When the world around you is breaking apart, piece together a puzzle.
When the world around you is breaking apart, piece together a puzzle.
When the world around you is breaking apart, piece together a puzzle.
It’s been a fucking long-ass week.
It seems strange to say that we’ve only been in quarantine mode for a week, because it already feels like we’ve been doing this forever. The office is closed, the entire creative team has been teleworking since Monday, and we’ve started a New Thing on the blog, which Jennicorn aptly named quaranticles. The world may be falling apart and we may all be in the middle of a story that was probably written by a ten-year-old with a cynical imagination, but at least we can still blog about it.
While we’re at it, I’ve started a new thing too, which I’m naming Book Bites. This can be literally translated as “short little half-assed reviews of books that I meant to review in great detail on my honor I did but I’m really fucking tired so this is what you’re getting instead.” If you really wanna go for my underbelly, you could probably translate it even more literally as “tiny rants cobbled together from my goodreads forum posts,” though I really hope you don’t.
Obvious obligatory warning: There are spoilers.
Theme of the week: Books That Made Me Want To Eat. This was actually a coincidence rather than a formal theme.
The Great Passage
I LOVE THIS BOOK SO MUCH. I don’t usually use the word “charming” to describe books. That’s changing today. This book is charming.
To summarize, Kohei Araki is a lexicographer who has spent his entire life pursuing words and found a career compiling, editing, and publishing dictionaries. (Also, sign me tf up.) He is currently embroiled in his struggle to publish The Great Passage, a dictionary dreamed up by himself and Professor Matsumoto, an elderly linguistics scholar. To this end he recruits Mitsuya Majime, an exceedingly awkward 27-year-old word geek, and trains him as his successor. The book has two stages: it introduces Araki and goes through Majime’s first months as a lexicographer, then jumps ahead 13 years to the final two years of publishing The Great Passage. In the 15 years that it takes them to finally publish The Great Passage, they are joined by extra staff swiped from elsewhere in their publishing company; Majime meets and marries the girl of his dreams, who is as single-mindedly focused on her career as he is on his; and Professor Matsumoto struggles with old age and esophageal cancer.
One of the things I love the most about this book is its complete lack of internal drama. There are issues that have to be resolved, but everything is very civilized and there’s no fighting or even angry shouting. The characters are genuinely invested in their work and go out of their way to help each other. There are three very gentle romances that don’t involve screaming accusations, name-calling, or any of the other unpleasant quirks romances tend to accrue. Even after a critical error is discovered in the final stages of the publishing process, everyone pitches in to meet the deadline and nobody gets thrown under the bus. It’s lovely. This may be my Japanese genes talking, because this book is very Japanese. I can’t even articulate why it feels so Japanese. It just does. It also feels very anime in places, particularly the part where Majime checks out for five minutes after his dream girl asks him out, and actually there is an anime version and with any luck I’ll be able to hunt it down and watch it.
And, though this usually doesn’t happen, I love all the characters. They’re not described in the depth you might find in, say, A Song of Ice and Fire. They’re more like sketches than paintings, but those sketches are all you need. I don’t know how Miura does it, but by the end I even liked Nishioka and I never thought I’d like Nishioka. I especially love Majime, who even in his forties is still awkwardly, childishly cute. I love that he writes his future wife a rambling 15-page love letter with lots of Chinese poems and classical references and it works. I love that that letter is included in its entirety at the back of the book, with commentary from Nishioka and Kishibe. I love that his wife, Kaguya, is a professional chef holding her own in a male-dominated field and that after the time jump she’s running her own restaurant. There are so many elements in this book that are just so cool, from the characters to the word analyses to the obligatory Pokémon reference. This is, as has been stated, a thoroughly Japanese book.
“It’s a nice day. You want to go somewhere?”
“How about Korakuen?”
His heart started pounding hard enough to knock his soul right out of his body. This must be what was meant by the phrase ten ni mo noboru kimochi, “being on cloud nine,” literally “rising to heaven” with joy.
In that moment, the difference between agaru and noboru became clear. Words that had been floating in chaos swiftly grouped themselves into interlocking sets.
There’s a long passage after this in which Majime rhapsodizes about the difference between agaru and noboru, which I for hopefully obvious reasons will not be transcribing here. Go get the book yourself. It was really cute.
Second Favorite Scene:
He was the genuine article. Araki looked on with admiration. It had only taken seconds for Majime to work out the underlying meaning of shima. Back when he’d put the same question to Nishioka, the results had been dismal. Nishioka had never considered any possible meaning but “island,” and his answer had been “something sticking up from the sea.” Appalled, Araki had yelled, “Idiot! Then the back of a whale and a drowned man are shima, are they?” Nishioka had looked flustered and then laughed foolishly. “Oops. You’re right. Gee, that’s a tough one. What should I say, then?”
Things This Book Made Me Want To Eat: Soba. I really want soba. Somebody please give me magic powers so I can summon a bowl of soba. Don’t quote Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration at me, idgaf.
The Girl in Red
Official rating: 3.75 stars. I was wavering between 3.5 and 4 and finally settled in the middle.
Somewhat appropriately, the last book I read before the office shut down was about a plague. The Girl in Red is a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, only Red is a twenty-year-old sci-fi geek walking 300 miles through an apocalyptic plague-ridden world to get to her grandmother’s cabin. I kept waiting for a wolf character to show up, but none did, unless you count the toothy creatures that are never actually explained. In retrospect, I suppose Sirois qualifies as the hunter character, though he doesn’t actually do anything and Red is the one who kills the maybe-wolf.
This was my first Book of the Month read, and I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I LOVE IT. On the other hand, the writing drives me bananas because Henry writes like an engineer. For context, I’ve spent a good chunk of my professional life translating giant engineering reports into a form of English that most English speakers can understand, and one thing I’ve noticed is that engineers like to throw in as much information as they can to make sure that their readers really get what they’re saying. There are (so) (many) (parentheticals). The unnecessary title casing is really irritating too. I feel like Henry could have made her point without Title Casing Everything She Could Think Of.
It’s a real pity about the writing, because otherwise this book is so good. I really really really love Red. She is intelligent, iron-willed, and tough as hell. I love that she’s a walking encyclopedia and isn’t shy about sharing what she knows. It is so refreshing to see a heroine who (1) speaks her mind, (2) doesn’t hesitate to defend herself, and (3) isn’t pushed around by an overbearing supernatural boyfriend. No offense to YA fans, of course.
My biggest frustration, apart from the writing, was exactly the same as Red’s frustration, because I spent most of the book wanting to give Adam a good kick. I could really feel her frustration with her family’s apparent inability to understand the scope of the problem, and with their refusal to take her warnings seriously. I wanted to scream when mom took off her mask and started breathing in the infected air, and then again when they heard a truck pulling into the yard and Adam’s first impulse was to go to the window to see who it was are you fucking kidding me how can they see a pile of burning bodies in the middle of the street and still not understand 🤬 I actually was honestly hoping he would end up in one of those quarantine camps he really wanted to go to, because he was seriously cramping Red’s style. The whole thing with the chest-bursting-parasite-that-might-be-a-Xenomorph was so creepy that I stayed up watching YouTube videos till three in the morning for two nights in a row because I couldn’t go to sleep. At the same time, I was grateful that the book wasn’t just a rip-off of Alien because that’s really been-there-done-that and it would’ve been beyond lame if the book had spent all its time gently parodying sci-fi movies and then ended up exactly the same way.
Then I actually finished the book and I was livid because you can’t just dangle a toothy monster in front of me and then not tell me why somebody thought it would be a good idea to breed it in their lab. Don’t get me wrong: I’m really glad that Red, Sam, and Riley made it safely to Grandma’s house. I’m really glad that there actually was a Grandma who was demonstrably alive and still inhabiting her house. On the other hand, what the f*cking f*ck is the deal with those monsters?! I get that the book is skewering sci-fi/Chosen One conventions and that, realistically speaking, there is no real reason for Red to learn about the origins of the parasite and the Cough, but COME ON! Why was the parasite created? Was it supposed to be a weapon? How is it getting into people in the first place if it’s able to come bursting out of their chests? Is it related to the Cough at all, or is it just unhappy timing? How many of it are there? I would suspect that the government was injecting it into people with their little tranq gun thingies, but they seemed pretty bent on rounding up and destroying as many parasites as they could find, so that seems unlikely. Either way, this book needed to be at least 100 pages longer because somebody’s got some splainin’ to do. At the very least I feel like Red is owed an explanation for the thing that killed her brother, but I also suspect that that’s one of those things the author intentionally left unanswered because she doesn’t know it herself.
On the plus side, I liked the story. The writing may have dampened my enjoyment of it somewhat, but it was still a good read. I love the part where they stumble across D.J. and he feeds them bibimbap. I love how chill he is even when he’s the only one left in town, carrying on with his life while the kidnapping militia is running riot. I kept waiting for something bad to happen after Red separated from her group and abandoned her pack, but I was glad that nothing did. It was good that not all of her suspicions turned out to be true. I wasn’t really a fan of the 2x-Sirois-deus-ex-machina thing, but, since this is kind of a parody, I’m okay with it.
And, although I’m disappointed that Red gave up on finding out about the parasite, I can understand why the author went in that direction. Red is not, as she says herself, a hero or a Chosen One. She’s a young woman who’s trying to reach her grandmother’s house. From that perspective, I’m okay with her not learning absolutely everything. I’m maybe being too forgiving, because I love Red so much. I loved the total slaughter of Toothpick and his band, (1) because they deserved it and (2) because I am unspeakably sick of wimpy, self-righteous characters who find themselves in mortal peril but somehow still suffer a crisis of conscience along the lines of “Oh no! Who am I to try to kill these people who are trying to kill me/my loved one(s)???” and end up getting themselves and/or others killed or injured. Red knows what needs to be done and she does it, and I really respect the hell out of that. She may not enjoy it, but she’s not stupid enough to let her conscience get her killed.
On a completely unrelated note, now I really want bibimbap. 😬
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine
You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.
Happy International Women’s Day! 🥳 I’d completely forgotten about this day until Snapchat reminded me of it an hour ago, but it seemed appropriate to mark the occasion with a review of the latest addition to my badass women shelf. I’d been planning to post this review today anyway, but it’s nice when things work out.
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is the sweet, hilarious, and heartbreaking story of a young woman who has come through horrific abuse, both at the hands of her mother and of her college boyfriend, and somehow still made it into her thirties. Following the institutionalization of her mother and the removal of her boyfriend, she has been living by herself and working as an accountant at a design agency. Given that she was raised by a mentally unstable mother and then shifted from foster house to foster house for the rest of her childhood, she has very poor social skills, and is more comfortable with classical literature than she is with other people. Though she is repulsed by the people she interacts with on a day-to-day basis, she also quietly wishes for connection, and eventually finds it when she is befriended by Raymond Gibbons, the office IT guy and her complete antithesis.
Eleanor Oliphant struck a chord with me because I am a book-inhaling, literature-reciting nerd who has been muddling along for about a decade in a life I would consider “fine.” In the thirty or so years she’s been alive, no one has ever told Eleanor that life should be better than “fine,” and it shows. She goes to work every day at the same time, comes home at the same time, and eats pasta with pesto and salad every night except for Friday, when she buys a frozen pizza from the supermarket. She has nothing to do on the weekends, and spends every weekend waiting for Monday to come while drinking herself blind. It sounds depressing when I say it like that, but Eleanor is actually really good company. For someone whose weekly highlight is a frozen margherita pizza and a bottle of Chianti, she’s surprisingly funny. She never actually means to be funny, but her day-to-day observations are hilarious. Here’s a few of my favorites:
How they loved to wear those badges on their blazers the next day! As if a silver in the egg-and-spoon race was some sort of compensation for not understanding how to use an apostrophe.
It was, I thought, the sound of madness, the kind of music the lunatics hear in their heads just before they slice the heads off foxes and throw them into their neighbor’s back garden.
Clients, I soon learned, could be very demanding; I still had limited direct contact with them, which suited me just fine.
From what I could gather, they would routinely be completely unable to articulate their requirements, at which point, in desperation, the designers would create some artwork for them based on the few vague hints they had managed to elicit. After many hours of work, involving a full team of staff, the work would be submitted to the client for approval. At that point, the client would say, “No. That’s exactly what I don’t want.”
There would be several torturous iterations of this process before the client finally declared his or herself satisfied with the end results. Inevitably, Bob said, the artwork that was signed off on at the end of the process was virtually identical to the first piece of work submitted, which the client had immediately dismissed as unsuitable. It was no wonder, I thought, that he kept the staff room well stocked with beer, wine and chocolate, and that the art team availed themselves of it quite so frequently.
OUCH. 😭💔 As a professional designer employed by a multinational corporation, I can tell you that none of Eleanor’s observations are exaggerated, and that chocolate is a welcome and necessary part of most of my days.
This was what sold me on Eleanor: I’d seen the book making the social media rounds and had been somewhat interested, but I was put off by the romance vibes in the synopsis and ultimately decided against it. Romance has never been my thing, and this one sounded particularly sappy. I might never have read the book if I hadn’t received a photo of the Eleanor vs. Clients passage from a friend who knows me waaaaayyyyyyyy too well. I was mildly disappointed to discover that Eleanor herself is not one of the tortured designers, but her perspective on the matter, first as an accountant and then as the interim office manager, somehow makes her observations even more pointed. And, although there is a love story involved, it’s a very quiet kind of love story, the kind that doesn’t make me want to hurl fox heads into my neighbors’ gardens.
One thing I really, really love about Eleanor Oliphant is that, although it’s gently hinted that Eleanor and Raymond might eventually get together, as of the end of the book they don’t. I love that they end the book as besties rather than as a couple. I love that they’ll both have time to process and figure out what they want from a relationship. I love that Honeyman didn’t feel like she had to pair them off, either with each other or with other people, by the end of the book.
I’ll admit I had concerns. One of the most prominent story arcs is Eleanor’s growing obsession with Johnnie Lomond, a local musician generally held in low regard by other characters. It becomes clear fairly quickly that Johnnie is a pretentious, talentless asshole, but Eleanor forms a massive crush on him after seeing him perform just once, and proceeds to stalk him for most of the book. To this end she buys her first laptop and smartphone and follows him on Facebook and Twitter, and frequently fantasizes about their first meeting, which she spends most of her time trying to orchestrate, and their life together. But all great fantasies must come to an end, and she eventually realizes that her imaginary relationship is never going to fly. This was an enormous relief and part of the reason I was really really glad she’s going to have time to be single and think about what she wants from a boyfriend, even if I did occasionally want to shake her and scream “RAYMOND IS SO MUCH BETTER FOR YOU!”
I was concerned about this arc not because it’s bad or unrealistic, but because by that point I loved Eleanor so much that the thought of seeing her throw herself at a man who would only hurt her was unbearable. I had a couple of theories going: (1) Eleanor would meet Johnnie Lomond, and he would say or do something awful to her; or (2) Eleanor would eventually realize that she liked Raymond, and would completely forget about Johnnie. In the end neither of these things happened because Eleanor, like the sensible, intelligent person she is, realizes completely on her own that her “love” is only a crush, and that she has been behaving like a starstruck fifteen-year-old.
The moment in which she realizes that Johnnie doesn’t know her from Eve is perhaps the most heartbreaking, because she’d built up a whole world around a man who was unworthy of her and then found it crashing down around her ears in the space of one evening. This realization leads to a mental crash, which in turn leads to a crushing, alcohol-fueled meltdown and almost suicide attempt. Fortunately, Raymond notices she’s suddenly gone missing and turns up at her door, and eventually manages to steer her into therapy. With the help of Raymond and Dr. Temple, she restabilizes and begins to learn to love herself, and also learns to cope with the loss of her sister and her mother, whose deaths she has been repressing – somewhat predictably – for most of her life.
This is one of the very few gripes I had with Eleanor Oliphant: it’s mildly predictable. It doesn’t even come close to the usual romantic formula, but the biggest influences on her life are easily guessed. On page one she says she went to her first job interview with a black eye, a couple of missing teeth, and a broken arm, which tells you that an abusive boyfriend will be coming out at some point in the book. It’s not that you can completely rule out abuse by family, but at that stage in her life an abusive partner seemed more likely. In chapter 22 her mother says “I was cursed with daughters,” which tells you that Eleanor had a sister at some point, even though she has no memory of this sister and thinks she is an only child. Looking back over the rest of the story, I’ve begun to see other clues that I missed during my first read-through, little hints of Marianne. I really need to read this again, because I’m starting to realize how smoothly Marianne was integrated into the story, even if she wasn’t explicitly introduced until the end. And, even though I could predict the missing sister and the abusive boyfriend, the death of the mother came as a complete surprise. In retrospect, it did seem a little funny that this awful woman was still allowed to verbally abuse her daughter from whatever institution she’d been put in, but it makes perfect sense that she’s just an elaborate construction created by Eleanor as a coping mechanism.
Even with all of the above, Eleanor Oliphant still wasn’t done with me, because I also bought the audiobook and listened to it during work this past week. It was excellent. The narration was wonderful. The story didn’t get old or tiring because there were so many little clues and references I’d missed the first time around, including a reference to The Wire that completely went over my head. I will say I’m really glad I read it first, because I really would’ve struggled with the Scottish accent if I hadn’t already known the story and the dialogue.
Pros: This is hands down one of the best books I’ve read this year. Of course, the year is still young, but the statement stands. If you’re on the fence about Eleanor Oliphant, read it. I recommend both the print and audio versions. As a random bonus (for me), Eleanor and I share a birth year. 🙃 As a more general bonus, fans of classical literature should have fun finding her treasure trove of classical references. My favorite:
When the buzzer sounded on the heat lamp, the color-mixing girl came over and led me to the “backwash,” which was, by any other name, a sink.
I feel like Eleanor is going to make me even more literate, because she’s seriously making me want to start reading Jane Austen and the Brontës. For instance, I only just now realized she foreshadows Marianne in chapter 13, when she mentions her love of the characters Elinor and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility. This requires further investigation. I can see I’ll be visiting the library a lot this year.
Cons: Mild predictability, a certain idiot musician who’s not worth Eleanor’s spit, unclear passage of time. In the beginning she says she’s “nearly thirty,” later she says she’s just turned thirty-one. What’s up with that? Also Reese’s fucking book club sticker is still stuck on the front wtaf 🤬 This doesn’t actually affect my enjoyment of the book – I mean, I’m not insane – but I still don’t see the need for these gorram stickers. If you’re somebody who doesn’t care about the stickers, I envy you.
I had trouble finding the book at Barnes & Noble because I was absolutely convinced it was written by Elin Hilderbrand and I have no idea why. Luckily it wasn’t too far down from the Hilderbrand section, so I still found it anyway. Then I was convinced it was written by someone named Gail Honeymoon. I actually typed “Honeymoon” earlier in this review and only caught it by chance. I seriously have no idea how my brain works sometimes. Maybe I associate it with Hilderbrand because it’s on the same shelf as the Hilderbrand books idk man
BOOM BABY it’s March and I’m currently at 30/60 books!!!
Soooooo to be totally honest 25 of those are mangas because I spent most of February blitzing through Soul Eater, which I finally did finish. On the other hand, hooray I’ve read five books that didn’t have pictures!
For anyone who might be curious, here’s a brief timeline of my relationship with Soul Eater:
My high school best friend makes me watch a few episodes of the anime. I get hooked and start collecting the manga.
2011 – 2020
I collect the entire manga but stop reading after book five or six for reasons I am currently not sure of but may have something to do with my pervasive laziness and declining reading skills.
January – February 2020
I get fed up and read the entire series over the course of 1.5 months.
Overall I enjoyed the series. There were some things I didn’t like and some things that made me go WTF, but I liked the premise and loved the ending, even though I’m still salty about Arachne. The only thing about the ending that’s got me scratching my head is Gopher and his 9,000 Noahs, (1) because I’m still not sure what the point of Resurrected!Noah was and (2) I’m not really sure that Gopher actually deserved a happy ending. Still, he’s probably going to spend the rest of his life getting pushed around and verbally abused by those 9,000 Noahs, so I suppose it evens out in the end.
About that abandoned book: I don’t plan to make a practice of abandoning books at the drop of a hat, but I really couldn’t get into The Siberian Dilemma. Maybe it would help if I had the rest of the Arkady Renko series as background – this was the first Martin Cruz Smith I’ve ever tried, so that might’ve had something to do with it. In any case the characters didn’t draw me in and the writing was very choppy and non-sequitury, and before I knew it the book was due back to the library. I tried to renew it but it for some reason was unrenewable (maybe somebody had it on hold?) and I refuse to pay fines for books I don’t like so back it went.
To be fair, it wasn’t the worst book I’ve ever read. Maybe I’ll try reading Gorky Park and work my way back up to Siberian Dilemma if I end up liking the series, but otherwise I don’t see myself trying this again anytime soon.
With Soul Eater safely out of the way, I finally got to start some new books!
Eleanor Oliphant was wonderful and I will be buying the audiobook as soon as I get to work tomorrow. The only thing that pisses me off is that stupid little sticker they keep insisting on grafting onto the covers of random books. I don’t care if this book is part of Reese’s Book Club. I don’t care if it’s Oprah’s pick. Get that shit off my book cover or at least make it removable so I can take it off myself. 🤬
Also I might’ve gone a little crazy at the library after getting Soul Eater off my list, but, hey, we all do that, right?
Last Saturday we had lunch with one of my uncles, who mentioned he’s been reading a lot of Japanese books and named names. He specifically recommended The Great Passage, so I picked it up at the library.
I’m only on page 73, but Great Passage has been speaking to my soul on many different levels: it’s about a man who has dedicated his life to words and all their possible meanings; he has this really awkward apprentice who’s so deeply invested in words that he literally checks out for five minutes to analyze the difference between the words agaru and noboru (both meaning “to rise, ascend”) when the girl of his dreams asks him to go to an amusement park with her; these two men are trying to produce a new dictionary before their publishing company can shut their project down; and, possibly most importantly, they eat a lot of amazing food in between dictionary work and now I really want Japanese food.
More seriously, I’ve also made it a goal to read more books by writers of color, particularly Asian writers. I realized some time ago that, although I’ve read hundreds of books, comparatively few of those books were written by people of color. If this is something you’re struggling with too and you want some more diverse reading options, take a look at my writers of color shelf. I only have 133 books on this shelf so far and some of the authors are repeats, but I know I’ll find more. 133 may sound like a lot, but when you compare that with the 725 books I currently have on my Want to Read shelf, it’s rather sobering. Of the almost 800 books I’ve marked “Want to Read,” only 18.3% were written by people who were not white. I did okay(ish) with my reading list last year, but I just realized that if you take away the mangas and miscellaneous graphic novels, which I generally don’t count, my 2019 book diversity percentage goes down like a lead balloon. Looking back over the five books I’ve read this year that weren’t mangas, only one of them was by a writer of color. I need to get better at this. 😭
On that note, I’m really looking forward to reading my latest library haul, particularly The Dove’s Necklace. The only thing that’s kinda giving me pause about this book is that it only has 2.98 stars on goodreads, which seems strange to me, given that it won the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Hopefully the rating is just the result of angry bigotry and not actual valid objections, because the inside cover descibes the book as a “brilliant, funny, profane, and enigmatic fever dream…as gripping as classic noir, nuanced as a Nabokov novel, and labyrinthine as the alleys of Mecca itself,” and I already kind of love it even though I haven’t actually started reading it.
I’m only in one book club on goodreads. I used to be in three, but I left the other two at the beginning of the year because I hadn’t been participating in them and I wanted to focus on the Coffee Break book club, which I’ve been actively participating in since joining. I’m not really sure what’s so different about this group because the other two were perfectly nice, but for some reason this one really lit a fire under my tail, possibly because it was the first group I’d seen that did monthly reading trackers and my OCD had spent its entire life waiting for this chance. This was the group that got me to sign up for my first-ever buddy reads, and I’m actually starting to consider the possibilities of the Book of the Month threads. I’ve never done a Book of the Month read but this month they’re all reading The Girl in Red, which happens to be on my Want to Read shelf and looks fascinating.
Actually fuck it I just checked the library catalog and found out there are seven available copies so now it’s on hold and I’m doing a Book of the Month read!!! Wish me luck!!! 😍😍😍