“Dear Life” – by Alice Munro (or Some Personal Reflections)

I’m cheating a little here because I haven’t really finished the book yet. And this is more of a reflection on my life for the past few months during which I haven’t been able to write, rather than a book review per se.

I haven’t written anything ‘voluntarily’ for almost over a year, and just like a foreign language, the skill, no, the sheer will of writing slowly disappears with its lack of usage. You lose its grammar, its vocabulary, its syntax, its flow.

I have spent every minute of my ‘free time’ this semester watching Netflix and Amazon Prime shows, YouTube videos, and browsing through meaningless Buzzfeed articles or shopping sites to fill in the gap in my life. Because none of these actually required me to take a minute to reflect on and acknowledge how shitty my life was. For the few minutes or hours my brain was wired to the moving images in front of me, I was allowed to forget I was still making mistakes in life well into my 30s (okay, not ‘well into‘ really, but you know). I didn’t have to face the fact that I had the tools to get out of the shithole I had dug for myself, but I just couldn’t push myself to use them. Or maybe I didn’t have the tools after all.

This is why I haven’t really written anything or even read anything (besides scholarly articles) to, however cliché it sounds, ‘feed my soul’, because writing or reading require you to face reality, your reality. And that’s absolutely scary when you’re still writing and re-writing your reality, and you have no idea how the ending will go. They demand that you pause your life for hours and face your joys and your demons. They cannot afford your brain to shut off, which is what you do when you laugh at Kimmy and Titus’ banter on “Unbreakable” or shudder at the thrill “Bosch” provides. They want you to understand the grammar rules, to finish the vocabulary, to review the syntax, and to analyze the flow of your day, your week, or that moment you decided beer would solve everything but didn’t.

“Dear Life” has, in this context, come at quite an opportune moment. I did learn earlier of the beauty of ‘that is not said’ that short stories provide; and today, as I read through Alice Munro’s words and sentences, they make a little more sense, and provide me with some sort of comfort. The comfort that just like her short stories, things can be left unsaid, yet still matter. The relief that I can still write my own future, with its good and its bad. It’s okay to make mistakes even at 31 years old. 31 years old is not too old to get heartbroken, procrastinate, or lie down in bed well past 9 am because you just can’t be bothered with life.

My life doesn’t have to be a 300-page novel with a clear start and ending. It can be a series of short stories; some find their happy ending, but most of the time, I am and will be left troubled with the missing details and at a loss as to how I should feel. But it’s okay. Each story matters.

“Every Day is for the Thief – Fiction” by Teju Cole

This book says ‘fiction’ but it is to be read with a very strong sense of reality, I’m afraid. It struck me even more because I could relate so much of what Teju Cole was saying about Nigeria to what I myself feel about Korea, something I wrote about before. Koreans think they are so far from Africa, not only geographically but also culturally, historically, politically or economically. Yet the more I learn about the continent and the ordeals some countries there are going through, the more I am amazed at the striking similarities between the two places. Maybe it’s the pressure of the fast development they had to go through in the 20th century, or maybe it’s the similar values they always had. Whatever it is, I think they both have much to learn from one another, and hopefully improve.

Cole deals with the different ailments his country and his people in Nigeria have to go through everyday, something he knew but was somewhat not prepared to face as harshly upon his return to the country. One of the biggest ordeals Nigeria faces and sees no way of finding a solution for is Corruption. In Cole’s words,

“I feel that my worrying about it is a luxury that few can afford. For many Nigerians, the giving and receiving of bribes, tips, extortion money, or alms – the categories are fluid – is not thought of in moral terms. It is seen either as a mild irritant or as an opportunity. It is a way of getting things done, neither more nor less than what money is there for.” (p. 20)

The more fragile is the system and society, the more various and ‘creative’ ways the people can come up with to use corruption to get what they want, be it something as simple as a car registration, to something as big as a job. Sometimes, a bribe here and there that does not affect the totality of your wealth or of your integrity seems almost harmless.

“But corruption, in the form of piracy or a graft, also means that most people remain on the margins. The systems that could lift the majority out of poverty are undercut at every turn. Precisely because everyone takes a shortcut, nothing works and, for this reason, the only way to get anything done is to take another shortcut. The advantage in these situations goes to the highest bidders, those individuals most willing to pay money or to test the limits of the law.” (p. 23)

I think corruption is, to say the least, ‘bad’, not only because it is illegal and even immoral, but mostly because it deprives opportunities to those who do not have the means to take that shortcut. This goes against everything that freedom and democracy represent, which should ideally provide the same opportunities in life regardless of your social status or wealth. Corruption does not only affect our leaders, but us, the ‘people’, who strive to live our everyday lives with a minimum sense of security. But when corruption sips into all aspects of society in such a way that it becomes even difficult and fuzzy to distinguish what is corruption and what is not, it spreads, silently and slowly, but critically. We, as society, become ill.

“The problem used to only be the leadership. But now, when you step out into the city, your oppressor is likely to be your fellow citizen, his ethics eroded by years of suffering and life at the cusp of desperation. There is venality in abundance here, and the general air of surrender, of helplessness, is the most heartbreaking thing about it.” (p. 75)

And I feel like this is what is happening in Korea as well:  the whole Sewol ferry sinking, taking away more than 200 lives, mostly high school students who had so much to dream and hope for, and recently with the problems in the military system condoning strict hierarchy and violence, leading to the death of young men whose sole crime was to comply to the duties imposed by their nation. The link with corruption may not be obvious at first sight, but oh yes, the link is there. When large firms corrupt the government to go easy on their security measures and regulations, ferries sink because no one prepared them for it and innocent people die. When the military is drunk on maintaining hierarchy and so-called order that even the most decent men perpetuate the most unthinkable violence and some other fail to report them, young men are killed without getting justice.

Corruption is not simply the exchange of bribes. It does not have to involve an exact sum of money. Corruption is a refusal to obey rules and laws because we tell ourselves it won’t affect many people. Not too much anyway. Corruption is not an act, it’s a mentality, it’s a way of life, one to which we quickly get accustomed, especially those who can afford it.

These ‘incidents’, ‘accidents’ that should not have happened in the first place, may provide a platform for unity and cooperation among the people for a short while, but when nothing is done day after day and year after year, we cannot escape the “general air of surrender, of helplessness“. So what if we organize protests and peaceful marches? Nothing changes. People ‘up there’ resign without taking any responsibility, mumbling a pathetic ‘sorry’ and mimicking a pitiful bow, but nothing happens that could actually change how things are.

Protesters mourning the Sewol ferry victims and demanding that the government take responsibility being stopped by the police force. Source: http://news.naver.com/main/read.nhn?mode=LSD&mid=sec&sid1=102&oid=032&aid=0002478464

Protesters mourning the Sewol ferry victims and demanding that the government take responsibility being stopped by the police force.

From the outside, sure, things seem great. South Korea from the 1960s and South Korea of the 2010s are so different it is almost unbelievable, for anyone, to think so much change and progress could be possible in 60 years. There is wi-fi almost everywhere, shopping malls are thriving, people drink expensive coffee on a daily basis, the subway system is much better than the American one or the French one, there is rarely an international brand you can’t find in Seoul. My parents themselves are still often astonished at how much cleaner the country has gotten compared to what it was in their youth.

“But are these the signs of progress? Yes, partly. Business is booming, there is free enterprise and, with it, the hope that people might be lifted out of poverty. But it is as yet a borrowed progress and it is happening in the absence of the ideological commitments that can make it real.” (p. 149) (emphasis added)

“we do not foster the ways of thinking that lead to the development of telephones or jet engines. Part of that philosophical equipment is an attention to details: a rejection of only the broad outlines of a system, a commitment to precision, an engagement with the creative and scientific spirit behind what one uses.” (p. 148)

But see, economic and material prosperity only matter so much. People are buying expensive cars and designer purses, but there are those that still die working in the labs of the so-called ‘best Korean company’, Samsung, because security measures are not reinforced. I’m a Samsung user but everything they come up with seems a tweak of something Apple came up with first. People talk of the importance of innovation, but when they are confined within the mandatory long working hours and lack of proper rest, where will they find the time or the leisure to bring creativity to the table?

This is my first visit to Korea after barely a year in the US, and it only took me a couple of days to destroy the sympathy it had taken me a decade to build for this country. I was excited at the thought of the food, the friends I had missed, the excitement and exuberance Boston sometimes lacks. But what I found instead saddens me, but I just can’t deal with all this.

“Am I ready for all the rage Nigeria can bring out of me? The various run-ins a “humanist” might have in such a place as this?” (p. 72)

“Murder on the Orient Express” by Agatha Christie

I have always been a fan of Agatha Christie’s work – my dream was to have the whole collection (preferably from the same publishing house, like a true and genuine collector would do) when I grow up. Plus, Christie’s mysterious disappearance only added to the mysterious and mystic murder-full world she had created at the tip of her pen. Yet, despite my obvious love for the author and her work, it was hard to situate them into “serious literature”, you know, the kind you would discuss with an English Lit professor or write a paper about. Yet re-reading this classic, I have found my prejudice to be… well, a prejudice.

While the danger of literature lies in not often knowing the fine line that distinguishes expressive works of art from cheap and thoughtless compilation of notes, I believe that its beauty can be found in the fact that one is given the authority to turn any piece of writing into meaningful literature. Although I certainly do NOT have the motivation to write an English Lit paper out of this anymore (or anything else, really), if I had to, the main theme I would have delved into and analyzed would have been: Appearances and Disguises.

From the very start, this book is about how much people tend to rely on appearances and make quick judgments based on them, when things are rarely as they appear. From their physical appearances to their social statuses, many of the passengers on the sinister train are not what one could easily perceive as cold-blooded murderers. Christie is especially keen on unveiling detailed descriptions of each passenger, the way they dress, talk, and hold themselves; only to throw off her readers from the truth. Poirot is the only one to discern the dangers of such obvious appearances and ideas we form from people’s first impressions. On the other hand, his surrounding characters, such as the director of the train company, embody the more easily duped, naive and quick to judge people we often let ourselves be. We can also see question of how human beings are capable of committing a horrible crime being dealt with, especially when they think they have been wronged and when the opportunity of a ‘confined space’ arises.

How much of a disguise do we force ourselves upon us in our everyday lives? Or how much of that disguise comes naturally, and are we aware of how scary and haunting that fact is? How oblivious are we to the disguises those that surround us are letting us see?

These are some of the questions this classic raises.

(Disclaimer: this was a very HARD review to write. I had all the right words and expressions in my head but just couldn’t put them down in writing)

“The Opposite of Loneliness” by Marina Keegan

I never really liked short stories.

I felt like I was being cheated, when I had invested the same amount of interest and enthusiasm as when starting a 200, 300 page book, to see the stories cut short after 10 pages or even less. They seemed like sorry excuses from authors who were too lazy to develop all the details of their characters.

I wanted to know the shade of the color of their hair, the places they lived in, why they had decided to move from A town to B city and vice versa, and the small incident ten years ago that prompted their tears on a quiet Sunday evening.

Short stories rarely gave me any of that.

But what even Jhumpa Lahiri failed to show me, or maybe I knew it all along but simply had failed to realize it, Keegan’s collection of short stories did.

Sometimes, not saying everything is harder than saying everything.

Being given the opportunity to linger on the meaning and the past of the unexplained looks and words is a privilege only the reader of short stories can have, I have come to realize. It is in the process of such uncertainty, curiosity and exploration that we connect with these characters that never existed and give them life. After all, rarely any of us are really open books, we have our secrets and feelings and experiences we don’t necessarily want to see materialized in explicit words.

The buzz around this book didn’t exactly convince me to buy the book in the first place, since I’m one of those “I’m too good to like what everybody likes” type of people. But somehow curiosity won this time and it’s hard not to say it wasn’t a bad choice.

Some reviews have pointed out that beside the fact it is indeed a tragic story of a promising and full of life 22-year old who would never blow another birthday candle, her writing is not necessarily, technically, mesmerizing.

Maybe so. Maybe there were one or two stories I didn’t quite bond with either. However, Keegan’s power in creating a world of unwritten and unspoken words to allow us to explore beyond black letters on white paper is, simply, beautiful. Moreover, the simple and unapologetic honesty she provides in her non-fiction part of the collection is a breath of fresh air.

I don’t know if she would have become one of the great writers of our times, had she not succumbed to that tragic accident.

I don’t know if she would have become one of the many disillusioned ‘adults’ of our era to end up taking a job as a consultant, like the 25% of her peers at Yale, with her ambition to become a writer silently tucked away in the drawers of her past.

But the short story of her life she’s left behind grants me the hope that she would have been one of those who pursue their dream.

“Story-Wallah” ed. by Shyam Selvadurai

For, in terms of being a writer, my creativity comes not from “Sri Lankan” or “Canadian” but precisely from the space between, that marvelous open space represented by the hyphen, in which the two parts of my identity jostle and rub against each other like tectonic plates, pushing upwards the eruption that is my work.

These introductory sentences by the editor Shyam Selvadurai to the collection of short fiction stories from South Asian writers embody not only the essence of this collected volume, but also the essence of what/who many of us are. We (I) often struggle so much defining and identifying ourselves through single terms and single ideas, because we think that’s what identity should mean, that we forget that what defines us best and most is that ‘hyphen’, that ‘open space’. When the two (or more) worlds of identities we have carelessly been assigned to, either by birth or by upbringing, clash and open a whole new world of discoveries, novelties, and differences, we are overwhelmed by the falling of barriers and walls we had set for ourselves. But the fact is, it is through these ‘open spaces’, often mistaken to be conflicts, that we embark upon a truer and more in-depth journey of self-discovery. Our identities are made richer by the connections and the conflicts we carefully delve into, trying, not to separate ourselves exclusively in this world or the other, but to belong to both worlds.

This volume of short stories is a compilation of these journeys, where conflicts are inevitable, but not necessarily in the negative sense. They are conflicts between different genders, different generations, different cultures, or different perspectives. Yet, as straining and complex they may be, these ‘conflicts’ provide doors and windows to beautiful and sad interactions that tell us clashes are not locks to what we are and what we represent, but keys to what we can be and want to be.

“And The Mountains Echoed” by Khaled Hosseini

Hosseini is one of those authors that makes Death beautiful.

His words and style of story-telling manage to render sorrow into sublime, tears into experience and heartbreak into heartache. As the characters evolve through time, they are woven into this intricate and delicate net of love, tenderness and complexity that it becomes hard to imagine one without the other. The net of relationships Hosseini draws is so profound that when links are broken, which is actually the major theme in his books, instead of being overwhelmed with disappointment, you somehow learn to appreciate those links on a whole other level, amidst a bucket of tears that flow so naturally you are glad to taste them trickling down your cheeks.
“A Thousand Splendid Suns” is still my favorite, followed by “The Kite Runner”, which would technically make this one ‘my least favorite’, but it somehow doesn’t seem appropriate to use such a negative term as ‘the least’ for this wonderful book. The author does introduce many more characters in this book than in his previous ones, which, at times, makes it a tiny little bit complicated to follow and there is a sense of being rushed into the story in the air, but really, these details don’t make the book any less splendid (as you can see, I’m very biased). By introducing a diversity of characters, Hosseini manages to touch upon a wider array of emotions, issues and relationships. The hurt of the Afghan people that have gone through the Soviet invasion, followed by the Taliban and their fundamentalist rule, is dealt less in this book, to instead leave space for experiences on a more individual level.
What starts with the unfortunate separation of the brother Abdullah and sister Pari opens doors to a string of unexpected and beautiful relationships and stories, as well as of regrettable encounters and of poignant reunions.
I don’t want to write too much because I don’t want to give away anything of this marvelous and graceful story, so I’ll just end with this: READ IT. Plus, I don’t want to taint his work with my wordy review.
Mr. Hosseini has never been a disappointment so far.

I know it sounds weird, but I love crying to his books. Hopefully his other readers will understand what I mean by this.

“Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain

“Be a leader!”, “Go for it!”, “Be bold! “. Such are the encouragements and words of advice we are accustomed to in our current society, where success is presumed and exposed as something that only the most fearless and the most courageous of us deserve. In other words, extroverts are the ones that will be likely to succeed, be powerful and popular. If you don’t have the guts, if you fail to step forward and make yourself noticed by the rest of the world, if you lack the charisma to charm those around you, you are most likely to be a ‘failure’, and a ‘loser’. I know, these words may sound harsh, but hey, be bold and outgoing if you don’t want them to be directed at you, or well, too bad, get used to it.
In this culture of extroverts, millions of introverts, yours truly included, feel the constant pressure to prove ourselves, to step up when we would often rather listen to others and their more polished arguments, to be part of the ‘cool group’, and to go out when we would rather stay at home alone with only a book as our faithful and entertaining companion.
And so for the millions of introverts out there, Susan Cain’s book “Quiet” comes not only as a fresh breath of air, but also as a pat on the back accompanied by the words “It’s okay. You are great just the way you are.”
Cain uses psychological experiments and data and her personal experience, along with the testimonies of introverts around her, to tell us that the strong and unilateral focus directed to extroverts has failed to recognize and acknowledge the powers and strengths of the ‘other’ group, the introverts.
True, the accounts of famous people and their lesser known introvert side, such as portrayed by Rosa Parks or Albert Einstein, which the author bases on stories, quotes and anecdotes from those around them, are not too impressive and often feel forced upon the readers.
However, the strength of this book resides in other areas: first, letting us know that it matters less whether we are solely introverts or extroverts per se, and that it’s more about the degree of how much of each side resides in us. Second, laying a path for the closeted introverts to declare who they are and accept themselves. Third, helping these previously tormented introverts that it is possible to find the appropriate balance within.
The book often lays out the hidden and less popular qualities introverts have (a higher degree of concentration, empathy, creativity, among others) to the point that I think some extroverts might be offended, but on second thought, that might be my caring introverted side worrying over nothing. Still, let us acknowledge that in contrast to the ‘persecution’ introverts have had to endure from society, parents, friends, companies and self-help books, Cain’s attempt at shedding light on the world of introverts and their qualities and abilities should not be considered as a very aggressive one.
Personally, I have spent most of my childhood and teenage years firmly believing I was an extrovert. But I guess that living in a small town as a foreigner, with a sister that was even shyer than I was helped me remain tricked into that mirage. Coming to Korea and going to university threw the harsh reality in my face however, that I was no more special than my peers or the person sitting next to me in the subway, and I eventually realized that I was undeniably an introvert. Sure, I enjoyed a night out here and then, clubbing once in a while for birthdays, but I also greatly enjoyed spending the weekend at home, where my most exciting experience would be encountering a fierceless hero or crying over the death of a character. Yet because people too often told me I was ‘lame’ or ‘boring’ if I didn’t have any plans for the big Friday Night (which, in my defense, comes every seven days, so really, not that special or unique), especially when I was working, I felt as if I had to take a raincheck with my favorite authors every weekend. This routine came to a point where I would secretely consider my dear friends lame and boring when they in fact were the ones to have the guts to own their introverted side, even on Friday nights. But the lies can only last for so long. I eventually came to accept, not without reservation and concern, that no matter how much I forced myself to party or to make small talk to a bunch of people I would probably share less than 10 words with for the rest of the year, I couldn’t change who I really was. And if I still had my doubts and fear of being labeled as ‘un-cool’, even after acknowledging the fact I had acknowledged my introversy, “Quiet” has erased much of it.
Once you have faced the undeniable truth, which I think, is the most challenging part, what comes next is a much less daunting task: finding the balance within yourself. After all, as members of society, showing our extroverted alter ego is often something inevitable. We will be put in situations where we have to mingle (probably one of the words I hate the most) or where we have to ‘advertise’ ourselves, unless we want to be doomed in a permanent state of isolation. In the long run, it’s about finding the right job and career. In the short run, that is, on a daily basis, it’s about going out for drinks once in a while and having fun, but being quite at ease staying at home with the next “Game of Thrones” book for the following weekend.
After all, this world needs and, most importantly, HAS both introvert-prone individuals and extrovert-prone individuals. It’s about time we cut the former group some slack, even though they will be too shy and polite to admit they’ve been needing the break for a very long time.