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A look back at the books of 2015

2015 books banner

In place of our annual “LKL Awards” post, we look at some of the highlights of 2015 in the area of books, film and music. Apart from the field of literature in translation (and of course I’m talking Han Kang here), there are no clear winners or I haven’t covered enough ground to choose one. In this first post we focus on the books that hit the shelves in 2015. In the next post we’ll take a brief look at the films and music of 2015.

Literature in translation

The slow but steady process of getting literature translated into English and – more importantly – into bookshops outside of Korea, continued this year.

Dalkey third episode

Dalkey Archive surreptitiously released five more in their library of Korean literature series. Are they embarrassed by their project? They didn’t respond to my request for a press release about this third episode in their series. But Lee Seung-u’s The Private Lives of Plants got a good write-up in the Irish Times.1

Cheon Myeong-kwan’s Modern Family (tr Park Kyoung-lee for White Pine) was a release I completely missed, only finding out about it thanks to Brother Anthony’s helpful list of translations published during the year.

In Korea, Asia Publishers brought out Kong’s Garden by Hwang Jung-eun, Danny by Yun I-hyeong and Homecoming by Cheon Myeong-kwan. Disappointingly, their focus seems to be to market their publications to a Korean domestic audience. European readers, in the unlikely event that they ever hear about these bilingual editions, have to order them from Korean or American online stores.

Princess Bari and The Salmon

Back to publications which are to be found in UK bookshops. Shin Kyung-sook is of course a big name outside of Korea ever since PLAM, and publishers are keen to find the book that can repeat that success. The Girl who Wrote Loneliness (tr Ha-Yun Jung) was published by Pegasus in 2015 without much fanfare, but after struggling with her I’ll be Right There we didn’t rush to buy it. Of much more interest was Hwang Sok-yong’s Princess Bari (tr Sora Kim-Russell) for Periscope Books, in which Hwang’s ongoing fascination with shamanism (see The Guest) infuses a tale of North Korean refugees and immigrant life in London.

Bae Suah’s Nowhere to be Found (tr Sora Kim-Russell) was published on Amazon Crossing – a short story that falls into a genre of female ennui which Charles Montgomery sums up nicely here. More fun was Ahn Do-hyun’s The Salmon Who Dared to Leap Higher (tr Deborah Smith, PanMacmillan) which Waterstones was stocking in generous quantities and placing prominently on their tables in their Canary Wharf branch. They were definitely not marginalising it in a secret Literature in Translation corner.

LBF - The cover of the translation of Han Kang's The Vegetarian

But the book which hit the arts pages in the UK, making into the list of top recommendations of 2015 by several critics, and one which is my own personal favourite of the year is another Deborah Smith translation: Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. Extraordinary stuff, which prepared the reading public for her Human Acts (again, tr Deborah Smith) which was released in early 2016 and will certainly be on my shortlist for 2016 book of the year.

Poetry-wise, Bloodaxe brought out a selection from Ko Un’s 10,000 Lives entitled Maninbo: Peace & War (tr Brother Anthony / Lee Sang-Wha). Brother Anthony also translated or co-translated Kim Soo-Bok’s Beating on Iron and Lee Si-Young’s Patterns, both for Green Integer (the latter with Yoo Hui-Sok co-translating).

Fiction in English

Martin Limon continued his excellent Sergeants Sueño and Bascom series with The Ville Rat (Soho Crime). And while on the subject of good crime series, I just made a note of James Church’s sixth Inspector O novel, coming out in time for Christmas 2016.

Ville Rat and Funereal

Deserving special mention is a fast-paced novel by a Brit residing in Korea. Giacomo Lee’s Funereal, available as an eBook, is a book in two halves: an enthralling and well-told tale exploring the world of Korea’s “fake funeral” industry – an interesting service which assists its clients in scrutinising their lives in a sort of shock therapy – and then a dark whodunit which imagines a sinister side to the idol factories run by the big entertainment conglomerates. Well worth searching out.


In non-fiction, we were deluged with a flood of memoirs by North Korean escapees. I’d be interested to know how well they sold. Jang Jin-sung’s (released in 2014) was a must-read, but his story had the interest that derived from his position in Kim Jong-un’s propaganda department. The publishers behind the five (or maybe more) released in 2015 failed to establish in what way their offerings were anything other than variations on a well-known theme (a view confirmed when I heard part of one of them on the radio), and none of the books found a place in LKL’s library.

Pathways to Korean Culture + Shin Sang-ok

The non-fiction book which LKL found most stimulating was Burglind Jungmann’s Pathways to Korean Culture (Reaktion Books), published in late 2014 but slow to make it into the shops. Interesting for its art history but even more interesting for the social and historical context provided about the artists themselves. Probably the one that we read most quickly was Paul Fisher’s page-turner A Kim Jong-il Production. The one that’s on our shelf that we have not had time to get to yet is Andrei Lankov’s The Real North Korea (OUP); and one North Korea book that might actually end up on the shelf is Hazel Smith’s North Korea: markets and military rule (Cambridge).

If I didn’t have a day job I would have hunted down Vladimir Tikhonov’s Modern Korea and its Others (Routledge) and Martina Deuchler’s Under the Ancestors’ Eyes (Harvard). On the musical front, jazz drummer Simon Barker brought out Korea and the Western Drumset: Scattering Rhythms (SOAS musicology / Ashgate) and Keith Howard brought out SamulNori: Korean Percussion for a Contemporary World in the same series.

North Korea Confidential and Our Korean Kitchen

On the Amazon wishlist is Daniel Tudor’s and James Pearson’s North Korea Confidential (Tuttle), but in my local bookstore now, and soon to find its way into my kitchen, is Jordan Bourke’s and Rejina Pyo’s Our Korean Kitchen (Weidenfeld & Nicolson). They have done well to beat Judy Joo to the printers and I look forward to trying some of their recipes.

  1. A full list of titles is as follows: Yi Mun-yol: Son of Man (tr Brother Anthony of Taize), Seo Hajin: A Good Family (tr Ally Hwang & Amy Smith), Kim Gyeong-uk: God Has No Grandchildren (tr Sunok Kang), Lee Seung-U: The Private Lives of Plants (tr Inrae You Vinciguerra & Louis Vinciguerra), and Kang Young-sook: Rina (tr Kim Boram). []

One thought on “A look back at the books of 2015

  1. A lot to like there 🙂

    I too question Dalkey’s desire to spread the word about their series. I did get review copies of the earlier books, but when I asked for copies of the latest books, I was told only e-copies were available – so I declined…

    I’m a big fan of the Han Kang and Hwang Sok-yong books, not to mention the two Bae Suah stories. I didn’t get around to the new Shin Kyung-sook novel, though, as I had too many problems trying to… download the e-Galley!

    Again, you’re right about the ASIA publishers books, which is a pity as it’s a great idea. I have received a few thanks to role as a guest judge for the Ku Sang Literary Prize, and I now have a library copy of ‘Modern Family’ after enjoying ‘Homecoming’ 🙂

    Let’s hope 2016 continues the K-Lit resurgence…

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