysical musings of Jiko had me wondering a lot but I’m sure there’s so much more I didn’t even think to wonder about because it flew right over me.

So far, I’d say my first venture with fiction this year has been a fruitful one. I just have to remind myself to be patient.