Analysing the returning echoes of our memory

The garden of evening mistsThe Garden of Evening Mists
by Tan Twan Eng

This is an extraordinary book. It touches on some of the most horrific human actions of the early 20th century. And yet it manages to be a gentle, hopeful story.

It centres around Teoh Yun Ling, a Malay-Chinese woman who during her life has been a judge, prosecutor, landscape gardener and a prisoner of the Japanese during the Second World War. The book opens with her retirement, following which she travels from Kuala Lumpur to the Cameron Highlands, a tea-growing region of Malaysia where she has friends and property. Here, Yun Ling starts to write her memoirs.

The narrative switches to her first arrival in the Cameron Highlands, when she is a young prosecutor who has quit her job on the War Crimes Commission and needs respite at the home of a family friend, Magnus. She is still angry about the war and in particular the Japanese war crimes committed. She bears physical scars as well as psychological ones. She suffers in particular because her sister did not survive the camp where they were both held.

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2018 end-of-year round-up

Pompeii muse
Even wall paintings from 1st century Pompeii revere reading and writing.

It feels like 5 minutes ago that I was writing my end-of-2017 post. How does time pass so quickly now? We’re not in a far-flung locale this holiday period, but instead at home in Bristol, repeatedly looking at photos from last year’s dream holiday in Japan and eating rather a lot of Japanese food to aid and abet the reminiscing.

This year I have read 67 books (I am halfway through one right now, so maybe that will be 68 by midnight) of which 25 were by men, 38 by women and the rest by multiple authors. I think this was one of my more modern reading years, by which I mean that I read 51 books from the 21st century, 15 from the 20th century and just one book from the 19th century – nothing older than that. Should I try to read more older books again? I’m not sure. I’ve liked my reading this year, even if I haven’t done as much of it as in previous years (in 2011, the first year I tracked my reading, I managed 100 books – life was quieter back then). I read 20 books in translation, of which 9 were from Japanese, again showing the influence of last year’s holiday.

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December 2018 reading round-up

Lego Christmas train and Christmas books
Lego Christmas train and Christmas books.

I love Christmas and New Year, but I really don’t enjoy the long build-up and the pressure that comes with it. Which is why running away to Japan last year was both perfect and a little bit sad.

This year we spent just a few days at my Dad’s and didn’t do any of the country walks we usually would. We’ll have to go back for another visit soon to remedy that.

I did, as always, get lots of books for Christmas, which I’ll blog about soon. I want to read them all right away.

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Discovering Hallyu

The Heirs

I have just finished watching The Heirs (2013), and for the first time with a K-drama I don’t want to give it a proper review, even though there is a LOT that I could say about it. It just has so many problems and I fear a review would only encourage other people to watch it. Which has got me thinking more generally about my K-drama fixation.

It can’t have escaped anyone’s notice that this past few months I have immersed myself in K-drama, and generally become super-interested in Korean life and culture. The Korean Wave (Hallyu) has most definitely found me. But why would a feminist like me swoon over these shows that are not only repetitive and cliched, but commonly outright misogynist and selling dangerous ideas to the Korean youth they are aimed at?

First, let me back up the second part of that question with some examples. K-dramas are all about romance, but that romance usually begins with a man who is in a position of power over the woman (in almost every case I’ve seen the man is super-rich while the woman is poor) repeatedly grabbing her wrist and dragging her around; claiming ownership of her when she has not expressed any interest; and forcibly backing her into kisses that she does not want or respond to. Even more worryingly, said woman then always falls for the man in question and looks back on those forced kisses as beautiful moments.

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Absorbed by the whiteness

White
by Marie Darrieussecq
translated from French by Ian Monk

I added this to my wishlist when it was first published in English, on the back of a blog review (probably Savidge Reads, but I now forget). It was always going to appeal to me: scientists and engineers in Antarctica, international collaboration, humour and romance. But somehow it stayed sat on my wishlist for years.

Earlier this year Tim and I finally made it to Shakespeare & Co in Paris (we’d been to Paris before but hadn’t squeezed in the bookshop). I wanted to buy something translated from French and this title immediately came to mind. Amazingly, it was right there in their surprisingly small translated-from-French section. Of course, this means it has the awesome Shakespeare & Co stamp on the title page so I was never going to get rid of the book no matter how it turned out. But thankfully I do really like it.

The story (written in 2003) is set in a near future where people communicate via 3D holograms, the first manned mission is on its way to Mars, and the first permanent European base in Antarctica is under construction. (This last, arguably the entire basis for the story, does betray some lack of knowledge of Antarctic history – unless the translator has omitted the key modifier “pan-European”, which would be a first. Several European countries have their own permanent Antarctic bases.)

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You basically never find what you were expecting to

Girl on the ShoreA Girl on the Shore
by Inio Asano
translated from Japanese by Jocelyne Allen

I picked up this manga because it sounded sweet from the plot synopsis – a tale of teenage romance – and the cover art is beautiful. I somehow missed the significance of the cellophane wrapper, not to mention the small label “Ages 18+”.

In some ways my first instinct was right. It’s a good story, often a sweet one, with truly incredible artwork throughout. I frequently paused to show Tim a page that moved me in its beauty, often dialogue-free.

Koume Sato is in her final year of junior high (ages 14–15). She likes pretty boy Misaki, but he uses her and then ignores her, so she runs to Keisuke Isobe, who she knows has a crush on her because he has previously confessed as much. They strike up a relationship, but keep it secret because at school Koume is popular, while Keisuke is considered a weird loner. In public Koume hangs out with a group of girls, gossiping, while at Keisuke’s house she discovers manga and indie music. She is clearly using Keisuke, but it isn’t clear whether or not he minds. Sure, she ignores him most of the time, but then so does everyone, especially since his brother’s suicide.

So far, so right up my alley. There are side characters who in some cases become significant, there are issues about school and studying, and always the gorgeous seaside town setting. But…this is sexually explicit manga, and the two people we repeatedly see having sex are Koume and Keisuke. We learn early on that Misaki demanded that Koume give him a blowjob before telling her he’s not interested, and that her reaction was to run to Keisuke and ask him to sleep with her. Their relationship is almost entirely about sex, and sexual experimentation.

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K-drama review: Hello, My Twenties!

This was another random Netflix recommendation, and it was a really good one. Hello, My Twenties! (also known in English as Age of Youth) cuts through a lot of the tropes of Korean TV. The lead characters are all women and they’re not lame! Some of them have sex before marriage and it’s not a big deal! There’s not even one overarching storyline, but instead several intersecting ones!

This show is also unusual among K-dramas in that it’s had two seasons and has been renewed for a third, and that doesn’t spoil it at all. Both seasons one and two wrapped up some storylines while leaving others open-ended and each time this felt right as both an ending and a possible opener for more to come.

The basis is a shared house in Seoul called Belle Epoque and the five women who share it (one of whom changes for the second season). Over the short seasons (12–14 episodes) we get to know the women – their friends, their love lives, their taste in food and clothes – and we watch them becoming friends with each other. As this is a typical flatshare, the women didn’t know each other before moving in and are very different. They probably wouldn’t have met, let alone become friends, without this house. In season one, each episode largely concentrates on one of the women, so their secrets are revealed gradually – and they all have secrets.

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She selfishly did as she pleased

The VegetarianThe Vegetarian
by Han Kang
translated from Korean by Deborah Smith

As you’ll have noticed, I have been watching a lot of South Korean TV shows this year. It all started with a random Netflix recommendation, and I enjoyed that first taste so much that I immediately asked for more suggestions on Twitter. Naturally, all that screen time has got me curious about life in modern Korea, so it seemed about time that I picked up a book or two by Korean writers.

This Korean novella was a huge deal when it was released in English, winning the Man Booker International Prize in 2016. It’s an odd book and provoked a strong reaction in me, but I’m still trying to pin down what that reaction is exactly.

Yeong-hye has always been a dutiful, if dull, wife – until the day she stops eating meat. This angers her husband and family far more than it seems to merit, and they question her mental health, while she blames it on a recurring dream. Where the story goes from there either means being vegetarian in Korea is a seriously radical act, or that Yeong-hye’s decision is a symptom of something else – whether it’s marriage problems, nightmares or indeed her mental health.

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Reading round-up November 2018

Photo of a woman with a book and umbrella
CC0 Evelyn from Pexels

How are we this far through the year already? Time has flown and I have done very little of anything. But after October’s abysmal attempts, I did do better on the reading front. I decided to kickstart my reading brain by starting with some comics. Not that all comics are easy reading – Sandman definitely isn’t – but some of them are, and they were just what I needed. Tim started me off with some old Avengers comics in the Marvel app, and then I picked some trade paperbacks off my TBR. It was a good strategy.

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