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Reading the World: ‘Human Acts’ by Han Kang **** (From the Archive)

Human Acts was Katie’s choice for the May instalment of our Chai and Sheep book club.  I had a slight mishap with the library, in that both our May and June choices had rather large waiting lists, and then came in during April; I thus had to read them way ahead of time and try and hide my thoughts.

The novel, Han Kang’s second, has been described as ‘a riveting, poetic and unrelentingly powerful examination of humanity at its most appalling, and its most hopeful.  It is an act of extraordinary resistance and a refusal to forget’.  It is ‘a radically brave novel about an atrocious episode in Korean history’.

Human Acts has been translated from its original Korean, and Deborah Smith won the English PEN Award for doing so.  Kang was adamant that the ‘translation maintain the moral ambivalence of the original, and avoid sensationalising the sorrow and shame which her home town was made to bear’.  The novel itself has won awards in Kang’s native country.  I haven’t read much Asian fiction at all, but it does seem to be rather in vogue at the moment, and this book, to me, sounded both strange and intriguing.  9781846275968

The setting is Gwangju, South Korea, in 1980, where Kang herself spent some of her childhood.  Following a ‘viciously suppressed student uprising’, many searches ensue – a boy’s for the corpse of his friend, and, perhaps above all, that of a ‘brutalized country’ for its voice.  The novel is told in a sequence of interconnecting, and sometimes overlapping, chapters.  It took until 1997 for this brutal uprising, in which many died, to be memorialised; in fact, ‘casualty figures remain a contentious issue even today’.

Interestingly, the novel begins with a chapter which uses the second person perspective.  This is a relatively simple but incredibly effective tool to set the scene: ‘When you let your eyelids part just the tiniest fraction, the gingko trees in front of the Provincial Office are shaking in the wind.  So far, not a single drop of rain has fallen’.  It continues with our journey, as it were: ‘You step into the gym hall, fighting down the wave of nausea that hits you with the stench…  The coffins that have already been through the memorial service have been grouped neatly near the door, while at the foot of the large window, each covered with a white cloth, lie the bodies of thirty-two people for whom no relatives have yet arrived to put them in their coffins.  Next to each of their heads, a candle wedged into an empty drinks bottle flickers quietly’.  This well-evoked setting is a centre filled with volunteers, who are housing the massacred as they await identification.

The next chapter is narrated by the boy’s friend, Park Jeong-dae; he and his sister, Jeong-mi, have both been murdered.  It begins as it means to go on, with the following striking sentence: ‘Our bodies are piled on top of each other in the shape of a cross’.  Bodies are a central theme to the whole: ‘From that moment on, I was filled with hatred for my body.  Our bodies, tossed there like lumps of meat.  Our filthy, rotting faces, reeking in the sun’.

Translator Deborah Smith’s introduction gives valuable background information into the history of Korea, setting out the political and social backdrop which Kang writes against.  ‘Military strongman’ Park Chung-hee has been assassinated when this book begins, and his protege, Chun Doo-hwan, steps up to the plate, expanding martial law and curtailing the freedom of the press, amongst other dictatorial things.  Kang, Smith writes, ‘starts with bodies.  Piled up, reeking, unclaimed and thus unburied, they present both a logistical and an ontological dilemma’.

The contextual information about Korea – a country in which, I must admit, my historical knowledge is rather lacking – was fascinating, as are the facets of culture which are embedded within.  For example, ‘In the Korean context… violence done to the body is a violation to the spirit/soul which animates it’.  Gender politics and regionalism are touched upon in the novel too, and one cannot help but feel that they are learning about a completely different world when they are reading.

Kang’s descriptions are vivid; throughout, there is a very tight control over the vocabulary and the translation.  The characters, even those who are deceased, feel realistic; they all have different wants and longings.  The translation has been perfectly rendered, and there is such a marvellous flow to the whole that it is difficult to believe it has been translated in places.  Kang certainly has a deft hand for writing, and I have heard from so many people that they very much enjoyed The Vegetarian too.  Human Acts is a captivating, stark, and memorable novel, with much to discuss within its deceptively slim covers; the perfect choice for a book club.

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1

Reading the World: ‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang ***

We turn to South Korea for today’s installment of my Reading the World project.  The Vegetarian (2007) is the second of Han Kang’s books which I’ve read to date, and is again translated by Deborah Smith.  It also won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016.  On reflection, I must say that I far preferred Human Acts (you can read my review of it here).  That said, The Vegetarian is undoubtedly a novel full of complexities, and makes for an incredibly interesting reading choice.

9781846276033The Vegetarian is a book which I’m sure most of you will have heard of, if not read; the vast majority of my Goodreads friends, for instance, have either loved or very much enjoyed this.  It is billed both as a ‘disturbing and thrilling psychological drama about taboo, desire, rebellion and fantasy’, and as a ‘darkly beautiful modern classic about rebellion, eroticism and the female body.  One of the most extraordinary books you will ever read.’  A vast claim indeed, and whilst I’ve not quite read anything like The Vegetarian before, I’m not sure I’d put it up there with the pinnacle of extraordinary novels I’ve read over my lifetime thus far.

Let us discuss the plot, then.  The marriage of Yeong-hye and her husband, Mr Cheong, is ‘interrupted’ when she ‘commits a shocking act of submission: she refuses to eat meat’ and becomes a vegetarian, something not widely accepted in South Korean culture.  The novel’s opening section caught my interest; in a way, we are given the dual perspectives of both Mr Cheong, whose narrative is more traditional, and Yeong-hye, who describes horrific dreamscapes, in which she has seen bloodied corpses and the like, in italicised text.  Mr Cheong narrates the action, for want of a better phrase.  He is baffled at his wife’s decision to become a vegetarian, and furious that she refuses to cook meat for him.  Along with Yeong-hye’s parents, he does everything within his power to try and reverse her decision.  The second section of The Vegetarian uses a third person voice, and follows Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, who becomes fixated on the idea of painting flowers onto naked bodies, culminating in an erotic art film of sorts.  The final part is told by her sister, In-hye.

Mr Cheong is incredibly misogynistic.  Not only does he refuse to take his wife seriously at any point, but he actually turns to physically harming her when he does not get his own way.  When she tells him that the meat smell upon his skin repulses her and she cannot copulate with him, he rapes her.

Yeong-hye is a complex character construction.  Throughout, I felt as though she was the most realistic creation within the book; the others paled a little in comparison, particularly as I struggled to believe that rational adults would behave as they sometimes did; for instance, the scene in which Yeong-hye’s father tries to force feed her meat, thinking that it will change her mind.  This particular scene sent shivers down my spine, and I felt such pangs of compassion for our protagonist.

The passage of time has been well executed, and the use of different perspectives do work well as a whole.  My only qualm is that we are never fully given Yeong-hye’s voice; we learn about her through other characters, and know a little of what is in her head due to the nightmares we are given glimpses of.  I believe that The Vegetarian would have been far more psychologically chilling had it partially, or perhaps entirely, been narrated from her point of view.  She spends time in an institution, but her experiences there are barely documented.

At times, The Vegetarian is quite gorily matter-of-fact.  Mr Cheong, for example, describes the following: ‘I’d seen my mother-in-law gut fish, and my wife and her sister were both perfectly competent when it came to hacking a chicken to pieces with a butcher’s cleaver.  I’d always liked my wife’s earthy vitality, the way she would catch cockroaches by smacking them with the palm of her hand.  She really had been the most ordinary woman in the world’.  Hmm.  Her transformation from placid wife to a headstrong woman in control of her own diet is believable, and very well done; there is a definite change to her, and reasons for it.

The Vegetarian is a harrowing read, and not one for the faint of heart.  To me, it did not feel as consistent as Human Acts; there were a few instances within the novel where I was a little bored with proceedings, and felt that details were being repeated unnecessarily.  The novel comes in waves, though; just as I was beginning to find it a little predictable, something would happen which would render the next few pages compelling and difficult to put down.  In places, The Vegetarian is just as chilling as Human Acts, and its storyline is perhaps more memorable, but it just didn’t grip me in the same way.  Overarchingly, however, its message is powerful; never underestimate a woman when she has made up her mind.

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2

Christmas Book Haul 2016

I have almost entirely moved away from creating BookTube videos, and haven’t written a traditional book haul post in rather a while!  Going forward, I will endeavour to post one of these at the end of each month, so you can see both what I’ve bought and borrowed.  For now, allow me to show you the wonderful books which I received for Christmas!

As I’ve only read two of them so far (the fantastic Speaking in Tongues, and The Little Paris Bookshop, which I read last year and reviewed here), I shall copy the official blurb.  As always, if you’d like full reviews of any of them once I’ve read them, please do let me know.

 

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood
9781760291877Winner of Best Fiction and Overall Book of the Year at the Independent Bookseller Awards / Shortlisted for the Stella Prize and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award / Longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award

‘She hears her own thick voice deep inside her ears when she says, ‘I need to know where I am.’ The man stands there, tall and narrow, hand still on the doorknob, surprised. He says, almost in sympathy, ‘Oh, sweetie. You need to know what you are.’ Two women awaken from a drugged sleep to find themselves imprisoned in a broken-down property in the middle of a desert. Strangers to each other, they have no idea where they are or how they came to be there with eight other girls, forced to wear strange uniforms, their heads shaved, guarded by two inept yet vicious armed jailers and a ‘nurse’. The girls all have something in common, but what is it? What crime has brought them here from the city? Who is the mysterious security company responsible for this desolate place with its brutal rules, its total isolation from the contemporary world? Doing hard labour under a sweltering sun, the prisoners soon learn what links them: in each girl’s past is a sexual scandal with a powerful man. They pray for rescue – but when the food starts running out it becomes clear that the jailers have also become the jailed. The girls can only rescue themselves.’

 

Where Am I Now?: True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame by Mara Wilson 9780143128229
‘Mara Wilson has always felt a little young and a little out of place: as the only child on a film set full of adults, the first daughter in a house full of boys, the sole clinically depressed member of the cheerleading squad, a valley girl in New York and a neurotic in California, and one of the few former child actors who has never been in jail or rehab. Tackling everything from how she first learned about sex on the set of Melrose Place, to losing her mother at a young age, to getting her first kiss (or was it kisses?) on a celebrity canoe trip, to not being “cute” enough to make it in Hollywood, these essays tell the story of one young woman’s journey from accidental fame to relative (but happy) obscurity. But they also illuminate a universal struggle: learning to accept yourself, and figuring out who you are and where you belong. Exquisitely crafted, revelatory, and full of the crack comic timing that has made Mara Wilson a sought-after live storyteller and Twitter star, Where Am I Now? introduces a witty, perceptive, and refreshingly candid new literary voice.

 

Tru & Nelle by G. Neri
51tb2cayyfl-_sx319_bo1204203200_‘Long before they became famous writers, Truman Capote (In Cold Blood) and Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird) were childhood friends in Monroeville, Alabama. This fictionalized account of their time together opens at the beginning of the Great Depression, when Tru is seven and Nelle is six. They love playing pirates, but they like playing Sherlock and Watson-style detectives even more. It s their pursuit of a case of drugstore theft that lands the daring duo in real trouble. Humor and heartache intermingle in this lively look at two budding writers in the 1930s South.’

 

Speaking in Tongues: Curious Expressions from Around the World by Ella Frances Sanders 9781910931264
‘Ever feel like you are pedalling in the choucroute? Been caught with your beard in the mailbox again? Or maybe you just wish everyone would stop ironing your head? Speaking in Tongues brings the weird, wonderful and surprising nuanced beauty of language to life with over fifty gorgeous watercolour and ink illustrations. Here you will find the perfect romantic expression, such as the Spanish tu eres mi media naranja, or ‘you are the love of my life, my soulmate’, and the bizarre, including dancing bears and broken pots, feeding donkeys sponge cake, a head full of crickets, and clouds and radishes. All encourage new ways of thinking about the world around us, and breathe magnificent life into the everyday. These phrases from across the world are ageless and endlessly enchanting, passed down through generations. Now they are yours.’

 

The One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg
9780224101950‘From the author who brought you The Encyclopedia of Early Earth comes another Epic Tale of Derring-Do. Prepare to be dazzled once more by the overwhelming power of stories and see Love prevail in the face of Terrible Adversity! You will read of betrayal, loyalty, madness, bad husbands, lovers both faithful and unfaithful, wise old crones, moons who come out of the sky, musical instruments that won’t stay quiet, friends and brothers and fathers and mothers and above all, many, many sisters.’

 

Madame Solario by Gladys Huntington 9781910263105
‘Set at Cadenabbia on Lake Como in September 1906, Madame Solario (1956) evokes the leisure of the pre-1914 world and the sensuous delights of Italy: the chestnut woods, the shuttered villas, the garden paths encroached by oleanders: ‘the almost excessive beauty of the winding lake surrounded by mountains, the shores gemmed with golden-yellow villages and classical villas standing among cypress trees.’ When the mysterious Natalia Solario arrives at the Belle Vue Hotel, there are disquieting rumours about her past life and about her excessively close relationship to her brother.’

 

The River King by Alice Hoffman
9780099286523‘For more than a century, the small town of Haddan, Massachusetts, has been divided, as if by a line drawn down the centre of Main Street, separating those born and bred in the ‘village’ from those who attend the prestigious Haddan School. But one October night the two worlds are thrust together by an inexplicable death and the town’s divided history is revealed in all its complexity. The lives of everyone involved are unravelled: from Carlin Leander, the fifteen-year-old scholarship girl who is as loyal as she is proud, to Betsy Chase, a woman running from her own destiny; from August Pierce, a loner and a misfit at school who unexpectedly finds courage in his darkest hour, to Abel Grey, the police officer who refuses to let unspeakable actions – both past and present – slide by without notice.’

 

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George 9780553418798
‘Monsieur Perdu can prescribe the perfect book for a broken heart. But can he fix his own? Monsieur Perdu calls himself a literary apothecary. From his floating bookstore in a barge on the Seine, he prescribes novels for the hardships of life. Using his intuitive feel for the exact book a reader needs, Perdu mends broken hearts and souls. The only person he can’t seem to heal through literature is himself; he’s still haunted by heartbreak after his great love disappeared. She left him with only a letter, which he has never opened. After Perdu is finally tempted to read the letter, he hauls anchor and departs on a mission to the south of France, hoping to make peace with his loss and discover the end of the story. Joined by a bestselling but blocked author and a lovelorn Italian chef, Perdu travels along the country s rivers, dispensing his wisdom and his books, showing that the literary world can take the human soul on a journey to heal itself. Internationally bestselling and filled with warmth and adventure, The Little Paris Bookshop is a love letter to books, meant for anyone who believes in the power of stories to shape people’s lives. ‘

 

Unless by Carol Shields
9780007137695‘Reta Winters has a loving family, good friends, and growing success as a writer of light fiction. Then her eldest daughter suddenly withdraws from the world, abandoning university to sit on a street corner, wearing a sign that reads only ‘Goodness’. As Reta seeks the causes of her daughter’s retreat, her enquiry turns into an unflinching, often very funny meditation on society and where we find meaning and hope. ‘Unless’ is a dazzling and daring novel from the undisputed master of extraordinary fictions about so-called ‘ordinary’ lives.’

 

The Girl on the Stairs by Louise Welsh 9781848546509
‘Jane and Petra have been together for six years and after deciding to have a child, they move to Petra’s hometown, Berlin. But things do not quite go according to plan. Jane, at six months pregnant, finds herself increasingly isolated and preoccupied with the monuments and reminders of the Holocaust which echo around the city – imagining the horrors that happened in the spaces around her. She becomes uneasy in the apartment and conceives a dread of the derelict backhouse across the courtyard. She also begins to suspect their neighbour, Alban Mann, of sexually assaulting his daughter, and places a phone call to the police which holds more significance than she can ever have known …’

 

The Philosophy of Beards by Thomas S. Gowing
9780712357661”The absence of Beard is usually a sign of physical and moral weakness.’ ‘Take two drawings of the head of a lion, one with and the other without the mane. You will see how much of the majesty of the king of the woods, as well as that of the lord of the earth, dwells in this free-flowing appendage.’ ‘There is scarcely a more naturally disgusting object than a beardless old man. The Beard keeps gradually covering, varying and beautifying, and imparts new graces even to decay, by heightening all that is still pleasing, veiling all that is repulsive.’ This eccentric Victorian book argues a strong case for the universal wearing of a beard – that essential symbol of manly distinction since ancient times. Thomas S. Gowing contrasts the vigour and daring of bearded men through history with the undeniable effeminacy of the clean-shaven. He reminds the modern man that ‘ladies, by their very nature, like everything manly’, and cannot fail to be charmed by a ‘fine flow of curling comeliness’. Gowing’s book is now republished for the first time since 1850, accompanied by illustrations of impressive beards from history.’

 

The Vegetarian by Han Kang 9781846276033
‘Yeong-hye and her husband are ordinary people. He is an office worker with moderate ambitions and mild manners; she is an uninspired but dutiful wife. The acceptable flatline of their marriage is interrupted when Yeong-hye, seeking a more ‘plant-like’ existence, decides to become a vegetarian, prompted by grotesque recurring nightmares. In South Korea, where vegetarianism is almost unheard-of and societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye’s decision is a shocking act of subversion. Her passive rebellion manifests in ever more bizarre and frightening forms, leading her bland husband to self-justified acts of sexual sadism. His cruelties drive her towards attempted suicide and hospitalisation. She unknowingly captivates her sister’s husband, a video artist. She becomes the focus of his increasingly erotic and unhinged artworks, while spiralling further and further into her fantasies of abandoning her fleshly prison and becoming – impossibly, ecstatically – a tree. Fraught, disturbing and beautiful, The Vegetarian is a novel about modern day South Korea, but also a novel about shame, desire and our faltering attempts to understand others, from one imprisoned body to another.’

 

A fantastic haul, I’m sure you’ll agree!  Thanks so much to everyone who gifted me a book this year.  Have you read any of these?

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5

A (British) Book Haul

After spending approximately 10 days in the UK, visiting my uncle and his family in Peterborough and taking a flash trip to Edinburgh, I’m back home in scorching hot Greece. Needless to say that I managed to acquire some books during this trip of mine, which I intend to show you today.

Since my uncle’s house is located rather far away from the city centre, I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked to browse through Peterborough’s bookshops. I did, however, purchase those three books from lovely Waterstones:

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  • The Vegetarian by Han Kang
  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
  • A Faraway Smell of Lemon by Rachel Joyce

I’ve already read The Vegetarian and We Have Always Lived in the Castle and reviews for those two will be up soon.

Even though I travelled to Edinburgh with very little luggage and promised to myself not to buy more than two books, I left with six new ones in my bag. Oh, well.

IMG_0394

From Blackwell’s I got:

  • The Muse by Jessie Burton
  • The Gifts of Reading by Robert Macfarlane

From Oxfam I got:

  • A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton
  • Negotiating With the Dead by Margaret Atwood
  • The Monsters and the Critics by J.R.R. Tolkien

And last but certainly not least, from Barnardo’s I got:

  • 官僚を国民のために働かせる法 (Kanryou wo Kokumin no Tame ni Hatarakaseru Hou / The Way to Make Bureaucracy Work for the Citizens) by 古賀茂明 (Koga Shigeaki)

I never expected to find a Japanese book in a non-specialized bookshop, so I immediately grabbed it and brought it home with me. It’s a non-fiction book and I have to admit that its subject matter doesn’t particularly interest me, but it will certainly become great practice for my Japanese reading skills.

Upon arriving back home, I found a package waiting for me. It was from Kurodahan Press and it contained those wonderful books sent to me for review:

IMG_0393.JPG

  • Blue Bamboo by Dazai Osamu
  • Tokyo Decadence by Ryu Murakami
  • Long Belts and Thin Men by Kojima Nobuo

They are all short story collections and I am more than excited to delve into them as soon as possible.

So, these are all the books I acquired since the beginning of July and they all make me so very happy. Have you read any of these? What books have you acquired so far for this month? 🙂

4

‘Human Acts’ by Han Kang ****

Human Acts was Katie’s choice for the May instalment of our Chai and Sheep book club.  I had a slight mishap with the library, in that both our May and June choices had rather large waiting lists, and then came in during April; I thus had to read them way ahead of time and try and hide my thoughts.

The novel, Han Kang’s second, has been described as ‘a riveting, poetic and unrelentingly powerful examination of humanity at its most appalling, and its most hopeful.  It is an act of extraordinary resistance and a refusal to forget’.  It is ‘a radically brave novel about an atrocious episode in Korean history’.

Human Acts has been translated from its original Korean, and Deborah Smith won the English PEN Award for doing so.  Kang was adamant that the ‘translation maintain the moral ambivalence of the original, and avoid sensationalising the sorrow and shame which her home town was made to bear’.  The novel itself has won awards in Kang’s native country.  I haven’t read much Asian fiction at all, but it does seem to be rather in vogue at the moment, and this book, to me, sounded both strange and intriguing.  9781846275968

The setting is Gwangju, South Korea, in 1980, where Kang herself spent some of her childhood.  Following a ‘viciously suppressed student uprising’, many searches ensue – a boy’s for the corpse of his friend, and, perhaps above all, that of a ‘brutalized country’ for its voice.  The novel is told in a sequence of interconnecting, and sometimes overlapping, chapters.  It took until 1997 for this brutal uprising, in which many died, to be memorialised; in fact, ‘casualty figures remain a contentious issue even today’.

Interestingly, the novel begins with a chapter which uses the second person perspective.  This is a relatively simple but incredibly effective tool to set the scene: ‘When you let your eyelids part just the tiniest fraction, the gingko trees in front of the Provincial Office are shaking in the wind.  So far, not a single drop of rain has fallen’.  It continues with our journey, as it were: ‘You step into the gym hall, fighting down the wave of nausea that hits you with the stench…  The coffins that have already been through the memorial service have been grouped neatly near the door, while at the foot of the large window, each covered with a white cloth, lie the bodies of thirty-two people for whom no relatives have yet arrived to put them in their coffins.  Next to each of their heads, a candle wedged into an empty drinks bottle flickers quietly’.  This well-evoked setting is a centre filled with volunteers, who are housing the massacred as they await identification.

The next chapter is narrated by the boy’s friend, Park Jeong-dae; he and his sister, Jeong-mi, have both been murdered.  It begins as it means to go on, with the following striking sentence: ‘Our bodies are piled on top of each other in the shape of a cross’.  Bodies are a central theme to the whole: ‘From that moment on, I was filled with hatred for my body.  Our bodies, tossed there like lumps of meat.  Our filthy, rotting faces, reeking in the sun’.

Translator Deborah Smith’s introduction gives valuable background information into the history of Korea, setting out the political and social backdrop which Kang writes against.  ‘Military strongman’ Park Chung-hee has been assassinated when this book begins, and his protege, Chun Doo-hwan, steps up to the plate, expanding martial law and curtailing the freedom of the press, amongst other dictatorial things.  Kang, Smith writes, ‘starts with bodies.  Piled up, reeking, unclaimed and thus unburied, they present both a logistical and an ontological dilemma’.

The contextual information about Korea – a country in which, I must admit, my historical knowledge is rather lacking – was fascinating, as are the facets of culture which are embedded within.  For example, ‘In the Korean context… violence done to the body is a violation to the spirit/soul which animates it’.  Gender politics and regionalism are touched upon in the novel too, and one cannot help but feel that they are learning about a completely different world when they are reading.

Kang’s descriptions are vivid; throughout, there is a very tight control over the vocabulary and the translation.  The characters, even those who are deceased, feel realistic; they all have different wants and longings.  The translation has been perfectly rendered, and there is such a marvellous flow to the whole that it is difficult to believe it has been translated in places.  Kang certainly has a deft hand for writing, and I have heard from so many people that they very much enjoyed The Vegetarian too.  Human Acts is a captivating, stark, and memorable novel, with much to discuss within its deceptively slim covers; the perfect choice for a book club.

Purchase from The Book Depository