Saturday, May 13, 2017

BOOKS! (The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love + Bound Feet and Western Dress)

Today's review features two used books! The first I got from a local library book sale (was intrigued by the fact that it won a Pulitzer). The other one I found in my local Little Free Library (was simply curious).

The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos

This would be a fantastic novel to pair with the animated film Chico & Rita on, say, a university syllabus for course about pre-Castro Cuban music and migration to the United States. Coincidentally I caught the film on TV not too long before spotting this novel, which was fitting since they are both stories focused on Cuban musicians set during the same era. Originally from Las Piñas (in a province once known as Oriente), the Castillo brothers develop as artists in Havana before joining a wave of Cuban musicians who have been immigrating to New York since the 1920s.They arrive in 1945 and are young men living it up, but not without their troubles.

Younger brother Nestor (trumpet, vocals) has carried melancholy and anxiety with him since childhood, always feeling like something is missing especially after his first love dumped him back in Cuba. Older brother Cesar (band leader, vocals) is a restless macho man with daddy issues who let his pride ruin his marriage back in Cuba, and in NYC is only concerned with playing music and having a good time (copious amounts of sex, food, and alcohol). They lead an orchestra called The Mambo Kings, whose modest renown eventually scores them an appearance on 'I Love Lucy' and a nationwide tour. But Cesar loses the will to play music after Nestor's untimely death, and he doesn't take the inevitable loss of youth and virility well either. So after living in New York for three decades and watching the high life and his brother slip through his fingers with seemingly nothing to show for it, Cesar holes up in a hotel room to die, drinking alcohol, playing his old records, and reflecting on the past. The novel is mostly Cesar's memory of the past, as we revisit his life as a musician. You have ample (and I mean, ample) reasons to dislike the guy, but since he's all you've got to take you through the story, you want to sympathize with him despite yourself.

Mambo Kings is looong and I certainly wouldn't be in a rush to read it again soon, but it is incredibly thorough. If you're interested in Cuban culture, New York and its club scene after WW2, jazz and Latin music styles of the time, or simply enjoy reading emotive prose about love, passion (lots of sex scenes!), and loss, then read this book.

Favorite quotes:
"What did he seek to accomplish? To write a song communicating such pure love and desire that María, far away, would magically reinstate him into the center of her heart. He though that she would 'hear' these melodies in her dreams and that something would possess her... and he would hear a knocking at the door [and] find María of his soul standing there, this woman who had somehow become the lost key to his happiness" (46). 

"The guys who had it rough were the black musicians, who were treated in some places like lepers. No violence against them, just a bad silence when they'd go walking into a store, a disenchantment when they'd walk into a  lodge for the hungers' special breakfast, plates slapped down on the table, drinks poured quickly, eyes averted... Spirits were dampened, especially when the weather was bad, because in their travels through the heartland of America these fellows sometimes felt an Arctic coldness of spirit that made New York seem like Miami Beach" (180-81).

Bound Feet and Western Dress by Pang-Mei Natasha Chang 

While giving attention to Chang's experiences growing up and fitting in (or not) as a Chinese-American girl in New England, this biography mostly focuses on her grandfather's sister Yu-i, whom Chang first read about in a book while studying Chinese history at Harvard. (Yu-i and her legendary poet first husband, Hsü Chih-mo, were often known as the first couple in China to get a modern divorce.) Inspired to learn more, Chang spent the next five years interviewing her great-aunt and writing this book. Born in 1900, Yu-i was married at 15 to the then-young scholar who saw her as little more than a filial obligation and country bumpkin. She ended up moving around from China to England, Paris, Berlin, back to China, and then to Hong Kong before emigrating to New York City in the 1970s.

The book's title refers to a conversation between Yu-i and Chih-mo in which he demanded a divorce because they weren't suited for each other ("bound feet and Western dress do not go together"). It also refers to how Yu-i's personal inclinations often went against tradition, as she refused to have her feet bound as a child, repeatedly endeavored to become educated even though girls' education wasn't prioritized, lived as a single mom in Europe, and eventually became a teacher, bank vice president, property owner, and businesswoman back in China all by 1928. And yet, as remarkable as Yu-i was, she neither reveled in her own accomplishments nor lambasted her ex-husband in this book. She learned to support herself because she had to, and as he mother of her ex's children she acted as daughter-in-law to his family even after he remarried and later died.

Aside from learning about Yu-i, I learned a lot more than I'd expected to about Chinese traditional values, especially in regard to women's duties as daughters, wives, and daughters-in-law. It's very similar to the information you might get from The Joy Luck Club, for example, but it includes more detailed explanations of customs, spiritual beliefs, Chinese family structures, and where these tenets come from.

Favorite quotes:
"Rice was the food of the country, to be respected in all its phases: the ripe grain in the husk, the paddy, glutinous rice, rice in the straw, hulled rice and cooked rice. To honor the farmers who planted, tilled, harvested and husked the rice, one was not supposed to leave even one kernel at the bottom of one's ricebowl" (177).  

"No matter how Western or progressive his thoughts, I believed Hsü Chi-mo to be Chinese, for the Western love that he sought did not save him in the end" (199).

Saturday, April 22, 2017

BOOKS! (Life Is Short but Wide + The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto)

Today I've got a library book sale find, and a book that I bought over a year ago back when I worked at a bookstore. I bought the first book out of pure curiosity. The second book I bought mostly for the hype, as its author is kind of a local celebrity here, and the store I worked at hosted a signing event that attracted an almost obscene amount of people.

Life is Short but Wide by J. California Cooper

The premise on the back cover is purposely vague, so at first I didn't have a strong inclination to buy this book. But I knew that it was written by a black woman, that it was about black people in a small Oklahoma town (and I know nothing about Oklahoma), and that it was cheap. So I bought it. The first half is about a fictional town called Wideland and the black/brown community that comprises part of it. The Strong family are the focus, buying their own land and house, and going through the regular ups and downs of life along with their neighbors. The second half is largely about Myine (pronounced "mine") , the only granddaughter of the family who also ends up being the last Strong.

At first her story is a Black American country version of Cinderella. A tale in which Myine gets sold by her dad's mistress for $100 to be ordered around and molested by white people for five years, only to be brought back to her home as her stepmom's servant. This subplot has a good ending, but I'll leave you to find out what happens. As an adult, Myine falls in love with her longtime friend and neighbor Herman, but it takes a while. Life Is Short but Wide is supposed to be a sweet tale of old love in a small town, a rare treat to counter our obsession with youth and youth-related things (beauty, wild adventures, young love, etc). But it inadvertently reads as a cautionary tale, or it did for me at least. Spend most of your adult life scorning how lonely you are, when you see the person you love (and who you know loves you) nearly every day? But you're too scared to say anything, so you wait until your 70s or 80s to finally open up and start the relationship? Naw. No ma'am.

It really is a wonderful story though. A "Y-shaped" story of how Myine and Herman are brought together, and  a reminder of how tumultuous the 20th century was. Multiple characters observe or even lament that time is flying by, with too many things happening and the world changing too fast. Most of the action takes place between the 1920s and 1990s, less than a century, only two or three generations. And yet within that time frame are almost too many advancements, tragedies, wars, movements, trends, achievements, and controversies to count. My grandpa often tells me, "Just keep living," and this novel is an embodiment of that.

Favorite quotes:
"But if you are counting ages, you ain't paying enough attention to the story no way" (3). 

"They lived, they loved, and her being crippled did not bother them. Their faith in their God, and the adventure of their life, made them ready when love had come. Their love, and passions, made them indestructible, so far, in the life they had chosen to live. Together" (263).

The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto by Mitch Albom

The are two things you need to remember when reading Mitch Albom novels: 1) Everyone and everything is connected, and 2) Albom stays doing too much. I read two of his books when I was younger and don't remember anything about them, but reading this one reminded me, Ohhh, yep, Mitch Albom definitely wrote this.This time we get to see Albom flex his music head muscle along with his storytelling muscle. The titular character, Francicsco de Asis Pascual Presto, or Francisco Rubio, or Frankie Presto, is a fictional musician who was born Villarreal, Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Having learned classical guitar in his hometown, he gets shipped to England as a preteen and a chance meeting with Django Reinhardt takes him to the US, where he's immersed in jazz, soul, and country music styles in Detroit and the South. Accumulating more musical skills and acquaintances along the way, playing in various bands eventually leads him to rock n' roll stardom in the 1960s. But fame is fickle, and pivotal tragedies and personal flaws lead him to a quiet and solitary life, almost abandoning music for good. He dies in front of an audience back in Villarreal, a spectacular moment witnessed by many but understand by none. And throughout this journey he has the same guitar, each of whose six strings turns blue whenever his playing ends up saving a life. Hence, Magic Strings.

The story alternates between the end of his life (famous artists and industry people gathering at his funeral to recall him as they knew him), and the beginning of his life (as narrated by music personified, who fills in all the parts of Frankie's story that no one, sometimes not even Frankie, knows). So you get Frankie's story told backward and forward, and eventually both trajectories meet to give you a whole picture of his life. I'd expected not to like it because I'd only purchased it based on hype that went stale a year and a half ago. But I actually thoroughly enjoyed it!

My only criticism is that Music's characterization is awkward in parts. It's supposed to be one of many talents that are out there working, often imperceptibly, in human lives. And while I believe in the power of music, Music the narrator has too much power (all seeing, all knowing, intervening when it sees fit) and too much space to pontificate for it to just be one of many. Maybe Albom really, really wanted Music to be God, but using "God" probably would have led to the novel being miscategorized and not selling as much, so he made God "Music" instead. Most of the time it worked, but not consistently enough for me not to feel like something was off. Other than that, as homage to musical genres and prophets, as a glance at the various paths that a musician's life can take, Magic Strings is certainly a worthwhile read. Even what it means to be a musician, what music as an art form is and how musicians employ it, such notions vary in innumerable ways. If you like legends, love stories, pop culture or modern music history, then read this book.

Favorite quotes:
"Did you ever notice how music sounds different played outdoors?...That's because I was born in the open air, in the breaks of ocean waves and the whistling of sandstorms, the hoots of owls and the cackles of tui birds. I travel in echoes. I ride the breeze. I was forged in nature, rugged and raw. Only man shapes my edges to make me beautiful. Which you have done. Granted. But along the way, you have made assumptions, like the more silent the enviornment, the purer I am. Nonsense" (15-16).

"Could you imagine a bird imprisoning another bird? A horse jailing another horse? As a free from of expression, I will never understand it. I can only say that some of my saddest sounds have been heard in such places. A song inside a cage is never a song. It is a plea" (114).

Friday, April 21, 2017

Memories, Movement

(Or, "Unnecessary Things That I Remember While Driving, Walking, or Trying to Fall Asleep")

That one time in college when I was at self-checkout at the grocery store with my hair wrapped in a scarf, and a white teenybopper tried to pay me to run her items with mine so she wouldn't have to wait in line.

That one time I went to the pediatrician, but randomly a different doctor was there this time, and she warned me to take my adrenal medication regularly, otherwise I might not be able to have children later on.

That one time in elementary school when I was a huge Destiny's Child fan, and I asked the roller rink DJ to play "Apple Pie a la Mode" and he said he'd see what he could do. Stayed until the rink closed that day, and he never played the song.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 17

As usual, the spring broadcast season is starting in Japan, meanwhile I'm stateside and just now finishing my selections for winter. I watched the first show with English subtitles on KissAsian (here), the second with and without subs on DramaCool (here), and the third without subs on DramaCool (here).

突然ですが、明日結婚します (Totsuzen desu ga, ashita kekkon shimasu/It's Sudden, But Tomorrow We're Getting Married/Everyones Getting Married) - Fuji TV/2017

The only reason I gave this show a try was because it seemed like a manga-based romantic drama that would hold my attention, something like 'Shitsuren Chocolatier'. I was vaguely aware that the leads are both musicians/actors (Flumpool guitarist and lead vocalist Yamamura Ryuta, model/singer Nishiuchi Mariya), but I don't know them well enough to call myself a fan. The gist is that a popular TV announcer named Ryu (Yamamura), who refuses to get married, ends up in a relationship with a bank employee named Asuka (Nishiuchi), who dreams of getting married and becoming a housewife. The thing is, they get along extremely well and have excellent chemistry except for when the topic of marriage comes up. But even then, as stubborn as they are about their preferences, they respect each other's opinions. If only Asuka's rich finance colleague and Ryu's former lover weren't each trying to keep them apart. Between the main couple, obviously one side "wins" out in the end, and I'm sure you can guess which one. But the progression toward that change of heart isn't heavy handed. The show has only 9 episodes instead of 10, and the last episode is not very good (I've yet to see a good rushed ending!), but overall the show is a fun look at the motivations people have for getting into relationships. Watching Nakamura Anne ('From 5 to 9') play the "I don't need a man" best friend and Takaoka Saki ('Chijin no Ai') get her mature-but-conniving seductress thing on are also huge pluses.

Quartet (カルテット/Karutetto) - TBS/2017

The show's premise, the fact that Shiina Ringo wrote the theme song, and the fact that Mitsushima Hikari ('Woman') stars in it sold me on this show. Four musicians who did the grown-up thing and relegated their musical talent to mere hobbies meet coincidentally at a Tokyo karaoke spot (use karaoke  for practice rooms, who woulda thunk?), and decide to form a string quartet. This quartet, called Quartet Donuts Hole, is based at the second violinist's family cottage in Karuizawa. They each have less-than-stellar pasts, but lead violinist Maki is the most mysterious, speaking the softest and saying the least about herself. She becomes the anchor of the quartet and the four-way friendship, but little does she know that cellist Suzume (Mitsushima Hikari) has been paid by Maki's mother-in-law to investigate Maki's involvment in the disappearance of her husband. The humor is dry, the adult awkwardness is so satisfying, and the secrets revealed about each member emphasize their humanity rather than casting them as bad people. They've each endured their share of disappointment, but they also have a rare opportunity to re-engage in their musical passions with a new group of friends, long after what's often called the youthful "prime" of one's life. 'Quartet' is a slow burn, but it was my favorite of the season!

奪い愛、冬 (Ubai Ai, Fuyu/Stolen Love, Winter) - TV Asahi/2017

 'Totsuzen desu ga' gave this show a shout-out (and it turns out that 'Ubai Ai, Fuyu' reciprocated), and since I'm still waiting on info about all the spring 2017 dramas to come out I decided to watch it. I actually just finished it a few hours ago. What's great about this show is that it's only 7 episodes, and not a minute is wasted. What I also really like about this show is that it has not one, not two, but four good n' crazy heifers (GCH). And not all of them are women, either! When talking about 2016's adultery-focused drama 'Seiseisuru hodo, Aishiteru', I expressed my profound appreciation for the scorned wife character in that show, the determined and violently spiteful woman who cuts through the mushiness and will stop at nothing to hold onto what's hers. 'Ubai Ai, Fuyu' is basically a lower-budget, more interesting version of 'Seiseisuru hodo' except the adulterous couple isn't as naive, and the GCHs move the story along more than the main leads do. Graphic designers Hikari (Kurashina Kana, 'FIRST CLASS 2') and Shin (Otani Ryouhei, 'Nigehaji') were madly in love until Shin abruptly dumped her and left her heart in shambles. Eventually Hikari  found new love with Kouta, her current fiance and fellow designer. But when work reunites Hikari and her now-married ex for the first time in years, chaos ensues. There's Hikari and Kouta's co-worker Shuko, who thrives on mess and tries to break the couple up for the fun of it. Kouta's elitist mom hates Hikari and uses her nice-nasty ways to humiliate Hikari at every chance. Kouta (Miura Shouhei, 'Suki na Hito ga Iru Koto') becomes so insecure and jealous about Shin's re-entry into Hikari's life that he has a breakdown and becomes mentally and emotionally abusive. But Shin's wife Ran (Mizuno Miki, '37.5°C no Namida' and 'I'M HOME') takes the cake! I don't want to reveal too much because you have to witness Ran's madness yourself, but she's determined to ruin Hikari. Ruin her. In every sense of he word. If you love intense draaaamaaa, then this show is for you.

All of these shows were great in their own way, but like I said, 'Quartet' was my favorite! Now, onward to spring! 

Sunday, April 9, 2017

BOOKS! (Joe Turner's Come and Gone + Pachinko)

Lately I've been reading so much but not writing! Sometimes it takes me a while to get started on reviews because while reading I think about all the things I could say about a book. Usually I respect what I read enough to let it marinate rather than rushing to write about it. But I never want to give it all away, and there's no point in spending hours agonizing over something that's supposed be fun! So without further delay, here are a book that I found at a bargain book warehouse and another that I found at Costco.

Joe Turner's Come and Gone by August Wilson

This is the fourth of August Wilson's Century Cycle plays that I've read, and the last one that I have in my possession (need to find the other ones!). This is undoubtedly my favorite. Set in the 1910s, it's late enough for the Great Migration to begin, but still early enough for people who were born into slavery to remember not being free. Seth and Bertha Holly run a boardinghouse in Pittsburgh that Black people of various backgrounds pass through. Once such person is Herald Loomis, formerly a deacon and sharecropper, and one of countless free men captured by Joe Turner and forced to work in a prison chain gang for seven years, beginning  in 1901. Arriving in Pittsburgh with his young daughter, he's been searching for his wife for the past three years. Born free, he was made a slave, long after emancipation, by a white man who had the connections to get away with it. Loomis is the most crucial character in this play, opening wounds and asking questions that are echoed in many Black people's experiences. Questions of movement and loss, new beginnings, agency, crossed paths, missed opportunities, identity dismantled and reframed. We can't be that worthless if they won't leave us alone...but why us? Why won't they leave us alone? Loomis believes that reuniting with his wife will set things back to the way they were and make it right. But only he can claim the belonging and happiness, the freedom, that he seeks. 

I've noticed in Wilson's plays that there's always a character who's more connected to the spirit world (be it God or the ancestors) than the others. These are unlikely prophets who have obvious disabilities or setbacks. In Fences, it's Uncle Gabriel, chasing hellhounds away and guarding the gates of Heaven, who had suffered a traumatic brain injury in WW2. In The Piano Lesson it's Wining Boy, the down-on-his-luck uncle who speaks to the spirits of his lynched ancestors. In Seven Guitars, it's Hedley, whose development was impaired when his father kicked him in the head as a child. His manifestos about the kingdom of God and the holiness of Black people are dripping with righteousness and madness. And in Joe Turner, it's Bynum ("bind 'em", Bynum, get it?), the longtime boardinghouse resident who uses voodoo to solve people's problems and bind them together. If you recognize Jordan Peele's film Get Out as a modern day slavery movie and understand that Black people's bodies have yet to stop being snatched since 1865, read this play.

Favorite quotes:
"That's why I don't trust nobody but the good Lord above, and I don't love nobody but my mama" (63).

"Then one day my daddy gave me a song. That song had a weight to it that was hard to handle. That song was hard to carry. I fought against it. Didn't want to accept that song. I tried to find my daddy to give him back the song. But I found out it wasn't his song. It was my song. It had come from way deep inside me... And that song helped me on the road. Made it smooth to where my footsteps didn't bite back at me" (71).

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

I happened upon a Japan Times headline about this book, vaguely skimmed through the article and forgot all about it. Until I found the book during a rare trip to Costco! I've read and studied much about Korean people's experiences under Japan's 35-year colonization of Korea, and have read some about Korean people's experience in Japan post-WWII, but I've thought very little about the lives of Korean people who moved to Japan during the colonial period and remained there. Pachinko is a mix of immigrant story, family history, and historical fiction that focuses on this very specific population from 1910-1989. Sunja is born and raised in Yeongdo, Korea, running a boardinghouse alongside her mother. As a pregnant teenager, she marries one of the tenants, a young minister named Isak, who decides to take care of her after her wealthy lover (and the father of her child) Hansu reveals that he already has a wife and family. In 1933 Isak and Sunja move to Osaka, where they share a house with his brother and sister-in-law and eventually have two children, Noa and Mozasu. Everyone works themselves to the bone to keep the family afloat, not being able to trust anyone despite living in a community of fellow poor Koreans. They are second-class subjects in the Japanese empire, and every major development of the time affects the family directly. And despite thinking that she's cut all ties with him, Sunja can't escape Noa's father, Hansu, who's become  the most powerful yakuza in the Kansai region and has a hand in Sunja's family's survival in ways that don't remain secret for long.

The duality between colonized people's resentment and admiration toward their oppressors is fascinating in this novel. At the time, Japan was branded as the homeland for imperial subjects, a sort of promised land. In typical imperialist fashion, Koreans were told that if they did everything right and shed their undesirable Korean nature to be just like Japanese people, they could one day be accepted as equals and help reform their own people. But of course, no amount of assimilation or code-switching is enough. Numerous Korean characters in this novel contend with immensely wretched self-hatred due directly to Japanese imperial ideology, and later due to to policies and social attitudes that derive from said ideology. In this way, the book's namesake, a popular arcade game called "pachinko", is a metaphor for life: a gamble that seems or often is rigged, but which you keep playing in hopes that you'll eventually win something better. Something worthwhile. It also refers to the gambling industry that many Koreans get involved in after the war, including both Noa and Mozasu, transporting their family from the Korean ghetto in Osaka to the wealthy and cultured circles of Yokohama. If you enjoy reading family dramas and colonial history written from the perspective of the colonized, read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"For every patriot fighting for a free Korea, or for any unlucky Korean bastard fighting on behalf of Japan, there were ten thousand compatriots on the ground and elsewhere who were just trying to eat. In the end, your belly was your emperor" (178).

"But all those able-bodied middle-class people who are scared of their shadows, well, they pay the mediocre tax in regular quarterly installments with compounding interest. When you play it safe, that's what happens, my friend. So if I were you, I wouldn't throw any games. I'd use every fucking advantage... It's a heavier tax than you'd think... There's nothing fucking worse than knowing that you're just like everybody else. What a messed-up, lousy experience. And in this great country... everyone wants to be like everyone else" (448-49).

Friday, April 7, 2017

Things People Give Me #29-31 (Office Edition)

I haven't done one of these in over six months, so I'm sure I've received plenty of things in the meantime that I neglected to appreciate fully. But recently I've received a few gifts from co-workers in particular, so I wanted to take time to acknowledge them. The names mentioned are not real ones, though the do refer to very real, and kind, people.

First up, two of my co-workers went to the Pacific Northwest on a business trip a couple weeks ago, and one of them bought this keychain just for me. It certainly doesn't hurt when a city's major colors also happen to be your first and second favorite colors ever! Thanks, Anita!

Back in December, my boss's boss had everyone participate in Secret Santa by giving compliments instead of gifts. Each of us had to write something nice about every member of the team, and then send them to my boss's boss. Everyone then received their own list, compiled by her, of all the nice things that were written about them. That was December. Last week a package of mouse pads arrived at the office, each customized with each person's list of compliments from the Secret Santa activity.  To be honest, I'd thought the activity was corny and unnecessary from the beginning, but it was representative of the team's character which I've gotten used to by now (excessive compliments to compensate for non-excessive duckets). Plus, my boss's boss likes to put a lot of though and care into her presents, so I corny or not, I couldn't not appreciate it. Thanks, Renn!

Speaking of last week, a new employee joined the team, filling the in-office team roster for the first time in many months. Lovely woman, talkative, young but especially young at heart. I'm not sure if she's still trying to ingratiate herself with us or if she's just this type of person, but at the end of her first week she gave everyone a card and a piece of Brazilian candy to express her gratitude for the warm welcome. Thanks, Drew!

Sunday, March 12, 2017

BOOKS! (The Vegetarian)

I read this book in two days. I finished it last week but it continues to trouble me. I haven't felt this compelled to sit with the implications of a book, carry all its meanings with me and turn them over in my mind, since The Round House. Devastated and yet mesmerized. Spellbound. That's where I am right now with this novel.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

This is a novel, much like Herman Koch's The Dinner, that starts readers off in one place and leaves you somewhere else that seems disparate and extreme. You really have no idea what you're reading and why you're reading it until the end. The gist is that a woman named Yeong-hye, an ordinary housewife in Seoul, has a dream about acts of violence and human cruelty that disturbs her so intensely that she decides to quit eating meat the very next day. No one in her circle takes this well, and as a result her marriage and her family falls apart. But Yeong-hye's vegetarianism (technically veganism) is a symptom for something much more profound.

Her seemingly innocuous lifestyle choice has an unexpectedly disastrous domino effect. Yeong-hye's family tries to force her to eat meat again, which pushes her to the brink and leads her to attempt suicide. After recovering in a hospital, her husband divorces her but then her sister's husband's empathy toward Yeong-hye forces him to confront his long-standing attraction to her. He is then emboldened to create the video art piece that's been haunting his imagination, making Yeong-hye his muse. But after her sister In-hye catches them together, the brother-in-law skips town, the rest of the family severs ties, and Yeong-hye is institutionalized again, leaving only In-hye to take care of her.

The Vegetarian contains three parts, all of which concern Yeong-hye but none of which consult her: the first from her husband's perspective, the second from her brother-in-law's, and the last from her sister's. We only hear directly from Yeong-hye in her husband's section, where she occasionally recollects her dreams or wearily confronts her condition. Everything else we learn about Yeong-hye is essentially hearsay. And of course, each person views her differently based on their relationship with her. Her husband (Mr. Cheong, we never learn his first name), who views his wife as merely a caretaker and accessory, cares more about his reputation and how he's inconvenienced than for Yeong-hye's wellbeing. Her brother-in-law thinks he means well but his benevolence toward her is only a vehicle for his own sexual, emotional and artistic fulfillment. Her sister thinks that she's always been protecting Yeong-hye but keeps her sister conveniently distanced from her day-to-day life, as both her forgiveness and endurance have limits.

What we don't learn until later is that Yeong-hye's behavior is a response to the mistreatment that she's endured throughout her life, some of which is specific to her own experiences, some of which is common to many women who also happen to be daughters, wives, and little sisters. The bloody, animalistic nightmares cause her to reject all aspects of consumption and preying upon others that seem to be innately human; she's a hurt person who's had enough, and is desperate to avoid causing harm to any creatures. Eventually this transforms into her trying to un-become human, believing that if she denies herself enough things (eating meat, wearing clothes, talking, eating or drinking anything at all) she can transcend her human nature and eventually become a tree. Though she wastes away and treatment ceases to be effective, in her mind the death she's heading toward is not failure, but freedom. Yeong-hye has been victimized her whole life, but In-hye doesn't notice the toll it has taken on her sister until eventually Yeong-hye draws so far inside herself that no one can reach her.

Though Yeong-hye's gradual physical and psychological breakdown is the conduit for this story, her husband, her sister, and her sister's husband all feel something within themselves that's liable to break out or take control of them. Consequently, the themes of the three sections apply not just to Yeong-hye, but all of them. Part one deals with internal rage and the potential for violence, bubbling just under the service. Part one deals with the acting out and circumstances of breaking with convention, of indulging in unrestrained passion. And part three deals with the necessity to reckon with (perhaps even submit to) one's despair and pain, which brings a distorted sense of peace. Yeong-hye goes from a repressed beast, to a blooming flower, to a withering tree, and none of the people close to her are left untouched.

Favorite quotes:
"Can only trust my breasts now. I like my breasts, nothing can be killed by them. Hand, foot, tongue, gaze, all weapons from which nothing is safe. But not my breasts. With my round breasts, I'm okay. Still okay. So why do they keep shrinking? Not even round anymore. Why? Why am I changing like this? Why are my edges all sharpeningwhat am I going to gouge?" (41).

"Never before had he set eyes on such a body, a body that said so much and yet was no more than itself" (95).