What I’ve Read: “On Such a Full Sea”, by Chang Rae Lee


I dislike reviews that begin, “I really wanted to like this book.” They sound so dismissive, and so definitive about it. “I tried my hardest, guys, but this book just sucks.” Did it, though? Did it really?

I know, I know: I shouldn’t be so sensitive. I’m only annoyed because I did like this book, and I want everyone else to like it with me. (Fortunately, most of the folks on GoodReads did.) I can see where the review-writer is coming from. After all, who hasn’t picked up a book they were sure they were going to like, only to be disappointed?

The fact remains, I did like this book. I want to convince others to read it so they’ll talk about it with me. I am only slightly nervous that they’ll react the way that one reviewer did.

On Such a Full Sea is about a civilization on the brink of decline. The book takes place in a far-future America where the ruins of the cities have been converted to labor colonies, inhabited by throngs of citizens brought over from the collapsed country of “New China”. The job of the Colonies is to provide food for the elite, who live in the former suburbs, in beautiful housing developments deemed Charters. The largely unseen “everyone else” lives in the boundless territories of the Open Counties: a land about which little is known, and much is feared.

The book begins with this quote from Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare:

We, at the height, are ready to decline.
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves
Or lose our ventures.

Young Fan is the first to take the current. An unlikely heroine, she is employed as a diver, cleaning the tanks of fish that B-mor (formerly Baltimore) produce for the Charters. She is content with her job, and happy with her boyfriend, Reg, a kindhearted but average fellow who works tending the trays of vegetables that grow above the fish tanks. When he disappears one day without a trace, no one can say why. Nor can they imagine why the devoted and gentle Fan would poison the tanks of beloved fish she cared for before setting out into the Open Counties to find him.

Is this, then, a simple love story of a girl set out to save the boy she loves? Lee makes it clear from the beginning it is not:

It couldn’t have been just Reg she had gone to search out. She had no real leads as to where he might be, or if he was even alive. So why would any sane person leave our cloister for such uncertainties? He was the impetus, yes, the veritable without which, but not the whole story. One person or thing can never comprise that, no matter how much one is cherished, no matter how much one is loved. A tale, like the universe, they tell us, expands ceaselessly each time you examine it, until there’s finally no telling exactly where it begins, or ends, or where it places you now.

As much as this is a story about Fan, it is a story of how her story will impact upon the world she left behind. The narrative is told in first person plural, describing how “we” the citizens of B-mor might view the strange, inspiring story of the unlikely Fan, and where it might lead us as a society.

All right, so the POV is difficult to get into at first. Very few stories are written in first person plural, and in the beginning, I found it jarring. I got used to it fairly quickly, though, and in the end, the author’s choice of perspective serves a purpose, and serves it well.

I was most frustrated by the breaks in the action. A new development would occur, or Fan would find herself in peril, and the next chapter would shift focus, describing what is happening back at B-mor, or some other background detail to the story. I often found myself tempted to skim or skip through these parts, and being a pleasure reader less concerned with discipline and completeness, and more interested in my own enjoyment of a book, I occasionally did.

In the end, though, I’m glad I was a little more strict with myself than I usually am. After all, this is a tale much rounder than the shape of Fan and her adventures; a fact I only began to appreciate fully as her story drew to an end.


What I’m Reading: “The Ocean at the End of the Lane”, by Neil Gaiman

I have dreamed of that song, of the strange words to that simple rhyme-song, and on several occasions I have understood what she was saying, in my dreams. In those dreams I spoke that language too, the first language, and I had dominion over the nature of all that was real. In my dream, it was the tongue of what is, and anything spoken in it becomes real, because nothing said in that language can be a lie. It is the most basic building brick of everything. In my dreams I have used that language to heal the sick and to fly; once I dreamed I kept a perfect little bed-and-breakfast by the seaside, and to everyone who came to stay with me I would say, in that tongue, “Be whole,” and they would become whole, not be broken people, not any longer, because I had spoken the language of shaping.

A beautiful story. I read it all in just under a day, and now that it’s over, these are my thoughts: that I want a little black kitten with a spot of white on her ear; I want Shephard’s pie and raisin pudding with custard; I want to dip my feet into the ocean; and I want to have a friend like Lettie.

What I’m Reading…”The Dinner”, by Herman Koch

I looked, as I said before, at Claire’s face in profile. If she turned her head and looked at me, I would know. Then she would have seen the same thing I did.

Claire turned her head and looked at me.

I held my breath–or rather, I took a deep breath, so that I could be the first to say something. Something–I didn’t know exactly which words I would use–that would change our lives.

Claire held up the bottle of red wine: there was only a bit left in the bottom, just enough for half a glass.

“Do you want this?” she asked. “Or should I open another one?”

Though it started slow, I finished the last 2/3 of the book in one sitting. My co-worker likens this novel to Gone Girl, and though the plots of those two books haven’t much in common, I think it’s a solid comparison. I slogged my way through Gone Girl because I was assured that the payoff would, in the end, be worth it. I didn’t think it was.

In The Dinner, the payoff is worth it. The story doesn’t so much unfold as slowly unravel, as details that were present all along come into sharper focus under the light of new information. The final picture is horrible, but just the sort of tragedy you can’t look away from.

What I’m Reading: Divergent, by Veronica Roth

I aim an uppercut low, below her bellybutton. My fist sinks into her flesh, forcing a heavy breath from her mouth that I feel against my ear. As she gasps, I sweep-kick her legs out from under her, and she falls hard on the ground, sending dust into the air. I pull my foot back and kick as hard as I can at her ribs.

My mother and father would not approve of my kicking someone when she’s down.

I don’t care.

She curls into a ball to protect her side, and I kick again, this time hitting her in the stomach. Like a child. I kick again, this time hitting her in the face. Blood springs from her nose and spreads over her face. Look at her. Another kick hits her in the chest.

I pull my foot back again, but Four’s hands clamp around my arms, and he pulls me away from her with irresistable force. I breathe through gritted teeth, staring at Molly’s blood-covered face, the color deep and rich and beautiful, in a way.

I’m interested to hear what other people thought of this book. It’s supposed to be the next The Hunger Games; a movie is coming out next year.

I enjoyed it. I’m about 30 pages from finishing, and I don’t bother finishing books that I’m not enjoying. There’s just so much that I want to pick apart, though. And the excerpt I posted above, where Tris, the main character, relishes brutalizing a girl she’s set up against to fight? You might think that’s a momentary lapse, or a character flaw she will be forced to confront and reconcile later, but no: the book glorifies violence and mindless bravado throughout. There is more to come from this series, with hints at evolution to come (of both Tris and the dystopian society she inhabits), so I’ll reserve judgment for now. But like I said: so much I want to pick apart.

What I’m Reading: Dreams and Shadows, by C. Robert Cargill

“You have much to understand about the nature of man.”

“You’re no man.”

“No,” said Coyote. “I am his unflattering reflection.” He shook his head. “I have outlived billions of gallons of blood, and you think I somehow delight in the spilling of a few more pints. You see my hand in the affairs of a few mortals and you think that I’ve but wound them up so I can watch them bounce off one another in the night. Never have you asked yourself why I might do such a thing–to what end this bloodshed might serve.”

What I’ve Read: “Adaptation” by Malinda Lo

Meant to get to this while I was actually reading it, but time is running away from me. Here is a passage I marked to share:

Reese pulled Amber closer. She couldn’t get close enough. It was extraordinary: the feel of Amber’s skin on hers, the places their bodies fitted together, the way she felt like she would melt if Amber didn’t touch her, and maybe even if she did —

But when Amber’s fingers slid beneath the waistband of Reese’s jeans, she froze. An unexpected panic raced through her, and before she knew what she was doing, she grabbed Amber’s hand and pulled it away, whispering, “Not yet.”

Amber stopped. She laid her head on the pillow, facing Reese, and smoothed back Reese’s hair from her flushed cheeks. “Okay,” Amber said, and kissed her gently on the corner of her mouth. “Okay.”

A sweet and sexy scene between the two teenagers, and an excellent example of how your partner should react when you want to slow down.

What I’m Reading: The Ode Less Travelled

I’ve just started Stephen Fry’s “The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within”. I think I’m going to like it.

But how well or badly we were taught English literature, how many of us have ever been shown how to write our own poems?

Don’t worry, it doesn’t have to rhyme. Don’t bother with metre and verses. Just express yourself. Pour out your feelings.

Suppose you had never played the piano in your life.

Don’t worry, just lift the lid and express yourself. Pour out your feelings.

We have all heard children do just that and we have all wanted to treat them with great violence as a result.

Well, exactly.

My favorite short stories: The Machine Stops, by E.M. Forster

click to read the story in full

This story was written in 1909, but like all good sci-fi, it has stood the test of time: it reads just as true and relevent today.

The story describes a world in which most of the human population has lost the ability to live on the surface of the Earth. Each individual now lives in isolation below ground in a standard ‘cell’, with all bodily and spiritual needs met by the omnipotent, global Machine. Travel is permitted but unpopular and rarely necessary. Communication is made via a kind of instant messaging/video conferencing machine called the speaking apparatus, with which people conduct their only activity, the sharing of ideas and knowledge. The two main characters, Vashti and her son Kuno, live on opposite sides of the world. Vashti is content with her life, which, like most inhabitants of the world, she spends producing and endlessly discussing secondhand ‘ideas’. Kuno, however, is a sensualist and a rebel. He persuades a reluctant Vashti to endure the journey (and the resultant unwelcome personal interaction) to his cell. There, he tells her of his disenchantment with the sanitized, mechanical world.

source: Wikipedia.org

From Kraken, by China Miéville

Billy’s black hair was touseled in a halfheartedly fashionable style. He wore a not-too-hopeless top, cheap jeans. When he had first started at the centre, he had liked to think that he was unexpectedly cool-looking for such a job. Now he knew that he surprised no one, that no one expected scientists to look like scientists anymore.

I feel the same way about librarians. When I first announced I was going to pursue a career in libraries (and before I’d actually started) several people made the comment that “Wow, you’re going to make a pretty hip librarian.” Because I have long, red hair that I wear in a layered, modern style. I have a nose ring, and multiple ear piercings. I wear cowboy boots and brightly colored tights.

But nope! I surprise no one. Librarians just don’t look like librarians anymore.

Getting to know me a little more.

Part II of questions I stole from Tumblr:

  1. Do you ever count your steps when you walk?
    Yes. I count quite a bit: to keep track of how long I’m waiting, to pass the time, and to assure myself that yes, time really is passing.

  2. Have you ever peed in the woods?
    Of course.

  3. Do you ever dance even if there’s no music playing?
    There’s always music playing in my head. (Which is to say: yes.)

  4. Do you chew your pens and pencils?

  5. What is your “Song of the Week”?

  6. Is it okay for guys to wear pink?
    I have very little patience for anyone who would seriously say “no” to this question.

  7. Do you still watch cartoons?
    No, not really.

  8. What’s your favorite love movie?
    Much Ado About Nothing. Was there ever a couple more perfect than Benedick and Beatrice?

  9. What do you drink with dinner?
    Water. Wine. Soda. I mix it up.

  10. What do you dip Chicken Nuggets in?
    Nothing, usually: I like the taste of them plain. Occasionally bbq sauce.