The year has moved forward once again catching me out by suddenly turning into July. So my post in which I take a quick snapshot of what I was reading/ planning to read etc on the first of the month is a bit behind schedule. But I know you’re all desperately waiting for this (a girl can pretend can’t she??) so let’s get on with what I was up to on July 1, 2017
Last month the book on my bedside table at the start of the month was one of the titles on my 20 Books of Summer reading list: The Vegetarian by Han Kang. It was one of the strangest books I’ve read for many years and one of my favourites for 2017 so far. (here’s my review my review in case you don’t know the book) On July 1, I was coming towards the end of another book from that reading list: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. I’ve since finished the novel (review is posted here) but would love, if I ever got the time, to re-read it because it’s so rich in big themes (the meaning of time, Zen Buddhism, suicide to mention just a few) and yet is a highly readable coming of age story about a lonely Japanese girl. If all the books I read in July are anywhere as good as this one I’ll have a stellar month.
On July 1 I was also creeping my way through Katherine of Aragon by Alison Weir which is the first in her series about the six wives of Henry VIII. I borrowed this from my sister just before going to see Weir talk at an author event marking the launch of book two in the series. I made it to about page 100 and then stalled. It’s not that the book is poor or lacking interest (I’m a sucker for the Tudor and Stuart periods in British history) but the characterisation lacks a bit of something special.
Reflecting on the state of my personal library
One of my goals for 2017 is to enjoy the books I already own and to reign back on acquiring yet more. I started 2017 with 318 unread books. With the help of some culling (mainly children’s fiction and some non-fiction books) I’m now down to 276. Although I haven’t imposed a ban on buying new books, I have been very restrained. So far this year I’ve bought just three titles and acquired another ten through give-aways or from authors/publishers. I’m giving myself a huge gold star here when I think that in 2016 I bought/acquired 180 new items for the bookshelves.
Thinking of reading next…
I don’t plan far ahead with my reading because invariably I change my mind at the last moment. I have plenty of choices in my 20booksofsummer list still and July is also when I’m going to join in the Japanese literature month hosted by Meredith who blogs as Dolce Bellezza. I also have a copy of The Monster’s Daughter, a debut novel by Michelle Pretorius that I’ve agreed to review before the paperback version is published at the end of July. It’s set in her native South Africa and is a dual time frame narrative. Part of it takes place in 1901 at the height of the Boer War, when a doctor at a British concentration camp conducts a series of grim experiments on Boer prisoners. The other part focuses on a murder investigation in 2010 which begins with the discovery of a body burned beyond recognition.
Watching: The Handmaid’s Tale as dramatised by Channel 4 in the UK. It’s a fabulous adaption that is compelling viewing. In between we’re catching up on an old favourite – Foyle’s War, a British detective drama television series set during and shortly after the Second World. All the action takes place in the coastal town of Hastings where Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle (played by Michael Kitchen) has deal with potential spies, blackmarketeers and a few murderers. Although some plots are a bit far fetched, the episodes are always convincing in their portrayal of the period (apparently the Imperial War Museum acted as an advisor to ensure historical accuracy).
Listening: I’m a latecomer to the podcast called Serial – season 1 is a compelling true story about a murder in Baltimore and a fight for justice for the teenager sent to prison for 16 years. It’s as good as another true life story I heard earlier in the year called The Body on the Moor in which BBC Radio followed a police investigation that tried over the course of a year to identify a body found by a cyclist. I highly recommend this one.
And that is it for this month. Lets hope by the time of the next snapshot I haven’t gone off the rails and my book stock hasn’t suddenly multiplied many times over.
We’re approaching the mid point of the year so what better opportunity to review the last six months and pick my favourite reads to date. Top Ten Tuesday this week in fact is all about the best 10 books of 2017. Of the 30 books I’ve read so far there were eight that stood head and shoulders above the rest.
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel: I never thought to find myself choosing a sci-fi novel as a favourite read. But this was outstanding. My review noted: The combination of beautiful style of writing and a compelling narrative made this a book I found hard to put down.
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy: Not only is this one of my favourites of 2017, it’s high up on my list of favourite Booker Prize winners because of its glorious characters and dazzling language. My review is here
Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney: Bold and brash, this is a novel that pulls no punches in its depiction of the underbelly of Cork in Ireland. But as much as the drug dealers, prostitutes and thugs will have you rolling your eyes in despair, there will be times you can’t help but feel a wave of sympathy for their predicament. As I noted in my review, this is a novel which poses serious questions about salvation and guilt.
My Ántonia by Willa Cather: It took me long enough to get around to reading what is considered one of Cather’s finest novels. It celebrates the pioneering spirit but not in a rose-tinted glasses way; there is plenty of sorrow mixed in with the nostalgia. My review is here
Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey: “a marvellously idiosyncratic tale of two misfits” is how I described this Booker Prize winner in my review. It has some wonderfully surreal scenes including one where a gangly young priest is hoisted aboard a steam ship in a cage normally used for transporting animals.
His Bloody Project by Graeme Burnett McCrae: a cleverly constructed novel that purports to be a true account of a young Scottish lad accused of three murders. It’s presented in the style of a case study into the murders in late 1860s and the subsequent trial so readers get witness statements, a newspaper account and an investigation by a criminologist. My review is here.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang: This has to be the most bizarre and disturbing novel I’ve read this year. It begins with a decision by a Korean housewife to stop eating meat and traces her mental and physical decline. My review summed up my reaction: This is not a novel you can say you ‘enjoy’ or ‘like’ but it’s certainly one that you will not forget.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki: this is quite an extraordinary novel which covers a dazzling array of topics and themes. Zen Buddhism; environmental degredation; bullying; suicide; memory – to name just a few. The result should be a complete mess but it’s a surprisingly mesmerizing story of a Japanese teenager writing a diary to express her feelings of dislocation – that diary is found many years later washed up on a beach in British Colombia. I haven’t got around to reviewing it yet in full.
I stopped eating meat about 30 years ago as an experiment in healthy eating. Like Yeong-hye, the central character in The Vegetarian, I came in for many challenges from certain members of my family who couldn’t understand why I wanted to forsake what, for them, was a standard element of any meal. Fortunately I had a more cohesive answer than the one Yeong-hye gives her husband: “I had a dream.” she tells him when he discovers her sat on the floor of their kitchen in Seoul, surrounded by packets of meat she has thrown out of the freezer.
We learn, though her husband doesn’t, that her dream is grotesque, bloody and aggressive. And so is the reaction to her decision. Her husband frets about how this will look to his boss who invites them for dinner (the resulting occasion is a painful event). father, so incensed that she will not eat the delicacies prepared for a family lunch, tries to force a piece of sweet-and-sour pork into her mouth. In protest Yeong-hye stabs herself.
And yet who would have imagined this of a woman whose nature until then had been so docile and insignificant; the very reason her husband chose her for his bride was that she was “completely unremarkable in every way”. And yet here she is refusing to wear a bra, defying Korean cultural expectations by putting her own needs above those of family and husband, and to eat only plants even though she is clearly starving herself. Only her brother in law, an unsuccessful video artist, finds her attractive. Unfortunately he’s not interested in her as such, only in Yeong-hye as a body, a canvas upon which he can paint giant flowers and plants. She becomes the object of his sexually-charged obsession that transforms her body into a “huge, abstracted plant.”
The Vegetarian is told in three acts which have distinctive differences in language from measured prose to almost hallucinatory description and to fragmented internal monologues where we get to learn what is going on in Yeong-hye’s mind.
Can only trust my breasts now. I like my breasts; nothing can be killed by them. Hand, foot, tongue, gaze, all weapons from which nothing is safe. But not my breasts. With my round breasts, I’m okay. Still okay. So why do they keep on shrinking? Not even round anymore. Why? Why am I changing like this? Why are my edges all sharpening–what am I going to gouge
The first act, narrated by her husband interposed by Yeong-hye’s dreams, deals with her decision and her family’s reaction; the second is narrated by her brother-in-law and the third by her sister In-hye; the only member of the family who seems genuinely to care for Yeon-hye. She maintains contact when all others abandon the woman, unable to deal with her increasingly bizarre actions. But In-hye’s patience is tested severely when she visits her sister to learn she believes she is a tree, taking sustenance only from the soil, violently refusing attempts to force feed her when placed in a mental institution.
“Look, sister, I’m doing a handstand; leaves are growing out of my body, roots are sprouting out of my hands…they delve down into the earth. Endlessly, endlessly…yes, I spread my legs because I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch; I spread them wide…”
This is a portrait of disintegration. Yeong-hye’s rebellion causes her mental faculties to collapse and lead to the destruction of two families. It’s also a quite unflinching portrait about the clash between personal desire and conformity to expectations of behaviour in a society that denies such desires. Repeatedly we’re shown the clash between desire and denial in a way that asks disturbing questions about the nature of personal choice and ownership of one’s body in Korean society.
For a short novel, this is a startling piece of work. It’s disturbing in its portrayal of mental collapse, provocative in its portrayal of rebellion against conformity and unstinting with its descriptions of bleeding, vomiting, and manic behaviour. This is not a novel you can say you ‘enjoy’ or ‘like’ but it’s certainly one that you will not forget.
About the book: The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith was published in 2015. It was considered ‘very extreme and bizarre’ in Korea on first publication but has since been translated into more than 20 languages. The Vegetarian won the International Man Booker Prize in 2016. Han Kang has gone on record that the inspiration for the book, initially published as three novellas, was a line by a modernist poet Yi Sang: ‘I believe that humans should be plants.’ which obsessed her while she was at university. Further insights on the book are in an interview for the White Review.
About the author: Han Kang comes from a literary family in Korea, her father is a novelist and her brother a writer. She studied Korean literature at Yonsei University, South Korea. She is the winner of several awards including the Yi Sang Literary Prize (2005), Today’s Young Artist Award, and the Korean Literature Novel Award. Since 2013 she has been teaching creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts. 2016 saw the publication in translation of Human Acts which begins with the massacre of students in South Korea in 1980. If you don’t know her work, you can get a taste with the short story Fruit of My Woman on the Granta website
Why I read this book: I bought The Vegetarian as a way of making up for my large deficiency of knowledge of writers from Asia. It’s the first book I’ve read from my 20booksof summerproject for 2017.
The calendar has moved forward once again and its time to take a quick snapshot of what I was reading/ planning to read on the first of the month. One June 1, 2017 I was:
The book on my bedside table on June 1 was one of the titles on my 20 Books of Summer reading list: The Vegetarian by Han Kang. I’m approaching the end of this novella and can safely say it’s one of the oddest books I’ve read in many years. I knew, even before opening it, that it would be an extraordinary piece of work about a woman whose decision to stop eating meat causes an irreconcilable rift in three families. I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so dark and provocative.
It was a good way to start the month particularly since I’d ended May with two astonishing books: My Ántonia by Willa Cather (reviewed here) and Station Eleven by Emily St John Mantel (my first experience of science fiction in many decades).
Reflecting on the state of my personal library
One of my goals for 2017 is to enjoy the books I already own and to reign back on acquiring yet more. I started 2017 with 318 unread books. With the help of some culling (mainly children’s fiction and some non-fiction books) I’m now down to 280. There are new books still coming into the house but they’re in extremely modest numbers compared to past years (2016 was the year things went completely out of control). My most recent aquisition was on the final day of May when I won a copy of Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen (the first in the Six Tudor Queens series by Alison Weir) when she gave a talk about Anne Boleyn (Henry VIII’s second wife). I was chuffed to be identified as the person in the audience who asked the best question!
Thinking of reading next…
Do I go for the latest Helen Dunmore novel Birdcage Walk which The Observer newspaper described as her finest work. Reading this will be a poignant experience given news of her death yesterday. My other option, chosen because the opening seems fitting for the current bout of stormy winds and rain in the UK, is Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. As always I won’t make the final decision until my hand reaches out to the bookcase…
The Broke and Bookish has chosen as the theme for this week’s Top Ten Tuesday: 10 books released in 2016 I meant to read – but didn’t. I read more contemporary fiction last year than in previous years but even then couldn’t keep up with so much that was new. Here’s my list of the ones that got away….
The Sellout by Paul Beatty – the novel that won the 2016 Booker prize. I have a signed copy awaiting me….
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh: I read a sample of this when it was longlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize and was struck by the strong voice of the narrator. It’s had mixed reviews since then but I have my own copy now so will get around to reading it. Someday..
The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah: I wanted to read her collection of short stories before starting on this novel but never got to finish the collection.
Paris Mon Amour by Isabel Costello: This is an unusual choice for me because it’s essentially a story of love but it’s set in one of my favourite cities (Paris). I know from Isabel’s blog that she researched the setting extensively.
The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon, the debut novel that ‘everyone’ seemed to be talking about last year
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet- another Booker contender. I’ve taken this out of the library twice now and each time had to return it unread. Third time lucky maybe.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. I saw a number of reviews all recommending this but couldn’t get it via our library system and I don’t typically buy novels in hardcover on the grounds of cost so have been waiting for this to come out in paperback.
Old Soldiers Never Die by Frank Richards. This account of life in the trenches of World War 1 was published in 1933. It was given fresh life last year through a new edition by the National Library of Wales
The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney. Another popular novel from 2016 that I missed. Usually the more attention a novel gets the less likely I am to want to read it but this one refused to go away.
Human Acts by Han Kang. A very intriguing novel but before I get to this I’d better hurry up and read her earlier novel The Vegetarian