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.
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.
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.)
A 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.
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.
The 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.