External Book Review: The Great Passage by Shion Miura

Happy Monday! I’m switching it up and posting on Monday, Wednesday and Friday this week instead of the normal Tuesday/Friday schedule. Why you may ask? Well because, what some of you may know, and others don’t, is that Word-for-Sense isn’t the only place that I publish book reviews. I also write occasional reviews for Three Percent, a resource for international literature at the University of Rochester which is affiliated with Open Letter.

My most recent review for Three Percent is of The Great Passage by Shion Miura, which can be read here. I cannot post the full review here of course, that is what the link is for, but as for a snippet of what the book is about, The Great Passage is a book that centers around a fictional book, also called The Great Passage, which is to be a groundbreaking new dictionary of the Japanese language. The Great Passage (that is to say, the real-world book I reviewed) is an excellent novel, and while I am unable to read the Japanese original, and thus could have very well missed much of the nuance that comes with editing a Japanese dictionary in particular, Juliet Winters Carpenter did an excellent job of making the text feel just as invigorating as I image the original text would have felt.

Please do read my review, linked above as well as here, and let me know what you think, either on the comments here, or on the original post on the Three Percent site.

Happy reading!

Cheers,

Talia

 

Complete URL for the review: http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/2018/09/06/the-great-passage-by-shion-miura/

 

P. S. Be on the lookout on Wednesday for the 2016 edition of a new type of post I’m creating called Words of Wisdom: Sh*t My Professors Say

 

Book Review: The Dinner List by Rebecca Serle

I am going to be upfront and say that I will probably never read this book again. The Dinner List is not a great book, but that does not necessarily mean that it is a bad one either. I certainly do not regret having read the book, but I have to admit that it is not the most intellectually thrilling read I have ever had. The Dinner List has been a great vacation book for me, in that I found it a quick read, and the premise was fun to entertain. The idea is that Sabrina, the protagonist, has made a list of the five people (alive or dead) that she would like to have dinner with one day, and lo and behold, readers are witness to that very dinner.

Before I read The Dinner List, I would have said that the premise is also a good one, which is still true, however I feel that it was disappointingly carried out. I am all for a mystery, but the lack of explanation as to how these five people ended up all sitting together around the table with Sabrina feels like a cop out. There exists so much more depth that could have been given to what could have been an excellent story that ends up feeling like merely a good one.

The text alternates with time stamped chapters detailing what stage of dinner the four guests are at and a past tense narration of Sabrina’s history with Tobias, her ex who has a place at the table along with her favorite professor, absentee father, best friend Jessica, and the #1 thing that this book has going for it – Audrey Hepburn. The switch back and forth between time periods is something that I have seen done before to great effect, and while I do think that it functions well in the text, I was dismayed upon reading this book at how many plot holes seem to have slipped through its cracks. Small things like the age of minor characters, times at which things happened, and dietary habits were not particularly consistent, and while I was not totally removed from the reading experience, neither was I a fan.

Plot holes and lack of explanation of the afterlife aside, my biggest issue with this book was the lack of diversity. The Dinner List was also incredibly lacking in terms of representation, as all of the non-white characters have a very “token” feel to them. Matty, who is my favorite character who we far too little of, is the only latinx character that I can think of, and while he does serve an important role in the story, that role is more to provide a commentary on Sabrina and Tobias’s relationship, which note that I find incredibly unhealthy. In terms of named characters of color I can only think of two more off the top of my head, and neither have very large roles. I’m not certain that David (Sabrina’s one gay black friend) even speaks or any purpose at all except to act as fodder for Sabrina to talk about how he always has a new man on his arm, and in one instance to act as a counterpoint to Tobias. Similarly, the only mention of lesbians existing in this text is in the context of Sabrina noticing a (non-speaking, unnamed) couple in the background and thinking about their relationship in the context of her and Tobias. This all goes without noting the lack of trans characters, characters with disabilities, neurodivergent characters, or characters who live in genuine poverty, as despite the fact that Sabrina is broke and barely making rent she is still able to afford a $2,500 apartment by herself when Tobias is unemployed, all while still paying for utilities and transportation and food, among other expenses.

I am not at all saying that I hate white heterosexual romance, because I do believe that everyone who wants a chance at love deserves a chance to find it and find it represented. What I am saying is that everyone deserves that chance, and the narrator of this text is remarkably self-centered and as such there is very little representation outside of her sphere, and what little there is I find disappointing. Jessica and her husband Sumir seem to have what to me appears as a beautiful interracial relationship that I would have been happy to see were it not put in such a negative light by Sabrina’s incredibly judgmental lens.

Disheartening amount of diversity very much in mind yet set aside for just a moment, I simply cannot abide the lack of proper explanation in the text of the rules behind how the living and the dead are at once together again. Without that, I couldn’t get behind anything that they communicated to one another and thus struggled with the book.

While I will probably never read The Dinner List again I do believe that many people will enjoy it, just not me. If you’re looking for a quick read and don’t mind a bittersweet ending, you can pick up a copy of The Dinner List when it comes out on September 11th, 2018.

Happy reading!

Cheers,

Talia

Book Review: Let’s Talk About Death Over Dinner by Michael Hebb

When I told my therapist that I was reading this book and what it was about she was thrilled because, according to her, I needed to adjust my own attitude toward death. Suffice to say Let’s Talk About Death Over Dinner certainly succeeded in this purpose.  Despite the universal truth that we are all going to die, death is rarely discussed with the depth and breadth that it deserves.

The premise of this book is to act as “an invitation and guide to life’s most important conversation”. The book begins with two introductory chapters that explain the premise of death dinners and is then followed by a series of prompts for participating in a conversation about death.

As with many nonfiction and self-help books, Let’s Talk About Death Over Dinner does not precisely need to be read in order, as Hebb himself acknowledges in the introductory chapters. In a similar vein, the text does not need to be and should not be read all at once. In the introductory chapter the author warns that this book shouldn’t be read in one sitting, and I wholeheartedly agree. Usually, when I read a fiction book I speed through it and then once I know the ending go back and re-read parts that I have bookmarked. With nonfiction such as this I take much longer, and it can sometimes take me over a week to finish a slim volume such as this one. The sheer amount of powerful content makes this a book that takes time to digest. While the first two chapters of the text are traditional chapters, the majority of the book is formatted with sections starting with a question about death that functions as a prompt that one could ask at a death dinner. To supplement each prompt, the author included stories that people had shared at previous death dinners as examples of both how people can answer the prompt and how answering the prompt at their own death dinners had improved the lives of the people featured in each story.

I will whole-heartedly admit that this book caused me to cry a great deal (which was difficult when I read while on my way to work as I got many concerned looks on the subway) and yet I still enjoyed every moment of reading it. Let’s Talk About Death Over Dinner made me cry not because of any fault with the text, but because the heavy emotion behind each of the stories tugged at my heartstrings so to speak, and any time that I saw anything of myself or those that I loved in the text, I empathized to an uncomfortable extent. Nevertheless, I did keep reading because the storytelling nature of the text is both compelling and well-written, and I simply did not want to stop at some points. That said, I did make sure to take breaks from my reading – part of why this review took so long to write – in order that I could process everything that I had read in terms of both understanding and settling some of the emotional turmoil within myself.

A major concern of the text is in discovering where our discomfort with death comes from. Avoidance compounds fear, and this text argues that sitting down over a meal and talking about what makes a good death, what we want for ourselves, and how we grieve is an incredibly useful and necessary experience. Not only is an open and honest conversation about death cathartic, but it has practical use in that we can discover the wishes of our loved ones in regard to how they want us to handle their own deaths.

I have to say that I have always been fascinated with death, in particular the impermanence of our existence and the all-encompassing fate that is the inevitable heat death of our universe. On a large scale, I talk about death and destruction in a deadpan voice all the time, but I rarely feel the emotion behind it, acting glib in the face of needing to express genuine emotion. This text forced me to engage with that emotion directly and to confront things I did not want to confront, such as what I am afraid of with regard to death. What I realized is that I am not afraid of non-existence, or even of physical pain at or toward the end, but rather I am afraid of the consequences of my absence and of what actions those who have known me will undertake after my death, as well as the emotional pain that the loss of others causes within my own self and how that pain influences my actions and thus affects those who remain around me in my grief. While I always knew that to some extent, the ability to talk about these emotions without reservation is a great gift that this text has given me.

This book probably isn’t for everyone. I know that, were I to read this at certain earlier points of my life, I would not have liked Let’s Talk About Death Over Dinner, and I would not have gotten as much out of the experience of reading it. Nonetheless, I feel that for readers who approach this text with an open heart and an open mind, and give themselves time to process as they read, this text is an invaluable one. Let’s Talk About Death Over Dinner will be released on October 2nd, 2018, and I highly suggest that y’all get a copy when it comes out!

Happy reading!

Cheers,

Talia

Book Review: Landwhale: On Turning Insults Into Nicknames, Why Body Image Is Hard, and How Diets Can Kiss My Ass by Jes Baker

When I first picked up what became my copy of Landwhale, I didn’t know exactly what to expect. To my own shame, I did not know very much about the body positivity movement, and I’d never even heard of Jes Baker. All the same, I’ve made a commitment to myself to read broadly and engage with my activism intersectionally, and so I committed myself to reading this book. I am happy to say that doing so was one of the best decisions I have made in a while, because Landwhale is not only informative, but also a general delight.

I couldn’t possibly fit everything I loved about this book into one review,[1] though the thing that sticks out to me most as I write this is how Baker embraces the nuance that comes with one’s relationship to their body. By this I mean not only that bodies come in diverse shapes and sizes, but also the belief that one can be confident in themself and yet still have internal doubts and insecurities. This memoir means so much to me, not only because it discusses bodies in such a liberating way, but also because it incorporates meaningful commentary regarding mental health that acknowledges that fatness can be a symptom of mental or physical illness, but does not accuse fatness itself of being a mental illness.

I haven’t been skinny since elementary school, and before reading this book I never realized how much I have subscribed to diet culture since the weight gain that puberty and antidepressants bestowed upon me as a teenager. Reading through Landwhale gave me a profound relief in that it made me feel as though I had permission to both love and hate my body. That it was OK to eat what I wanted because my life is mine, and I can live it by my own rules.

On Sunday I wore a bikini for the first time since I was ten, and as I lounged in my beach chair with this book resting on my belly rolls I read the list of diets that comprise chapter thirteen and thought to myself of all the different diets that I have put my body through in the name of losing weight, and how zero of them have worked in the long term. Right now, the only diet I am subscribing to is the one where I avoid the things that I am allergic to, and I am OK with that.

The tone of Landwhale is conversational, and radiates that perfect medium of sincerity and humor. Baker has a talent for discussing difficult topics with sincerity and without airs. She emphasizes her own insecurities about sharing her life and her experiences, but does not let that stop her from sharing them. Baker pulls no punches when it comes to revealing her vulnerability and pulls back the curtain to show that even idols have their moments of doubt.   The struggles depicted in this book are at times hard to read because of the depth of their truth, but that is exactly why they have a place and are necessary to consider in our conversations and consequent actions.

I do not consider myself an expert in body positivity by any means, and I fully realize that I have my own privilege in that while I am rather pudgy I do have privilege in many things because of my smaller size in comparison to many others. That said, I do feel that I am much better informed, especially as I consider all of the ways that I have contributed to many of the sizist issues that all people are negatively influenced by and that actively hurt fat people, threatening their safety and/or comfort. I’ve stayed silent too many times, and I refuse to do so any longer. The idea that fat people are allowed to exist and be happy with themselves as they are should not be such a radical one, and yet it seems to remain so.

In the past, I’ve absolutely participated in diets, and I’ve even posted about weight loss with selfies on Instagram and Facebook. I don’t think that there is anything wrong with someone changing around their diet and exercise habits for their own personal comfort or goals, but the problem isn’t necessarily with the people who buy in to diet culture themselves. The systemic and insidious nature of said culture is what oppresses people. I am skeptical of diets because, as I have learned from this book and from reflecting upon my own experience, diets can be incredibly harmful to people’s mental and even at times physical health. I know that they can help, but they can also hurt.

The ideal goal for me is that people feel comfortable and healthy within their own realm of being, regardless of size, and that is not what we as a society experience when we participate in diet culture. Our relationship with food and our bodies is treated as inherently suspicious, pitted against one another, and their interaction is seen as a source of shame rather than one of sustenance.

Entire books have been written about these subjects. I recommend that you read this one. Even if you may disagree with the message as you understand it, read Landwhale anyway, and to do so with an open mind.

Happy reading!
Cheers,
Talia

[1] My favorite aspect of the book is hands down the footnotes. Many people have varied opinions regarding footnotes, but I promise that even if you are not usually a fan, they are expertly used in this text. Equal parts informative and humorous, the footnotes are balanced in their placement. At times they elaborate, at times they make a joke that doesn’t fit in the main body of the text, but in every instance they are absolutely relevant to the conversation Baker is engaging in with the reader.