Book Review: THE VEGETARIAN by Han Kang

The Vegetarian has already been so thoroughly acclaimed that it hardly needs my help to spread the word, but I felt compelled to write about this chilling, starkly imaginative novel regardless. Yeong-hye has a terrible dream that causes her to become a vegetarian–setting off a harrowing series of events that irrevocably mark everyone around her, but most especially damage Yeong-hye herself.

You can read my full review below.


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The Vegetarian by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

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  • publisher: Hogarth Press
  • publication date: February 2, 2016
  • isbn: 978-0-553-44818-4
  • length: 192 pages

For an allegory to work, it must also function on a literal level; the reader must always be able to question whether, in fact, it is an allegory at all. The Vegetarian demonstrates this flawlessly. On one hand, it is a novel about the toxic, suffocating effects of sexism. On the other, it is “merely” a novel about a traumatized schizophrenic woman and the many ways her family attempts to contain her.

Both of these threads are equally valid and vibrant, and it’s the interplay between them that gives The Vegetarian its raw, earthy power.

Of course, Han Kang’s poetic wordplay (translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith) also contributes; the imagery here is among the most powerful I’ve ever experienced. In one particularly breathtaking scene, the novel’s protagonist, Yeong-hye, is painted entirely with flowers, basking in the sunshine on an art studio floor as if she is photosynthesizing. I wondered–not for a short amount of time–if she really was.

The Vegetarian is actually series of three novellas, told from the perspective of three people who are not Yeong-hye: her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister, respectively. In the beginning, Yeong-hye is a homemaker, perhaps dimwitted (in the eyes of her husband, at least) but mostly just quiet, and obedient. Her husband laments that she doesn’t always wear a bra; he rejoices that his mediocre wife will never require anything of him but more mediocrity.

Then comes the dream, which triggers both Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism–a surface problem–and her disobedience, which is by far more disturbing to her husband and family. Yeong-hye will no longer be told what to do; she will no longer be dutiful; she will no longer ignore the link between the violence of meat and the violence of men. And that is unforgivable.

The Vegetarian is a horrifyingly violent novel, and if you are squeamish or easily disturbed, then it may not be for you. I am both, however, and still found it a rewarding read, because Kang has found permutations of violence that I’d never imagined before, and in that novelty there is a sort of numbness. Yeong-hye experiences rape by men and then far worse violations by feeding tube; she recounts the gruesome killing of a dog with a dreamy sort of calm; she stands on her head for hours and prays for her crotch to bloom with flowers.

It’s extraordinary and it’s nauseating, like a spinning theme park ride with its speed cranked up one level past safety.

But for me, at least, the violence was not the most extraordinary part. That honor goes to the empathetic, shrewd, and lingering ways in which the novel addresses mental illness. If you are at all familiar with the symptoms of schizophrenia, you will recognize that Yeong-hye is a classic case, especially in her delusions, odd movements, long silences, and even the age at which her break from reality occurs (schizophrenia most commonly onsets in women during their late 20s).

The word “schizophrenia” means “split brain,” and refers to the way schizophrenics often split from reality, slipping further and further out of touch with the rules that govern our normal world.

And yet–is a woman’s break from a violent and unequal reality that surprising? Might we even consider it a moral and necessary act? The Vegetarian says yes. 5/5 stars.


My copy of The Vegetarian came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

If you enjoyed this review, you might also enjoy translator Deborah Smith’s excellent essay–“What We Talk About When We Talk About Translation“–that was recently published in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Book Review: THE WOMAN NEXT DOOR by Yewande Omotoso

On the surface, The Woman Next Door is a novel about two elderly neighbors’ bitter rivalry, but its underlying premise is far more complex. Marion is a debt-ridden white woman living in a Cape Town suburb, whose casual racism is challenged when Hortensia, a wealthy and accomplished black woman, moves in next door. In the abstract, the novel deals beautifully with its hefty themes: Apartheid, reparations, racism, sexism, infidelity, and motherhood. Ultimately, though, it fails to unite these themes into one cohesive story, making the whole thing feel dull rather than incisive.

You can read my full review below.


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The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso

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  • publisher: Picador USA (imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: February 7, 2017
  • isbn: 978-1-250-12457-9
  • length: 288 pages

Like many young people, I can be guilty of forgetting that my elders have had inner experiences as complex as my own–that conflicts around sex, family, schooling, and injustice are by no means unique to my generation. The Woman Next Door excels at dispelling this youthful error: its protagonists, suburban neighbors Marion and Hortensia, are complicated, riotous, sad, furious, empathetic, and gloriously unlikeable.

The novel’s plot, however, simply does not provide sufficient scaffolding for its larger-than-life heroines; in fact, so little happens over the course of its 288 pages that I’m at a loss as to how to summarize it. It’s as if the novel begins and ends with its character descriptions, which I’ll sketch out below, since I think they’re worth discussing in their entirety.

Hortensia James is an 80-something textile designer who always seems to be seething about something. She’s tired of the racist baggage that comes along with being the only black property owner in her insular Cape Town suburb, her white husband is dying after years of infidelity and distance, and she’s bitter over a land claim made on her property by a black family deeply harmed by Apartheid.

Marion Agostino is a white, Jewish/agnostic, 80-something ex-architect who desperately envies Hortensia for owning the first–and best–house Marion ever designed. Her awful husband died after racking up massive debt, her children all hate her, and the casual racism she’s cultivated for years is collapsing around her as South Africa recovers from Apartheid.

Despite Hortensia and Marion’s rich and layered backgrounds, however, the two women change little (if at all) over the course of the novel, making the effort feel pointless. It’s as if Omotoso imagined a snapshot in these characters’ lives–a gorgeous snapshot, to be sure–but then neglected to go any further backwards or forwards with it. Subplots flit in and out without satisfactory resolutions, personal revelations happen and then are seemingly reversed, and romantic interests are hinted at (and even explicitly stated) without a single “move” made by either party. It’s baffling.

Worst of all, the novel is told out of order, without clear markers of where, exactly, the reader is situated in Hortensia and Marion’s lives. I think that this was meant to show how much these women live in the past, but the effect is more like aimless drifting through misfortune after misfortune, nasty exchange after nasty exchange. (Hortensia is shockingly mean to everyone, and Marion is painted as a fairly pathetic social climber.)

I can’t shake the feeling that this novel would have been much stronger if it were told chronologically–but since Hortensia and Marion are relatively recent neighbors, the whole conceit would collapse, making it a different novel entirely.

This unmoored quality is even more of a shame because Omotoso’s prose style is simply delightful. She has a knack for artistic description–something that makes sense, given her background as an architect–and she also has a keen eye for the ways inequity plays out on the micro level. There’s an intense sense of loss that pervades these pages, especially in the ways that sexism and racism have robbed both of these women of the lives they should have had. In these moments, Omotoso’s gifts are clear, and The Woman Next Door is transcendent. Then the page is turned, and it falls flat all over again.

I can’t wholeheartedly recommend The Women Next Door, but I do hope Omotoso’s other books are slated for U.S. publication in the future. I’d love to see what she does with more dynamic material. 3/5 stars.


My copy of The Woman Next Door came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 1.19.18

friday bookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or otherwise acquired during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

This week was an absolute fiction palooza for me, and in putting together this list, I noticed that my tastes have run toward the darker and weirder of late. Hmm.

Let’s dive in!


9780143127550Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

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why I’m excited: I adored Ng’s second novel, Little Fires Everywhere (my review)so when this book was on deep sale at Barnes & Noble, I couldn’t resist. Everything I Never Told You is Ng’s critically acclaimed debut about a Chinese American family whose daughter, Lydia, is found dead in a lake.

Bonus: this book is on its way to becoming a movie, which is perhaps part of why Barnes & Noble had it out on the sale tables!

9781501112331In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

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why I’m excited: This book is yet another book purchase I can attribute to my abiding love of thrillers, especially ones with a literary edge, and most especially ones whose tension hinges on femininity and sexism. I don’t know much about the plot, but based on its marketing, it’s going to be right up my alley.

Another bonus: Like Everything I Never Told You, this book is also being adapted into a movie!

9780307341556Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

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why I’m excited: It feels a little bit like cheating to put a book I’ve already read in my bookbag, but Gillian Flynn is one of my favorite authors of all time and I very stupidly purged my copies of Sharp Objects and Gone Girl between freshman and sophomore year. Sharp Objects is a creepy crime thriller about murders of young girls in a small town full of some incredibly toxic secrets. After snagging this on sale, I’m just happy to have one of my precious babies back on my bookshelf again. (Regretfully, I still haven’t replaced Gone Girl yet, and I have yet to read Flynn’s other novel, Dark Places.)

Yet another bonus (and I promise this is the last one): I absolutely cannot wait to see the HBO adaptation of this book, which premieres this summer!

9781936787579A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe

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why I’m excited: I’m trying to do better about reading works by authors outside the U.S. and U.K., and A Loving, Faithful Animal is by an Australian author, Josephine Rowe. It’s a novel about an Australian soldier who returns from conscripted service in the Vietnam War and the trauma and healing his family endures, which sounds really interesting to me. It’s been also well-reviewed, its cover design is lovely, and it’s quite a small, short book–always pluses. I’m hoping it will be a bracing palate-cleanser that I can squeeze in between some of the longer books on my to-read list.

9780374100261The Answers by Catherine Lacey

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Why I’m excited: I don’t quite understand the premise of this novel–a woman who is flat-broke from medical bills ends up being paid to participate in an experiment to uncover the perfect recipe for a romantic relationship, I think? –but I don’t need to be clear on everything to know that it will be delightfully bizarre. Part of the premise is that the protagonist suffers from chronic pain–something I’ve dealt with for years–so I’m excited for that aspect, as well.

9781510720671The Last to See Me by M Dressler

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Why I’m excited: This novel is a ghost story set in a California mansion, and while ghost stories are not usually my thing, the marketing compares Dressler’s style to Kazuo Ishiguro’s, which will sell me on a book every time. (Maybe that makes me a sucker?) I did really love Larissa Pham’s recent ghost story, too, so maybe I’m less averse to ghosts than I think. This feels like the riskiest book I acquired this week, but at least it’s a library loan, so I’m not out any money if it turns out to not be my thing.


See books here that you’ve already read or that are on your to-read list? What are you excited to read this week? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Short Story Roundup, 1.17.18

Short Story Roundup

Short Story Roundup is a feature where I gather the best short stories I’ve read this week and share them with you every Wednesday. The stories might have been published yesterday or 100 years ago, but as long as I’ve read and loved them in a given week, you’ll find them here.

I was short on time this week, so today’s list is actually only one story–but it’s a good one!


A Cat Called Grievous” by R. L. Maizes

  • genre: literary/realistic fiction
  • publication: Electric Literature
  • publication date: January 10, 2018
  • why I loved it: This story, about a cat who “adopts” a couple struggling with infertility, is chilling, and located squarely at that porous boundary between real and unreal. If you, like me, adore cats but are also a tiny bit afraid of cats, this story will hit the spot.

What short fiction have you read and enjoyed lately? For the writers out there: Has any of your work appeared online or in print this week? Tell me all about it in the comments!

Where do you buy your books and why?

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image source: pixabay

Avid readers tend to have strong feelings about how they acquire their books, and inspired by a recent comment Infinite Text made on last week’s Friday Bookbag–about spreading out book shopping between multiple stores–I’ve been thinking a lot about the rationale behind my own book shopping habits.

I used to shop for books almost exclusively at independent bookstores or online via IndieBound.org. I still love indies, but I’ll admit I’ve softened my stance a bit in recent years. The bulk of my book shopping now happens at either Barnes & Noble, for physical books, or in the Kindle Store, for e-books.

(Side note: If you’d told me 5 years ago that a Kindle would be among my most treasured possessions, I’d have laughed in your face. It’s amazing how far e-reader technology has come, and my Paperwhite is a far cry from my old dinosaur of a Nook.)

While it makes sense that I shop in the Kindle Store for, well, Kindle e-books, there isn’t any special reason why I gravitated towards Barnes & Noble; it has more to do with the fact that there are several tempting er, prominent locations nearby, so it’s convenient to drop in.

Since I’m not made of money, I also check out tons of books from my local library. It’s great to have a chance to try out books I think I’ll like, but that I’m not ready to take a $25-$30 risk on. (I often buy my own forever copies of awesome books I first read at the library!)

And all that is to say nothing of my love of used bookstores; I often scour the bookshelves at my local Goodwill, and I’ve also found some great books–especially nonfiction gems–at Midway Book, a giant used and rare bookstore in my neighborhood.

So, fellow book lovers: what say you? Where do you shop? Do you primarily buy new books, used books, or both? Are you a heavy library user? I’d love to hear all about it in the comments!

Book Review: THE RED by Tiffany Reisz

The Red is a stand-alone erotic novel that follows a year in the life of Mona St. James, who swears to do anything to save her late mother’s art gallery from bankruptcy–but when a mysterious stranger offers to purchase a year of sexual carte blanche in exchange for a million dollars’ worth of priceless art, Mona’s definition of “anything” is put to the test. In The Red, Tiffany Reisz has created a near-flawless piece of erotic fantasy that dances right up to the edge of taboo while still maintaining a wickedly funny (and sexy) highbrow sensibility.

Read my full review below–and be aware that because The Red is a work of erotica, my review might get a little, er…spicy. I’ll do my best to keep it PG-13.


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The Red by Tiffany Reisz

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  • publisher: 8th Circle Press
  • publication date: May 7, 2017
  • isbn (trade paperback): 978-1537217765
  • length: 248 pages

I delight in fiction that mixes the highbrow and lowbrow, but I’ve never encountered a novel quite as cleverly subversive as The Red. If you’ve ever wanted a book where Manet and Picasso are referenced as often as the protagonist’s c**t, then this is it.

The novel’s premise is more daydream than reality: Mona St. James is a stunningly beautiful art gallery proprietor whose mother’s slow decline and death have driven the gallery–known as The Red–to the brink of bankruptcy. In the first few pages, all seems lost, but of course it is not; the tension serves only to ensure that when the dashing, British, and fabulously wealthy Malcolm sets foot in the gallery late one night, there’s no doubt as to whether or not Mona will agree to his offer to make her his “whore.”

Brooding BDSM billionaires are a dime-a-dozen in the post-Fifty Shades erotic landscape, but The Red gets to the heart of why the archetype is so appealing: with unlimited money comes unlimited safety as well as wish-fulfillment: safety from debt, safety from crummy jobs and unpleasant tasks, safety to follow our dreams.

Reisz mines every drop of erotic power from dynamics of safety and un-safety, whether it’s physical, financial, emotional, or all three. Malcolm is unfailingly caring toward Mona, meaning the sex can get rougher without seeming abusive or exploitative; when Malcolm beats Mona 100 times with a riding crop, it is foreplay for the most tenderly consensual sex scene I’ve ever read, and when he “auctions” Mona off to an audience of strange men, the act feels soul-searching instead of foul.

Why is playing at sexual submission and subservience so erotic, The Red seems to ask, when real-world oppression and chattel slavery are unquestionably horrifying? Of course, this question is secondary to the searingly hot sex that encompasses most of the novel, but its subtle presence ratchets up the tension.

The only false note here–and it’s a very minor one–is the way that The Red’s paranormal element concludes, which is speedily. The paranormal element came as a surprise to me to begin with, so the incomplete-seeming resolution gave me mild whiplash. That said, I can’t feel too jilted, as I do think Reisz was wise to keep the plot to a minimum and the sex to a maximum. On one hand, I was left with a few unanswered questions; on the other, I was rewarded with a novel so tightly strung that even a paragraph or two of extra detail might have spoiled the tension.

Guilt and shame characterize the American relationship to the erotic, but The Red pulls the ultimate magic trick, transforming these forbidden desires into a potent exploration of the human heart. This novel is a marvel. 5/5 stars.


I purchased my own copy of The Red and was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 1.12.18

friday bookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or otherwise acquired during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.


9781101906118The Vegetarian by Han Kang

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why I’m excited: I don’t know why the idea of this book–an allegorical story of sexism, violation, and self-denial about a Korean woman who decides to become a vegetarian–captured me so intensely, but ever since its appearance on nearly every “best of 2016” list out there, I’ve been dying to read it. I managed to snag one of my library’s e-book copies, and I’m looking forward to immersing myself in Kang’s devastating world–during the daytime with the lights on, of course.

Bonus: The Vegetarian’s English-language translator, Deborah Smith, has an excellent essay in the LA Review of Books this week titled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Translation.”

9780307476074Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

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why I’m excited: Hiking is such a healing, cleansing activity for me that I can’t wait to read this memoir built on that exact premise: When Cheryl Strayed lost everything, she embarked on a solo hike of the Pacific Crest Trail–one of the most brutal hiking trails in America. Though this book has been a smash success for years (especially after the release of the movie adaptation starring Reese Witherspoon), I’ve never read it. As of this Friday morning, the Kindle e-book is on sale for $3.99, if it sounds like your cup of tea.

9780812988024The Girls by Emma Cline

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why I’m excited: The Girls was another Kindle e-book on deep sale this morning, but I’ll admit this was more of an impulse purchase than Wild, which I’ve had in my sights for awhile.

The Girls is (I think?) a novel about the Manson cult, but that’s not even the top draw for me: more importantly, it seems like a novel about female friendship and the costs of getting sucked into a bad, bad crowd. It’s set in California in the late ’60s, one of my very favorite settings, since hippie California’s truth is even stranger than its fiction. I’m looking forward to diving in.


See books here that you’ve already read or that are on your to-read list? What are you excited to read this week? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!