One Year

One year ago today, I started Hannah and Her Books on a complete whim.  I’d been toying around with the idea of starting a book blog for a while.  I had a “booklr” the summer between my freshmen and sophomore years of high school, but that only lasted a few months before I grew tired of re-blogging and re-posting.  Then, at the beginning of my senior year, I opened up a WordPress for the first time, reviewing Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (my favorite novel to this day) and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt before deleting the blog permanently.  Though I loved being a part of the online book community, I felt too much pressure to commit to a regular blogging schedule, especially during the college application season.

Now, I’ve been running this blog for exactly a year, and I’m proud of the commitment I’ve made, but mostly I’m just happy to be here and thankful to all of the bookish friends I’ve made.  I like to think of this blog as my little reading journal, as a place where I can document my reading experiences while giving myself the freedom to get a little personal sometimes.  When I look back to the person I was a year ago, it’s interesting to see the ways in which I’ve changed (and stayed the same) since then, and especially how that’s affected my reading.  Starting this blog just a few weeks after starting college, and beginning to study English literature analytically, has been so formative for my reading experience.  Not only that, but I truly love interacting with everyone in this community.  It’s crazy to have my own piece of this insane online book world.  Thank you to everyone who has followed me on this journey and made me feel so welcome; here’s to another great year!

xx,
Hannah

Mohsin Hamid: October 3, 2018

Mohsin Hamid, the author of Exit West, came to my hometown last week for a book discussion and signing.  When I first read the book back in February, I enjoyed it but I wasn’t the biggest fan; I felt like it was missing something.  However, after hearing Hamid speak about Exit West, his latest novel, I developed a greater appreciation for the work and the way in which it deals with such difficult topics like immigration and first love.

Hamid began the night by speaking about his childhood and the identity crisis he faced growing up.  He was born in Pakistan and spoke Urdu before he was one year old.  When Hamid was around three years old, he moved to California where his father attended Stanford graduate school.  Living in the grad school housing, Hamid was surrounded by children of all different nationalities, yet he was essentially censured for speaking “funny,” as he didn’t know English yet.  After a neighbor criticized him for speaking Urdu, Hamid did not speak for a month, and afterward, he only spoke American English.  A few years later, his family moved back to Pakistan, and he had to relearn Urdu, which he had no memory of despite it being his first language.  Though English was Hamid’s second language, he acknowledged it as his best, as the language he writes in.

This identity crisis allowed Hamid to understand how difficult it is to “categorize” people.  Even still, we place so much emphasis on defining someone by clunky terms like black or white, gay or straight, Muslim or Christian.  Hamid shared his belief that the only thing that matters is love- who we love, what we love, and how we express our love.

Having lived in Pakistan, California, New York, and London, Hamid stressed migration as both a global and a personal experience.  He emphasized that “we are all migrants through time,” a quote from his novel Exit West, that everyone comes from somewhere, and that no one is native to a place.  Hamid spoke personally about his experiences moving around from country to country, saying that if he had to choose a central “home,” he wouldn’t fit in anywhere, and he wouldn’t know where to choose.  Though he was born in Pakistan, he spent much of his early childhood in the United States, and eventually moved on to school in England, all very formative periods in his life.

Beyond a physical migration from place to place, Hamid also mentioned a sort of figurative migration, through technology.  He claimed that collectively, we have become obsessed with sending our consciousness from place to place online.  In this sense, the infamous doors of Exit West, said by many to be a magical realism device, can also be thought of metaphorically.  Hamid himself compared the doors to our cell phone screens, both ominous black rectangles leading to someplace new and different.  Hearing him speak about Exit West in this way was eye-opening, and now I see the book in a whole new light.

The last thing Hamid spoke about, and perhaps the concept that will stay with me the most, is what happens when we read.  We sit alone with our thoughts, lost in our own mind, and yet we are sitting with the author’s thoughts as well… and so who are we in that moment?  Are we truly ourselves, or are we some type of hybrid, a mixture of our thoughts and the author’s?  Hamid definitely left me with a lot to think about.

What did you think of Exit West?  How would you define migration?  Let’s chat!

xx,
Hannah

Pachinko // Min Jin Lee

It’s been a while since I’ve truly been obsessed with a book.  Once I started reading Pachinko, I couldn’t stop- I even got up half an hour early every day so that I could fit in some reading time before my day began!  It’s just that good, and most readers seem to agree: beyond it’s 4.3 rating on Goodreads, it was named one of the ten best books of the year by the New York Times among being a National Book Award finalist.

In a nutshell, Pachinko follows four generations of a Korean family in Japan through the twentieth century as they face various dilemmas ranging from complicated romance to life-or-death situations.  Written in plain but elegant prose, Pachinko both entertains and educates the reader, heavily discussing the Japanese-Korean conflict with an emphasis on the Korean diaspora and identity crisis.  Personally, I learned a lot I didn’t know about the Korean culture as well as the underground world of pachinko parlors.


“Learn everything.  Fill your mind with knowledge- it’s the only kind of power no one can take away from you.”

-Min Jin Lee, Pachinko


From the back cover:

History is seldom kind.  In Min Jin Lee’s bestselling, magisterial epic, four generations of a poor, proud immigrant family fight to control their destinies, exiled from a homeland they never knew.

In the early 1900s, teenaged Sunja, the adored daughter of a crippled fisherman, falls for a wealthy stranger at the seashore near her home in Korea.  He promises her the world, but when she discovers she is pregnant- and that her lover is married- she refuses to be bought.  Instead, she accepts an offer of marriage from a gentle, sickly minister passing through on his way to Japan.  But her decision to abandon her home and to reject her son’s powerful father sets off a dramatic saga that will echo down through the generations.

Richly told and profoundly moving, Pachinko is a story of love, sacrifice, ambition, and loyalty.  From the bustling street markets to the halls of Japan’s finest universities to the pachinko parlors of the criminal underworld, Lee’s complex and passionate characters- strong, stubborn women, devoted sisters and sons, fathers shaken by moral crisis- survive and thrive against the indifferent arc of history.


“Living everyday in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage.”

-Min Jin Lee, Pachinko


Though Pachinko follows four generations, much of the plot relies heavily on Sunja’s initial plight, as she gets pregnant out of wedlock to a wealthy man with a wife and children in Japan.  Sunja ends up marrying a sickly minister in order to give her unborn son a proper name, and they begin a family of their own as she falls in love with him.  Sunja has two sons, one from each man, and from there the novel focuses on the boys and their relationships with their respective fathers.  In that regard, Pachinko focuses on fatherhood, the issue of nature versus nurture, and what it means to be a father.

Initially Pachinko took the time to explain everything in detail, but as the story moved along, the pacing steadily increased, and as time progressed faster, more and more characters were introduced.  Structurally and pacing-wise, Pachinko struggled, but I fell in love with the story and the characters.  Much like The Heart’s Invisible Furies, another well-loved, character-driven tome, Pachinko was a very emotional read.  I felt sucked into the story, so much so that I was undeniably sad when it ended.  Pachinko is a gem, so deserving of its recognition, and by far one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Find this book on Goodreads.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation // Ottessa Moshfegh

There was no escaping My Year of Rest and Relaxation this summer.  Visit any bookish website, and its iconic hot pink text and classic cover art was plastered on the front page.  Scroll through bookstagram, and Moshfegh’s name appeared in post after post.  Browse any bookshop, and it was prominently displayed on the front table.  I try to avoid over-hyped books at all costs, but I gave in for this one, and I’m glad I did.

I snatched up my copy at McNally Jackson a few weeks ago, while staying on the Upper East Side, weirdly enough just a few blocks away from where our unnamed narrator lives.  It was one of those instances where I read a book at the absolute perfect time.  Reading My Year of Rest and Relaxation in New York definitely heightened my reading experience; this book feels, in every sense, like a New York Novel, and I’m not convinced I could’ve accessed the full meaning had I not been in the very city where it takes place.


From the jacket:

Our narrator has many of the advantages in life, on the surface.  Young, thin, pretty, a recent Columbia graduate, she lives in an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan paid for, like the rest of her needs, by her inheritance.  But there is a vacuum at the heart of things, and it isn’t just the loss of her parents while she was in college, or the miserable way her Wall Street sometimes-boyfriend treats her, or her sadomasochistic relationship with her alleged best friend.  It’s the year 2000 in a city aglitter with wealth and possibility; what could be so terribly wrong?

My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a powerful answer to that very question.  Through the story of a year spent by a young woman under the influence of a truly mad combination of drugs prescribed to heal people from alienation and existential ennui, Moshfegh shows us how reasonable, even necessary that alienation sometimes is.  Tender and blackly funny, merciless and compassionate, it is a showcase for the gifts and the rewards of one of our major writers working at the height of her powers.


“Sleep felt productive.  Something was getting sorted out.  I knew in my heart- this was, perhaps, the only thing my heart knew back then- that when I’d slept enough, I’d be okay.  I’d be renewed, reborn.  I would be a whole new person, every one of my cells regenerated enough times that the old cells were just distant, foggy memories.  My past life would be but a dream, and I could start over without regrets, bolstered by the bliss and serenity that I would have accumulated in my year of rest and relaxation.”

-Ottessa Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation


My Year of Rest and Relaxation presents a very privileged yet very depressed narrator.  Unnamed, she is somewhat unlikeable in her trust-fund, Upper East Side ways, and yet she isn’t the biggest fan of herself either.  Drowning in the world after the death of her parents and the latest break-up with her on-again-off-again boyfriend Trevor, she takes self-care to the extreme by creating endless amounts of prescription drug cocktails, prescribed to her by an aloof psychologist, so that she may escape the world and sleep for a year.  This book, weird and wonderful in so many ways, touches on an abundance of topics, from mental health to inauthenticity, while focusing on the narrator’s relationships, healthy and unhealthy.  Moshfegh is a very polarizing writer but My Year of Rest and Relaxation reminded me very much of The Idiot in its tone and content, so it should come as no surprise that I loved this one as well.  Despite the cliché ending, the last page crushed my soul and left me hungry for more.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation is not an “enjoyable” book, it’s not a “feel-good” book.  It’s about the ugly, depressing parts of life, the parts that make you want to hole up in your apartment and literally sleep for a year, to hide from masochistic, pretentious boyfriends and irritating, nettlesome best friends.  If anything, this book made me feel awful.  Yet, I loved every minute of it.  Suddenly, I want to devour everything Moshfegh has every written (thank God I planned ahead and bought Eileen).  Sign me up for the Ottessa Moshfegh Fan Club.

Further reading: “Ottessa Moshfegh Plays to Win” by Kaitlin Phillips, The Cut; “Ottessa Moshfegh’s Otherworldly Fiction” by Ariel Levy, The New Yorker.

Find this book on Goodreads.

Strand Book Store, New York

A New York City staple, Strand Book Store is the hot spot for all bookworms, tourists and locals alike.  Boasting eighteen miles of books, The Strand is one of the biggest bookstores in the city, and once you step inside, it feels like an entirely different world, completely free from the calamity of the streets and the stresses of everyday life.

I visited The Strand not once but twice during my visit to New York.  First, Monday afternoon, around four o’clock, when I walked over from the Flatiron District with the two interns I worked with all summer.  We browsed the front tables, recommending books to one another, and explored the Rare Book Room before delving into the stacks on our own.  (Afterwards, we got pizza, so it was basically the perfect New York afternoon.)  I found three books on the bargain carts in the fiction section and quickly snatched them up for myself- Less, Eileen, and The Art of Fielding.

I went back for round two with my family on Saturday night, after dinner, when the store was much more crowded.  I’d been to The Strand only once before, about a year ago, when I was in awe of and distracted by the sheer amount of books piled the space.  During this trip I found that I was able to get past the “oh my God I’m in The Strand” feeling and I could actually browse a bit easier, without feeling like a tourist.

Unlike other bookstores in the city, which are smaller with less-anonymous browsing, Strand Book Store is the perfect place to “get lost in the stacks,” as they say.  Visit this one if you’re looking to spend an entire afternoon browsing, in a place that feels so separate from the city.

Strand Book Store
828 Broadway
New York, New York 10003

Crudo // Olivia Laing

Crudo is the book I didn’t know I needed.  Highly experimental and introspective, the novel’s entirety is spent inside the head of forty-year-old writer Kathy, who is meant to be the persona of established American novelist Kathy Acker (1947-1997), as she faces the ever-changing world around her: her individual world, as she gets married and ends her life as a single woman, and the political world, suffering from the repercussions of Trump and Brexit.  Crudo is the kind of book you could read in one sitting and revisit time and time again without bother.


From the jacket:

Kathy is a writer.  Kathy is getting married.  It’s the summer of 2017 and the whole world is falling apart.  Fast-paced and frantic, Crudo unfolds in real time from the full-throttle perspective of a commitment-phobic artist who might be Kathy Acker.

From a Tuscan hotel for the super-rich to a Brexit-paralyzed United Kingdom, Kathy spends the first summer of her forties adjusting to the idea of a lifelong commitment.  But it’s not only Kathy who’s changing.  Fascism is on the rise, truth is dead, the planet is heating up, and Trump is tweeting the world ever-closer to nuclear war.  How do you make art, let alone a life, when one rogue tweet could end it all?


At just 130 pages, Crudo is barely a novel; it’s a steam-of-conscious sprint through one woman’s contemporary point-of-view.  As a young American, it was interesting and eye-opening to read from a British perspective on the current political climate.  Though Crudo is a work of fiction, it read very true-to-life, touching on topics like global warming, Brexit, and North Korean politics, while very much focusing on Trump and the “Fake News” era.  Sure, sometimes the commentary and the context went a bit over my head, but there were also times when Laing’s (or “Acker’s”) words just clicked, and I completely related to the message she portrayed.  Those are the moments that made this book work for me, despite my small struggle with the inaccessibility of the experimental prose.


“Everyone talked about politics all the time but no one knew what was happening.”

-Olivia Laing, Crudo


Brief, thought-provoking, and a bit bizarre, Olivia Laing’s Crudo succeeds in capturing the current social and political climate unlike any other written work today.  It’s claustrophobic with originality and teeming with voice, and perfect for fans of experimental stream-of-consciousness narratives or thought-provoking fiction that reads like nonfiction.

Thank you to W. W. Norton for my copy of Crudo by Olivia Laing.  All thoughts are my own.

Find this book on Goodreads.

New York City Book Haul

I spent a total of eight days in New York, but somehow managed to acquire nine books, which may or may not be a new record for me…  I will say that four of these were given to me by publishers, and the three I purchased at the Strand were all $7-8 each, so my bank account is happy even though my bedroom has been taken over by books.  What else is new?  As you can see, this was quite the stack to fly home with!

From Harper Business

90s Bitch by Allison Yarrow
The Thank You Economy by Gary Vaynerchuk

From Strand Book Store

Less by Andrew Sean Greer
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

From Catapult

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor
All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung

From McNally Jackson

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

From Books Are Magic

New People by Danzy Senna

A little bit more about my adventures: On Monday, I visited the Harper Business imprint at HarperCollins and the Henry Holt & Co. imprint at Macmillan before making a trip to The Strand to get lost in the stacks.  Tuesday I met with some amazing people from St. Martin’s Press and Farrar, Straus & Giroux, both imprints at Macmillan, as well as the team at Catapult/Soft Skull Press, and attended a dinner the Asian American Writers’ Workshop.  I began Wednesday with a trip to Three Lives & Company, which was just three blocks away from my West Village apartment, and went to a work lunch at an amazing Thai restaurant.  Afterwards, I walked to SoHo’s McNally Jackson for some quality browsing time.  Thursday was very much a non-bookish day, in which I saw the Statue of Liberty and went shopping, but Friday I went down to Brooklyn for Emma Straub’s Books Are Magic, which ended up being my favorite bookshop of the trip.  The weekend was spent bopping around the city with my family before flying home Sunday night (only to begin classes the next day… yikes!).

I’ve already picked up My Year of Rest and Relaxation, because I just couldn’t wait, but what do you think I should read next?  I’d love to hear from you!

xx,
Hannah