Human Acts by Han Kang, trans. by Deborah Smith

South Koreans struggle to comprehend a 1980 uprising and the violence that follows.

human-acts

Human Acts is the second novel by Han Kang (The Vegetarian) to be translated into English. An introduction by translator Deborah Smith provides valuable context for this meandering book, which uses a dreamy atmosphere to explore the violence of a 1980 student uprising in South Korea.

Kang approaches the horrifying events of the Gwangju uprising obliquely. She doesn’t shy away from the shocking details–indeed, the novel opens with a young boy taking a brief respite from his work cleaning and caring for an overflow of unidentified dead bodies in a converted government office. But instead of spotlighting this violence, Kang focuses on the lives of individuals, beginning with Dong-ho, the boy caring for the dead, and then rotating through the views of those around him. First-, second- and third-person perspectives reinforce the feeling of circling the center of this event. After Dong-ho, the reader meets his best friend, shot dead in the streets; the two young women he works with; and his grieving mother. In a state of massive unrest, violence and terror, these characters appear dazed. Others look back over the decades that follow, including an editor wearily battling censorship and former prisoners struggling with old trauma. This range of voices, their sense of shock and unreality, along with the title, explore the possibilities of humanity: human acts can be variously brave, selfish, gentle and cruel.

Human Acts is a remarkable novel, at once lyrical, dreamlike and horrific. Smith’s succinct introduction is an excellent aid in understanding both Kang’s message and her artistry.


This review originally ran in the February 3, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 bodies.

Turkish Delight by Jan Wolkers, trans. by Sam Garrett

This Dutch novel of 1969 still titillates with its sexual content, but deserves serious consideration for style and themes, too.

turkish delight

Jan Wolkers’s 1969 novel Turks Fruit was translated from the Dutch into many languages and adapted into a highly regarded 1973 film. Sam Garrett’s English translation is not the first of this work, but reflects its continuing appeal.

Turkish Delight opens with the unnamed narrator, a sculptor, lamenting and railing against his lost love. He describes in great detail a surfeit of sexual affairs undertaken after she departed, then flashes back to describe their first encounter: Olga picked him up as a hitchhiker, then pulled over the car for the first of their sexual enthusiasms. Olga is the heart and life of this novel and of the narrator’s existence: he obsessively recites and reviews her body, her sex, her red hair, her love for animals, her jokes and delights. The lengthy flashback sees their relationship and, later, marriage run its course (his evil mother-in-law plays a heavy role), and returns again to the sculptor’s tortured single life. His love for Olga does not flag, even as she degrades herself (in his eyes) with subsequent marriages and physical decline. The novel ends at Olga’s deathbed, where the former lover feeds her the soft candy Turkish delight, as her teeth fail her.

Not for the faint of heart, Turkish Delight was immediately notorious upon its original publication for its graphic sexual content, and decades later remains a frank, granular portrayal of sex, bodily fluids and coarse language. It has much to offer beyond shock effect, however. The narrator’s tone is unapologetic, and if he is fixated on Olga’s body and its pleasures (and equally detailed in describing his later lovers), his message is as much romantic as it is sexual. On the one hand, he worships Olga as a romantic ideal, and on the other, speaks in a recognizable, colloquial, even familiar voice. It is easy to see how shocking, even revolutionary Wolkers’s writing appeared in 1969, and it holds the power to provoke today. But it is also an honest view of a sticky love affair, one made of sweets, devotion and passion, as well as cruelty and obsession. Fittingly, Olga and the sculptor welcomed a menagerie of animals into their home together, and in a way their relationship ends as violently as a pet destroyed with an accidental crunch, “as though the little bird was built around a wooden frame.”

Garrett’s translation of Wolkers’s prose is often lyrical and always heartfelt; the juxtaposition of poetry with crude language echoes the narrator’s passionate love and enormous lust. Turkish Delight is a serious and artistic literary work, but only appropriate for readers fully tolerant of graphic sex.


This review originally ran in the January 30, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 positions.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, trans. by Megan McDowell

A woman and a boy sit in the dark, probing a shared story of love, danger and “the invisible thread that ties us together.”

fever-dream

Samanta Schweblin’s first novel, Fever Dream, is part contemplation, part living nightmare. Amanda lies in a dark hospital room, accompanied by a boy who is not her son. David walks her through the story of their meeting, as two very different mothers care for their two children in a dusty small town. Amanda worries over what she calls the “rescue distance”: “that’s what I’ve named the variable distance separating me from my daughter, and I spend half the day calculating it, though I always risk more than I should.” He presses her for details, because the two have an unnamed riddle to solve, but at the same time repeatedly chides her, “that’s not important.” This paradoxical sense of urgency combined with immobility evokes a classic bad dream. With relentless tension and steady pacing, the mystery of what has happened to Amanda, and to David, unfolds. This is a story about a parent’s need to protect her child; unnatural elements cannot obscure a cautionary tale about the pressures of parental love.

Fever Dream may be contagious: the reader should beware the compulsion to read it in a single sitting, pulled helplessly along by the power of the story. Though brief, its stream-of-consciousness style and absence of chapters emphasize a sense of inexorable forward momentum. Megan McDowell’s translation from the Spanish expertly delivers every atmospheric moment and line of near-panicked dialogue. A sense of foreboding hangs over this story that is at once a dark fairy tale and a realistic expression of everyday danger.


This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the January 20, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 details that do not matter.

Maximum Shelf: The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on January 10, 2017.


chilbury-ladies-choir

Jennifer Ryan’s first novel, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, takes on a wide range of the human experience through the lives and voices of the women of the village of Chilbury, in the south of England, at the beginning of World War II.

The immersion in small-town life opens with Mrs. Tilling’s journal entry of Tuesday, 26th March, 1940. Mrs. Tilling is a timid, good-hearted, churchgoing lady, a widow whose only son is about to be sent to France to fight. The occasion of this journal entry is the funeral for young Commander Edmund Winthrop. This funeral is to be the last appearance of the village choir, as, according to the Vicar, “all our male voices have gone to war.”

In addition to Mrs. Tilling, the reader is introduced to a cast of characters in turn, each of whom speak in the form of letters and diary entries. Miss Edwina Paltry is the town’s sly midwife, who in letters to her sister reveals herself to be secretly pursuing a fortune by any means: “I’ve been offered the most unscrupulous deal you’ll ever believe!” Kitty Winthrop is the 13-year-old sister to the lost Commander. Between her violently abusive father and distracted, pregnant mother, Kitty is left to her own devices to worry about boys, war and her hoped-for career as a professional singer, all of which she records in her diary. Her older sister Venetia, at 18, is a wildly boy-crazy beauty, and in letters to her friend Angela in London, recounts her difficulties in seducing the handsome new artist in town, Mr. Slater.

In these personal documents we learn that a new music teacher has arrived from London. “Her name is Miss Primrose Trent, but she told us to call her Prim, which is funny as she’s not prim at all but frightfully unkempt.” The lovably misnamed Prim doesn’t see why a choir needs male voices, and promptly calls practices again. The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir meets some resistance, some grumblings about tradition, but as the war proceeds, the women learn to lean on one another. Eventually the choir becomes a central institution in the town, providing material as well as moral support, and a theatre for personal growth.

After Mrs. Tilling’s son leaves to fight, she takes in a boarder, Colonel Mallard, who is working from a nearby base. Living with a stranger is a great challenge for her, but one of several she rises to as war comes to England. Venetia wins Mr. Slater, but experiences a life-changing accident. Kitty takes a position of leadership in the choir and suffers a massive disappointment. Miss Paltry’s plans go awry, and the town sees several new births, but also tragedy. The Germans bomb the English shore. The novel concludes in September, but these are an eventful few months.

Occasional other voices join in to complete the picture, including the rare diary entry from Silvie, a 10-year-old Czech Jewish refugee billeted with the chaotic Winthrop household, and a few letters from Colonel Mallard to his sister. But it is the perspectives of Mrs. Tilling, Venetia, Kitty and Edwina Paltry that define the novel’s path. Encompassed in these experiences is all of life: love, hope, despair, loss, petty disagreements and great sacrifices. The Chilbury ladies learn to expand their horizons and their abilities, build new relationships and stand up for themselves.

The various first-person voices vary subtly, but distinctly. Mrs. Tilling has a deep commitment to propriety and loyalty; Miss Paltry is unafraid to crow over her rivals; Venetia’s boy troubles are apt to take over her world. Kitty’s 13-year-old diary is perfectly wrought: she peppers it with lists (“why everyone’s getting married in a hurry”; “things I know for sure”), and persistently subscribes to patent fantasies, but also soberly reports the news of her larger world. On her list titled “what will happen if we get taken over by the Nazis,” this obstinate teen notes, “they’ll imprison or shoot anyone who doesn’t do what they say.”

The epistolary form works nicely to establish intimacy, giving the reader a behind-the-scenes perspective and a feeling of being deeply engaged with Chilbury. The overlapping points of view offer the opportunity to make up one’s own mind who to believe, and to piece together a fuller picture of events when the characters try to keep secrets. Poignancy is abundant, with Silvie fully aware of her precarious status, and Mrs. Tilling desperately worrying over the life of her son. There are moments of humor, too: life cannot help but go on, even as the Germans fly overhead.

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir offers a world of emotions, experiences and characters in a tiny village, over a few months in 1940. Anxious Mrs. Tilling, devious Miss Paltry and the ever-evolving sisters Venetia and Kitty represent a wealth of possible reactions to an event bigger than themselves. In their variously sweet, mischievous, aggrieved and hopeful letters and journals, these ladies bring home the impact of world war. And in a village deprived of its men, they show that women can pull together and do anything that needs doing. The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is an inspirational, sometimes sad, tale, and Jennifer Ryan puts it together with style.


Rating: 6 envelopes.

Come back next week for my interview with Jennifer Ryan.

teaser when I feel like it: Eggshells by Caitriona Lally

I guess now that I’m on a Wednesday schedule, I’ll give up on my Tuesday teaser and book beginnings on Friday posts. I’ll post whatever teaser I want, whenever I want. How freeing.

I’m reading Eggshells for a Shelf review. It’s a charmingly odd thing so far. I picked out some lines I particularly appreciated to share with you today.
eggshells

He unscrews the cap from the [cola] bottle, pours some on the ground in a brown hissing puddle and balances the open bottle on a wall. Then he takes a brown paper bag containing a rectangular glass bottle from inside his jacket, pours the clear liquid from the glass bottle into the cola bottle, and puts it back inside his jacket. When he takes a sup from the cola bottle, he smiles like he has solved the whole world.

I like this observation because it seems to hint that our narrator does not necessarily understand the implications of what she’s seeing, although the reader does. (She has also just finished sending “a good pinch” of her great-aunt’s ashes to a number of the deceased’s unsuspecting acquaintances, which is a pretty weird thing to do.) I feel warmly towards this whimsy.

Stick around for a review to come.

book beginnings on Friday: The Signal Flame by Andrew Kriv├ík

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. Participants share the first line or two of the book we are currently reading and comment on any first impressions inspired by that first line.

A new novel for the weekend.

the-signal-flame

A fire in the great stone fireplace was as constant in the house as the lengthening days when Easter was early and spring was late. But on the morning after his grandfather died, Bo Konar took the logs and the log rack in the living room out to the barn, swept the bricks clean of ash, and dusted the andirons so that they looked like thin faceless centaurs of black.

These are good, if not simple, opening sentences. I lingered over the first one, its concept of the constancy of lengthening days when… there’s a lot to take in there. The second is much simpler, concrete and physical: logs, log rack, barn, bricks, ash, andirons–and then that fine simile, the faceless centaurs of black, which seem so appropriate to the grief we are witnessing. In just these two sentences, I felt like I was in the hands of a skilled writer with a story I would care about. So far, this is so.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

This tremendous novel about what can be torn apart in an instant, and rebuilt over lifetimes, displays writing as scintillating as its plot.

idaho

Idaho, the first novel by O. Henry Award winner Emily Ruskovich, is a gorgeously designed immersion into the best and worst of life. In rural Idaho, a jumbled family rearranges itself painfully, trying to live on after a great loss. In 2004, Ann Mitchell surveys the Idaho farmstead she shares with Wade, her husband of eight years. Her recollections introduce the reader to their marriage–troubled by the diminishing strength of Wade’s memory and a terrible tragedy at the beginning of their relationship. She plays the piano; he makes finely crafted knives by hand. They tiptoe around the past.

In 2008, a woman studies her new cellmate at the Sage Hill Women’s Correctional Center. Jenny Mitchell doesn’t talk much. Neither of them has much future, with one distant chance at parole between them. Tentatively, they explore friendship, but Jenny doesn’t talk about her marriage to Wade, or her daughters. Then, Idaho flashes back to the 1980s and ’90s, when Wade was still married to Jenny and both of their daughters were still alive.

As decades are revealed, Wade’s family lives through happy, tragic and minute experiences. In layers of disjointed chronology and varied perspectives, the reader slowly picks apart the story: Wade’s love for one woman and then another; his luckless family history; the moment in time, the loss of control, that redirected these lives and more.

Ruskovich’s prose is exquisite. Music halts “like an animal at a gate, a child at a word it doesn’t know.” Her expressions of love, in its clean and messy incarnations, are singular, and she handles Wade’s mental decline and a child’s piano lesson with equal care and clarity. “On a sunny fall day, she lay next to him on the ground, and as he dozed she felt his old life, his memories, radiate off his skin. She felt everything leave him but her. She shed her own life, too, to match him. They lay there together like a point in time.” That point in time is what Ruskovich does best: sharp, clear moments alongside emotional enormities so great they can only be felt, not explained. This care, detail and realism applies to the novel’s background as well as to its stars. For example, a side plot involving an artist who paints meticulous age-progressions of missing children offers poignancy and attention to detail, and is worthy of its own novel.

With lovely language and piercing pathos, Idaho focuses on the power of love and the possibilities of forgiveness and memory. This debut novel deals blows as large as life.


This review originally ran in the November 18, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 gloves.
%d bloggers like this: