The Vegetarian by Han Kang: A Book Review

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“Look, sister, I’m doing a handstand; leaves are growing out of my body, roots are sprouting out of my hands…they delve down into the earth. Endlessly, endlessly…yes, I spread my legs because I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch; I spread them wide…”

If my fellow Filipinos are addicted to K-Pop and K-drama, well, I am now to K-Lit as in Korean literature. If it were not to my list of the 1001 Best Novels of All Time, I would not have known some immortal Korean novels such as Land by Park Kyung-ni and The Taebek Mountains by Jo Jung-rae. Unfortunately, I have not read them yet; I have still been looking for their English translations at book stores here in the Philippines and  their free PDFs on the internet as well. Nonetheless, thanks to my student’s birthday gift Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin, my first ever Korean novel. After that I got the  good chance of reading  some  other Korean fictions :Deep Blue Night by In-ho ChoiThe Dwarf  by  Cho Se-HuiHuman Decency  by  Ji-young Gong, and The Wounded by Yi Chong-Jun,.These books have piqued my interest in reading another Korean fictions .I wish I could complete all the other books published by the same publisher.

Upon catching the glimpse of The Vegetarian  by Han Kang in an Indian book club in which I am a member , I googled it to find its free PDF or giveaways since I still prefer real books. However, the book , after reading it , is not what I had played in my imagination. This is not what a Korean novel with which I am familiar. It is a different genre that does not reflect Korean life and culture as what the other books I have read above. Rather,it is something new:utterly bizarre, preposterous, fanciful, and insipid but awful and impressive.

Its conceptualized story drives me crazy. A woman whose name is Yeong-hye loses her sanity after turning vegetarian. She quits eating meat because she has delusion that she is growing like a plant. Also, she is somewhat an exhibitionist because she takes pleasure in exposing herself naked to the sunlight. Furthermore, Mr. Chong, Yoeng-her’s brother-in-law, has repressed sexual fantasy  for Yeong-he by filming her having sex with the other man ( including himself) , both bodily painted with  flowers.Besides,the details of how Mr. Chong desires to paint Yeong-he’s body a flower with petals are so erotic that I even got a hard-on. (blushing)

I was impressed by the way how Han Kang combined all the events that happened in different time in one story. I am accustomed to reading a novel that has the same events in one chapter. For this reason, it is a challenge for me to patch all the events together in order to understand the roles of the characters as well as the wholeness of the story.

One of the common comments by the book reviewers is that it is well-written. I guess the best words to put it is that it is well-translated. But to put it mildly, there are some unknown novellas or fictions I have read better than this. May I cite Her Resurrection: A Survivor’s Journey of Emancipation, Reclamation and Redemption by Soumyadeep Koley ? How about the other finalists? I wonder if its Korean version must be more impressive.

On the contrary, the other good points above tend to evaporate as there are some snippets that I find deadening and undermining. There are some lines in the conversations that I find just-nothing as in they lose my interest while I am in the state of dawdling curiosity, puzzlement, enthrallment, and excitement. I may be guessing, but it seems like Han Kang may have found those parts essential to the story. How I wish she had deleted or revised them.  If you happen to encounter those parts, feel free to comment here including the snippets I am blabbering about .I am now too lazy to scan them since I read its PDF.  We may turn out to be in the same position after all. Nevertheless, in the context of literary analysis, the feeling, the tone, the emotion, after all, are the embodiment of Yoeng-hye, an insane woman. But still, my subjective reaction stands stationary.

Since the book is a bit ambiguous, there are two questions that I have been trying to answer myself , which, in effect, are  unnecessary; there are still unread books I have to keep up with : (1) If Yeong-he wants to be vegetarian, why can’t her family support her with some alternative veggie food.They can help her find ones  such as what vegetarians do. If they need protein, they can eat vegetarian recipe replete with protein and other nutrients which are usually found in meat. I wonder if this part reflects in Korean family where family members condemn someone who turns vegetarian. In fact, as far as I know, Buddhism, the first religion in Korea, advocates the importance of eating vegetable. (2) What is the relevance of the Mongolian mark to the story? Does Han Kang want to emphasize its implication of the Korean culture?

Off the topic,while reading it, I remembered the time back in university when I attended a one-week youth camp held by a non-government organization from France. The camp was intended for us scholars to be instilled in different development personality training. One of the programs tried to inculcate in us was to how to be vegetarian. Vegetarianism is one of the organization’s causes. So, almost all the meals prepared for us were vegetables without any small mixture of any kinds of meat. They were not even mixed with any seasonings, so they tasted bland. No surprise why my camp mates would frown during meal time. I may not have been used to it, but I tried to force the lump of veggie into my mouth. Besides, I was inspired by our main facilitator, of Chinese extraction, a certified vegetarian, who testified to the benefits of being vegetarian. After that one-week absence of meat in my body, I continued to apply the cause to my life. Believe it or not, I avoided eating any kinds of meat. Whenever my mother served a bowl of viand, I would just ladle out the vegetables added to it. I would only have the good chance of practicing vegetarianism during lunch at school. However, I decided to quit when I came to realize that I was not rich enough to do so. I would have gotten sick of or chaffed by lack of enough protein. Gee, I would have looked patent anorexic, for my weight at that time was 48 kg.

Although I was not much satisfied with the plots and settings of the novella, Han Kang has proved that Korean writers can write something new, a la Haruki Murakami. Besides, I still felt the K-wave, the marvelous , indescribable , invisible  effect  the Korean Ministry of Culture wants to impart to the world as how K-Pop and K-dramas have invaded Asia and some parts of the world. Thus,  I admit that I have fallen in love with Korean literature, and I want to read some more!  Saranggae! 🙂

Rating: 2/ 5 stars ( It’s ok.)

The Boys in the Striped Pyjamas by John Doyne: A Book Review

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“A speck that became a blob that became a figure that became a boy.”

I had expected that its ending is tragic enough to blink my tears away. I could not even bring myself to turn the next last pages. I would not have cared if I had violated   one of my rules that I should finish a book no matter how disappointing or revolting it turns out to be. Just I could not withstand seeing what is going to happen next and my heart crying over another ending with which I would be overwhelmed, but I did not want to give in. This was it. Why should I back off? Face whatever the next story is.

Its catchy title written  in  striped -pyjamas   book cover is  enchanting  enough for a reader like me to pick it out from among  the other PDFs saved in my phone document. As you know, I am a poor reader. I avail of the free PDFs available on the internet. Somewhow, I enjoyed reading the book because the prose is light, the scenes are engaging despite that they are the keys to the predictable segue, the main character Bruno is the embodiment of my childhood curiosity, and the story is very unique, something I  have never read from the other  fictions. However, although I may not be a full-fledged writer, I may consider myself climbing on the bandwagon of the armchair writers that it is poor-written, one of the shortcomings that may have let down their high standards.

For me, this is just a light book; it is imbued with ponderous prose. It does not have any hefty words your brains have to weigh in on or cerebrally hemorrhagic sentence structures you have to turn over in your mind (as what a grammar Nazi does.) You can concentrate on it no matter how simple the syntax is except for shrinking from the simplicity and shiftlessness of some sentences John Doyne may not have cared about embellishing them more.

Also, you might find yourself deeply engaged in it because Bruno is such a pig-headed wren. His character is the lubricant of the story. His being a pain in the ass soothes the story to become more calmly enthralling. However, there were times that I would trip over some parts only   experienced and critically acclaimed writers have to know what I am trying to drive at.  Don’t get me wrong. I belong to the armchair writers.

In addition, you would not just be a reader but a soothsayer. You could almost   play in your mind the foretaste of the unexpected. I was wondering if it was John Doyne, not his readers, was (not) born yesterday.  In the first place, I had inferred that Bruno will die at the end because his buttoned-up and power monger father will not educate him about the concentration camp Bruno will mistake for a farm. Oh, poor Bruno. His father’s ignorance of a child’s psyche will accidentally put him to death. Lo and behold, I have read such a tragic ending from the other books. (Thinking) … (Walking back and forth)… (Thinking)… Eureka! I’m Not Scared by Italian writer Niccolò Ammaniti must be one of them. So, it’s another meme of the same idea. Could you help me cite some more?

In effect, the concept of the story brushing off all the shortcomings that did not meet the high standards of the armchair writers is supposed to be impressive. I bought some Doyne’s “literary gimmicks” First, Bruno’s “stupid or idiotic “innocence. I admit to cringing at it because I knew that Bruno was not that stupid enough not to understand everything in the story given that he is two years younger than his sister. A reader   ignorant of child psychology may ask this,” Is there such a cognitive condition?”  Second, the deep friendship between the two boys developed at a barbed boundary. It is something new for me. Third, to make the commonly accidental tragedy memorable, the scene is both Bruno and Shmuel are stuck in a line toward the gas chamber. Finally, unbeknownst to Bruno’s family, he will die in the gas chamber and his loss will remain a mystery. So, after reading the book, I sat speechlessly, imagining the chamber   fading away, and I could no longer hear the cries muffled by the gas poured in. Heart-breaking! Indeed, it is a story readers might never forget.

Writers have drops of ideas plopping in their heads, but the big challenge for them is how to creatively put them together with beautiful prose.  By the same token, they have to psychologize the possible reactions of their readers because nowadays readers are smart. They are now being educated by full access to a plethora of information on the internet.  For this reason, John Doyne should have needed more elbow grease to polish the story.  It could  most likely  get more than two stars. Gee! Indeed, I am an armchair writer.

I have just found its movie adaptation on YouTube. I wonder if it is the other way around. 🙂

Rating: 2/ 5 stars ( It’s ok.)

Ang mga Kaibigan ni Mama Susan by Bob Ong: A Book Review

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The first book written by Bob Ong  that led me to the portal of his idiosyncrasies is Bakit Baliktad Magbasa Ng Libro Ang Mga Pilipino?  I was impressed by his ways of writing out his ideas or opinions in a conversational way. Reading it was like an editorial article full of facts but funny, intended not only for young but also old adults . Besides, I sensed his  hidden blaze of nationalism. Amused, I borrowed Macarthur from my cousin who happened to be his avid reader. After that, I was magnetized again because the theme is not that as deeply  and humorously academic and journalistic as the former one but, instead, it is a simple story that young readers may never forget because it reflects the social problem with illegal drug. The story is so worth remembering. No wonder when you ask a young avid fan about which Bob Ong books his/ her favorite is. I bet my boots that it is one of them. And please, count me in. The  very thought of the sachet of  crystal meth floating  in the pooped bowl  repulses me!

I was in university when I got the opportunity to read another Bob Ong book. Another Bob Ong fan lent me some of his other works. I got the good chance of reading Stainless Longganisa . But I admit that I found it pretty boring. It is just a story of how a writer struggles with completing his book or having it published.  If it is so, why did Bob Ong make it more complicated with his satirical dramas?  He could have just written it in the other way around. But who am I to cast aspersion on his writing style? Walang basagan ng trip.This is his trademark.

I was disappointed more after reading his other books such as Ang Paboritong Libro ni Hudas  and Kapitan Sino .  They almost have the same pattern. The situation is like all Bob Ong has to do is to strike up a witty conversation with me ,with his satirical sentiments and dramas. Thereafter, I got sick and tired of Bob Ong. Nakakasawa na. I promised myself then that I would not read another Bob Ong books.

I tried to read another Bob Ong when  friends of mine  gave me an intriguing  idea of Ang mga Kaibigan ni Mama Susan . My friends said that it is a scary one. HmmmAnother friend tampered with my febrile imagination claiming that she could not sleep it off. After burying myself in it for the whole night, yes!  My friends did not prove me wrong. I was horrified. Somehow, it scared me so witless that I would it put down when I did not want to read what would happen next. I did not want to picture how the scenes look like. Then, my hair stood on end when I patched all the puzzling parts together. Gee, that’s why?  A typical reaction when you have come to understand everything. Who won’t forget the scene when the grandma who is supposed to be dead gets up from its bed to approach Galo, the protagonist? Who regretted reading the Latin phrases at the end of his each diary? How about the secret room in where the human –sized saints are kept ?

The story is clearly manipulating because Bob Ong intended to play our imagination. All the settings are mixed. He intended to lead us in some parts which turn out to  be the  linchpin of the  horror. For instance, Galo also makes us  read the Latin phrases he reads out of curiosity. Even though I didn’t understand the words, I still kept on reading them. But , in the end, I deeply regretted doing so. You should not read them if I were you. It is a warning. Plus, the twins, Jezel and Niko .Potek,I thought they were just ‘saling pusa’.

I was first confused with some information with which Bob Ong padded in the story. For instance, the date of the setting is in 1998. But MTB, a famous noon-time show ,was not aired in that year yet. Another thing is a high-tech computer. As far as I know, high-tech computers were unveiled in the 2000’s. There are some more happened in the 2000’s Bob Ong played back in the 1990’s. Thus, I inferred that Bob Ong loves to scrabble all the things that happened from different generations.

My friend speculates that Bob Ong may have written it off the cuff. He may have dabbled in writing it in a corner without any specific theme on his mind. So, his publisher may have ignored it and still seen its potential to give his readers the creeps knowing that he has established a name in the market.  Or she may have meant to say that the story begins with Galo’s “nega moments”; then, all of a sudden, it segues into a horror part. Thus, the book appears to be inscrutable because she is not sure what Bob Ong may want to imply in this book since all his books appear to have satirical meanings. But apparently, one of the insinuations could be that anyone can have a Cinderella life. Of course not! Galo does not have a Princess Charming.( laughs)

Somehow, there are good points in the story that caught my interest aside from the “katatakutan” moments. I liked the philosophical conversations between  Mama Susan and Galo although I find them obscure and irrelevant to whatever Bob Ong wants to preach to us. Besides, if it were not Mama Susan’s revelation about Galo’s past , I would really have demoted Bob Ong to all  wannabe writers (like me)  by giving it one  out of 5 stars on Goodreads.  Fiddlesticks! I wish I read books literally.

As a matter of fact, after reading it, I don’t want to give it a try again nor flip through its pages  given that I found it not that really scary . Perhaps, I just don’t want to read the Latin phrases anymore. Gee, it is the impact on me!

Warning: Please, don’t read the Latin phrases.  Just skip them.

Rating: 3/ 5 stars ( I liked it.)