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.

Talking Back, Talking Black: Truths About America’s Lingua Franca by John McWhorter

A linguist argues for the legitimate and complicated contributions of the language he calls Black English.

talking-back

Linguistics professor John McWhorter (Words on the Move) has a message in Talking Back, Talking Black: Truths About America’s Lingua Franca: he exhorts his readers and the general public to recognize Black English (a term he prefers to African American Vernacular English or to Ebonics) as a language unto itself, not merely a mess of grammatical mistakes and slang: “a development that happens alongside the standard variety, not in opposition to it.”

McWhorter worries that academic linguists have relied too long on scholarly arguments in making this point. He does review some of those arguments–for example, Black English’s systematicity, meaning it has a grammar of its own–but then turns to global language patterns. Many cultures and language groups speak both a formal and a casual language in different settings, e.g., Standard Arabic and the local colloquial form (Egyptian Arabic, Syrian, etc.). While he acknowledges that racism partly underlies a general resistance to Black English as a legitimate language, he quickly moves on to what he sees as the larger problem: a misunderstanding of the value of diglossia, or speaking two languages. Along the way, McWhorter cites the relationship between modern Black English and the lingo of minstrel shows, makes the case for a recognizably black way of speaking (or “blaccent”) and examines usages such as “baby mama,” “who dat?” and what he perceives as two versions of the N-word.

Linguistics fans will be enthralled by McWhorter’s fascinating and logically presented study of two forms of English spoken in the United States.


This review originally ran in the January 24, 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: 6 vowels.

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.

Take Me to Paris, Johnny by John Foster

This beautifully written memoir of a lover’s life and death will impress readers with its lyricism and emotion.

take-me-to-paris-johnny

Originally published in Australia in 1993, John Foster’s Take Me to Paris, Johnny recounts the life of his lover Juan C├ęspedes, who died of AIDS in 1987. This Text Classics edition–the first in the United States–includes an introduction by critic Peter Craven and an afterword by Foster’s close friend John Rickard. While these supplementary materials provide context and develop Foster’s character, the original work gleams abundantly without their help.

Juan was a Cuban refugee studying dance in New York City when he met Foster, an Australian history professor, in 1981. A one-night stand became a summer-long affair and then a long-term, long-distance relationship, to Foster’s surprise. As the couple wrangled with the Australian immigration authorities to gain Juan’s permanent residence there, his illness became undeniably serious. He died in a hospital in Melbourne with Foster by his side.

This sensitive, perceptive memoir keeps Juan at its center, outlining his boyhood and escape to the United States before focusing on the love affair and Juan’s death; the final event receives due gravity without defining his life or the book. In a mere 200 pages, Take Me to Paris, Johnny achieves a full emotional range, sketches Juan’s rare and changeable personality and imbues a tragedy with poetry. Foster’s writing is exquisite: thoughtful, lyrical and with an eye for detail. While this is undeniably a sad story, Foster resists wallowing, choosing instead to celebrate Juan and even to laugh at their troubles. Take Me to Paris, Johnny is incisive, wry, loving and deeply lovable.


This review originally ran in the January 10, 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: 8 red gladiolas.

in her honor: retirement of Marilyn Dahl

I needed to add this bonus post today to recognize the retirement of my editor at Shelf Awareness. Marilyn hired me as a reviewer in March of 2011, and she has been a pleasure to work with for these five years and eleven months, without a moment’s exception. I am of course a little devastated to lose her as a boss; but she deserves this, and she leaves some more than competent folks behind to take care of us. (In the last few years, Associate Editor Dave Wheeler has become a fine friend as well as a fine editor.) I’ve learned so much from Marilyn about how to read, how to write, how to read what I’ve written, how to play well with others, how to be a graceful human being. It’s been an honor.

I want to point you to Marilyn’s Reflections on Reading and Retirement column of Jan. 31, and as well to her Reading With… questionnaire. The good news is you will still see the occasional review with her byline on it. Maybe one mystery per month.

Love you, Marilyn. Thanks for everything.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Jennifer Ryan

Following last week’s review of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, here’s Jennifer Ryan: Original and Authentic.


Jennifer Ryan lives in the Washington, D.C., area with her husband and two children. She is originally from Kent and then London, and has worked as a nonfiction book editor. The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir (Crown) is her first novel.

photo credit: Nina Subin

photo credit: Nina Subin


How did you choose to use the epistolary form?

The letter form is one of my favorites. I really enjoy the way the voice exposes the inner feelings and personality of the character. The way she interacts with the off-stage recipient adds an extra tension–is some kind of pretense going on? It leaves some lovely space for an unreliable character to come through–someone who isn’t telling the recipient (or the reader) the truth, and will inevitably be uncovered by the end.

Is there one of these women you especially identify with?

Mrs. Tilling, the middle-aged widow whose only son goes to war. She was the first one I wanted to write about. Writing gives you the opportunity to dig into a situation or subject, put yourself in the middle of it as a character and experience what it must have been like. As a mother, I wanted to know how it felt to have your only child go to war, especially with the gruesomeness of the First World War fresh in your mind, all the young men mown down by bullets in the Somme. You’ve spent 18 years bringing up your son, caring for him, cooking for him, loving him, and this day–when he walks down the road with his kit bag over his shoulder–may be the last time you ever see him.

The differences in their voices is subtle, but distinct.

This was a wonderful part of writing Chilbury. Kitty steps away from traditional narrative style in her journal, jumping around from subject to subject by use of headings, and using her wonderful lists to cover subjects such as “People’s Colors,” and “What Happens to People When They Die.” Miss Paltry uses a lot of metaphors, and I had a hysterical time creating ones such as, “the day was as cold as a slap round the face with a fresh-caught cod.” She was a delight to create, and I always looked forward to writing her entries. Mrs. Tilling always longed to be writer and has a more literary style, which allowed me to be more expressive and use more sophisticated language and grammar. They are also defined by their accents. Mrs. Tilling has more of a middle-class vernacular, whereas Venetia and Kitty are more upper class, and Miss Paltry is more lower class.

Why this time period?

About 15 years ago I read about the London children being evacuated to the English countryside, and a new obsession was born. Since then, I’ve read personal accounts, memoirs, biographies, reference books and novels about the Second World War. When I was considering writing a novel, I’d been editing a book on the war in Afghanistan, and through that I recognized how cultural values change in a time of warfare. The population shifts and for a time things become more fluid, rules less rigid. Authority is challenged and the suppressed–in this case the women–have a chance to widen their horizons.

On a more personal note, when I was growing up, we had two grandmothers: one was Shakespeare Granny, who ruthlessly analyzed all the tragedies, and the other was Party Granny, who was full of hilarious and often scandalous stories about the war. I always had a burning ambition to write about her stories, especially the ones about her choir, which she swears got her through the war. Unlike the Chilbury ladies, though, Party Granny’s choir was reportedly dreadful, and there were plenty of stories about how they lost competitions and sang so out-of-tune that when they visited a choir member in hospital, the nurses took them to perform for every ward to “give everyone a good laugh.” They hammed it up, of course, “to jolly everyone along.”

How did your experience as an editor of nonfiction inform this work?

Narrative nonfiction works similarly to fiction. I created a structure whereby the main story arc of the choir contained and ran alongside the five story arcs of the main characters. Structure is the cornerstone of any good, well-functioning nonfiction, and I think the same is true of fiction.

The work of sentences is also crucial, and although they tend to move to a different end in nonfiction, a good understanding of sentence potential and variability is key to producing a fluid work. But because the characters themselves were writing the entries, I had to step back from writing complex sentences and grammar for all but Mrs. Tilling, who professes to yearning to be a writer.

Editing nonfiction has also given me the opportunity to dive in deep with other topics. A few years before I began writing Chilbury, I edited a book by a renowned cellist on how music affects our emotions, and some of the core ideas were used in the book. Having also sung in choirs, I wanted to bring that feeling of togetherness that they create, the magic of allegiance in song. It’s not an easy task to describe music in words, but I wanted to make sure it felt real to the readers, as if it was being performed in front of them.

How big a role did research play? How closely does this story mirror fact?

Research played a massive role. The day-to-day life of women during these times was incredibly hard. There were few labour-saving devices such as laundry machines and dryers, let alone central heating. All meals had to be made from scratch. The rationing and shortages made cooking even more time consuming. My grandmother had a dozen or so wartime recipes, like Lord Woolton Pie (a vegetable form of shepherd’s pie made specially for Lord Woolton by the head chef of the Savoy Hotel), mock banana (which was made from mashed parsnip mixed with sugar) and Pink Gin (my grandmother’s favorite cocktail, which was a lethal mix of straight gin with a splash of Angostura bitters.)

One of my favorite research tasks for Chilbury was interviewing people alive during the era. In an eye-opening way, most of the elderly women I interviewed remembered the war as one of the best times of their lives, recalling the new freedom and the work and responsibility, the feeling that you had to live for the day. One lady in her 90s decided that she simply had to demonstrate how to do that dance, “Knees Up, Mother Brown,” and I begged her not to as she struggled to her feet, clasped my arm, and began kicking her legs up one by one. Gripping hold of her as best I could, I had to laugh along with her. She couldn’t have been more delighted to relive the memories.

I was careful to make sure that everything that happens in the novel could actually have happened. Some of the plot threads came directly from my grandmother’s stories of the war, and one of the characters, Venetia, is based on her friend Letty, who was very beautiful and always playing the boys off each other.

The story of Silvie, the 10-year-old Jewish refugee from Prague, came from research about Sir Nicholas Winton, who set up a program to transport Jewish children from Prague to the U.K. in the wake of the war. In total he rescued 669 children, most of whom lost their parents in the Holocaust. They were taken in by British families, many of them remaining with those new families after the war. There are many horrific and sad accounts of the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938, and I tried to keep Silvie’s experiences true to the brutal reality of the situation.

It was important to me that the book was both an original work and authentic to the era. It certainly was an incredible time to live and write about, and I feel incredibly lucky to be able to plunge into this fascinating era and try my best to re-create some of the most exciting and frightening years of the war in Kent.


This interview originally ran on January 10, 2017 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

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