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R&R 132 | Lucky

I'm sorry for, again, the lack of updates and for neglecting to approve comments. I'm having a hard time keeping this blog up, it's quite a lot of work and I've still been very, very busy with work & my business. But I'm trying to make a change – to make the time to read a bit more and am slowly getting back into that 🙂 I hope that my drive to review will follow suit. Here's a review of Lucky. I've read it at the end of 2011.

Alice Sebold
Lucky
First published in: 2002
This edition: Picador, 2002
ISBN: 0-330-41836-X
Genre: non-fiction, memoir
Pages: 251
Cover photography by Paola de Grenet

book132-lucky-1000px

I've read and reviewed both of Sebold's fiction works; both books I still consider among my favorite novels. Yet something, for the longest time, kept me from reading her other book, her debut: Lucky.

It's the subject: Lucky is a non-fiction account of Sebold's rape back when she was a freshman in college. But more than that, it was sensing – from knowing Sebold's bold writing style – that she would be brutally honest and that she would not hold back. It would be a tough book to read. I was probably scared. Rape is a nightmare. For too many women (and also, men), it is a reality. Sebold's book is all too real and very confrontational.

So I admit, I had trouble picking it up and starting it in the first place. But once I did, once I had gotten through the first pages (in which the rape is described, in detail), I could not put the book down anymore. I was committed to seeing this one through.

I greatly admire Sebold as an author and I admire her even more as a woman. To say I admire her for having survived something that was done to her, that's not what she wants from anyone. Sebold doesn't want anyone's pity, she doesn't want to be looked upon as a victim, to be defined by having been raped. That's not why she wrote this book. I think she wrote it as a way to understand what happened, to get it out of her system. To let go. I have to respect that – Sebold commands respect most of all. I commend her for writing this invaluable, important book.

While generally, logically, she had a very, very hard time with it all – mostly because she was treated differently after the rape; everyone knew she was That Rape Victim and there was a stigma, now – she remained strong and remained true to herself even though everyone else thought she'd changed. Yes, she did. But she didn't break down (which is what was almost expected of her, and I as a reader would have understood if she had); instead she hardened and wanted to fight to bring her rapist to justice. Sebold thus addresses how everyone else also changed because of Alice's rape.

Alice Sebold discloses directly (but never very emotionally – like I said, she hardened) the aftermath: the effect the rape had on her life (a consequence was drug addiction) and how she coped. She seems detached at first, but that's what I mean by honesty. Sebold describes herself as she really was at that time instead of analyzing well after the fact her various feelings and emotions, which she did not yet understand right after the rape. The way Sebold writes her story does not provide us with every bit of insight in the emotional department, but it rings more true.

Sebold is a strong person, that to me is very clear. But she's also very real and honest. She's not leaving anything out to spare us. A large portion of the book deals with the trial against the rapist and the strain that puts on a rape victim. Having to constantly repeat details and events from that day. Being put on the stand and having everything dissected, the defense insinuating fault with the victim at every turn.

Despite understanding that Sebold didn't seek pity when writing her story, that doesn't mean that I didn't feel anything. The account of her rape was terrifying. Women do not want to imagine rape. I skip rape scenes when they appear in movies. I love the show Criminal Minds, but the show's rape scenes horrify me, and they're not even all that graphic. The idea of it happening to anyone, my adrenaline begins to rush immediately. It does something to a woman, imagining this. I think at moments like these women feel strong empathy for their gender. And that's why I felt I had to read this. It could happen to any one of us. That's mostly what I felt when I read those first 20 pages. A strong sense of connectedness to women in general, a solidarity. And I felt the drive to fight when I finished the book.

R&R 130 | Girl in Translation

…well. That took a while. I've been busy getting my photography butt back into gear, working with models a lot, so that's a good reason. Another is that I've been having a few issues with my computer; now I have a new one and I'm ready to continue this project properly. I've been focusing on reorganizing my office and thus largely, my life. That's going well.
I haven't been reading a lot the past few months, photography & work – yup, I've got a job now apart from taking my photography to the next level – got in the way of that. I kind of gave up on my resolution to read 75 books this year, just to allow myself to use my spare time to get organized and get moving on what I want to accomplish in the next year. But in 2012 I will challenge myself properly and keep it up, though 75 won't be doable for me I'm afraid, haha. Enough yapping. Book review time. That's what you're here for after all 😉

Jean Kwok
Girl in Translation
First published in: 2010
This edition: Penguin, 2011
ISBN: 9787-0-141-04274-9
Genre: coming of age
Pages: 290
Cover photography credited to Getty Images. C'est tout.

rr130-girlintranslation-1000px

In a nutshell?

I needed a book to save me this summer. Save me from my inability to connect phrases and words, my failed attempts to grasp a story. I found it in Jean Kwok's debut GIRL IN TRANSLATION, a book that for a while now had been on my list of books I knew I would love, a book that I knew I would enjoy.

Kimberly Chang is but eleven years old when she and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to the United States, New York to be exact. Neither speaks a word of English, and their shocking state of poverty – their apartment without windows, freezing cold in winter; their few square feet of space shared with cockroaches – only adds to the feeling of alienation in their new country. Kimberly, however, is as determined as she is smart; she quickly realizes that school is the answer. Giving her all, during the day Kimberly strives to improve her grades and learning the language, while at night she helps her mother by working in their aunt's sweatshop.

This book was everything I needed this summer: a well written and moving story. A book that would leave a mark on me, not easy to forget. A book to get lost in.

Kimberly inspires, deeply. She's a wonderful narrator, one to fully root for, which you do. This young immigrant, I admired her greatly for her fight to change the lives of herself and her mother. I didn't want to put this book down. I wanted to know Kim's story, fully.

It's not just the story which captivates; Kwok's writing technique is, although simple in style, very commendable as it adds to the story in many ways. The English dialog is put down as Kimberly would have understood it, with misunderstood words and phrases printed in Italics. (Example: tuition is understood by Kim as "twosheen", and Kwok spells it this way, phonetically.) Sentences look a bit off-key at times, and the reader has some puzzling to do every now and again, but it's a very helpful way for readers feel what Kimberly struggles with. This technique helps bring us closer to Kwok's narrator.

Kwok applies this for translations of Chinese dialog, as well, by literally translating what is said by Chinese characters in English and having Kimberly explain them to us. (An example from page 191: "'You have one big gall bladder.' He meant I was brave.")
This play of words and phrasing, this mix and match of understanding and misunderstanding, stresses what it's like to live between two cultures, to find yourself juggling two languages.

While Kwok tells her story well by writing it well, there's a far more important element which makes Kim's story well told: it is authentic. Without prior knowledge of Jean Kwok's personal life, I recognized that Kwok speaks, through Kimberly, from experience. Upon further research I learned that, while GIRL IN TRANSLATION is not a memoir, it does bear similarities to Kwok's own life story, as she herself has emigrated to the US with her family, lived in poverty despite hard work, and applied herself in school to improve her and her family's circumstances. Kwok was five years old at the time, spoke not a word of English, and worked hard, earning herself early admission to Harvard.

And while I'm applauding Kwok for her accomplishments, and congratulating her for her skill in writing a story in a genuine voice, I also can't help feeling saddened. Reading this story shed a light on what I have to be grateful for. A lot. I'm also somewhat ashamed of myself for "being shocked", so to speak, at Kimberly's story. Was I actually surprised, "shocked that this can happen", or was it simply me finally opening my eyes, turning them towards the truth instead of looking away? A bit of both, I suppose, but mostly the latter. I'm sure this wasn't Kwok's intention, but in ways I did feel confronted with my own willful ignorance. But I think that's a good thing; another reason why this book is valuable. It does have a message, and it's not trivial. It's important. Open your eyes.

What did truly shock me, was how Kim and her mom are treated by Aunt Paula. She exploits her own family (as it's her sweatshop they have to work in to pay off their "debt" to her), and wishes for them to accomplish nothing, to be nothing, to have nothing. I'm aware of Chinese values with regards to family, and understood why it is hard for Kim and her mom to speak up (at the risk of being ungrateful). This only frustrated me more though: I was shocked at Paula's pettiness, HER lack of loyalty towards her family.

Yes, this is definitely a strong book about an immigrant overcoming hardships and unusual obstacles other teens don't necessarily have to deal with. GIRL IN TRANSLATION is a tale of personal triumph – but perhaps even more, it's an inspiring story about a girl growing up. A girl, being a girl with her own flaws and naiveté. I cannot relate to Kimberly in that I've been brought up in a home with a functioning radiator, in a home where I had everything and should have wanted for nothing. That doesn't mean that I couldn't understand her and root for her. Of course I did. Kwok made sure of that, as I've established earlier.

But I could relate, very much, to her coming of age. Being an outsider in school, being bullied and teased. Laughed at and feeling that no one gets you, and that you're alone. Feeling… less than pretty, going through puberty. All the awkwardness involved with starting to like boys for the first time. In many ways, this book is also recommendable for young adult readers.

Kwok focused a lot on Kim's coming of age, which I didn't mind. But I would have loved additional insight into Kim's (and her mom's!) day-to-day life, or read about more interactions with other immigrants – aside from those with a love interest. But I must admit I did expect this book to be about a young girl first and foremost, and an immigrant second.
I am glad the novel was not overly dramatized for drama's sake. The book doesn't weigh too heavily. There's optimism. I don't need to have everything spelled out to me, either, so Kwok did well in allowing us to realize for ourselves certain details.

I'll be keeping an eye on this author. I think GIRL IN TRANSLATION is utterly charming, but I have a feeling that Kwok has more to give.

In a nutshell

Pros:
– A breeze to read; unputdownable which is exactly what I needed
– Great play with language
– Relatable coming of age story
– An endearing, sympathetic character
– Genuine, authentic voice

Cons:
– Somewhat predictable at times
– Very much coming of age, focus is mostly on Kim; would have appreciated more insight into Kim's mom's and other immigrants' lives

R&R 129 | The Undomestic Goddess

Sophie Kinsella
The Undomestic Goddess
First published in: 2005
This edition: Black Swan, 2006
ISBN: 9780552772747
Genre: chick lit
Pages: 416
Cover illustration by Gavin Reece; design by Stephen Mulcahey

R&R 129 | The Undomestic Goddess

I'm fine with books that aren't perky and happy. I'll read those that move me to tears. But I need some laughter and fun at times, too. I stocked up on chick lit the first weekend of April, and read one immediately. I needed it (as well as a glass of red wine). Sophie Kinsella is usually a safe bet if you want giggles and enjoyment.

THE UNDOMESTIC GODDESS offers plenty of humor, as Samantha Sweeting finds herself in a rather silly situation all of the sudden. A smart – with an IQ of 158 – and driven lawyer, Sam is up for partnership at London's most prestigious law firm… but then there's The Error. The one Sam made, costing the firm 50 million pounds, most likely costing Sam her job. In a humiliated daze, Sam flees the city, taking a train to some obscure town in the Cotswolds, where she's quickly mistaken to be the applicant for a new job as housekeeper for the Geigers. Sam figures her life in London is as good as over. Why not… start somewhere fresh? So, she takes the job.
There is just one catch. Sam has absolutely zero, NIL experience at housework. She can't even make toast. Needless to say, the Geigers' new housekeeper is anything but the domestic goddess they believe her to be…

Yes. This one's very silly indeed, but it offered me what I needed at the time, which is several giggles. Sam is, despite some inconsistencies which I'll get to in a moment, a very sympathetic character and I enjoyed her story, generally, because of her likability. She does remind me of SHOPAHOLIC's Becky Bloomwood, but Sam's far less irritating and you know, less crazy. She has more of Becky's better qualities.

The setting is lovely; I'm a fan of rural England, especially the Cotswolds: utterly charming and visually stunning. I could picture being there. Kinsella did make me feel like I was completely in the Cotswolds zone during this read.

And then there's the romance, which is predictable – The gorgeous gardener? Hello Captain Obvious – but very, very cute nonetheless. There is chemistry between Sam and Nathaniel. I simply took a shine to him, because he seems to be a great guy and a fine love interest. Not too perfect, not too confident, a quiet one. I liked that he owns a pub, too. His mother Iris is a warm character I instanly adored. Even the Geigers are somewhat likeable, though they are a handful at times.

I never have high standards when I read chick lit, that would be unreasonable, but several things about GODDESS bothered me.

For one, Sam uses her real name while on her rural hideout from the world, but in this day and age of Google – and her Error being all that's talked about online – surely… I mean, the Geigers strike me as the Curious Kind, and they do own computers. Sam should've used a fake name to make the story a bit more believable.

But either way, the story borders on ridiculous at times; Sam is supposed to have an IQ of 158 but I was convinced throughout the book that she's actually dumb as a doorknob. A lot of housework isn't so much about being a full-on domestic who's handy with everything, as it is about having common sense. It's trial and error, and usually you catch on quickly enough. But not as quickly as Sam catches on the art of cuisine. In a few weekends she can bake the perfect double-layered cake and cook her way through French cuisine. For a girl who didn't know how to boil an egg properly to become Britain's master chef over the span of a few weeks, now that's equally doubtful.

A supersmart lawyer doesn't know how to make toast, thus is actually an idiot; several weeks later said idiot is the new Julia Child, thus is actually a genius. I could not suspend my disbelief in either case.

But you can kind of see it coming, a book entitled THE UNDOMESTIC GODDESS – of course at the end of it all, she's a rockstar in the housekeeping department. The book is generally predictable: I knew what the deal was with Sam's Error immediately.

I also noticed a bit of a black and white view of London/city versus the countryside. London career life is soul-sucking, unsocial, lifeless, pale skinned miserableness – while life in the country is pure and good… blah blah. Career women have lives too, though admittedly women like Sam who live and breathe for partnership may be taking it a step too far. But it doesn't mean that life as a domestic in the country is all contentment either. It depends on who you are and what you want out of life and what makes you happy.

But I do understand that Sam needs to figure out what she wants, and what she wants isn't the career and city life anymore. She needs to see the good in the other side of things. (Sam, thankfully, does evolve and learns a lot in this story.)

Finally, the ending, I won't give it away, but it is disappointing because it's all over the place. The book "ends" several times, at least that's how it feels. But then Kinsella has a change of heart and inserts another plot twist. And another, and one more. The reader feels kind of pulled in every direction.
I do wish Kinsella would have made the ending less of a roller coaster, and focused her energy and pages instead on providing closure on other storylines and characters which had been left somewhat in the balance. What happens to the Geigers, what happens to selected people from Sam's law firm, Sam's relationship with her mother…? It would have been better if GODDESS had been a bit more neatly wrapped up. It's hard to explain this one, because I can so easily give something away, but I'll just say that GODDESS would've been a more satisfying read had Kinsella allowed her characters to go through with some necessary confrontations.

Overall I did enjoy the book. I was looking for breezy and funny and I got that, of course I did. THE UNDOMESTIC GODDESS is a fun read, perfectly light, but it's not without its flaws. But I wasn't looking for much, and its cuteness makes GODDESS alright enough for me.

R&R 125 | The Hunger Games

This review took a while. The weather has been amazing here the past few weeks and I've been enjoying it 🙂

Suzanne Collins
The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games trilogy, #1)
Dutch: N/A
First published in: 2008
This edition: Scholastic, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-439-02352-8
Genre: post-apolcalyptic, dystopian
Pages: 374
Cover design by Elizabeth N. Parisi / Phil Falco; illustration by Tim O'Brien

R&R 125 | The Hunger Games

In a nutshell?

Yes. I am very late to the party. But at least I made it. Much like our protagonist Katniss Everdeen, one cannot escape THE HUNGER GAMES.

THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins is a gripping trilogy set in a future where today's North-America is no more; the Capitol rules the 12 districts of Panem, and to punish them all for defying the Capitol once in an uprising (so violent, the thirteenth district was eradicated) every year the Capitol organizes The Hunger Games, a nightmarish Survivor type scenario set in an arena, where no one gets kicked off the island exactly, rather is murdered by another contestant, a "Tribute". All this to remind the 12 remaining districts that the Capitol reigns supreme.

I can see why these books are so widely read. Their subject is unusual. But what makes THE HUNGER GAMES actually defiant of convention, is that these Tributes, these 24 people chosen to fight one another to the death until only one of them remains, are between the ages of 12 and 18. Children, one boy and one girl per district, forced to kill or be killed. The whole thing is televised, a twisted Truman Show for the Capitol's pleasure… while it is required viewing for the 12 districts, forced to watch their children survive by killing one and other in an arena, for entertainment.

THE HUNGER GAMES's first book of the same title introduces us to Katniss, 16 years old, from the poverty stricken Seam in District 12. She spends her days hunting the forest (illegally) to take care of her mother and younger sister, Prim. Thankfully, she's good with bow and arrows, finding regular game to trade or bring home to the table. 'Thankfully', she knows how to be hungry, how to survive.
'Thankfully', because on the day of the Reaping, the unexpected happens: Katniss, in taking the place of Prim, becomes one of the two Tributes for the 12th district.

Nothing about this one is politically correct. It's a wake-up call unlike anything else. That is its appeal. Collins is very daring.1
THE HUNGER GAMES is very, very violent, but Collins does a good job showing, not telling. She doesn't describe in endless detail what happens to the kids. It's not all gore and muck.

A lot of THE HUNGER GAMES actually deals with solidarity and conscience. What matters are those precious tender moments (Rue's song). Rebellion, caring for others, sacrifice – in life or death situations. THE HUNGER GAMES is about senselessness, and it's a hard read, but it's not without hope. The book is really is about survival and strength.

Another major strength of THE HUNGER GAMES is how well the dystopian world is developed. I loved Katniss' descriptions of District 12 and life there (The Hob, hunting with Gale, her mother's medicine). What I found to be equally alluring is how the Capitol's people look: magenta hair, turquoise skin, golden tattoos all over. A great dichotomy: the Districts bleak, poor, colorless; the Capitol a colorful and greedy extravaganza.

Panem and its districts are more than sufficiently detailed to make a convincing impact on the reader. I could picture it all only too well, and while it's a scary thought, it's a necessary one. Humans, we're bent on self-destruction. I sometimes worry about the world 100 years from now. Naturally this book is a criticism of how we conduct ourselves. A possible outcome. Dystopias are by definition harsh, but this one is the cruelest I've ever read about. THE HUNGER GAMES affects the reader tremendously due to the glimpse Collins offers us. A glimpse into something horrible, something self-created.
(A lot of this is my interpretation of it; the book is geared towards a younger audience, and thus doesn't get philosophical, doesn't criticize as obviously or as directly.)

THE HUNGER GAMES also criticizes the media, in a sense. The Games, televised as they are, is an utter media circus: Gladiators of the future. Kids are being sent to their death, but they're going (out) in style: Katniss has a team of stylists, and there's all kinds of prepping for interviews and what not. This irritated me at times, but then I realized, of course, that it's supposed to irritate me.

Naturally, there is a love triangle between Katniss and two boys, one of whom is in the Games with Katniss. I found this to be a little bit unnecessary personally. The reader instantly senses which one it's going to be.
Furthermore, Katniss and Peeta, the male district 12 Tribute, engage in a faux relationship as a tactic for the games. I'll probably be in the minority here when I say that this whole set-up is utterly ridiculous. (I'll use one of my favorite words: cringeworthy.) Collins went too far with their "made up love affair", and it took away from the real moments, which were there but which were tainted. Everything became forced, except perhaps Peeta's feelings. I was convinced of their genuineness throughout. But it wasn't quite enough.

Katniss and Peeta as a couple (real or fake) underwhelmed me, but as individual characters they are very strong, especially Katniss. Her voice is very collected as she describes the horrors she and others endure. Katniss has to be one of the most admirable young female heroines that we've had in fiction for a while. I do wish she'd been more emotional at times – any reaction to the situation – but she's trying to be brave and hold it together, and I can accept that. Katniss really takes you with her into that arena. The use of the present tense is most effective in that sense, and well played by Collins. It only increases the build-up of tension; you want to know what happens next, all the time.

Needless to say, I could not for the life of me stop reading this. I started, stayed up until well after 2AM, which is when my eyelids protested heavily against my adamant reading session. I picked it up immediately the next day, and didn't stop until I was done. This book completely swallowed me up, that's how enthralled I was. I instantly regretted not having the other two books in the trilogy handy. I of course ordered them straight away, then. Good thing too, because while THE HUNGER GAMES does have somewhat of an ending, it's obviously part 1 of a bigger story. So if you're going to read THE HUNGER GAMES, you might as well get the box set. Trust me on this. It doesn't much matter if the other books are better or worse. You don't want to be left hanging.

In a nutshell

Pros:
– Daring; children killing each other
– Has meaning: critiques our need for self-destruction and power
– Well detailed; a world and future created very clearly. Loved this especially
– Strong characters, especially the narrator
– Readable for teens, adults as well
– Excellent pacing. Can't put it down.

Cons:
– Romance is forced
– Wouldn't say this Scholastic book is suitable for really young kids

NOTES:
1. After I read the whole trilogy, I learned about a novel called BATTLE ROYALE, which covers a lot of similar ground. Very similar. BATTLE ROYALE was written in '99, prior to THE HUNGER GAMES, and Collins has been accused of ripping off BATTLE ROYALE. But I don't know the facts. I won't jump to conclusions. I haven't read BATTLE ROYALE. I've read THE HUNGER GAMES, and I've never read anything like it. And that is how I will review this series.

DISCUSSSSSS:
THE HUNGER GAMES is being adapted into a movie. Of course. It will star Jennifer Lawrence (WINTER'S BONE) as Katniss, Josh Hutcherson (THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT) as Peeta and Liam Hemsworth as Gale. I personally was rooting for Lyndsy Fonseca (for Katniss) and Hunter Parrish (WEEDS; for Peeta), but think Lawrence can pull it off and I'm willing to give Hutcherson the benefit of the doubt after seeing him in THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT.
Thoughts? Opinions?