Last Week’s Reading


January 8-14: A haunting novel in translation, debut fiction from a poet, a ghost story, a highly acclaimed play, and a poet I wish I’d read years ago.

Human Acts photo by Carolyn OliverSouth Korean writer Han Kang won the Man Booker International Prize for The Vegetarian (which I haven’t read); Human Acts*, which you can find at your local bookstore today, is the next of her novels to be translated into English by Deborah Smith. It is absolutely riveting, though quite hard to read, given the subject matter. The subject is the viciously quelled 1980 Gwanju Uprising, and the lens is the life and death of one boy, Dong-ho. In chapters that shift focus among different people who knew Dong-ho (well or tangentially), the author explores trauma, resilience, memory, witness, and questions of the soul. At what cost do survivors of torture bear witness to their sufferings? How do ordinary people find the strength to resist brutal injustice? How ought we to feel about being human when humans can be despicable creatures—or brave and kind? Human Acts is a devastating, brilliant book.

img_3538After reading Human Acts, I needed something a bit lighter to take the edge off, and Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, by Kathleen Rooney, was just the ticket. Eighty-something Lillian Boxfish decides to end 1984 by taking a walk around her beloved New York City, reflecting on a life lived to the very fullest—if not always happily. Lillian has verve, and her recollections of working in the advertising department at Macy’s in the 1930s are wonderful (especially if you’re missing Mad Men); the character is based on Margaret Fishback, the highest paid woman in advertising during her heyday. This novel is light but not fluffy; the emphasis on connection was sensitive rather than mawkish. I generally loved the company of Lillian’s sharp mind (with the exception of several instances of fat-shaming, which, please, dear authors, can we dispense with?).

Less delightful was Gillian Flynn’s The Grown Up. Originally included in a short story anthology, the tale would, I suspect, be better served in that format, rather than as a standalone book (it was included in this month’s Book of the Month mailing). It’s a ghost story with a twist; I found it more grotesque than thrilling, and the ending, alas, didn’t satisfy.

img_3496One of the last books I read in 2016 was John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt; I couldn’t resist the temptation to make the next play I read Proof, David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize winner (2001). Sometimes I forget how much I love reading drama (I used to teach it), though I’m happy when plays like these remind me. I suspect I don’t read drama often because it doesn’t get the hype in book-world (where, for good or ill, I spend much of my time) that fiction, nonfiction, and even poetry do. I wonder why that is. Anyway, Proof is about math, mental illness, and family. It’s very, very good.

fullsizerender-13Last week, I finally read Charlotte Mew’s Selected Poems (edited and introduced by Irish poet Eavan Boland). Mew came highly recommended by friend and poet Emily Mohn-Slate, and I am kicking myself, Dear Readers that I (a.) didn’t pick up this book ages ago and (b.) didn’t read it as soon as it arrived as a birthday present. Charlotte Mew (1869-1928) is an utterly tragic figure, but her poems are marvels—lines like none I’ve ever read before: part Victorian, part Georgian, part Modernist, and all deeply moving.  I cried twice reading this slim volume, and friends, I do not cry easily when it comes to poetry.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.

I’m not sure this weekly reading wrap-up is going to be a regular feature, but I’m running with it for now!

20 thoughts on “Last Week’s Reading

  1. I have Kang’s The Vegetarian on the shelf; if I like it I’ll definitely be following it up with Human Acts.

    I can’t remember the last time I read a play. Probably one of Alan Ayckbourn’s 5 or more years ago. I agree plays get zero attention in the book world. Perhaps it’s because people aren’t sure how they should be read and if they can only be appreciated aloud/in performance.

  2. Human Acts is great—I read it in the spring, after seeing Han Kang at an event at Foyle’s in London. She’s a wonderful human being, very thoughtful and softly spoken but with a razor-sharp intellect (much like Xiaolu Guo, actually).

    I suspect publishers don’t push drama as much because of a general feeling, as Rebecca says, that they’re best appreciated in performance. I’ve only felt satisfaction at reading (instead of seeing) a handful of plays, mostly Shakespeare with the notable exceptions of The Crucible and Our Town. Most of the time, though, when I read a play, it feels like it’s over too quickly and I’ve missed half of it, probably the more thought-provoking half, which is the stuff that happens on stage around the dialogue.

    Charlotte Mew wrote an amazing story called A White Night which I reviewed on the blog (as part of a Virago anthology) back in July; her life story is also incredibly sad. I’m not surprised her poems are impressive.

    • I can see that (your point about plays); I taught drama as lit two or three times (plus Shakespeare, separately), so I’m used to thinking about it as text rather than performance; I can picture staging and acting in my head, but of course have no way to compare to actual performance(s). I wonder if anyone writes closet drama anymore, come to think of it.

      • It’s definitely a skill that can be practiced, imagining staging and acting; it would probably be much easier if I did it more often. Good question, about closet drama; I don’t really know. Some of Alice Oswald’s work (like Dart and Memorial) might fit the bill, but it’s presented specifically as poetry as opposed to drama, so who knows whether that counts?

  3. I would like to read both of Kang’s books, but I think Human Acts appeals to me a little more than The Vegetarian (but who knows…). Lillian Boxfish sounds like fun!

    • The Vegetarian sounded intriguing but not appealing, if that makes sense; if I know my stomach is going to be turned by a novel, I prefer it to be in service to a larger historical setting, if that makes sense.

      • FWIW, I didn’t find my stomach turn as much as I found my head spin. It was a disorienting story more so than anything, in my reading of it anyway, more about the psychologcall than the guttural, and a very quick read surprisingly.

  4. I remember the feeling that I had upon finishing The Vegetarian, which sounds like what you experienced with her follow-up novel (which, in turn, sounds just as rewarding as The Vegetarian, although demanding and provocative too). I picked up a Saga comic!

  5. Human Acts is on order at my library and I am one of the first in the holds queue for it. Very much looking forward to it even though I know how brutal it will be. I should start planning what frothy thing to have on hand afterwards to help me recover!

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