February RM Book Challenge

I’m writing this post late as I’m still catching up on the book club readings for March!
Here are my thoughts for February picks.

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

Kitchen is a short stories collection that contains Kitchen and Moonlight Shadows, both of which deal with the theme of grief. The depiction of loss is presented in a realistic and raw manner, the impact on both the bereaved’s mental and physical health. The second short story is based on a few fantastic elements, that makes it more heartwarming.
However, some things did make me uncomfortable in Kitchen. Although the representation of LGBTQIA+ characters is a positive one, the other characters keep misgendering the transgender woman character. As well as a self-harm joke that was unnecessary. It is to be remembered that this translation was published in 1988.

Almond by Won Pyung-Sohn.

Life has not spared Yunjae. Diagnosed with a mental disorder that prevents him from understanding human emotions and social codes, he is quite the outsider. His mum and grandmother worked hard to help him, but life stole them away from him too. Alone to manoeuvre his mum’s hospital situation, rent, school and his future, his condition not making it even harder, Yunjae’s choices end up bringing him both regrets and… someone else. Gon. Gon who has had his own kind of harsh life, Gon, to whom Yunjae has stolen the most precious moment in life. Together, with their own differences, they grow and tentatively lean on one another, even if it takes a lot of hurting and betrayal in between. And Yunjae is maybe not as ‘abnormal’ as others make him be.
Almond is a novel that, once open, has to be read in one sitting. Yunjae’s voice, his detached, naive but philosophical approach to humans’ questions and ways of life, gives the writing style this easy, intriguing flow. Joosun Lee, the translator, truly did an amazing job in transcribing into English the emotional intelligence Yunjae expresses; an emotional intelligence I came to associate with South Korean writers in this minimalistic and accessible writing style they tend to use (Hwan Sok Yong, Nam Joo Cho) and that makes their story so compelling.
This book is not an easy read by any means. Although Yunjae is not always grasping the situations he is faced with, reading violence through the graphic descriptions of someone who acts like a simple spectator… makes for a pretty shocking experience (trigger warnings for: physical violence, animal cruelty, minor character death etc.) And once again, there is this “Han” feeling that I found in every South Korean title I’ve picked up in the last two years, this inherent melancholia and pessimistic resentment, that leaves the reader with a heavy heart as we watch Yunjae’s life turn from terrible to absolute heartbreak.
I found the development of this book both a total surprise as a reader and a beautiful choice by the author, especially for a debut novel. The ending kept me on the edge of my seat until the very end and it was quite an emotional one.
The author claims to stay impartial to social problems in her writing but her story very much denounces the harsh reality for children, school bullying and class elitism in South Korea.

This story is, in short, about a monster meeting another monster.
One of the monsters is me.


Won Pyung-Sohn also depicts how hard the single-motherhood experience is in the country… Timing was, reading that part felt suffocating. The newly elected president will rip struggling and discriminated against single mothers, of the very meagre financial support they finally had come to get from the government.
Yunjae is not the monster they portray him to be… and even if he feels less than others… What about the people that saw what happened to his family… And refused to help? The book doesn’t shy away from picturing humans’ inherent selfishness and quick blame of others for the things we hate about ourselves. Yunjae’s words cut deep in these passages:

People shut their eyes to a distant tragedy saying there’s nothing they could do, yet they didn’t stand up for one happening nearby either because they’re too terrified. Most people could feel but didn’t act. They said they sympathized, but easily forgot. The way I see it, that was not real. I didn’t want to live like that.

To witness Yunjae’s and Gon’s growth, how vulnerable and brave they both are in the terrible, terrible things life (the author too) throws at them… I was extremely grateful to read their story.
The ending comment of the translator left me contemplative… as I too agreed with him. Obviously, we cannot talk over the author but it is interesting to think of what this book would have come to be outside of South Korea’s homophobic society.
As an ARMY especially, Yunjae’s wanderings in the bookshop and the books he’s read made me smile: Demian (that we are reading very soon for this challenge, I believe) and Siddhartha by Herman Hesse.

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Reading Don Quixote for the first time.

I initially planned to make two videos but my thought did not change much with the second volume.
I found Don Quixote to be the kind of book from which the characters remain with the readers, as well as the funny, knowledgeable and sadistic at times voice of the narrator, rather than the story itself. It is probably due to the way we read in modern days that does not fit this story, of which it seems one can hop from one episode to another… Whereas reading the +1500 pages linearly tends to underline some of the redundant aspects. To be perfectly honest, the book is more fun to study than it is to read. The lack of a leading thread, an end goal, makes the impressive amount of pages a little bit of a chore.
Yet, to whoever is interested in literature and in History finds within those pages the 17th-century Spanish society in all its absurdness and privileges and for that, it is a brilliant portrait of a time I personally knew very little about.
The writing and the French translation, in these editions, were delightful. References to the works that Don Quixote mentions, explanations on the translation’s choices, developments on the Spanish society/ hierarchy. It felt like nothing flew over my head.
Overall, I enjoyed the second volume better. Both had this gorgeous lyricism that made me underline so many parts of the books but the second part read a little easier than the first. It felt more structured perhaps thanks to the lie Sancho has to come up with to save his face.
I was surprised by the ending, not necessarily by the content but rather the execution. After +1500, the ending somehow had the urgency feeling, as if it was rushed and indeed, Cervantès was old so maybe it truly was.
I’d like to revisit it sometime in the future, just popping in on a chapter randomly and perhaps to find a reader’s companion essay to dig a little deeper. The introduction also presented a few of Cervantès’ other works and I’d like to try that too.

RM Book challenge 2022 – January Books.

Out of the 4 books I have read in January, so far 3 of them were drawn from the books Namjoon of BTS is known to have read, and two of them especially were read in the context of an ARMY (BTS’s fandom’s name) book club. These are the ones I will try to write on today. Please bear in mind the fact that these books both deal with real societal issues and realities and that a lot of them could be triggering matters.

Kim JiYoung, Born 1982 by Choi Nam-Joo.

Reading this book as a woman, it is difficult to be surprised with the sexism that characterises and eventually destroys Kim Ji-Young’s body and soul. The story, which is not told linearly, shows us the consequences on JiYoung’s mind of a lifetime of gender-based oppression which gradually encourages self-erasement. The author gives us an account of every single sexist aggression the young girl has lived, and the ones her own mother had to go through too… Until she is too broken inside and the mind cannot bear the wounds anymore.

This book provoked a lot of anger in South Korea, where anti-feminism movements are terrorising women and people who are seen reading it. Let us remember the treatment the young female gold medal winner athlete An San received. She was the subject of detractors and masculinists who ask for her medal to be taken away because of her short hair and the fact that she attended a women-only university.

Choi Nam-Joo forces her readers to witness the erasure, with each sexist aggression, of someone whose sole fault is to have been born a woman. Her carefully put together account, which both sadly draws from her own personal experience as a new mother and on meticulous researches that punctuate the book in the form of statistics in footnotes, forbid the readers from turning a blind eye. The author tells you that her work is not just a sad book you can close at the end and forget on your bookshelves. Kim Ji-Young is every woman breathing today in South Korea, crushing under the unhealthy expectations of their in-laws, left uncared and unsupported by their partner, harassed (if not abused) at school, at work, in the street, in public transport and unheard by police forces.

And the ending chapter leaves the reader cold-blooded in the self-assertion the narrator displays, his absolute refusal to change things for the better, even as someone who is aware of the damages on women’s bodies and minds. So closing the book, it seems to say: this is a world made for men by men and they will never do anything to change that, even if we, women, are all sacrificed to their privileges…

Human Acts by Han Kang.

Having finished this book only a few hours ago means that I’m still in that dazed headspace it left me. As you close them, some books demand of you to reject the real world a little longer, in order to fully digest them. Human Acts was one of these books for me.

To understand the events it revolves around, the book club organizer had linked two documentaries available on Youtube, as well as a song SUGA (of BTS) had created during his underground rapping years in Daegu. When one of the two documentaries had me crying, I knew the reading experience would be heavy. Still, I had no idea of what was coming when I finished the first part ‘The Boy’ yesterday evening. Han Kang did not write a History book, with coldly told facts of the horror that was the Gwangju uprising’s repression. Citizens asked for change after years of dictatorship, only for a new one to unveil itself; eradicating every single whisper that dared to stand in its way.

Han Kang writes the story of the people who suffered. She makes sure to give them back a voice and to establish on whose side the terror was, whose lives were lost and to which extreme humanity can go under the insatiable thirst that greed triggers. 21-year-old university students, middle schoolers, a pregnant woman standing on their porch getting killed… are not ‘obstacles’ in the road to power that one can sweep under a rug.

It’s the way in which the author makes it about the people, that in turn makes the reading experience a painful, heartbreaking one. It’s the first time I literally struggled to breathe at the horrors depicted in a book. It does not dwell in a gruesome, graphic genre that would be almost voyeurism. It’s simply the fact that the voice the author gives back to the people, she gives it to the ones who have been through all of it.

Hence, we start with Dong-Ho, the centre of the story, the one who linked all the characters together. A middle schooler who was with his friend Jeong-Dae that day, demonstrating as most of the citizens of Gwangju were… When the soldiers start firing, Dong-Ho flees. What he thinks is proof of his cowardice haunts him and guilt overtakes him as he knows his friend didn’t make it out alive, so he starts working with those who take care of the corpses. We get glimpses of his lives, the people he worries about, the ones who he knows are safe, as he himself is surrounded by the putrefying deads.

How long do souls linger by the side of their bodies?
Do they really flutter away like some kind of bird? Is that what trembles the edges of the candle flame?

We don’t get the follow-up to Dong-Ho’s story directly from him and that’s why I had to take a break last night. The second part “The Boy’s Friend” refers to that young boy Dong-Ho has “abandoned” and the two first words of that chapter broke me “Our bodies”. The dead themselves are telling their stories.

I suddenly thought of you, Dong-Ho. Yes, you’d been there with me, that day. Until something like a cold cudgel had suddenly slammed into my side. Until I collapsed like a rag doll. Until my arms flung themselves up in mute alarm, amid the cacophony of footsteps drumming against the tarmac, ear-splitting gunfire. Until I felt the warm spread of my own blood moving up over my shoulder, the back of my neck. Until then, you were with me.

One by one, we get the missing perspectives, not always of the characters that were mentioned by past narrators, but the way they experienced the dictatorship, the leading consequences of living under such a regime, come to complete the missing pieces of the puzzle of the life of Dong-Ho, his friend and his friend’s sister. But the author doesn’t confine the Gwangju uprising to May 18th and its ten successive days of terror, she explores through other characters the aftermath, the censorship, the fight publishers, authors and teachers and witnesses put up to manage to tell the truth. Han Kang also does not shy away from realism. As we slowly make our way to the present day, she evokes the everyday struggle of the ones who survived the tortures and have to deal with their memories every minute of their lives.

The passages of tortures were unbearable and when I thought I was done with the worst chapter “The Prisoner”, I started naively “The factory girls” and of course, women always get abused by the military, I know that. But I was still not prepared for it.

Yet, what shines and hypnotizes the readers, is the resilience of the people. How humans keep fighting, even in the most nightmarish conditions. Hope. The narrator of ‘The Prisoner’ shows how much of a collective movement the uprising was, the force of the people and the comfort he found in being a part of something bigger than himself:

I was startled to discover an absence inside myself: the absence of fear. I remember feeling that it was all right to die; I felt the blood of a hundred thousand hearts surging together into one enormous artery, fresh and clean… the sublime enormity of a single heart, pulsing through that vessel and into my own. I dared to feel a part of it.

Dong-Ho’s mother perspective comes to close the “story” before the author uses her own voice and breaks the fourth wall and I could no longer breathe because of how much I was crying. How do you keep living in the same country that killed your son? How can you continue to be a mother to the rest of your children when one, the youngest, the most gentle one is no longer with you? The book obviously tackles the terrible reality of unidentified bodies which have remained anonymous and haven’t been given the animist Korean traditions that families do in order to free the soul from this world… Reminiscent of the screams Jeong-Dae heard when the soldiers dealt with the corpses. Dong-Ho’s mother, as well as his younger brother are both forever changed by their loss and the context in which it took place. Like a chronic illness, it seems to forever be something that eats them up from inside.

Surprisingly then, the author steps in as the last epilogue. Her account changes a lot of things in the way the reader perceived the story. It turns it into something so much more tangible, where fiction can no longer be a little cocoon you can find comfort in it not being real

The passages I included in this review hopefully speak for themselves and you will, like me, be in awe of Han Kang’s delightful, lyrical writing style.

This is a book I will never regret having read. But this is definitely not a book I would want someone to pick up unaware of the immense suffering its pages contain.

Oversharing.

A New Year always brings new resolutions and a renewed motivation in me. For 2022, it felt especially true for I have felt freed from most of my rampant anxiety in the last two years. Looking for a job, hoping to move out for good, planning eventual (if the sanitary situation improves…) international trips with friends and saving up for concerts… So I made the mistake of going to my cone beam check-up quite confidently “It is the type of benign tumour that comes back”, they had warned me. But they had also said “the bone is taking the spot the tumour was in, it decreases its chances to come back”. No, I haven’t gotten my sensations back in my chin. Yes, I’m exhausted at the end of the day if I chew too much. “It’s normal, what we took off was huge. The nerve was wrapped up in the tumour, it’s likely it won’t improve sensations wise.”

As I sat in front of the student analysing my cone beam scans, I knew something was up. Too silent, too much frowning. Here we go again. They went to fetch my surgeon and sure enough, there are two “bubbles”, they can’t know with just the scan, they have to go in. 24th of January, complete anaesthesia.

Here it is, my life is on pause again.

My surgeon is already handling my anxiety “it might just be leftovers but we can’t let it develop”, “it’s not as bad as last time”. I smile. I get led to offices to plan appointments: the anaesthetists, the mandatory PCR test, the one-month-after check-up. Holding my breath and my life until the 24th of February. Eating mashed food until at least may, I guess. I call mum, I tell dad. We get out of the city. Go back to our mountains. Cuddle with Rory.

It’s not the pain. It’s not even the surgery. Why would I care? This time, I can open my mouth, I don’t have to fit strands of anaesthetised tissues up my nose for them to let me breathe. It’s not that. My brain just has one redundant question: until when? “It may come back.” How many times? Why me? How much more can I take?

So we start telling the family again. I have my surgery the same day my mum’s cousin is getting hers, breast cancer removal. Brilliant start of the year. Grandma and uncle are here, mum says “She’s {me} supposed to have fun, to party and get drunk like her brother but it’s been three years of that, now.” And everyone nods. They do, of course. Then someone says “And she lost her teens to diabetes and the coeliac diet”.

It feeds it, you know? The voice in my head telling me how useless and how much of a burden I am. And really, mum is already completed blocked, her neck can’t move again.

I simply wonder: what did I do? What did I do for my body to chronically try to destroy itself, even when I’m no longer a danger to myself and finally hungry to live?

But let me change my reading challenge goal. I will be less busy than I had thought, and I guess, more in pain.