Identity

For book 21, I read Milan Kundera’s Identity. Kundera’s strength is that his thoughts are interesting enough that even if his stories and his writing are unremarkable, there’s still something to be gained from reading his books.

The story itself was predictable. I figured out who the secret admirer was before the protagonist did, and I’m not usually good at figuring that out when reading mysteries. Kundera gives up on even writing an ending, throws something together and says “oh, at some point this turned into a dream.” Then sort of cheekily tells the reader to try and figure out when it was.

The author doesn’t describe the physical world much, and doesn’t believe in doing so. Too much description does get plodding, but when I try to imagine the people or settings in Kundera’s work, it comes out like cubism or impressionism or abstract art. I guess neglecting descriptions can be its own type of distraction.

Kundera’s strength is that his insights, even if I don’t agree with them, seem like they could be true for many others. Here are some that stood out to me:

“This is the real and the only reason for friendship: to provide a mirror so the other person can contemplate his image from the past.”

“Every woman measures how much she’s aged by the interest or uninterest men show in her body.”

“When he wondered: what should I choose for my life’s work? His inner self would fall into the most uncomfortable silence.”

“The feeling that he was about to find himself alone on a platform all the trains had left.” — in re: dropping out of medical school

“I would imagine life before me like a tree… We see life that way for only a brief time. Thereafter, it comes to look like a track laid out once and for all, a tunnel one can never get out of.”

“The quantity of boredom… is much greater today than it once was. Because the old occupations… were unthinkable without a passionate involvement.”

“Since they’re hopeless, the beggar’s desires have one feature that’s beyond price: they are free and sincere.”

“Only through her can he feel compassion… What if he should lose this one person who binds him to humankind?”

“We put makeup on desolation.” – in re: the advertising industry

I agree with that last one at least. I have been targeted dozens of times for ads on social media demonstrating undergarments into which I could shove copious fat rolls for a smoother appearance under skin-tight dresses. That my goal should be to look better in spandex dresses if I had copious rolls of fat around my middle is indeed desolate.

Things that bring me joy

I’ve decided to write about things currently bringing me joy because what everyone else is posting right now isn’t. And remember what Marie Kondo says about things that don’t spark joy? That’s right. Thank them, then remove them from your life. Unfortunately, current events have infected my Facebook and Instagram feeds with repetitive, performative content I quickly got bored of. So I’ve decided to take a break until Stonemill posts matcha again, until Dogspotting is all about dogs again, and until my well-intentioned friends return to posting about their cooking adventures.

Here’s what’s making me smile these days, in no particular order:

Hospital Playlist

It’s a (Korean) medical drama, and I like it because it’s full of things I can’t do right now. There’s a group of 5 surgeons who have been friends since medical school (aww) and now work at the same hospital and play in a band together. They frequently eat meals, all of them together. At restaurants. This is my fantasy life, eating kbbq at a restaurant with a group of friends. Laughing and teasing each other. I miss eating at restaurants. I miss seeing friends. Also, everyone in the show is a good person, but in a realistic way. It was so cheery to watch that show that I was sad when I ran out of episodes.

Newfies of Norway

This Instagram account features another fantasy life. The owners run a farm with a forest on their property and post videos daily of hiking or working with the newfies running around “helping.” You know, napping nearby or sloshing around in muddy ravines.

Animal Crossing

This is a game for Nintendo Switch. It’s yet another fantasy life, where I live on an island and all my neighbors are cute animals who give me gifts and speak to me. I breed flowers, buy myself new outfits, visit friends’ islands, make furniture out of fruit, fish, and redecorate my huge house with multiple bathtubs. Oh yeah, another reason it’s my fantasy life is that there’s no crime on this island. You can leave things you own anywhere, and no one will touch it. Even literal bags of money or trees that grow bags of money. If only San Francisco could be more like my island in Animal Crossing!

Schubert – Impromptu No 3., Op 90

How did I take piano lessons for 9 years and never know this song existed? I found it when looking for a new piece to learn and this one took my breath away. I have learned about half of it now, and it is so moving that it messes with my breathing to play it. I know, dramatic. I couldn’t find information about what inspired Schubert or what it might have meant to him. But to me, it sounds like sweetness, hope, longing, with brief undercurrents of darkness or frustration. The only thing that would make this one even better is if I could find a recording of Lang Lang playing it.

Yoo Yeon Seok singing

He has a nice voice: velvety, comforting. One of the most important components to performing music well is expressing the feeling behind it. It’s hard when performing for an audience, but getting outside yourself, your nervousness, your fear of fumbling — and finding joy in the music: that’s the key. He does a really good job. Almost as good as Lang Lang.

Buy Nothing groups

All that time quarantined at home. All that Kondo-ing you’ve done. And now, walls and entry halls are lined with paper bags full of things awaiting their trip to Goodwill. Which has also been covided. Enter Buy Nothing groups! No matter what you have in those bags, I can guarantee there’s someone who would be grateful to have it. And who would come to your house to take it off your hands. Also, people give away nice things too. I recently saw a street lamp that you could plug in!

Weighted blanket

Speaking of buy nothing groups, I recently got this blanket from one. Some people hate feeling pressed, but I love it. It’s so relaxing. As a child, I used to fantasize about being pressed under the couch or refrigerator. Yeah, while other girls my age were wearing towels on their heads dreaming of being brides, I was imagining what it would be like to be squashed by my couch. TMI? It’s better than a spa day. Really! It’s relaxing and there are no strangers touching you. (How can anyone relax with strangers touching them…)

The Calm app

I linked to the Amex offer: a free year for any cardholder. The meditation lessons are the highlight. They’re funny because the guide’s story is that he was once a clubby party bro and then he found meditation. It probably sounds hokey to anyone who hasn’t tried it, but after a 10 minute guided meditation, I do feel more relaxed for the rest of the day. It sure beats being angry or anxious or agitated about things I can’t solve. The rest.. well, I tried listening to the bedtime story read by Stephen Fry, and it made me imagine things (a mouse with silver claws and silver eyes) that were terrifying and made me less sleepy. I tried the Sigur Ros “calming” music too, but it sounded like a horror movie soundtrack replete with voices of haunted children.

Ok, friends. I hope that helps. Remember, die gedanken sind frei. Don’t let anyone pressure you into doing something you don’t actually believe in.

In the Shadow of the Valley

Book 20 of 2020 was In the Shadow of the Valley: A Memoir. I heard it compared to Hillbilly Elegy, which I liked. This book was purely memoir, though, and didn’t offer any broader discussion or prescriptions like Hillbilly Elegy. Tl:dr, don’t bother with this book if you’ve already read the other.

To be fair, this book doesn’t claim to be anything other than one woman’s memoir about growing up in Appalachia. And her writing is good. It was engaging and painted a vivid picture. It never got in the way or made me want to scroll to get to the next interesting part. But the subject matter itself was not enlightening. It’s a litany of all the ways she was mistreated, more or less. I don’t think I had any added insight after reading the book, so that was disappointing.

I also came away unsure how exactly her husbands were abusive. She admitted they weren’t physically violent. But she doesn’t describe specific incidents to show the reader what was so terrible about them. She compares them to her father, implying that they are as bad in terms of wanting to control her. It sounds like one husband was a cheater and the other was a gossip, but it wasn’t clear what this had to do with her abusive father, or how it could be as bad as being whipped with a belt. I guess she was confused, so she left her reader confused too.

I am glad that she managed to graduate from college, get an advanced degree, and become a published writer despite the poverty she was raised in. It’s confirmation bias, but I collect examples of people getting where they belong, despite less than ideal environments. It’s some variation of “If Yan can cook, then so can you.” We make too many excuses in the United States. In Asia, you fail because you didn’t try hard enough.

I would’ve loved to see her tell us what could have made things better for her. Anything her teachers could’ve done? The government? The other students? College professors? College friends? Any self-help books for people who are growing up similar to her?

Flights

Book 19 is not really a book. It was a Nobel Prize and Man Booker Award winning “masterpiece.” It was Flights by Olga Tokarczuk. When I first heard of it and its awards and the founts of praise, I was excited. I like travel. I like intelligent discussions on the human condition. I like good books. What could go wrong? Everything. Everything.

Where to begin? You can’t say anything bad about a book that has critical acclaim like this without fear of accusations that you aren’t smart enough to understand. Or that you just didn’t get it. Or your tastes are coarse. Whatever: believe me or don’t. Read the book for yourself or don’t. I’m not here to convince you that I’m qualified to say this, but the emperor has no clothes. Yes, her prose is good. Good enough that it wasn’t distracting like the writing style of many suspense or sci-fi writers. Fine, I’ll give her that. But was it good enough for there to be no plot? No characters we care about? No point? No glue? Not by half. This isn’t Nabokov. It’s not Kazuo Ishiguro. It’s not even Stephen King. It just stays out of my way enough for me to refrain from throwing my Kindle across the room in frustration.

There’s just nothing here to hold the reader’s interest. For example, there is one longer short story about a man searching for his wife and child on a small island where no one can get lost. There are endless descriptions of completely random things that have nothing to do with finding them. Or even with any of the characters. Such as descriptions of ferry passengers. Why? Why waste the reader’s time like that? Infuriating!

However, what this book did give me is inspiration. That’s not a compliment. President Donald Trump gave me inspiration more than any other president. No other president made me believe as truly that anyone, just anyone could be president. Likewise, this book, having won prestigious prizes that much better (more gripping, more interesting, more coherent) books could never come close to winning — that’s brought me hope too. If Tokarczuk can be a Nobel Prize winning author, then anyone, anyone can be an author. I have a set of 100 pointless, disjointed essays. Who wants to publish me?

I’ve reached 35%, and I’m not going to finish. Some tips from me if you want to produce a work like this:

  • Write a bunch of unrelated essays on whatever sparks your fancy at the moment.
  • Be sure to name drop every Greek philosopher  you’ve ever heard of in at least one of them.
  • About 50% of them should be whatever you happen to be thinking or seeing at a random moment in your life. Just set phone alarms for and write down whatever was going through your head, or record what you see people doing wherever you happen to be.
  • Go to anatomy museums and describe what’s on display.
  • If you include stories, don’t write endings. Just spend the entire time setting the scene, introducing the problem, then end the story without explanation.

That, folks, is how you can produce a work like this and perhaps also be a Nobel literature award winning author.

Sentimental Education

I will count as book 18 Sentimental Education, even though we can only say I read this book using a very loose definition of “read.” You see, I’ve succumbed to the world of Korean dramas and I’ll never be the same. A book cannot compete with a kdrama (in the realm of romantic storytelling) unless it’s truly stellar. Like Call Me By Your Name. But I have read only one or two books of that calibre in my entire life. Maybe I should start writing detailed metas for the kdramas I watch. Wouldn’t that be hilarious?

I wanted to read this book because of a boy I once knew. We were on a ski cabin trip and I saw him putting away his kindle, so I asked what he was reading. He looked at me, startled.. eyes wide, exposed. As if I had caught him committing a crime. He stuttered the name of this book, nothing else, and fled. This was years ago, but I have not forgotten his reaction.

So this book, it must be a revelation, right? Some truly guilty pleasure? I saved it all this time, waiting for the right moment to savor it. What better time than a lockdown.

I should have saved it forever because it’s just an annoying book. I am so disappointed. The author takes too much time describing clothes, furniture, decor, parties. Badly. As if he’s an intern at a museum doing inventory. He spends too much time on side characters that we never get to know well enough to be invested in: characters that all blur together or are flimsy enough to be summarized in a few words. He allows himself the luxury of opining on the politics of the day through his characters. Long-winded entreaties that have nothing to do with the story. It’s every sin that a first year writing course would beat out of you, but maybe it was acceptable in Flaubert’s day. Or maybe this book is read today to appreciate the zeitgeist of the French Revolution.

I got through the entire first volume and there was very little except unrequited longing which was poorly explained. A young man moves to Paris and falls in love with his mentor’s wife. For no reason. I guess she has nice hair? Now, in the second volume, the wife finds out the young man is engaged and decides she loves him too. Out of nowhere. Where does it go? Nowhere. He has a few side romances, has a child out of wedlock who then dies right away, has an engagement with a society woman, leads a country girl on for a bit. But there’s never a good motivation given for any of it. Was the prompt for this book “write some fluff about a young man’s sexual adventures, and make sure he’s driven by not much more than his libido and his basest social climber instincts”?

Maybe I’m judging a classic by today’s standards. Unfairly. Or maybe I’ve completely missed the lesson I’m supposed to learn. That young men are shallow and ambitious? Inflamed by senseless passions? Have no thought or significant motivation behind their actions? I love frivolity as much as anyone, but when frivolity reads like a slog, it earns a hard pass from me.

Wall of Silence

The 17th book I read this year was Wall of Silence. It was a free Amazon book of the month, and it was interesting enough to keep me reading until the end. I confess I didn’t see the ending coming, though the author did give hints.

I didn’t find it believable that the daughter could stab her father, even given the circumstances revealed at the end. I also found the father character poorly developed. When he was young, he was a perfect, sheltered golden boy. But sweet. And then he grew up to be paper thin. An adulterer, a win-at-any-cost politician, a sociopath? It’s not a clear trajectory and there doesn’t seem to be trauma to explain how it happened. He just became this way to make the plot twist work out, I guess.

This book was interesting enough to finish, but may make you resentful because, on the whole, it isn’t interesting. Take my opinion for what it’s worth though: I felt the same about Slaughterhouse Five and wished a painful death to the author every time “and so it goes” was repeated.

In an Instant

Book 16 this year was In an Instant. This was an Amazon First Reads book, and probably the best one I’ve picked. The characters are vivid and I can see them being real people. No one is that ideal hero you’re rooting for. (Okay, maybe Mo). Everyone makes mistakes.

Maybe one reason the book is so well-written is that the author had an experience in her childhood similar to the accident at the beginning of the story. The story illustrates the idea that regardless of our everyday personas, when it comes to life and death, we become selfish and protect ourselves and family first. None of the characters are painted as sociopaths: they’re normal, average people. They seem happy and generous; their friendships look strong. But once they’re put into a life-threatening situation, they begin to scrabble like rats for any small advantage: warm boots, who drinks water first, etc.

Most of us will never be in that situation, so it’s hard to say what we would or wouldn’t do. That’s probably what makes this book so interesting. None of the characters would have seen themselves as the type of person who would choose to help themselves to the detriment of their friends. We don’t like to see ourselves that way: it makes us uncomfortable. But what if we would make the same choice if we were faced with the same situation? How strong is the instinct for self-preservation? The parental imperative to protect our children?

Dog is Love: Why and How Your Dog Loves You

Book 15 of 2020 was Dog is Love. I appreciate the title and I’m more inclined to believe it than the religious phrase it’s a play on. The author is long-winded and repetitive, but does cover some interesting research. The basic premise of the book is that dogs are not uniquely intelligent in the animal kingdom: that they make such good pets and companions and even workers because they are motivated by their love for us.

Some new things I learned:

  • It’s unlikely dogs evolved from wolves because friendly wolves started helping humans hunt. It’s more likely that they evolved as scavengers of human trash dumps who were less fearful of humans, and this conferred reproductive advantage. The helping humans hunt came later.
  • Dogs have a “socialization period” during which they need to get used to humans. If this doesn’t happen, they will be feral. Like cats or humans.
  • Wolves don’t have as much interest in staying near humans as dogs do. Even wolves who were hand-raised by humans.
  • Most dogs will prioritize spending time with their humans over eating food, even if they haven’t eaten all day.
  • Showing dominance with physical force is unnecessary: dogs already know who’s boss because you decide when they eat, when they go outside, where they can do their business, etc
  • Animal shelters complete more adoptions when they don’t post breed info for their dogs. Breed info is guesswork anyway: shelter employees put down whatever they think the dog looks like.

Overall, I found the book informative, and I learned a good amount of new stuff. I’m surprised because I’ve been obsessed with dogs since I wrote a book report on them in grade school.

If all this talk of dogs has given you a yearning for one, or even just a desire to try being a dog owner, you’re in luck! The current coronavirus pandemic has resulted in shelters throughout the country being shut down, and many are looking for foster homes for their dogs (and other animals). If you’re a bit lonely or sheltering alone, maybe an animal companion could improve your days. Check out Stay Home and Foster.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (and sequels)

Books 12, 13, 14 of 2020 were To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, PS I Still Love You, and Always and Forever, Lara Jean. Yeah, it’s teen romance. No, I’m not ashamed. I forgot where I heard about it. Maybe Subtle Asian Traits? A bit of background: when someone says they need a role model that looks like them, or that a book is boring because they characters don’t look like them, I roll my eyes and think “give me a break.” Is representation in fiction important? Only if you don’t have an imagination. Only if you can’t learn from or appreciate a well-written story just because the protagonist doesn’t look like you. Only if you’re so closed-minded you’re only able to relate to others of the same race. So, when I heard about this series and the inevitable discussion about “representation,” I rolled my eyes but decided to give it a go.

I’m glad I did. The value of representation isn’t in catering to those who lack the imagination to find characters of other races engaging. It’s to share stories from different experiences. We should encourage people to read stories from cultures that aren’t their own. About people who don’t look like them. I’m sad for the people who only want to read about people who look like them: it’s a deliberate and unnecessary narrowing of their worldview.

The book centers around a teen girl who’s stereotypically Asian in some ways, but balancing that with being a “normal” teen in America. Sure, not every Asian high schooler is a high-achieving “goody-goody” who’s sheltered and has very little experience dating, but it’s pretty common. I appreciate how aspects of the main character’s Korean heritage were incorporated lightly into her story (with descriptions of Korean cooking and traditions), but the series is not about race, and we aren’t bashed over the head with race issues. It’s about teen romance, and the letters she wrote to various boys she loved. Letters that were never meant to be read, but mysteriously got sent to their addressees. It’s about first love, and high school and college admissions.

The books are really fun, lighthearted reads that I got through in 1-2 days each. Perfect lockdown material. The author writes in an engaging way and makes you want to keep reading, even after bedtime. Her characters are also quirky and have personalities that could belong to real people. I love that there is a good amount of food description. Lara Jean loves baking and the author describes this in detail. It reminded me a little of Murakami. Overall, the series is like a warm blanket or an old sweater. So comforting.