Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982

by Cho Nam-Ju, translated by Jamie Chang
First sentence: “Kim Jiyoung is thirty-three years old, thirty-four Korean age.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: April 14, 2020
Content: There’s some swearing, including a few f-bombs. It will be in the Adult Fiction section of the bookstore.

This is the story of one Korean woman, and how she get to the point, a year after giving birth, where she’s impersonating (but is she really?) other women. Something I didn’t know until the end: it’s told through the eyes of a psychologist/psychiatrist that Jiyoung goes to see, presumably because of her condition. She tells this psychiatrist about her life, from a childhood where she and her older sister were mostly neglected in favor of their younger brother, through school where she was often harassed by boys, to the workplace where she was often treated by men as a servant. She just decided it was her lot, and did the best she could, though there were women — including, eventually, her mother — who were telling her life could be different. Jiyoung gave up working when she had her baby, mostly because it was too hard to juggle daycare and a full-time job and her husband wasn’t terribly supportive.

This was just a portrait of one life, albeit one that had quite a few run-ins with the patriarchal system of Eastern Asia. It was a sad little book — sad that Jiyoung was never really encourage to do much of anything, sad that the lives of women still revolve around the men and boys. It’s odd too, it had footnotes (which makes more sense knowing it’s psychiatrist notes) and an odd cadence. It’s not a story I read to really connect with the characters, though much of that Jiyoung went through was relatable. But, even though we got the facts of her life, I felt like we never really got to know her. Although I appreciated the insight into contemporary Korean culture, I just felt disconnected through the book.

Oh, and the author got epidurals wrong, which is a small thing, but an annoyance all the same.

I do appreciate that this book exists, if only to highlight the sexism and misogyny in countries other than the United States. But, no, I didn’t find it enjoyable.

Lords and Ladies

by Terry Pratchett
First sentence: “Now read on…”
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Others in the series:  Equal RitesWyrd Sisters, Witches Abroad
Content: There’s some mild swearing and inference about sex. It’s in the science fiction/fantasy section of the bookstore.

Up until this point, with the witches series, you really didn’t have to read the ones that came before it. I mean, it helps, but it’s not ultimately necessary. However, with this one, you really do need to know what happens in the previous books if only so that all the little things that are happening in this one make sense.

Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick have just gotten back from their jaunt in Witches Abroad and it turns out that Magrat is marrying the King of Lancre. (Who was the fool, but that’s the story in Wyrd Sisters). However it turns out that someone has been playing with the boundary between Lancre and the Elf world. As it turns out, elves — who the witches refer to as “the lords and ladies” — are not nice people, and they want to come through and create havoc. Which they do. And it’s up to the witches to stop them.

There are a few references to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but it’s not as direct a parody as Wyrd Sisters is of Macbeth. Mostly this is the story of Magrat figuring out how to stand up for herself, and embrace what she really wants. (There was a moment near the end in which I literally cheered: “Go Magrat!”) And that you don’t have to do things the way books say, just because books say so.

Its not my favorite of the witch books, but I am really enjoying this Discworld series.

Reign the Earth

reigntheearthby A. C. Gaughen
First sentence: “There was a scorpion in my tent.”
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Content: There’s violence, including spouse abuse (both verbal and physical). Also, though the main character is 17, she marries a man 10 years older than her. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

The basic plot: a desert girl, whose nomadic country has been at war with a bigger, more powerful, oppressive country, is married off to the king of the country in order to achieve peace. Said peace is only tentative as long as the king is happy (and he’s not often happy, for many reasons) and as long as desert girl keeps her magic powers a secret from her husband.

There’s more to it: including a prophecy and a resistance and a secret love, but really, that’s it.

I’m being a little snarky, but I did like this enough to finish it. I did have a big issue with this: the main character is married to an abusive man. It starts out with him raping her on their wedding night (he kind of couches it in “I don’t want you to be uncomfortable” but he doesn’t really take her comfort into mind) and it just escalates from there. Granted, our main character does, eventually, stand up to him (and he is the “bad guy” of the story), but I couldn’t help but wonder: is this really a book for teens? I don’t mind darkness in books, or even dealing with issues like abusive relationships, but this one felt more… adult than usual. I know the marriage has something to do with it, but I’m not sure that’s all. I don’t know if I can put my finger on it exactly.

Also: I feel like this one could have been better if it were an own voices story. Again, I’m probably nit-picking, but I felt like it was just “desert girl saves white oppressed culture” and not much else.

So, while I liked it enough to finish it, I didn’t love it.

Audiobook: Today Will Be Different

todaywillbedifferentby Maria Semple
Read by Kathleen Wiljoite
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Content: There’s two f-bombs, and assorted other milder swearing. There’s also some uncomfortable domestic issues, and thematically it skews, well, adult. It’s in the fiction section of the bookstore.

I loved the way this book began:

Today will be different. Today I will be present. Today, anyone I’m speaking to, I will look them in the eye and listen deeply. Today I’ll play a board game with Timby. I’ll initiate sex with Joe. Today I will take pride in my appearance. I’ll shower, get dressed in proper clothes and only change into yoga clothes for yoga, which today I will actually attend. Today I won’t swear. I won’t talk about money. Today there will be an ease about me. My face will be relaxed, its resting place a smile. Today I will radiate calm. Kindness and self-control will abound. Today I will buy local. Today I will be my best self, the person I’m capable of being. Today will be different.

It’s such a gloriously low bar for everything. I can completely relate.

Eleanor is trying to make it through each day. Some days are more successful than others. And on this day — the book takes place in 24 hours, with some flashbacks — she will be challenged. Her 8-year-old son, Timby, will fake being sick to get out of being bullied at school. She will discover her husband told his office he’s on vacation, which he is most assuredly not. She will be reminded — strongly — of her estranged sister. She will get a concussion and steal someone else’s keys. It will not be a winner of a day, by any standards, but Eleanor will be — hopefully — better for it.

I think the secret to this one, at least for me, was listening to it.  The narrator was AMAZING. So good in fact, that I want to hunt out other books she’s read. I think she captured Eleanor perfectly, and she pulled me into the narrative. I’m pretty sure it was because of the narrator that I came to love Eleanor and look forward to hearing more about this crazy day (and her crazy past) she was having. (Maybe I would have liked it in print… Stemple is a good writer; the story is entertaining and made me think as well. Plus there are some genuine laugh-out-loud moments as well.)

Sometimes I like adult books. This was definitely one of those times.

Leave Me

leavemeby Gayle Forman
First sentence: “Maribeth Klein was working late, waiting to sign off on the final page proofs of the December issue, when she had a heart attack.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s a handful — maybe a dozen? — f-bombs as well as some other mild swearing. The subject matter is more mature, than Forman’s other books, and it’ll be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Maribeth figures she’s living the life: she’s got a Great Editing Job at a fashion magazine, she’s got a beautiful pair of twins (that she and her husband were happy to have). She’s managing to juggle work, parenting, home life, a marriage. It’s what women are Supposed To Do, right? Then, at age 44, she has a heart attack. It sends her into a spiral, first because she’s trying to heal and no one’s giving her the support she wants/needs, and then because she just can’t seem to Care anymore. So she does what so many overworked women dream of doing: she leaves.

Nominally, she heads to Pittsburgh because, being adopted, she doesn’t know her genetic history and she is looking for her birth mother. But really, her life is too much for her to handle and she wants to try something else on for a change. She goes cash-only, she sheds her name, she wants to start over. And it seems that’s what she needs: through making new friends, taking a step away from everything, she figures things out.

When I first started this, I thought it would completely wreck me. Being an overworked and underappreciated working mother is something I definitely can identify with. But, rather than finding it difficult to get through, I found myself drawn into Maribeth’s story, her history, her fears and hopes, and the ways in which she was carrying her grief and anger. I was pulled into the characters that Forman created for Maribeth to befriend in Pittsburgh. I appreciated that everyone was complex and multi-faceted; no one was wholly in the wrong, including Maribeth herself.

I truly enjoyed it, which is unusual for me when it comes to adult books. Perhaps it’s because Forman is generally a YA writer, and this just felt like a more mature YA — a focus on character and moving the plot forward, rather than just pages and pages of, well, boring drivel. Either way, this is definitely one to check out.

Audio book: The Last Original Wife

lastoriginalwifeby Dorothea Benton Frank
Read by: Robin Miles
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Content: There’s a lot of mild swearing and a couple of f-bombs. And some off-screen sex. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Leslie Carter is the last original wife among her husband Wesley’s super successful Atlanta set. One was gone to divorce, another to death. And their husbands — Wesley’s friends — are marrying girls half their age. And Lesley has had enough. Actually, the “Barbies” are just a catalyst for what Leslie has been suspecting for a while: Wesley doesn’t really love her, he’s just still married to her because it’s easy and convenient. So, after a brawl in the club dining room between two of the new wives, Leslie up and leaves Wesley. She heads back to her hometown of Charleston, South Carolina and her brother — who, because Wesley’s a homophobe, she hasn’t seen in years — and takes up with an old high school flame, and learns that by discovering her roots, she finds herself again.

So. I wanted to like this one. And I did at first. Wesley was such a hideous character, so sexist and clueless, right from the start that it was easy to hate him and root for Leslie to leave him. But, that said, I got really tired really fast of all the descriptions of what they ate and drank (I really don’t care which wine is good with which meal) and what they wore (so she chose a red dress for the wedding of her best friend’s daughter, so what?). I got really tired of the ending — after Leslie decided to leave Wesley and they went through therapy, the book went on for another few hours. What was the point? (She needed a Happily Ever After with a Good Man). And it was so slut-shaming. I want to read the book from Cornelia’s– she’s the second wife of one of Wesley’s friends — point of view; she was so much a caricature that I couldn’t take her seriously. (And I got so very tired of Leslie’s judgement. She wasn’t perfect either.) I won’t even start on the whole Canadian-izing of the Southern accent. No Southerner says hoose for house (it’s hOWse). (The Canadian/Upper Midwest came out with out and about too…) Drove me nuts. Oh, and then there’s the math: Leslie was turning 60 and she’d been married for 30 years (it was a shotgun wedding, and her oldest was almost 30). HOWEVER, she got pregnant in college and had to drop out before she graduated. WTH? The math doesn’t add up.

The thing it did have going for it? A great sense of place. Frank knows Charleston and knows how to write about the town in a way that made me want to go. I could picture the warm, lazy summer, and the walks down the roads. I almost wanted to see it for myself. And I’ll admit that I didn’t bail on this one; I did want to see Leslie’s story all the way through, even if I did get impatient with it.

So, while it was annoying, it wasn’t awful.

Audio book: The Buried Giant

buriedgiantby Kazuo Ishiguro
Read by: David Horovitch
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Content: There’s some violence and mild sexual elements. But, no worse than any Tolkein book. In fact, if you’ve made it through LOTR, you will probably really like this one.

Axl and Beatrice have had a long, good life. Or, at least as much as they can remember. They live in a cave dwelling in Britain, in the time after the Romans left and Arthur’s peace with the Saxons is waning. They’re not quite content, and so they determine that they need to head to a nearby village to see their son — whom they only can barely remember having — because he’s anxiously waiting for them.

They have no idea how their journey will go, or the people they will meet (an elder Sir Gawain among them, much to my delight), and how it will all change them.

I’m not sure how much more of the actual plot I want to divulge. Much like LOTR (which this strongly reminded me of), the plot is less important than the journey. Axl and Beatrice’s journey — though we never really got inside Beatrice’s head, which disappointed me — was a grand one, like Odysseus, or Frodo. The people the met, the friendships they made, the emotional journey they took as well as the physical one all had a mythological quality to it.

I’m sure you can find a lot of deeper meaning in the story as well. But for me, listening to it on my way to and from Dallas (the narrator was excellent, once I got used to his cadence), it was more a long oral narrative, a story to be heard by the firelight over several nights, a story to capture the imagination and to be swept up in.

Which means it’s being told by a master storyteller. And I loved every minute.