Review || The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

Genre: Historical Fiction | Diverse Rep: all-Korean cast

My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️.🌙

40538657The Island of Sea Women takes us to the Korean island of Jeju. Starting in the 1930s, the story follows Young-Sook, one of the last of the haenyeo divers, through her childhood and into the years of her motherhood. She struggles to hold her family together as the world around and within Jeju changes.

As someone who didn’t even know Jeju existed before reading this, I really enjoyed learning about the forgotten culture of the Jeju haenyeo.

I was fascinated by the matri-focal culture of the island: women are the breadwinners, and the men take care of the children while the female diverse are at sea all day. I’m shocked that, as a feminist, I’d never heard about the haenyeo before. I especially loved the relationships between women: the divers have a specific hierarchy based on age and skill level, but they all help each other and work together to split their profits.

The work is incredibly dangerous, sometimes even deadly. These women withstand incredibly cold water temperatures and hold their breath for upwards of three minutes at a time. When they’re not diving, the women are also responsible for the dry fields, or their agricultural crops. Despite being a woman-focused society, there’s no degradation of men here beyond light joking. Young-Sook loves her husband deeply, and the women desire having sons since only sons can carry on ancestor worship.

Reading this book, I learned so much about the politics of the Korean War as well.

As an American, I’m ashamed of how little we talk about this era of history and its consequences. Before their defeat in WWII, Jeju was more or less a Japanese colony. After WWII, the Americans took over. Despite claiming they wanted Korean independence, America and Russia split Korea down the middle and essentially rigged the election system. I’m obviously over-simplifying here, but suffice to say that reading this book left me incredibly angry with my own country (which isn’t really a new feeling for me, tbh).

Beyond that, this is a book about friendship between two very different women.

Young-Sook is the daughter of her haenyeo collective’s chief, while her best friend Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator, and therefore untrustworthy. Because Mi-ja is tainted by her parental background, she ends up being married off to another collaborator, an abusive man who isolates her from her former home. Young-Sook, meanwhile, marries within the neighborhood and has a happy life for a time. In the aftermath of WWII, just as they’re beginning to reconnect, Mi-ja betrays Young-Sook and the friends are driven apart.

I can’t imagine going through what Young-Sook does in this novel, and yet I had a hard time accepting the way she blames Mi-ja for everything that happens. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the latter part of the book immensely and appreciated how Young-Sook rebuilds herself in the face of such loss.

Unfortunately, I didn’t really feel all that connected to these characters.

Part of that is due to the fact that these women are mothers and even grandmothers, so I couldn’t really relate to them. Mostly, though, I felt disconnected because I didn’t really get to know Young-Sook. Aside from her status as a haenyeo and mother, I didn’t really know much about her personality. While this is perhaps the nature of a historical fiction book that’s mostly about a society at a point in time, it detracted from my enjoyment of the book.

Overall, do I recommend?

This book tells an important and forgotten story about our world’s past. Regardless of where you’re from, The Island of Sea Women sheds light on a forgotten part of history that we would all do well to learn. Any story that prioritizes women’s lives in the face of crisis is one that’s important, but in revealing a woman-focused culture, Lisa See draws attention to an important group of women and a culture that is now all but lost.

—find this book—

Goodreads | AbeBooks | Book Depository

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Have you read anything by Lisa See? Do you have a favorite historical fiction author? Let me know in the comments!

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Review || We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

Note: This is a backlist review from my previous blog. To see more of my reading life, add me on Goodreads!

Genre: YA Contemporary | Diversity: #OwnVoices queer rep

My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

28243032You go through life thinking there’s so much you need…

Until you leave with only your phone, your wallet, and a picture of your mother.

Marin hasn’t spoken to anyone from her old life since the day she left everything behind. No one knows the truth about those final weeks. Not even her best friend, Mabel. But even thousands of miles away from the California coast, at college in New York, Marin still feels the pull of the life and tragedy she’s tried to outrun. Now, months later, alone in an emptied dorm for winter break, Marin waits. Mabel is coming to visit, and Marin will be forced to face everything that’s been left unsaid and finally confront the loneliness that has made a home in her heart.

We Are Okay is the kind of short novel that you could read in a matter of hours, but it sticks with you long after you’ve put it down. The story follows college freshman Marin, alone in her dorm room over winter break, as her best friend Mabel arrives from California, forcing Marin to confront her grief over losing her grandfather.

Nina LaCour’s poignant writing about grief is amazing.

This is my second read from Nina LaCour and I was not disappointed. She has a real gift for using simple language with beautiful descriptions. Every single word matters, and each one works together to create emotions in the reader. For a short book (it’s about 230 pages), I never once felt that things were rushed or not dealt with adequately.

Although the main storyline takes place over the course of three days, it’s mostly about Marin’s grieving process. Right before moving to New York for college, Marin’s grandfather drowned. Since then, she’s worked very hard at essentially not confronting her feelings, for reasons that become clear as you read the story.

This isn’t a plot-driven book whatsoever. Instead, it’s emotionally driven by Marin’s thoughts, memories, and grieving process.

The alternating past/present storyline develops Marin’s character both before and after losing Gramps.

If you know me, you know I’m a sucker for this narrative style. While Mabel struggles to get Marin to talk about her feelings in the present tense section, the past narrative follows Marin as she graduates high school and enters her final summer at home in San Francisco. In these sections, we get glimpses of her relationship with Gramps: mostly, the two keep to themselves, valuing each other’s privacy over sharing intimate details.

Marin never knew her mom, either, as Claire died of a surfing injury when Marin was too little to form memories. In the present, Marin struggles to grieve her grandfather, despite feeling a wide variety of feelings about their life together.

This isn’t a story about queerness.

While I read this book for the lesbian rep, We Are Okay isn’t really about being queer. Marin likes girls. She and Mabel were romantically involved over the summer—but the story isn’t about their relationship or Marin coming out.

I actually really enjoyed this aspect. Neither of the girls uses labels for their sexuality, either because labels aren’t important to them, or because it never comes up. While you can pretty easily read Marin as lesbian, Mabel is now dating a guy. As much as I would’ve loved to have the words “lesbian” and “bisexual” used, I did appreciate that Mabel’s decision to date a guy after dating a girl isn’t questioned or subjected to any sort of biphobia.

Ultimately, this is a book about grief, and about family—whether it’s your biological family, or the ones who bring you into their fold when you need it most.

overall: We Are Okay is definitely one of my top reads of 2017.

I could’ve read this book in one sitting, but I really tried to savor every word. It’s definitely one I’ll read again at some point. The deceptively simple language combined with the raw, honest portrayal of grief, made for a heart-wrenching experience. For anyone who’s lost someone close to them—or even someone experiencing serious depression—I think this book will help you feel less alone.

—find this book—

Goodreads | B&N | IndieBound

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Have you read any books by Nina LaCour, and do you love her as much as I do? What is your favorite understated, underhyped YA book? Let me know in the comments!

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Review || Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Genre: YA Contemporary | Diversity: #OwnVoices sexual assault survivor

My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

39280444Speak is one of those books that’s become a bit innocuous within the YA world. Why? Because it was—to my knowledge at least—the first YA book to deal openly with sexual assault.

On the surface, Melinda seems like a typical, if a bit awkward, ninth grader: she hates going to class, feels like algebra is useless, and avoids connecting with her parents. In so many ways, Melinda is incredibly relatable. She reminds me of my 14-year-old self in that she’s dealing with undiagnosed depression and wondering why no one in the world seemed to care what she has to say. As the story progresses, Melinda avoids speaking whenever possibly and it becomes clear that she’s coping with trauma by pretending it never happened.

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Reading this book for the second time, I was struck by the deceptive simplicity of the writing.

This is a book that could be read in one sitting, without a doubt. At just about 200 pages, it’s not a long read, and the language reflects the mental age of the main character perfectly. Anderson tells the story in short but powerful vignettes, each revealing an aspect of Melinda’s everyday life and thought processes. Despite the classic teen angst of not fitting in with peer cliques and frustration with teachers, there’s an underlying thread of pure sadness.

Melinda exhibits symptoms of depression and anxiety as she attempts to ignore her trauma: she’s constantly biting her lips to the point that they’re cracked and bleeding; she avoids talking to people, skipping class to hide out in an abandoned janitorial closet; she constantly talks about how she wants to just go back to bed forever. Yes, it’s angsty; yes, it’s also realistic.

The hardest part about reading this again, though, was noticing the many ways the adults in Melinda’s life fail her.

I am not a parent (and definitely not a parent to a teenager) but I can guarantee you that I’d definitely sit up and take notice if a 14-year-old girl in my life suddenly stopped speaking entirely. Melinda’s parents are characterized as being so involved in their own lives that they either don’t notice her behavior, or that they just write it off as Teen Angst.

What I truly don’t understand is the reaction of Melinda’s teachers. Rather than seeing her behavior as a cry for help, they lecture her on how she needs to apply herself and show up for class. Not even the literal guidance counselor attempts to look beneath the surface of Melinda’s behavior for the underlying cause.

Ultimately, this is a character-driven story of Melinda’s albeit incomplete recovery from sexual assault.

For the majority of the book, the unknowing reader may not know what happened to her. Someone who’s looked into the book might know ahead of time that it involves rape, but not necessarily know the context. I certainly enjoyed reading the book again knowing ahead of time—and I think it’s important that this book be labeled as potentially triggering. On my second reading, I was able to trace the tiny hints at Melinda’s trauma throughout and appreciate her slow trudge toward recovery.

In writing this review, my biggest struggle lies in discerning the merits of this book versus what I would’ve preferred to see.

On the one hand, Speak shows how dealing with sexual assault comes down to whether or not the person recognizes her own agency and grasps control over her life. Still, I personally wanted more than the book leaves us with: I wanted to know how the adults in Melinda’s life react when she finally comes clean about being raped. I wanted to see “IT” brought to justice. I wanted to see Melinda’s parents come around to realizing their mistake in not taking her behavior seriously. I wanted, more than anything, to see Melinda in therapy for her depression and anxiety related to her trauma.

I originally read this book as a sophomore or junior in high school.

I remember being struck by the sadness of the story about a ninth grader who stops speaking after she’s raped at a party. At the time, though, I remember being struck with the feeling of “but this kind of thing doesn’t happen all that often, so there’s no point in dwelling on it.”

I recently spoke with a close friend, asking if she’d ever heard of this book, as she would’ve been in high school when it came out. For her, rape wasn’t discussed openly until she was in college, and then only because she took a class on the psychology of trauma. I don’t recall an open discussion of the prevalence and reality of rape before the year 2010, when I took Intro to Women’s Studies in college.

I don’t think this is a perfect book about rape. I don’t think there is in existence a perfect book about rape. I do think feminism owes a debt of gratitude to Laurie Halse Anderson, for not only bravely writing from her own experiences, but for opening up a place for conversation a time that it didn’t really exist outside of outspoken feminist circles.

Even in its imperfections, Speak is an important piece of feminist YA history and I’m thankful for its existence.

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—find this book—
Goodreads | B&N | IndieBound

Have you read Speak or any other books by Laurie Halse Anderson? What is the first book you read with sexual assault rep? Let me know in the comments!

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Review | Paperweight by Meg Haston

Note: this is a backlist review from my previous blog. This review contains mild spoilers.

Trigger Warnings: disordered eating, severe depression, self-harm, suicidal thoughts

CM+BBLnvSoabTrazcJYScQ17-year-old Stevie is convinced that the only way she can atone for past mistakes is by killing herself on the anniversary of her brother’s death. When her dad checks her into an eating disorder treatment center, the anniversary is 27 days away, so Stevie knows she won’t make it through the full treatment. In fact, in the beginning, she refuses to believe that she needs help—in her mind, the only solution to the pain she’s shoved away inside is for her to die.

Paperweight is not a light-hearted contemporary. It’s the most realistic portrayal of not only anorexia/bulimia, but of pure, self-hating, suicidal depression that I’ve ever encountered.

By immersing the reader inside Stevie’s perspective, alternating the present day treatment center narrative with memories of what led her down this road in the first place, Meg Haston shows how eating disorders are about so much more than food, and adds a mystery element that builds suspense throughout. This is also one of those rare books where not a single sentence is wasted, where the gorgeous language itself is enough to keep you reading.

I’m not usually a fan of the hospital narrative in mental illness books.

They often become a way of dramaticizing or even romanticizing mental illness. Not everyone who’s struggling with depression, eating disorders, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, etc. winds up in a treatment facility. Some folks struggle along on their own—some folks die in that struggle—and other folks don’t have the luxury of a nice facility like the one Stevie has in Paperweight. And yet, two things really made this work for me: the balancing of the present/past narration and the portrayal of the individuals both in therapy and the professionals at Stevie’s treatment center.

the past/present narrative

As the story progresses, Stevie recalls various moments in her life that led her not only to her eating disorder but to her desire to kill herself. Less than two years ago, her mother abandoned the family to move to Paris and start a new life. Stevie blames herself for this loss, believing that if she had just been skinnier, had more self-control over food, her mother wouldn’t have left.

Stevie also believes herself responsible for her brother’s death, which is a big reason she wants to kill herself on the anniversary. She’s never really connected with other girls for reasons she struggles to explain, until she meets Eden, an older, glamorous girl. Eden encourages Stevie’s growing with binge drinking led, which leads to binge eating and purging. Her older brother, Josh, is the only one who notices Stevie losing weight.

All of this not only adds suspense to an otherwise emotionally-driven novel, but it also reveals clues about Stevie’s illness. Controlling food and losing weight are the ways she seeks control and power over her situation, and her brother’s death (which, by the way, is actually an accident and not her fault at all) acts as the catalyst to some serious depression and suicidal thoughts.

Stevie literally wants to starve herself—she wants to disappear, to cease to exist. She desperately wants to take up less space, which is is tied in with her mother’s abandonment. Like many of us with depression, Stevie believes herself to be unworthy of good things, unworthy of life itself. This is self-hatred at its most dangerous, particularly when tied in with her eating disorder.

treatment center realism

In the beginning, Stevie resists her therapist, whom she calls Shrink, but ultimately the two develop a beautiful patient-therapist relationship (something I can’t recall seeing before in this kind of narrative). Rather than crafting the stereotypical overbearing, misunderstanding therapist who spouts cliches, Haston complicates this presentation. “Shrink” aka Anna has a personality of her own, and while she does spout cliches, she ultimately is able to really help Stevie.

Even the other girls in treatment with Stevie have unique characters: they all ended up here for different reasons, from one girl who’s older brother abused her in childhood to another girl who doesn’t even have a big reason that she has an eating disorder. Despite Stevie’s unwillingness to participate in treatment at all, we slowly see her coming around, both through her therapy sessions with Anna, and through her friendship with her roommate, Ashley.

I love the way Haston portrays the recovery process. It’s so easy to write a story about someone who goes from totally suicidal to totally “fixed” by the end of the story. Rather, Haston writes the honest truth about recovery: it’s a long, brutal road, filled with temptations, because eating disorders (and depression) are not something that can be “cured” like the flu. Books like this go a long way toward destigmatizing what it’s really like to live with a mental illness, not just “suffer” from one and then get better.

full disclosure: This book could be very triggering!

particularly if you’re struggling with depression, self-harm/suicidal thoughts, or an eating disorder. Mostly, I recommend this book to folks who’ve never struggled with depression or eating disorders. Read this with an open mind, allow yourself to feel what Stevie feels, and you’ll be a lot closer to understanding what these disorders really do to a person.

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Have you read Paperweight? What is your favorite book with realistic mental health representation? Let me know your thoughts!