10 books that changed my life

(i’m a sucker for book memes, and this one’s a particularly good one.)

01.  jane eyre, charlotte brontë, for being the first book i truly, thoroughly loved.

02.  anna karenina, leo tolstoy, for introducing me to the awesomeness that is 19th century russian literature.

03.  atonement, ian mcewan, for getting me out of a bad reading slump and back into literature.

04.  never let me go, kazuo ishiguro, for … never letting me go.  (har.)  (okay, seriously, though, i read this book at least once a year, and it never ceases to get me right in the gut.)

05.  the unabridged journals, sylvia plath, for just getting me.

06.  man walks into a room, nicole krauss — or nicole krauss in general for being brilliant and thoughtful and amazing.

07.  please take care of mom, shin kyung-sook, for making me appreciate motherhood and womanhood in post-war korean culture, which is all very relevant to me because my grandmother, my mother, even i have emerged from it.

08.  nothing to envy, barbara demick, for humanizing north koreans.

09.  the corrections, jonathan franzen, for getting me started on contemporary fiction and an awareness of the industry as a whole, although, okay, maybe it’s more accurate to cite freedom here because it really was all the media frenzy around freedom that got me reading the corrections (i read freedom six months after i’d read the corrections).

10.  the english patient, michael ondaatje, for being so fucking exquisitely written in language that breaks my heart and gives me hope.

this was a very satisfying distraction:

1.  favourite childhood book?
i loved the anne of green gables books … but then i learned of the emily of new moon books when i was older, and i love those better.  (teddy!!!)

2.  what are you reading right now?
madeleine l’engle’s walking on water, jonathan franzen’s the kraus project, krys lee’s drifting house, banana yoshimoto’s hardboiled and hard luck, and c.s. lewis’ surprised by joy.  i have to have at least 5 books going at the same time, so i can hop around as my mood flips.

3.  what books do you have on request at the library?
sad to say i do not have a library card, but, you know, this is actually a good thing because i’m terrible at keeping due dates.  also, i like owning books; i’m possessive that way.

4.  bad book habit?
erm, i err on the side of taking too much care of my books?  i don’t fold corners or crease spines, although i do mark passages i like with a pencil.  although i guess i’ve gotten less anal retentive in recent years.  i always have a book with me, and i carry giant tote bags, so my books have been getting more wear, which is nice — i’ve grown to like that slightly worn look.

5.  what do you currently have checked out at the library?
see number 3.

6.  do you have an e-reader?
i have an ipad and her name is zöe but i basically use her only to browse flipboard and watch movie trailers.

7.  do you prefer to read one book at a time, or several at once?
see number 2.

8.  have your reading habits changed since starting a blog?

9.  least favourite book you read this year (so far)?
haruki murakami’s hard-boiled wonderland and the end of the world.  i couldn’t stand it and only finished it because it was for book club.

10.  favourite book you’ve read this year?
meg wolitzer’s the interestings.  have you read it yet?  no?  please do.

11.  how often do you read out of your comfort zone?
i don’t know how i would define “comfort zone.”  i know the style of writing i like and the kinds of stories i like, and i guess that could be a comfort zone because i don’t deliberately try to read from different genres or such.  i don’t really see a reason to.  i do try to be deliberate with being more balanced in the books i read, specifically by reading more women and more korean authors in general.

12.  what is your reading comfort zone?
"they" call the genre "literary fiction."  so "literary fiction" and the classics.

13.  can you read on the bus?
i have horrible motion sickness.  i can read on trains and planes, though, granted that turbulence is not a thing, but i can’t read on buses or cars — it’s hard even to be a passenger in buses and cars, so it’s a good thing i love driving.

14.  favourite place to read?
at my desk, in bed, on the subway.

15.  what is your policy on book lending?
i’ll lend you books, ok, but i want them back in the exact condition i’ve leant them to you.

16.  do you ever dog-ear books?
no, that’s why post-its were invented.

17.  do you ever write in the margins of your books?
yes.  in pencil.  usually in a scrawl i can’t read.

18.  not even with text books?
you should’ve seen the hate i wrote in my casebooks.

19.  what is your favourite language to read in?
english.  because my korean isn’t fluent enough for reading literature.  although that doesn’t stop be from buying korean literature in korean on a semi-regular basis.  (one day soon, i’ll buy kim young-ha’s memories of a murderer.)

20.  what makes you love a book?
good writing.  i need a good narrative and fleshed-out characters, but it’s the writing itself that really gets me.

21.  what will inspire you to recommend a book?
if it gets me in the heart and in the gut.  the interestings got me in both my heart and gut.  so did michael ondaatje’s the english patient.  (ondaatje’s writing in the english patient also just shredded my heart; his language is so fucking spectacular and heart-breaking.)

22.  favourite genre?
see number 12.

23.  genre you rarely read (but wish you did)?
erm.  sometimes i wish i liked non-fiction more?  sometimes, i wish there were more creative non-fiction that was interesting.

24.  favourite biography?
ugh.  i am so not a biography person.  that said, i’ll read pretty much everything written about sylvia plath.  (i have a shelf for sylvia plath literature alone.)

25.  have you ever read a self-help book?
i have better ways to waste my time.

26.  favourite cookbook?
deb perelman’s smitten kitchen cookbook.  also, love her blog.  hilariously, i’ve cooked from her blog several times but have yet to cook something from her cookbook.  it’s too pretty to get dirty in my kitchen!

27.  most inspirational book you’ve read this year (fiction or non-fiction)?
meh do not like this question; skip.

28.  favourite reading snack?
coffee (obviously) and a cheddar scone.  cheddar scones are great.  especially if they also have scallions and bacon.  i’ve really got to start baking them myself.

29.  name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience.
hm.  strangely enough, i can actually count several examples of the reverse happening, where i thought i’d hate a book because of hype but ended up loving it instead … like ian mcewan’s atonement and jonathan franzen’s freedom.  (ok i can’t say i loved freedom, but i found it a lot more compelling and thought-provoking than i expected.  the corrections, though — now, that’s my franzen book.)

30.  how often do you agree with critics about a book?
i very rarely read anything critical about books.  when i’ve finished a book, i go searching for author interviews, though.

31.  how do you feel about giving bad/negative reviews?
just be honest.  bad writing is bad writing.

32.  if you could read in a foreign language, which language would you choose?
russian.  i want to read tolstoy and dostoevsky not-in-translation, damnit!

33.  most intimidating book you’ve ever read?
most intimidating book i’ve started/tried to read?  proust’s in search of lost time.

34.  most intimidating book you’re too nervous to begin?
james joyce’s ulysses.  i feel like part of the intimidation is pure hype, though.  also i’m too lazy to pick this up.

35.  favourite poet?
hands down, t.s. eliot.  pfft, i make it sound like i actually read a whole lot of poetry.  i don’t.  but i still love t.s. eliot.

36.  how many books do you usually have checked out of the library at any given time?
when i was in university, i had at least 15 books checked out at any given time, most of them scholarly works or academic texts that were too expensive for me to buy.  sobs.  i miss university resources.

37.  how often have you returned a book to the library unread?
pretty much most of the time.  but i also usually returned them after i’d made copies of relevant chapters/essays.

38.  favourite fictional character?
i always hate these questions; skip.

39.  favourite fictional villain?
see above.

40.  books you’re most likely to bring on vacation?
books i’m most likely not to read on vacation.  like proust and dostoevsky.  pfft.  luckily, i’ve got some of my favourites already on zöe (like kazuo ishiguro’s never let me go, david eagleman’s sum, michael ondaatje’s the english patient, sylvia plath’s unabridged journals, and john berger’s and our faces, my heart, brief as photos, tobias wolff’s old school, and charlotte brontë’s jane eyre) or there’s a bookstore to be found, so i end up with something satisfying to read.

41.  the longest you’ve gone without reading.
never?  i have periods of reading intensely (usually january-february and autumn), but i’m always reading at least a little all the time.

42.  name a book that you could/would not finish.
i couldn’t do this before — if i started a book, i had to finish it — but now i don’t bother forcing myself to read something that doesn’t compel me.  like david mitchell’s cloud atlas.  i’m sorry, but, wow, i can’t get into it.  and gabriel garcia marquez’s one hundred years of solitude.  i might get reamed for this, but, oh man, i read about fifty pages of it and was bored to death.  and i was reading it while working at a law office, so i honestly couldn’t get more bored than i already was.

43.  what distracts you easily when you’re reading?
when i’m in a book, i’m in a book, aka don’t talk to me.  one of my biggest peeves ever = people talking to me when i’m reading.  just don’t.  i guarantee you aren’t as interesting as my book.

44.  favourite film adaptation of a novel?
i love joe wright’s adaptation of pride and prejudice.

45.  most disappointing film adaptation?
this can go on forever, so let’s not start.

46.  the most money you’ve ever spent in the bookstore at one time?
we aren’t going there, nope.

47.  how often do you skim a book before reading it?
never?  what’s to be gained by this?  (also, i hate spoilers.)

48.  what would cause you to stop reading a book half-way through?
if the book holds me at arm’s length.

49.  do you like to keep your books organised?
yup, by publisher then by author.  it doesn’t mean my books stay organised like this, though, but that’s my system!

50.  do you prefer to keep books or give them away once you’ve read them?
keep them, duh.

51.  are there any books you’ve been avoiding?
david foster wallace’s infinite jest.  i don’t know why.  (haha life’s funny, though — i’ve recently become good friends with this girl who’s a huge wallace fan, and i happen to be a huge franzen fan, and i’ve never read wallace, and she’s never read franzen, but we sit and talk about them quite often.)

52.  name a book that made you angry.
ayn rand’s the fountainhead pissed me off the whole way through.

53.  a book you didn’t expect to like but did?
i honestly walked into atonement thinking it would be whatever.  instead, it ended up being the book that ended my dry spell and reignited my love for literature — that and daphne du maurier’s rebecca.

54.  a book that you expected to like but didn’t?
i thought i’d like tea obreht’s the tiger’s wife a whole lot more than i actually did.  love her prose, though, but the book itself was a little too unsure of itself for me.

55.  favourite guilt-free, pleasure reading?
everything?  i only read books i enjoy reading, so it’s all guilt-free pleasure reading for me.

today was one of those days i should’ve just stayed home.

i like clinton hill — i do — but, oh, man, is it a pain to get to manhattan or what.

thanks to the G and A/C being slow as usual and the F doing … i don’t even know what, i missed a book club meeting i was looking forward to (i finished the book, too!  even though i didn’t like it much!  and in two days no less!), so, to make up for that, i decided to cobble together Qs from the EW book quiz because, well, why not.

what was your favorite book as a child?

i always loved charlotte brontë’s jane eyre.  still do.

what is your favorite book that you read for school?

camus’ the fall — i owe my twelfth grade AP lit teacher a lot, actually.  she’s the one who introduced me to camus and beckett and sartre and ibsen and albee, and i will always think of her fondly for it.  a lot of my classmates didn’t like her because she was really old and kind of slow, but she was a smart lady, and she taught me how to think differently about literature.  she’s one of a handful of teachers who left a lasting impact.

what’s a book that really cemented you as a writer?

uh … i don’t know?  i can say that ian mcewan’s atonement and daphne du maurier’s rebecca were the two books that made me fall back in love with literature after i’d gone through a dry spell my first two years at university, so maybe they, in a sense, cemented me as a writer?  i don’t know?  what does this question even mean?

is there a book you’ve read over and over again?

i read kazuo ishiguro’s never let me go at least twice every year.  i usually also read ian mcewan’s on chesil beach and nicole krauss’ man walks into a room at least once a year.  when i hit a rough spot writing, those are the three books i always turn to for encouragement.

what’s a classic that you’re embarrassed to say you’ve never read?

i’ve never read chekhov.  there.  i’ve said it.  now to go pick up something by chekhov tomorrow …

what’s a book you’ve pretended to have read?

hmm.  i used to do this; now i don’t care — there are so many good books out there; it’s impossible for anyone to have read them all; so who cares if you haven’t read a specific book?  i mean, as long as you’re reading good books …!

what’s a book you consider grossly overrated?

jane austen’s pride and prejudice.  haaaa, ok, i have an irrational dislike of that book.  i do love joe wright’s adaptation of it, though!

what’s a recent book you wish you had written?

generally speaking, any good serious novel because i am not a novelist — i am a writer of short stories.

what’s a movie adaptation of a book that you loved?

i surprisingly loved the adaptations to both ian mcewan’s atonement and kazuo ishiguro’s never let me go.  i loved the cinematography and staging and costuming of joe wright’s adaptation of tolstoy’s anna karenina, but i wasn’t too keen on the script.

(also, i love keira knightley.)

what was an illicit book that you had to read in secret as a kid?

all i read as a kid were the classics, so i didn’t read anything in secret.  i felt a sort of guilty pleasure while reading madame bovary, though, but i think i was in late middle school when i picked that up, so does that count?

what’s a book that people might be surprised to learn that you loved?

huh.  i don’t know.  i loved gregory maguire’s wicked?  that’s not that surprising, though … or is it?  i mean, i haven’t read the wizard of oz and only saw the movie very recently (like, in the last 2 months) for the first time (and was confirmed in my suspicion that i wouldn’t like dorothy), but i loved elphaba.  and fiyero!

if there were only one genre you could read for the rest of your life, what would it be?

uhm literary fiction?  considering that the bulk of my reading falls under “literary fiction” (to be honest, i don’t even know that means), i’d say i’m pretty safe saying that …

what was the last book that made you laugh out loud, and what was the last one that made you cry?

i’m laughing a lot while reading jonathan franzen’s the kraus project, and i cried while reading meg wolitzer’s the interestings.  this passage particularly got to me.  (also, if you haven’t read the interestings yet, what’s stopping you?)

what is a book you would kill a bug with?

ayn rand’s the fountainhead.  i’d kill all the bugs with that book.


just a little over a hundred pages left of meg wolitzer’s the interestings.  when i was roughly a hundred pages in, i kept thinking that i wanted to tell everyone to read this, read this book now, but thought that i should wait until i’d finished it because books can sometimes fail you that way — but, now i’ve got roughly a hundred pages left, and the thought’s even more frenzied because the interestings is easily one of the most compelling books i’ve read with rich, live characters i care for (i might also be a little in love with ethan figman), and i’m fairly confident it won’t fail me in this last stretch.

one, two, three.

one.  roughly halfway into my stay in LA, and so far it’s been … ok?  i always feel like an emotional yo-yo when i’m here, and not even because i’m being my usual moody, temperamental self.  LA and i have a complicated relationship; i enjoy being out here but sometimes i also absolutely hate it; but what can you do?  headed up to the redwoods + yountville + sf next week, though!

two.  i started “playing” the piano again, and i put that in quotes because i suppose it’s honestly more like tinkering.  i miss doing music, being part of it, actively participating in it instead of simply listening to it and enjoying it (which is great, too, obviously), and i think i’ll miss this — this easy access to a piano, the comfort of sitting down and going over tricky passages (ha, all passages are tricky passages to me now!) over and over and over — and i’m thinking i should take my flute back to nyc with me, find a practice space, and get back at this in a semi-regular way.  maybe paying to rent rehearsal space will give me incentive not to waste time and get some good practicing in because music feels good even if, wow, i’m starting all over again because it’s been too many years.

three.  still on my banana yoshimoto kick!  went to my favourite used bookstore with the illustrator friend today and walked out with five books for $28 — two by banana yoshimoto, a sylvia plath biography, henry james’ what maisie knew, and the pevear/volokhonsky translation of anna karenina.  i just can’t resist books.  T_T

recent acquisitions because it’s physically impossible for me to resist books.  and literary magazines.  especially when housing works is awesome and holds a literary magazine festival where all magazines are $2.  $2!!!  you would have made off with a little pile like i did.

(it also doesn’t help the book-buying compulsion when books are on sale.  hence four paperbacks seized and carried over to the register and purchased, all within about ten minutes.)  (i started off with just the kafka, i promise.  and then i added the roth because i think i need to read more roth.  but then i saw the nabokov, and i’ve been wanting to read nabokov for a long time, and do you know how awesome nabokov was in the way he played with form and presented pale fire as an epic poem and commentary?  and then there was the fabers first edition of auster, and, augh, how could i resist that, too, when i’ve got a fabers first edition of ishiguro’s a pale view of hills?!  do you know how much visual continuity means to me?)

(haha but, of course, how could you, and i could regale you now with the tale of my obsessive hunt for a full set of proust with the same cover template, except i won’t.  because i haven’t succeeded yet.  but i will — ohhhh, i will, just you wait.)

maybe the point of this is that, yes, my ipad is a wonderfully shiny creature and i love her, but she’s best used for playing too much spider solitaire because, when it comes to books, it will always be paper, paper, paper.  and that, you know, 1Q84 is not a perfect novel, but, damn, it stuck with me, and, hey, look, now i have it in paperback!  i’ll buy the second book when amazon uk gets back to me about the covers on the proust editions they’ve got in stock …

books i always fall back on when the writing stalls:

i love these videos random house makes, not only because i love random house but also because they go to show that publishing is a collaborative process.  the writing bit might be solitary, but everything beyond that — everything that’s required to take a manuscript, hone it, create it, market it, etcetera etcetera etcetera — is done by a team of like-minded people who all love the manuscript and want to make it into the best book it can be and place that book in the hands of people who will also love it.

that’s a very picture-perfect view of publishing, yes, but i love it and think that, at the core of publishing, there really is love.  i love that about book people (and i’m narrowing this statement only to book people because i’m a book person) — that it’s love — and, aw, my little defunct heart throbs with happiness and longing over these glimpses into a house that publishes these authors i love and makes these books i adore.

the first chapter of the history of love is just sosososo good.

Anonymous whispered: can you suggest some great modern (or xx century) korean writers? or books?

ah, i apologise for taking so long to reply to this; i wanted to reply to it sooner and started writing a reply a month ago; but the truth is that my knowledge of modern korean literature is so limited and i wanted to read up more on it first. (unfortunately, that didn’t happen.)

as it goes, i’ve only read two korean authors thus far (and in translation, it must be noted), and i’d recommend them both — kim young-ha (i have the right to destroy myself and your republic is calling you) and shin kyung-sook (please look after mom) (i believe shin has another book being published by knopf this spring, i’ll be right there, and another novel by kim was published last year, black flower).

for kim, on a narrative level, i’d say that your republic is calling you is more accessible, whereas i have the right to destroy myself is more interesting tonally and conceptually. when i read i have the right to destroy myself, i was reminded a lot about haruki murakami actually, but any similar tonal qualities disappeared in your republic is calling you. of the two, i think i personally enjoyed i have the right to destroy myself better because it has a quality that kind of sticks to you, but i don’t think it necessarily achieves all its potential. it was kim’s debut novel, after all.

for shin, i loved please look after mom — i talked about it briefly in my 2012 recap — and i think shin does a stellar job at capturing and portraying post-war korea and, specifically, post-war korean motherhood. i didn’t really care for the ending, though, but the ending wasn’t bad or lackluster enough to reduce my enthusiasm for the novel, but i also admit that please look after mom resonated with me very strongly on a personal level because the character of the mother is very much my paternal grandmother. the discussion around the novel is interesting, too.

as for other great modern korean literature, i’m still very new to it myself. i found this fabulous post (“what to start reading in translated korean literature”), so i’d recommend starting with that. i’m sorry i can’t make any more suggestions from my own personal reading at the moment, but i will definitely be reading more korean lit and posting quotes from books i read as well as my thoughts about them! i just picked up hwang sok-young, who i am super stoked to read!

again, my apologies for the super slow reply. i hope you haven’t disappeared and given up on me ever getting back to you … T_T

(i feel like i should also note here that i might be really slow at replying, but, if you ask me anything about books, i will always reply. i love talking books! it just … might take me a bit.)

(also, i believe gong ji-young’s our happy time has been picked up to be published in english in spring 2014!)