Human Acts by Han Kang

I suppose I’m like most Americans in that I know little of Korea’s history.  We know the war, at least the version of it we saw on television’s M*A*S*H, and the Korean miracle–the economic powerhouse South Korea has become.  But anything in between, certainly the dark chapters many South Korean’s would like to keep buried, we don’t know.

This has begun to rapidly change lately, for me in part because of Korean literature like Shin Kyung-sook’s wonderful novel Please Look After Mom and Han Kang’s equally wonderful book The Vegetarian. Add to this list Han Kang’s new novel Human Acts, translated by Deborah Smith, which sheds light on the Gwangju Democratic Uprising and the massacre that followed.

Never heard of it?  Me either. But don’t let that stand in your way.

Like The Vegetarian, the story in Human Acts is focused on a character we never get to see first hand or through a first-person narrative.  Here that character is a middle-school boy Dong-ho who is killed in the aftermath of the uprising when hundreds of protesters were massacred by South Korea’s military in the city of Gwangju.  Dong-ho should not have been there.  He was too young, the youngest among the protesters and the youngest of those killed.  Those who knew him, and a few others who simply saw his photograph afterwards, tell their stories through a series of narratives–first, second and third person by the way.

Human Acts shattered some of my illusions about South Korea.  I did not know that at least up until the 1980’s when the massacre took place that South Korea was a full-fledged military dictatorship rivaling North Korea in its oppression of free speech and free assembly and the use of torture to ensure compliance with the state.

One thing I admired about Human Acts was the portrayal of torture’s aftermath, the way it affects victims for the remainder of their lives.  There is no escaping the fact that it’s value does not lie in gathering information but in suppressing dissent.

This is the second time Han Kang has kept her readers from direct contact with the central character of her novel.  In both The Vegetarian and Human Acts the reader circles around the character we are most interested in.  We hear from those who know Dong-ho slightly and those who knew him well, but just as it was with Yeong-hye in The Vegetarian we never hear from Dong-ho directly nor do we ever witness him alone.  This frustrates many readers but its a device at least as old as Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights wherein we never once witness Catherine and Heathcliff unfiltered through the eyes of someone else.  Theirs is a great romance that the reader never gets to see first hand as neither character is ever presented except through someone else’s first person narration.

What is Han Kang up to in her books?  I think this could make for an excellent book club discussion or perhaps a paper for a graduate seminar.  Does not seeing the central character first hand make it more possible for the reader to insert whomever we want to, or need to, into that role? If we knew exactly who that character was, would we be more or less likely to identify with that character or to identify that character with someone we care about outside of the book.

While Shin Kyung-sook follows this structure for most of Please Look After Mom, she does give the title character a portion of the book–the reader does see a bit of what happened to the vanished mother.  Her book is no less memorable or moving for doing so.

I will say that I found this worked better in The Vegetarian than it does in Human Acts.  It may be that there were too many different points of view in Human Acts while there were just three in The Vegetarian.  Han Kang has a wider ranging thesis in Human Acts–the personal story of Dong-ho, the suppressed history of the uprising and the massacre that followed, the effects of torture, the collective societal denial of history.  Dong-ho becomes a tool for bringing all of this together while Yeong-hye, in The Vegetarian, always remained a person in the reader’s mind.  It was Yeong-hye who haunted me after finishing The Vegetarian. It’s history that haunts me after reading Human Acts.  One book asks how this could happen to one woman, while the other asks how this could happen to us all.

If you have not read Han Kang yet, you really should.  She’s very good; so is Shin Kyung-sook.  But, in the end I’d recommend The Vegetarian over Human Acts.  

Sunday Rant and Ramble: Lionel Shriver Makes me Mad; A New Cat Arrives; Tournament of Books Results

What makes a book a classic?

Lionel Shriver was a guest on my favorite BBC program A Good Read.  You can listen to the program here.  It was the dullest episode of my favorite program ever. Knowing something of what Ms. Shriver is like in person, I almost didn’t listen, but I thought I’d be open-minded, give it a try.

The conceit of A Good Read is that the host along with each of two guests suggests a book which they all read and then discuss.  I love it in part because it often brings books to my attention that I otherwise would never have read.  Oddly, maybe not all that oddly, the best episodes feature guests who are neither authors nor involved with publishing.  Ms. Shriver brought John Knowles A Separate Peace as her good read.

She began the discussion with a dig at teachers when the host mentioned that most American high schools use the book in their classes.  Fortunately, Ms. Shriver quipped, I didn’t suffer that fate. Or something like that.

I no longer have any patience with people denigrate the teaching profession in any way.  We didn’t ruin any book for you, we don’t have that power.  If we did, we’d use it against Twilight.  Own your nonsense.  You don’t get to blame your teachers for anything anymore. Be a grown up. Or face my wrath, ’cause I bite back. Hence this post.  Okay, not much in the way of wrath but it’s what I’ve got.

Apparently, people in the U.K. do not read A Separate Peace; Shriver was the only one on the program who had heard of it.  So the host brought up the question of what makes a book a classic.  I don’t recall what Shriver said, but my instant answer was high school teachers.

If you think John Knowles book A Separate Peace, published in 1959 would still be in print if it weren’t for generations of high school teachers bringing it to their freshman English classes, you are slightly delusional.  The reason a book remains in print generations after it is published, honestly even 10 years after it is published, is that some group of teachers somewhere in the world loves that particular book enough to carry it into a classroom or to encourage their students to read it on their own.  Teachers.  Even  popular classics like Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings owe their success to teachers.  We were the ones getting our friends to bring book two back from trips to England so we could read Chamber of Secrets to our sixth grade students.  My seventh grade English teacher brought The Hobbit to class.

Teachers, Ms. Shriver, are the ones who make a book a classic.

Later in the episode, the host mentioned the homoerotic element of A Separate Peace which Ms. Shriver pooh-poohed immediately as wrong-headed and isn’t is a shame we can’t appreciate non-sexual friendships between men anymore.  Yes, I suppose, but wasn’t it worse that any hint of same-sex attraction had to be immediately denied so forcefully that it often led to acts of violence between those who felt it?  And just what makes you so uncomfortable with this idea, anyway, Ms. Shriver?  Is A Separate Peace not quite so wonderful if Gene really is in love with Phinny?

End of rant.  Now a cat video.

Last week, C.J. and I got a cat. Floyd, who came with that name, is not our first cat, as long time readers of this blog may recall.  We had one that ran away, and several rounds of foster kittens, but I think this one will stay.  Here’s a  video of him on the day we brought him home.

This year, for the first time, I am reading  along with The Tournament of Books.  It’s been a lot reading, almost all of it good, some if it great. I didn’t set up a full field of brackets, since I was not able to read all of the books in advance, maybe next year, but it wouldn’t have mattered if I had.

The tip in round in which three books compete before the tournament officially begins went to Alvaro Enrigue’s terrific historical fiction Sudden Death.  My review is here.  While this book was not quite my pick, I was pleased with the result.  I did not get a chance to read C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings, but my favorite, maybe my favorite of all the tournament contenders so far, was Chris Bacheldar’s The Throwback Special.  My review is here.  While it garnered high praise from the round’s judge, as did all three books, it did not win.  It won’t be the zombie round winner either.  I knew there was no way a book about a group of straight white men facing middle age would win, and I’m okay with that, but it’s a wonderful book.

While I came to admire Michelle Tea’s book Black Wave and was genuinely moved by the ending, I knew it would lose to Colin Whitehead’s Underground Railroad.  Underground Railroad is a contender to take the contest or at least come in second to Homegoing.  My review of Black Wave is here; my review of Underground Railroad is here.  While I feel a little bad about Black Wave, this was the right choice as far as I’m concerned.

Inexplicably, Charlie Jane Anders science fiction/fantasy novel All the Birds in the Sky defeated Han Kang’s The Vegetarian.  Things like this do happen, but when they do, they make you wonder. Ms. Ander’s novel is good. Though I did not read it all, I can see its appeal and I admit it is well done.  But it’s been done before.  Two young people, a boy genius capable of inventing a time machine with spare parts he finds around the house and a girl gifted with powers of witchcraft beyond her control, become friends before they are each sent to different schools where they will learn to control their abilities until things come to a climatic head in a battle of some sort. I didn’t make it to the end so you’re own your own.  If it all sounds familiar, that’s because it is familiar.  Very familiar.

Han Kang’s book is not like anything I’ve read before.  That alone gets my attention and my praise.  You can read my review of it here.  A window on another society, a study of one woman, a study of a family, a metaphor for modern Korea.  There’s a lot going on in what looks at first like a fairly simple story.  I wonder if Han Kang has a chance to take the zombie round. I think she’s a long shot.

Of course, there’s no way one could ever agree with every decision the judges make, little chance of it anyway, and that probably wouldn’t be any fun.  Disagreeing is part of the entertainment.  The commentary and the comments make for very interesting reading.  I’m struck by how insightful and how interesting the commenters are.  Book people are the best people.

Could that be because so many of us are teachers?

Just asking.

Top Ten Favorite Reads for 2016.

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Clovis sitting on my reading sofa.

I’m going to stick to my guns here, enforce my long time rule for selecting the top ten list which is “Do I want to read this book again someday?”  The answer must be yes to qualify. Which means there are many books that I loved reading that will not make the list. Lots of books are great books, great reads, but not something I’ll ever read again.  Plot driven books, the sort that rely on surprise to keep your interest. Once you know how it all turns out, you know how it all turns out.  There’s no need to read it again.

To make this list, a book has to offer something more than a terrific first read.  It’s tough standard which means some good stuff, a few bits of great stuff, will be cut, but that’s my rule.

Here in no particular order are my top ten favorite reads of 2016.

  • The Lonely City by Olivia Lang A wonderful non-fiction meditation on living alone in the big city, Chicago and New York. Ms. Lang provides fascinating biographical information on the artists she writes about, men who lived and worked largely alone, but it’s the lyrical writing that won me over.  The Lonely City contains some of the best writing I read all year.
  • News of the World by Paulette Jiles I loved this account of an old man trying to take a seven-year-old girl, raised by Indians, home to her white family across several hundred miles of post Civil War Texas.
  • Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino A catalogue of the cities Marco Polo visited as an ambassador for the great Khan. I loved it and will definitely be come back to it again.  And since it was so much fun, I now have several more by Italo Calvino in my TBR stack.
  • Please Look After Mom by Kyun-sook Shin   I have been somewhat haunted by this story of a South Korean family looking for their vanished mother since I read it last summer. While there is an element of suspense in the story, it’s really the tale an entire society masked as the tale of one particular family.
  • The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks I am very late to the party here.  The story of how a small town bush crash affects both the town overall and the lives of a few key people.  Told from multiple points of view in a way that works to make the whole even greater than the sum of its parts.
  • Mother Tongues by Theodora Ziolkowski  A very small book by a very small press The Cupboard.  you’ll have to visit their website if you’d like to get a copy.  The is a fictional collection of source material the Brothers Grimm decided not to use in their collected tales.  I loved it.  And I love the cover.
  • Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante I may not be sticking to my rules here. This is the third book a series of four.  The chances that I will one day re-read them all are slight, I realize. But, in a way, read through to book three should count for something, so I’m listing the third book here.  I intended to start book four today, but found that I don’t have a copy.  Guess I’ll have to go to the book store tomorrow.
  • Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Seven Places of the Mind by Joan Didion Classic non-fiction, mostly about California in the 1960’s.  I find quite a bit of non-fiction on my top ten list his year.  The best writing I read in 2016 was found in non-fiction.  This was a surprise, frankly.  If you’ve never read Joan Didion before, this is the one to read. I loved it.  More please.
  • Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson I just finish Ms. Woodson’s new novel Another Brooklyn which is very good, but not as good as Brown Girl Dreaming. I’ll be teaching it to my 7th grades late this year.  Wish me luck
  • The Gastronomical Me by M.F.K. Fisher M.F.K. Fisher invented writing about food.  Maybe not, maybe someone did it before she did, but no one every loved food as much as she did.  Not even me. The opening section on her first oyster is not to be missed. More excellent non-fiction writing.

I’ve already started 2017 with two contenders for the top ten list: The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon which I loved and Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Castorbridge which is holding up pretty well. this is the third time I’ve read it.

Since I’m not running the TBR Dare anymore, I was planning on joining in The Tournament of Books this year but The Dare has been resurrected by Annabel and Lizzaysiddal.  They have even given it its own website here.  I admit, I was both flattered and happy to see it continue so I immediately signed up.  However, according to the rules, which are still as loose as ever thank you, I could put all the tournament books on hold now so I can still join in.

You can see why I have never 300 books in my TBR stack.

Please Look After Mom by Kyun-sook Shin

It’s not often that a book affects me as profoundly as Kyun-sook Shin’s award-winning novel Please Look After Mom did. As much as I read, books should do this to me more often.

I’m still haunted by this story, by its characters, especially by its missing character, a week after reading it.  I’ve passed it along to a good friend who has read the first section and already cried three times.

Please Look After Mom is about what it’s like to lose someone and how losing someone can sometimes make us aware that we never really knew that person at all.

Mom is So-Nyo, 69-year-old mother of five, who remained on the train from Seoul one day after her husband got off never to be seen again.  At first, the novel reads like a suspense story as the narrator describes the family’s panic and subsequent searching for their lost mother.  Why hasn’t she come home? What’s going to happen to her? Has something happened to her already, something that makes it impossible for her to contact her family?

When the narration shifts, as it will between family members throughout the novel, we realize that while So-Nyo has given her life to her family, they never really took the time to get to know her.  She provided the support, both physical and spiritual, that her children needed as they grew up, even afterwards, but they came to see her as a burden if they saw her at all.  She was a past they wanted to get away from as they moved from near poverty in the countryside to successful lives in the modern city.

This is an idea that probably strikes many readers inside and outside of Korea to the quick. How many of us moved away from home? How many moved away as fast as we could?  How many left parents or grandparent behind? More to the point, how many of us really took the time to get to know who they were before we left them?

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Mom doesn’t smile. She doesn’t cry. Did Mom know? That I too needed her my entire life?

Please Look After Mom works much of its magic through the use of second person narrators.  I will admit a bias against second person narration.  I almost always hate it in a novel length work.  I can stand being drawn in, forced in more likely, by the use of “you” for a short story, but after a chapter or two, I’ve had more than enough of that, thank you.

Here, though, I found it worked in every way.  Initially, the use of “you” served to implicate the reader in a shared guilt over the mother’s disappearance.  Why didn’t they do more to find her is not as strong as why didn’t you do more.  When the narration shifted to different characters forcing the reader to become someone else, it was initially difficult to figure out what was going on at times, but this didn’t last long.  In the end, I felt the book really had a series of first person narrators who refer to themselves as “you” the way some people do when they are exasperated with themselves.  “Why do I keep doing that” does not have the same impact as “why do you keep doing that.”  The second person narrators seemed to scold themselves, examine themselves critically as they spoke as much as they also implicated the reader in their guilt.

Finally, I’m going to go way out on a limb.  I don’t knew nearly enough about Korean society today to be in a position to advance this theory, but I’m not going to let that stop me.  Here goes.

While Please Look After Mom works incredibly well on a literal level as the story of one particular family and one particular mother, I think it also works on a metaphorical level.  I think So-Nyo can be read as not just one woman but as a type of woman, one who represents a set of standards that was valued in the past but is not as valued today.  This woman devoted herself to her family, making sacrifices for her husband and for her children much more extreme than anything most people would consider doing today.  S0-Nyo’s own daughters are a bit embarrassed by how much their mother has given up for them, though they do not know the half of it.  One daughter is unmarried, childless probably for life, another has children but has sworn she would never sacrifice herself in the extreme way her mother has. I would never let that happen to me is the attitude So-Nyo’s daughters share.

So-Nyo is a type of woman who does belong to the past, few people would argue that any woman should be expected to be this self-sacrificing today, but the novel suggests she is also a type of woman we do not really understand.  We do not see her as fully human as she deserves to be seen.  We see what she failed to become or what society didn’t allow her to be in stead of seeing the full person she was.  Like So-Nyo’s family we do not understand her do not know her until she is gone.

It’s a very deep book. One that will take multiple readings to really grasp.  One that I can’t stop thinking (or talking) about.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith

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The Vegetarian sitting on top of my open poetry folder. My Book Bingo card is to the left. You can see that I have most squares crossed off already.

This  book did not count for Book Bingo.

I was  just four books away from having a blackout on my Book Bingo card when The Vegetarian arrived at my local public library.

I loved it;  I’m glad I read it; I’ll read it again; I didn’t understand it.

Some of the reviews, maybe one quoted on the cover, have described The Vegetarian as Kafkaesque, specifically as homage to Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis which features Gregor Samsa who wakes one day to find he has been transformed into a giant insect.  I agree with this coparison, but there’s something else going on in The Vegetarian; I’m just not sure what.

Yeong-hye is the title character, a young, married woman who lives a quiet, ordinary life in modern Korea.  (The novel was first published in Korea in 2007.)  One night she begins having a recurring nightmare featuring a giant face that so  disturbs her she is willing to do anything to make it go away, to make the dreams stop.

So she becomes a vegetarian.

This so upsets her family that they turn against her as though she has become something alien, an insect maybe.  In a wonderful, very disturbing, dinner party scene when she reveals to her parents what she has become, they try to force her to eat meat, first by logical argument, then by emotional appeal and finally by force–her father holds her down, pries her mouth open and forces her to swallow a piece of meat which she immediately throws up.

I’ve no idea how rare or how transgressive vegetarianism is in Korea, but I’m sure there is much more going on in this scene than what we see on the surface.  There has to be.

Just as things spiralled out of control for Gregor Samsa, they quickly do so for Yeong-hye.  The novel is divided into three parts, the first narrated by her husband who leaves her after his own unsuccessful suicide attempt; the second by her brother-in-law a video/performance artist who uses her in a disturbing way, more disturbing than the video art in Claire Messud’s wonderful novel The Woman Upstairs; and the final section narrated by Yeong-hye’s sister.

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Yeong-hye’s dream.

Though we never see Yeong-hye alone on the page, each of the three narrators tells us more about her until we suspect we might be able to understand her, but I don’t know.  I think each of the three thinks they know her, but none of them really understands what she is going through.  We find out that Yeong-hye’s father abused her, that she has long had mental health issues, that her vegetarianism is really the first step towards full blown anorexia that eventually threatens her life.

I thought Ms. Kang was going to show the reader a portrait of a woman as drawn by men, since the first two narrators were men, one a very sympathetic man who does not understand her the other a man who admires her but seeks to exploit her sexuality for his own art.   I expected the third would be her father which would have made for a very interesting novel, a woman presents how three different men view the same woman.  So the sister’s arrival threw me.  Whatever Ms. Kang is up to, that was not it.

Just what she is up to, I do not know.  What I do know is that The Vegetarian brought a handful of very memorable characters into my reading and that Yeong-hye and her story have stayed with me for over a week now.  I’m still trying to figure it all out.  It’s a book I’d love to take a class on if only to be in a group of people like me anxious to hash out the text’s meaning in a circle of desks.

Even if it doesn’t count for  Book Bingo.

 

If you’ve read The Vegetarian, I’d love to hear what you say, even if you think I’m totally wrong about it, especially if you think I’m totally wrong about it.  And I’d be more than happy to do a read-a-long if someone wants to organize it.  The Vegetarian really does warrant two reads.