seven books i’d recommend to an aspiring writer (but, really, in general, to anyone) (by request on instagram):
this is a weird list for me to think up, mostly because i feel like there’s something very personal about the books/writing we’re drawn to — and, by that, i mean that we’re drawn to different tones, nuances, narratives, themes, even styles that respond to our own unique experiences and preferences, and there are so many great books out there that speak to those differences.
it goes without saying that this is a list that’s entirely personal to me, given the type of writing i personally aspire to and the themes that attract me. they aren’t really books about writing because i don’t find those personally useful/inspirational, but these are seven books that i find myself coming back to over and over again, especially when i could use some encouragement as a writer. (:
01. still writing, dani shapiro.
this is the only book on/about writing i’ve ever read. i appreciated it a lot, too — i stumbled across this book in a very timely moment when i was feeling discouraged because i was struggling in my own writing. i basically read this book thinking, YES! i agree! the whole time and immediately recommended it to my illustrator friend because a lot of the things shapiro says were things my friend and i had been talking about over the last few months.
shapiro doesn’t try to romanticize or glamorize the writing life (to be honest, i don’t know how anyone could. there’s nothing romantic or glamorous about it at all, “it” being the work itself, showing up everyday and sitting at your desk and trying to bleed words onto the page), but she talks about it honestly and openly, even when she’s discussing something like envy. i appreciated her frankness and that this book gave me a little kick in the butt and got me to stop moping and get back to writing …
02. the unabridged journals, sylvia plath.
the first time i read plath’s journals, i’d find myself spazzing out over how much i related to her. her internal struggles about being a writer and a woman and, oftentimes, a woman writer are laid out so bare on the page, and, to me at least, plath has always seemed so eminently relatable. it doesn’t hurt that i enjoy her writing, too, because there’s a rawness to it, even if there is a voyeuristic feeling to delving into her personal thoughts and records of her life. at the same time, though, it really is that rawness that i respond to, that humanness that makes her ultimately sympathetic and real.
03. the english patient, michael ondaatje.
ondaatje’s prose in the english patient — it’s hard to find words to do it credit. his words drip off the page, and there’s this liquid sensuality to them that wraps you up and doesn’t let you go — and it’s very languid, too, very smooth and rich but not overwhelming or smothering. the story is haunting, too, with the specter of war looming over them, and the language just serves the narrative and the settings so well. it’s so beautiful — read it out loud; the words roll off your tongue like lovely morsels.
04. the history of love, nicole krauss.
if we’re talking aspirational prose, i automatically think of nicole krauss because she writes about loss in the most exquisite ways. the last few pages of the history of love wring my heart — even now, just thinking about them, my eyes sting — and there’s so much heart in her writing, so much raw sensitivity and fragility, not of the weak sort but in the sense of the human body being a fragile, breakable but beautiful, living thing.
i also highly recommend her debut novel, man walks into a room. it’s not as stylized as the history of love, but it’s still beautifully written — and, again, the ways krauss writes about loss — i can’t get enough of it.
05. never let me go, kazuo ishiguro.
there is no book i have read more than i have read never let me go — in fact, i just finished reading it for the second time this calendar year, and i’m sure i’ll read it at least once more before 2014 is up. there’s a beautiful thread of unease running under this entire book, and it pulls tighter and tighter as you get near the end, until you’re just unravelled yourself.
ishiguro does first-person so well — i’ve probably said this before, but i think that, while there are many writers who are good at first person, there are few writers who are great at first person, and ishiguro is one of those few. he inhabits voice with such ease, so there’s a beautiful naturalness to kathy h’s voice, and that just unravels you more …
06. anna karenina, leo tolstoy.
i really should pick up the pevear/volokhonsky translation of this. in my opinion, there’s just no reason not to read anna karenina — it’s engaging; it’s a fascinating portrait of russia in the late nineteenth century; and, okay, i will concede that not everyone will be as in love with nineteenth century russia as i am, but tolstoy gets a lot into anna karenina, delving into themes like jealousy and passion and happiness and marriage but does so by telling a story through these characters in a very realistic portrait of an actual world.
and it’s fun! i think it’s fun. there’s such an opulence to this world that there’s a seduction to it. it’s basically tolstoy’s fault that i’m fascinated by nineteenth century russia.
the other russian novel i’d recommend is dostoevsky’s the brothers karamazov.
07. the corrections, jonathan franzen.
i can’t not put a franzen on here. when i reread the corrections earlier this year, the main thought going through my head was basically, these are real, fleshed-out people occupying a real, fleshed-out world, which honestly negates any kind of argument about likability or whatnot. and my thing with franzen is that he makes it all read so easy. the effort of his prose isn’t on the page; you don’t read him and think, wow, this guy is trying so hard to do something; and i admire that ease because we know the effort that does go into these books, not only his but any good book, the writing, rewriting, editing, again and again and again until it’s just right. and, sometimes, you can see that laboriousness dragging down the writing, but not so in the corrections.
and here’s a bonus thrown in: the opening passage to enduring love by ian mcewan. the whole book is brilliant and one of my favorites by mcewan, but that opening passage in particular is awesome. i typed it up here, so now y’all have no excuse not to read it. then go get the book and read it.
12:46 am • 11 August 2014 • 11 notes • View comments
the toilet papers
wrote a story a few years ago that i submitted to magazines last year. decided to put it on the internet instead. :3
the site has the most basic coding, but, wow, i’m braindead. it was a pretty marathon coding session, though, and required the least hair-pulling, and, before y’all get all, what’s the big deal over such a basic site, let’s keep in mind that (01) i am not a web designer/coder and (02) it’s been years since i looked at html/css.
oops, i changed the link, so i should probably update this. new link to my story is HERE. :D
12:31 am • 11 August 2014 • 15 notes • View comments
The Korean War lasted three years, with millions either dead or separated. It never really ended but instead paused in the 1953 armistice exactly where it began, with Koreans on both sides of the 38th parallel. Historians often refer to it as the “forgotten war,” but no Korean considers it forgotten. Theirs is not a culture of forgetting. The war is everywhere in today’s Koreas.
There is, for example, the story of my father’s young female cousins, nursing students aged seventeen and eighteen, who disappeared during the war. Decades later, in the 1970s, their mother, my father’s aunt, received a letter from North Korea via Japan, the only contact her daughters ever made with her, and from that moment on, she was summoned to the Korean Central Intelligence Agency every few months on suspicion of espionage until she finally left South Korea for good and died in St. Antonio, Texas. The girls were never heard from again. And there was my uncle, my mother’s brother, who was just seventeen when he was abducted by North Korean soldiers at the start of the war, in June 1950. He was never seen again. He might or might not have been taken to Pyongyang, and it was this suspended state of not knowing that drove my mother’s mother nearly crazy, and my mother, and to some degree me, who inherited their sorrow.
Stories such as these abound in South Korea, and probably North Korea, if its people were allowed to tell them. Separation haunts the affected long after the actual incident. It is a perpetual act of violation. You know that the missing are there, just a few hours away, but you cannot see them or write to them or call them. It could be your mother trapped on the other side of the border. It could be your lover whom you will long for the rest of your life. It could be your child whom you cannot get to, although he calls out your name and cries himself to sleep every night. From Seoul, Pyongyang looms like a shadow, about 120 miles away, so close but impossible to touch. Decades of such longing sicken a nation. The loss is remembered, and remembered, like an illness, a heartbreak from which there is no healing, and you are left to wonder what happened to the life you were supposed to have together. For those of us raised by mothers and fathers who experienced such trauma firsthand, it is impossible not to continue this remembering.
— Without You, There is no Us, Suki Kim
8:03 pm • 9 August 2014 • 3 notes • View comments
i hate summer weather, but i love summer fruit. cherries, peaches, plums, watermelons, yellow watermelons … come to me!
(the hunt for yellow melons has officially begun. i found them last year, and i will find them this year.)
4:24 pm • 7 August 2014 • View comments
july reads! the common thing about all my july reads? (they’re all written by women, but also) i read each book from cover-to-cover in one sitting.
twenty-eight. the hen who believed she could fly, hwang sun-mi.
just because you’re the same kind doesn’t mean you’re all one happy family. the important thing is to understand each other. that’s love! sprout ran on, elated, bursting into song. (106)
this is one beautifully made book — seriously, it’s beautiful, and the illustrations are fantastic.
… y’know, i’ve been sitting on this july reading recap because i’ve been trying to figure out what to say about this book. it’s an allegory, and it’s great, and there’s a whole lot in it to talk about, and yet i can’t come up with words. i think i need to read it again, chew on it some more, and actually write things down after i’ve read it because it’s a slim little book but there’s so much packed into it. i definitely recommend it, but i think i’ll have to come back to this later after i’ve read it again.
on a related aside, i’ve kind of hit a point in my reading of korean literature where i’ve tired of reading in-translation. it’s not that the translations are bad or poorly done because they’re not, but i think there are limits in translation because there are things that inevitably get lost in that scramble between languages. and, as someone who can read korean and wants to get better at it, there’s also a sort of kick-in-the-ass motivation there, too. which is why i did buy the english translation of gong ji-young’s our happy time but set it aside to read it in korean … it takes me much longer, but there is no better way of improving my korean, soooo …!
twenty-nine. my salinger year, joanna rakoff.
regardless, there was something about that modest advance, that initial rejection, that soothed me. salinger had not always been salinger. salinger had once sat at his desk, trying to figure out what made a story, how to structure a novel, how to be a writer, how to be. (222)
read this on the fourth of july whilst sprawled out on my sofa with a delightful breeze coming in through the windows — i have to admit that, while i enjoyed it tremendously while reading it, this isn’t a book that really stuck with me. it made for a great read in the moment, though, very engrossing, though i honestly didn’t care much for her coyness (i can’t think of a better word for it) — it’s not like you can’t google salinger’s agent/agency, so all the masking of identities seemed a little coy to me.
thirty. everything i never told you, celeste ng.
and then, as if the tears are telescopes, she begins to see more clearly: the shredded posters and pictures, the rubble of books, the shelf prostrate at her feet. everything that she had wanted for lydia, which lydia had never wanted but had embraced anyway. a dull chill creeps over her. perhaps — and this thought chokes her — that had dragged lydia underwater at last. (247)
this was incredible. SO incredible. i knew nothing about this when i purchased it, but i was browsing at greenlight when i picked it up and was intrigued by the title and started flipping through it. and, then, when i got home and started reading it, i couldn’t stop until i was done.
it’s amazing. it’s a beautiful, heart-breaking portrait of grief and loss and how our expectations of the people we love can become burdens and how no one really means to fuck anyone up but it just happens and how it’s out of our control. it’s a beautiful look into family and lost dreams and the ways we try to reclaim our dreams through other means, and i actually very rarely say this, but it’s also a wonderful depiction of being asian-american because ng isn’t obvious about it or draws attention to it in a fingerpointing “this is crucial” way. the characters’ asianness is simply part of who they are; it’s not what defines them.
there was a lot that resonated with me personally, too, so that didn’t hurt. i highly, highly, highly recommend this.
thirty-one. california, edan lepucki.
she would have understood, too, that all the talking in the world couldn’t give everything away, that a person was always capable of keeping secrets. it might have saved her from feeling betrayed by her husband here at the end of the world. (110)
if i were to point out a specific thing i’d say made me love calfiornia, it’d be how prescient it felt. it’s a dystopian novel, yes, but it feels very present-day, and i think it’s because lepucki presents a world that seems very real, like this world could very much naturally head into the direction of the world presented in the novel. like, this is a dystopian novel that doesn’t feel like a reach or like it’s set in some distant future but one that could feasibly be the world of tomorrow, and, on that level, it was also really fun to read as someone who has lived for a very long time just outside los angeles and is familiar with the specific locations she references in the novel.
the other thing i loved about california is its portrait of a marriage because i found it to be refreshingly honest. i can’t say i necessarily liked either frida or cal, but, at the same time, even as i type out those words, i wonder why that’s so important to note (i’m not keen on all this whole “likability” thing that keeps being talked about; characters should feel like real, fleshed-out people; and real, fleshed-out people aren’t always solely likable or unlikable). the important thing (i think) is that both frida and cal feel like real people in a real marriage — not everything about it is perfect, and they both fall privy to the mistake of keeping secrets and assuming things about the other. their marriage suffers from this lack of communication, even if some of this withholding is done with the intention of somehow protecting or helping each other through it, and, all throughout, i was rooting for the both of them and mentally groaning whenever they would decide not to communicate when they really needed to be talking to each other.
i also had the privilege of hearing lepucki twice (in one week, no less!) when she was in nyc for her book tour, and she’s also super fun and awesome in-person. :D
(haha, also, at mcnally, lepucki was asked what she was reading next, and she said she’d just gotten everything i never told you, and, in my head, i was all, OMG you’re going to love it; it’s SO AMAZING.)
currently finishing up another read of never let me go (ishiguro is doing an event at the 92y next march, and i have tickets, and i am SO FRIGGIN’ EXCITED) and just read/examined peter mendelsund’s cover and am reading euny hong’s the birth of korean cool. which, meh title, but i’m interested in the content, and, at the same time, i’m so personally close to k-pop because it was my adolescence that i’m weirdly very protective of it and get very bristly when reading analyses about it. even when the person writing about it is korean. haha interesting, the things you learn about yourself, eh?
10:58 pm • 6 August 2014 • 3 notes • View comments
“(We are all, in fact, not that which we hope to be, but rather that which we actually do.)”
— Cover, Peter Mendelsund
10:27 pm • 5 August 2014 • 5 notes • View comments
Anonymous said: Hey there! I've read your reviews on the books you read and I was just wondering... How do you go about writing them? I'm supposed to hand one up to my teacher and I'm going to use 'The Interestings' :) (I can see from your posts you love that book) And ye.. So are there any thugs or formats to follow when writing a book review? I'm sorry if this sounded like a stupid question XP But I really don't know what's appropriate to him cos I'm sure he wouldn't want a page full of 'fangirling' XD
hey! haha it’s funny you ask me this because i feel like that’s what i do — fangirl.
if i were to try writing a proper review, though … there’s usually a theme or idea or character or something in a book that sticks with me, so i like to start from there and build the review around that. i’d also try to summarize the book in one paragraph early on, so there’s context for the reader (always assuming that he/she hasn’t read the book), and then go on to discuss the characters, the writing itself, and the story overall — as well as whether or not the author was successful in telling the story he/she wanted to tell.
especially with a book like the interestings where i feel like there are a few really big themes that wolitzer set out to write about — i’d explore how she went about presenting them and the different ways she explored them and whether or not she did so effectively.
or something like that. but i’m obsessed with the ways wolitzer talks about talent/potential and envy and friendship. sorry, i feel like this was massively unhelpful. ):
but yey the interestings!
5:34 pm • 28 July 2014 • 4 notes • View comments
- moving is expensive. i mean, i always knew it was, but i’ve actually never hired movers before, but i am this time because i have furniture and moving’s already exhausting and painful.
- also i have a lot of books. and i don’t just have a lot of books — i’ve amassed quite a collection of hardcover books because i fell in love with the solidness and the quality of hardcover books in the last few years. also i’ve started reading a lot of new releases now that i obsessively keep an eye on publishing.
- moving also means that my world has been overrun with boxes again.
- i think i’ve moved roughly 8-9 times in the last ten years. which makes this move number 9 or 10.
- all this apartment hunting nonsense means that the writing has slowed massively this month. apartment hunting makes me weirdly emotional — i think it’s the stress (i don’t stress a lot, but i have specific stressors? and apartment-hunting is a giant one) — so that affected the writing, and i’ve also had quite a few story kinks to work out, so that, also, affected the writing. that isn’t to say no work got down — most of the kinks have been worked out, even if a lot of writing/editing itself did not, which really just goes to show that the number one thing to writing a book is to show up, sit at your desk, and shove your way through book problems, even if it means days of being unfruitful and getting increasingly frustrated. problems aren’t going to work themselves out; you have to sit there and do the work; and the payoff is wonderful.
- so, yes, the book is progressing nicely.
- my deadline keeps getting pushed back, though, but i’m sticking with my end-of-summer deadline. I CAN SEE THE END. seriously. the end is visible. and i. can. not. wait.
(- not in the sense of being sick of the book but in the sense of being excited to move on to the next step and take this book to the agent and work on it with her and make it into a beautiful creature ready to be shown to the world.)
- i’m excited about this book, y’all. i mean, i’m sure all writers are excited about their books, but, on one hand, it’s like, wow i wrote a book, and, on the other, it’s like, OMG I WROTE A BOOK.
- and, with that, i think i will go eat something and kick around some cardboard boxes.
10:09 pm • 22 July 2014 • 2 notes • View comments
“After a while, the fear became a habit, too.”
— Celeste Ng, Everything I Never Told You
9:32 pm • 8 July 2014 • 65 notes • View comments