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 fall 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, and her sister's husband's empathy toward her 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 less about Yeong-hye's wellbeing than he does about his reputation and how he's inconvenienced. 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 Yeong-hye 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 creature. 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) then 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 each feel something within themselves that's liable to break out or take control of them as well. 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 two 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).

Saturday, March 11, 2017

"You were one of my favorites" - GET OUT

Having previously decided that I would absolutely NOT go see this film (didn't want to go out of my way to feel more ill-at-ease then I generally do already), I read the Wikipedia summary so I could know what I was missing out on. Figured I'd catch it whenever it became available on cable. But then, within a week after the film opened, two of my favorite podcasts released episodes discussing about the film (see here and here). And after listening to both of those episodes over again, last week I had a last-minute change of heart and went to two different cinemas to find a showing that wasn't sold out. Jordan Peele has said on numerous occasions that this movie is meant to be enjoyed as part of a theatre audience, and now I totally get it.

Seen Friday, March 3rd: Get Out

Chris, a black man, goes with his white girlfriend Rose to meet her parents for the first time. Rose's parents and their friends practically trip over themselves to exhibit that they're "the good ones" so to speak: totally cultured, trustworthy, and definitely not racist. Little does Chris know, he's being set up for something more sinister and true to American life than he could've ever imagined.

"Just because you're invited, doesn't mean you're welcome."

What I really like about this film: That scene where Chris is at Rose's parents' annual party, and as he goes upstairs, all the guests immediately silence their chatter and stare at the ceiling, tracing his movement with their eyes. Gave me chills! Chris was almost never not under surveillance.

And Georgina! Betty Gabriel smashed that role to pieces with such control that you almost forget to be disappointed that she's one of only two black female characters who appear in the film! In that "No... No. Nononononono" scene she manages to play desperately composed and heartbreakingly unhinged at the exact same time, and I'm still trying to figure it out.

Listen, I went in knowing how it was going to end. None of the twists surprised me. And as a self-acknowledged cheapskate, I don't go to the movies often. But this one's seriously got me considering going to see it a second time just so I can see what other clues, hints, and references I missed!

What I don't like about this film: Absolutely nothing. I mentioned the black woman issue because I noticed it after viewing Get Out and thinking about it a bit. But to be honest, I'd listened to, read, and watched so much about Peele's process and what he was aiming to accomplish with this film that it doesn't bother me as much as it probably should.

Would I recommend it?: Is water wet? As with Zootopia (I'm serious! This is not a joke here!), Get Out needs to be required viewing for any sort of cultural literacy or "how to consider others and be a decent human being" training.

Friday, March 10, 2017

BOOKS! (The Joy Luck Club + The Shack)

Acquiring these two books reminded me how much my consumer decisions as a reader are influenced by people I've never met. I broke my "don't buy any books during the first half of 2017" rule for the first read, which I bought after listening to a podcast review of its 1990s movie adaptation. And the second one I bought after seeing headlines floating around that (white) people were mad that Octavia Spencer was cast to play God in its recently-released movie adaptation. I like to think that I'm picky and an independent thinker, but when it comes to books I don't need that much convincing, apparently.

 The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

Multiple generations of Chinese and Chinese-American women are connected in this novel about womanhood, Chinese identity, sacrifice and fellowship. At the center are eight of them: four friends who found each other in the San Francisco Chinese immigrant community in the late 1940s, and their four daughters.

An-mei was reunited with her estranged mother at a young age, and witnessed her struggle as a low-ranking concubine in a rich man's house. An-Mei's daughter, Rose, is an artist who habitually avoids making decisions, and whose marriage to her dermatologist husband is failing. Lindo was arranged to be married at the age of two, and as an adolescent she cleverly escaped the marriage without dishonoring her family. Lindo's daughter, Waverly, was a chess champion as a child, and as a single mom she's finding love again with a fellow tax attorney. Ying-ying was married to a family friend at age 16, and after that marriage ended she moved to Shanghai where she met her second husband, a white American man. Ying-ying's daughter, Lena, is a restaurant designer married to an insufferably stingy architect. Last but not least, Suyuan lost her first husband and children while fleeing Japanese forces. She started the tradition of gathering over dim sum, mah jong, and gossip (the titular Joy Luck Club) in China and continued it in the Bay. Though her copywriter daughter, Jing-mei or "June", has been a disappointment by certain Chinese standards, the other mothers give her the invaluable task of reuniting with her long-lost older sisters in China after Suyuan's passing.

I was already inclined to like this book after hearing such a comprehensive review of the film, and I love to read literature that focues on immigrant experiences. What endears me to The Joy Luck Club most is each woman's remarkable sense of self-preservation. Through familial expectations, commonplace disappointments and unspeakable tragedies, each woman possesses a certain determination to maintain or reclaim their sense of self, and recounting their personal histories is an integral part of this.

Favorite quotes:

"Even if I had expected it, even if I had known what I was going to do with my life, it still would have knocked the wind out of me. When something that violent hits you, you can't help but lose your balance and fall. And after you pick yourself up, you realize you can't trust anybody to save you―not your husband, not your mother, not God. So what can you do to stop yourself from titling and falling over again" (120-121).
"I will gather my past and look. I will see a thing that has already happened. The pain that cut my spirit loose, I will hold that pain in my hand until it becomes hard and shiny, more clear... I will use this sharp pain to penetrate my daughter's tough skin and cut her tiger spirit loose. She will fight me, because this is the nature of two tigers. But I will win and give her my spirit, because this is the way a mother loves her daughter" (252). 

The Shack by Wm. Paul Young

Four years after his youngest daughter is abducted by a serial murderer, Mack finds a note in his mailbox inviting him to the dilapidated shack where the last trace of his daughter was found. The note is mysteriously signed, "Papa". Despite his fears and suspicions, Mack goes to the shack in the dead of winter and falls asleep there. He awakes to find the shack restored and the area around it bright, warm, and verdant. He's welcomed by God, presenting as a Black woman ("Elousia"/ "Papa"); Jesus, presenting as a Middle Eastern Jewish man; and the Holy Spirit, presenting as an Asian woman ("Sarayu"). He spends a weekend with them, digging deep into in all of his past hurts, grievances against God, and misconceptions about the Christian faith and the Trinity.

I wasn't expecting to be impressed by this book, but it really challenged me, and challenges me still. At face value, The Shack could be a comforting resource to anyone who has suffered loss or harm at the hands of others. But it's also a necessarily uncomfortable opportunity for believers to reckon with the deity they claim to worship and the faith they claim to profess. A lot of hit dogs will be hollering, that's all I have to say. The novel contains some fluttery wording that's obviously trying to tap into readers' emotions, which is somewhat annoying. And Young's attempts at Ebonics or mammy-isms or whatever the heck Papa was supposed to be speaking were at best clunky, at worst horrendously contrived. HOWEVER. The Shack's writing is clear and gets the point across. And even with all the philosophical and theological content, it has more than a few lighthearted moments. Though the humor or significants of some moments is enhanced by prior knowledge of the Bible and common church sayings, I'd like to hope that it doesn't leave lapsed or non-believing people feeling too out of the loop. Judging by the 20 million copies sold, perhaps it hasn't. I never intended to watch the film and I still don't, but I am glad that I gave this book a try because it's given me much to reconsider.

Favorite quotes:
"I am neither male nor female, even though both genders are derived from my nature. If I choose to appear to you as a man or a woman, it's because I love you. For me to appear to you as a woman and suggest that you call me 'Papa' is simply to mix metaphors, to help you keep from falling so easily back into your religious conditioning" (95).

"Remember, Mackenzie, I don't wonder what you will do or what choices you will make. I already know... And let's say that I know it will take you forty-seven situations and events before you will actually hear me―that is, before you will hear clearly enough to agree with me and change. So when you don't hear me the first time, I'm not frustrated or disappointed, I'm thrilled. Only forty-six more times to go! And that first time will be a building block to construct a bridge of healing that one day―that today―you will walk across" (189).