In Which I Write a Letter to Eliza Victoria

Dearest Eliza,

I’d like to think that I’m not an asshole.

I’m not nice. I’m not kind. I’m surly, and miserable, and impatient, and I don’t like most people.

Even then I’d still like to think that I know better than to judge other people by how they look.

I would never greet someone with “ang taba mo na!“, or be so dickish as to side-eye a fat person for doing something as normal as eating.

But then I was reading your novel, Dwellers, and I came upon this:

You are so fat, you are so useless, you take up the space meant for better, more disciplined people…

It hit me like a ton of bricks.

And I realized that yes, I’m an asshole.

I don’t think I’m prejudiced. I don’t think I’m an insensitive bitch. But how many times have I stared disdainfully at fat people on public transport, irritated that they were taking up too much space and making life difficult for us “normal” ones?

I could try and excuse it as a side effect of this country’s terrible transport system. I could argue that “I don’t really mean it” and that I’m just “irritated”.

I could insist that I’m not a dick till I’m blue in the face, but it wouldn’t make it less true.

I’m an asshole, even if I don’t mean to be one.

Even if it’s not all the time.

Even if my default setting is decent human.

Because that’s what it means, doesn’t it? That I believe myself better, more deserving of space because I’m thin and therefore socially acceptable?

I read that line from your novel over and over and over again. I know it’s not the core of your story. I understand that.

But for at least a couple of minutes I forgot the whodunit and wanted to bury my face somewhere no one will find it, because I was ashamed.

I guess that’s how it is when your ugly thoughts are thrown back at you.

So thank you, really. It stings a bit to have my ugliness laid out bare – to actually put them into words and make me realize that I have quite a long way to go before I become the decent person I imagine myself to be.

PS: your novel is excellent, as always.

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In Which I Am Happy To Identify With Wizard Howl

In an unprecedented move, I actually finished a Korean drama without prompting. In the past, I would only watch those shows if (a) they are funny; and (b) they have incredible dance moves, i.e. Kim Sam Soon.

Now. I am the sort of person you can easily drag down multiple rabbit holes. I cannot just read one page of TV Tropes. No. I have to go through every interesting link I find. It is not surprising to find more than twenty tabs of TV Tropes open once I get started.

So it should come as no surprise that watching You From Another Star resulted in three things:

  1. My obsession with Jeon Ji-Hyun’s makeup.
  2. My obsession with the accuracy of the historical aspect of the show.
  3. My obsession with the book The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.

The protagonist of You From Another Star identified with Edward Tulane — a china rabbit who is punished because he doesn’t know how to love other people — and the book is referenced multiple times in the show.

Particularly notable is this quote:

I have learned how to love. And it’s a terrible thing. I’m broken. My heart is broken. Help me.

I read the book. I hated it.

I know it’s a book for children. Doesn’t matter. It still has to answer for its senseless premise: why would you even expect a china rabbit to know love?

What the hell is wrong with you?

(It is perhaps quite obvious now that I really dislike the book. Frowny face here.)

But this post isn’t about You From Another Star, or Edward Tulane, or love.

It’s about identification.

Frankly, I feel bad for the dude who identified with Edward Tulane. It’s so bleak and unhappy to identify with such a dramatically unfortunate character. Sure, the ending’s happy, but I don’t think I want to identify with a rabbit who has his noggin broken into 21 pieces.

Nope.

I mentioned once before that Howl’s Moving Castle is my favorite book. With much deference to Hayao Miyazaki’s version, I have to say that the book is one hundred percent more magical and more meaningful as far as I am concerned.

This is because the movie creates a Howl that is almost one million times different from the real Howl — a thing I have decided to talk about now.

Or eventually.

Let me start by saying this: when I was younger, I lived my life like I was Stephen Chow in a Stephen Chow movie. God of Cookery is remarkable to me because of two things. First, it is one of the funniest films I have ever seen. Second, it taught me that you can be a terrible person and it will all be fine, as long as you are smart.

You can be a total asshole and nobody will care, because you’re the asshole who gets things done.

So for most of my teenage years, plus my years in college, I honestly believed that I could be as horrible as I wanted and it would be fine, because I’m the Stephen Chow in this Stephen Chow movie.

Until, of course, I got out of school and into “the real world”.

I learned two things then:

  1. I’m not actually that smart.
  2. People skills count.

I had zero people skills, because I spent most of my life assuming that my brain would get me through. It’s hard to work with people when you don’t like people and you’re scared of people, and all your false bravado is swept away.

I can still get things done, and occasionally people still think that I am pretty good (at whatever it is I do, I’m not quite sure what, either), but the problem is that I know the truth now, and my youthful hubris is gone.

So.

Let’s get back to Wizard Howl.

Howl is intelligent and a good wizard, but not really quite the best. He’s okay. He’s mediocre.

He’s vain. He’s shallow. He’s stuck up.

He tries to slither out of things. He throws tantrums. He’s an absolute terror when ill.

He’s afraid.

When I first read Howl’s Moving Castle, I immediately fell in love with Sophie Hatter. Author Diana Wynne Jones once noted with much mirth that she found it weird how so many women wanted to marry Howl despite his terrible personality.

I read the book but I didn’t want to marry Howl.

I wanted to marry Sophie.

Because Sophie is the dream.

Howl is scared, because he knows his limitations. His bravura requires that he be show-offy and dramatic, but in truth he knows he’s almost always in over his head.

He’s constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, for people to realize that he’s mediocre rather than excellent.

With Sophie, though, there’s no need to put up false pretenses, because she already knows his weaknesses and she doesn’t care.

So every time I feel scared, overwhelmed, anxious, in over my head, I crack open my copy of Howl’s Moving Castle and let Sophie take care of me.

In Which I Shockingly Speak Up in Defense of Young Love

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Eleanor & Park

Rainbow Rowell

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Eleanor & Park is the sort of story that falls apart under scrutiny.

They’ll never make it. They’re already apart. Eleanor is a little too damaged and it’s only a matter of time before Park finds someone with less baggage.

Maybe they never actually loved each other, you know? Maybe Eleanor is right. It’s a mockery of love; of the idea that two people could feel so much and declare said feelings in unbelievable superlatives.

They fell in love too hard a little too fast to be believable.

Right?

But that’s exactly where critics of the novel are wrong. I think Eleanor & Park isn’t supposed to be a grand narrative on what love is and what it’s supposed to be.

Rainbow Rowell isn’t giving us her sweeping theories on love. Eleanor and Park are not supposed to stand in as definitive symbols of what Love is.

Listen. I’m old. I enjoy rolling my eyes at teenagers and their shallow drama. (Side note: I am not going to touch Eleanor’s family life with a ten-foot pole. Or twenty. Or thirty. I can go up to a hundred.)

But when you’re a teenager everything is apocalyptic.

It’s always the end of the world. Only with old age and much bitterness and heartache do you realize that all things can go to hell and yet you’ll always find some way to survive.

But none of that matters.

What matters is that as far as Eleanor and Park are concerned, it’s love.

It’s love in all its crazy messy painful beautiful glory.

As far as they’re concerned, this is it. This is the greatest, most powerful love in the universe.

That’s why the novel works. It doesn’t claim anything.

It just shows us two teenagers, coming from very different backgrounds and heading towards possibly very different adult lives.

Yeah, they might not make it.

Someday they might even look back on their crazy relationship and laugh at all the dorky superlatives and declarations of love.

None of that invalidates the fact that at this particular moment in time – the time captured in the novel – this is what’s real. This is love and it’s all they have.

When I was eleven I fell in love with a boy.

I think I’ve told this story before, but almost always the response is universal. It couldn’t have been love. You were eleven.

Some days I actually downplay it myself.

I couldn’t have been in love love, you know?

But reading Eleanor & Park I realized that there’s no reason to invalidate my eleven-year-old feelings.

I remember that tiny warmth, spreading from the innermost core of my being every time he smiled that stupid lopsided smile.

I still laugh — half fondly, half meanly — at his fear of citrus fruits.

I remember heartbreak. Someone had taken me by the top of my head and torn me into pieces. Like cheap art paper.

(I remember the exact moment a friend told me he told her he no longer liked me. I think I smiled through it but there was some kind of air pressure in my ears like in a plane and I could no longer hear people properly. I just smiled, I think. Like it was okay that someone had completely torn me up and taped me together with some parts missing.)

I wish I’d kept his one and only love letter. (That stupid scrawl. I would have treasured it.)

We never even held hands, you know?

And yet right now, I’m pretty sure it was love alright.

Maybe love manifests in a myriad ways, and there’s no “valid” versus “imagined” love. Maybe love is just love, even if other people think it’s stupid.

I will still make fun of teenagers. That’s the sort of award and power I get for being an old person.

But on occasion I will think back and remember my own version of crazy teenage love, back when I felt my heart alternately heal and break every time a boy — one who didn’t even hold my hand ever — smiled at/ ignored me.

Love is love, no matter how seemingly shallow and stupid when viewed from afar.

Maybe Eleanor & Park is an elaborate joke. Maybe it’s an in-depth and scathing rebuke of teenage shallowness. Maybe it’s a social commentary.

Who the fuck knows?

What matters is that for Eleanor and Park, it’s the greatest love story ever told.

In Which I Figure I’d Like To Learn More About Actual Jesus

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Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

Reza Aslan

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I understand bad reviews.

Sometimes books really just don’t live up to expectation. Sometimes the style is disconcerting. Sometimes the idea is good but the execution terrible.

I understand that reviews are subjective and that every reader has the right to an opinion.

I understand all that and yet it never fails to rile me when a book I like gets pilloried for the wrong reasons.

A very good example: Reza Aslan’s controversial book, Zealot.

It became controversial for the wrong reason right off the bat. A particularly insipid Fox News anchor criticized not the book’s contents, but the fact that the author is Muslim and therefore immediately suspect for writing about Jesus Christ.

Before I go into my own review let me just quickly respond to three of the most common criticisms levied against the book. These are based on the reviews I saw on Goodreads.

One: “it’s not academic”. The criticism stems from the fact that Aslan writes in a very readable manner. Since he didn’t write in incoherent jargon, some reviewers decided that this meant the book wasn’t scholarly.

Let me assure you – as someone in the academe – that there are academics who are fully capable of not writing like absolute tools (also, Aslan has a degree in Creative Writing). Just because something is accessible doesn’t mean it’s not scholarly.

The book is an academic work. It presents its thesis clearly, offers theoretical and historical context, outlines its arguments clearly, and presents its sources for further reading. In fact, it offers alternative interpretations and clearly acknowledges the researcher’s limitations.

Two: “it’s not original”.

This is something that rankles me no end. Maybe these people based their entire idea of the academe on Indiana Jones; I don’t know. The fact is that scholarly work is almost always built on the works of others.

This is actually one of the hallmarks of scholarly work. You’re building your research on the findings of those who came before you.

As far as research is concerned, you can look at a topic that’s been done to death and evaluate it using a new framework, new discourse, new approach, etc etc etc.

Aslan is upfront with his framework. This is an attempt to understand the historic Jesus of Nazareth through the study of the socio-economic and political context of his time. He cites all his sources, offering readers the option to follow up and read other sources if they think Aslan was incorrect in his conclusion.

Three: “Aslan isn’t credible”. Now this irritated me the most. I don’t know Reza Aslan, and I have not read any of his other books apart from Zealot.

When you evaluate a researcher’s credentials, however, you have to look at his or her body of work. You don’t just look at the curriculum vitae. The criticism stems from his sociology degree, which critics believed meant he didn’t really specialize in religion.

Degrees and courses are not the best gauge of a person’s specialization. For example, an MD after a person’s name tells you that he/she is a doctor. It doesn’t tell you the doctor’s specialization.

It’s better to look at the person’s body of work. Aslan’s research has always been focused religion, particularly in West Asia. This means that based on his work and the affirmation of his peers (he’s published, after all), Aslan can be considered an expert in the field of religion.

(Again, I don’t know the guy from Adam; I’m responding based on my own experiences as a teacher and researcher.)

Anyway, now that I’m done ranting, let me go to my real review.

I like the book. I evaluated it the same way I would a scholarly paper: clear thesis; logical and convincing arguments; and good, reliable sources.

The book is not definitive, meaning it is just one way of interpreting the available data. I’m sure if you read other books on Christ you will find similarities and differences, particularly in theoretical application and interpretation.

And that’s an important point, I guess. A scholarly work is always open for further discourse. Aslan is not trying to discredit Jesus or harm any particular faith. The book is a look at the historical Jesus — someone commonly ignored because we have been presented with Jesus the Messiah all our lives.

Can Christians read and enjoy this book? Definitely.

It doesn’t “debunk” faith. There is room for the faithful to combine the historical Jesus and their beliefs, I think. Certainly, some points might rattle a few chains, like the unfavorable presentation of Paul and the political motivation behind the “virgin birth” story.

What I liked best, I think, was the very intelligent approach. (I would not expect less from academic work, of course.) Some books on religious figures try to be too sensational, which turns me off greatly. You don’t have to exaggerate when you have really interesting data to share. This book gets that just right, presenting a very logical and interesting look at what life Jesus of Nazareth would have led in those turbulent times.

Lastly, I think the book is excellent because it gave me a clearer understanding of how Christianity developed into the version we know today.

See, most religions emerge as either (a) an attempt to understand the world or (b) a response to the stifling norm. For example, Japan’s Shinto and Mongolia’s Sky Worship show man’s need to assign deity to powerful natural phenomenon that they can’t explain. Buddhism, on the other hand, is a response to stifling social conditions, specifically Hinduism’s caste system.

The Brahmins held all the power, and the rest of society had to live as the priests dictated. The marginalized — the poor untouchables — had no hope of fighting back against such entrenched, “god”-approved social stratification.

I sort of thought Christianity was a fluke. It didn’t seem to follow the usual anthropological patterns of religious organizations. With this book, though, it’s a lot clearer. The early form of Jesus’ teachings — that is, Jesus, not Paul — is reactionary. It’s almost exactly similar to Buddha and his desire to make salvation a personal rather than priest-regulated matter.

Jesus of Nazareth tried to fight the bloated and corrupt priesthood, prioritized the poor, and encouraged a personal relationship with God.

Now, I’m not religious. As far as my beliefs go, it’s still a toss up between the Mongolian Sky and GRMM’s God of Death. But after reading Aslan’s book, I can honestly say that I have developed a lot more respect for Jesus now than all my years in a Christian high school (and a Catholic university) could have ever inspired.

This Jesus, who called himself Son of Man, who fought for change against an entrenched religious elite and one of the most powerful empires the world has ever seen — this is a man I can understand and love.

I like Jesus Christ. I do. His exhortations to love one another and stop judging others (he did hang out with tax collectors and “whores”) are definitely inspiring and noteworthy.

It’s just unfortunate that in the effort to make Jesus a lot more palatable, we are left with a vague, esoteric, unknowable superman-Gandhi hybrid. It’ll take more work to unravel and finally meet the incredible fire-brand rebel who fought when there was no hope winning, and died fearlessly for his beliefs.

In Which I Agree That Morality Is Shaky Ground

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The Dinner

Herman Koch

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I’m not sure how to go about reviewing a book like “The Dinner”.

I read a few of the reviews on Goodreads right after finishing it, just to see if other people had the same reaction. Most of them didn’t.

A lot of reviews went on and on about how disgusting and un-relatable the characters were. Some focused on the lack of pay-off or moral closure.

For me, though, “The Dinner” has to be one of the greatest and most disturbing things I’ve read in a long time.

It starts off quite deceptively simple. We meet Paul Lohman and his wife Claire — they’re having dinner with Paul’s brother Serge and his wife Babbette at a posh restaurant.

At once Paul’s narration leads us to hate Serge and Babbette. They are shallow, pretentious people. This is a boring, irritating dinner because, well, who likes having dinner with social climbers?

But not everything is as simple as it seems.

It’s not a social call. There’s a reason for this dinner. The couples have to make a difficult decision concerning their children and a horrific crime (or crimes, really).

I guess what makes this novel so disgusting for most readers is the fact that it isn’t the usual moralistic drivel. There is no hero in this novel. There is no good guy.

There is a slightly good guy, but he’s not who you expect him to be.

Instead what we see is a very ugly but realistic unraveling. We see exactly how people can throw morality out the window when the ones they love are on the line.

Do we sympathize with the Lohmans?

Not really.

Do we understand them?

Hell yes.

I’d like to say I won’t do what they did. I’d like to say I’m a much better person than any of the characters in the novel. But until it actually happens to me, I’m not going to pass judgment.

And neither should you.