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.
South 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.
After 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.
One 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.
Last 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!