A look back at some of the books of 2017

by Philip Gowman on 31 December, 2017

in 2017 year-end posts, Book Reviews, Korean literature in translation

2017 books - favourites

This year, I haven’t even come close to keeping up with the volume of newly-published literature in translation, let alone the plethora of new non-fiction. Perhaps to balance my feelings of guilt at falling behind the pace of new publications, I’ve tried to make inroads into my guilt pile in respect of previous years – though again not fast enough to make much of an inroad into the backlog.

Classic fiction

From the historic guilt pile, I thoroughly enjoyed Yi Kwang-su’s Mujeong (The Heartless – one of the texts discussed in the KCC’s monthly literature nights), though I haven’t had a chance to review it yet; and I also loved last year’s Fulton production The Future of Silence – Fiction by Korean Women. I started reading (and enjoying) this year’s Fulton production, Sunset – A Ch’ae Manshik Reader, not least for its informative introductory essay, but had to stop reading it because it was starting to disrupt my memories of Mujeong, and I’m still hoping to review that. But once I’ve reviewed Mujeong (or decided once and for all that I’ll never get around to it) Sunset is definitely at the top of the literary reading pile, after which I might dip in to a surprise publication from this year: a collection of Kim Tong-in’s short stories (from the new Honford Star press), entitled Sweet Potato.

2 non fiction

In non-fiction, from the guilt pile I enjoyed James B Lewis’s Frontier Contact Between Chosŏn Korea and Tokugawa Japan not least for the wealth of detail on the troubles that the Busan magistrate used to have with the pesky Japanese who had their private embassy-like compound in the port. Fun and informative. Another fun book, but from this year’s publications, was Mike Breen’s The New Koreans. And I’ve made a start with Charlotte Horlyck’s Korean Art from the 19th Century to the Present and need to pick it up again once the Christmas season is over.

From the available texts in English-language fiction, I found myself enjoying Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, an epic and well-researched family saga set amongst Zainichi Koreans. And I’m not quite sure where I found it, but the first of A.J. Terry’s Agent Ko series (Amazon link) was great airport fiction: the first of four books, this one details the training of the sort of all-conquering female North Korean agent such as was played by Kim Yun-jin in Swiri. Not one to exercise the brain cells too much, but perfect holiday reading.

3 novels

From more contemporary translated fiction, I took my steer from the agenda of the KCC’s literature nights or from the authors I found interesting in The Future of Silence or Waxen Wings (another Fulton production I read this year): Song Sok-je’s The Amusing Life (an early discussion topic for a literature night) was suitably amusing, but more amusing (in a different way – and also mildly depressing) was Pyun Hye-young’s An Evening Proposal (another unwritten review). Pyun’s Corpses (in Waxen Wings) was interesting but rather macabre, while An Evening Proposal pokes cruel fun, with laser-sharp accuracy, at the mundane, repetitive lives of office workers. Based on my enjoyment of her work so far, her recently translated The Hole is high on my reading pile.

More of a struggle for me was Han Yujoo’s The Impossible Fairy Tale. Her playfulness with language can be taken in small doses – such as in the short story included in The Future of Silence – but on a sustained scale is too much to cope with. So I struggled with the second half of this book. Less hard going was Hwang Sok-yong’s Familiar Things, set among the garbage-recyclers of 1980s Seoul, which combines a sympathy and understanding for the underprivileged with Hwang’s interest in the traditional spirit-world of Korea. And thoroughly enjoyable throughout is Kim Young-ha’s I Hear Your Voice (- both reviews as yet unwritten).

Pleasant surprises

I usually approach books related to North Korea with fairly low expectations. When I make an exception I usually find that my general rule is right. For example, based on the reviews I was mistakenly looking forward to reading Byung-Yeon Kim’s Unveiling the North Korean Economy: Collapse and Transition (Amazon link) – which I discovered is aimed at a highly specialist audience and definitely not for the general reader. Better to have low expectations and be pleasantly surprised than be let down by unrealistically high expectations.

Bandi The Accusation

So, what do you expect from a collection of North Korean short stories? I’m not too sure, but Bandi’s The Accusation is both enjoyable and thought-provoking. If the stories are fake, they’re nevertheless so convincing that you have to admire the creativity of the author. But for me they have the ring of authenticity. Either way, they’re well worth a read.

Seen in Waterstones

Seen in Waterstones: Haaemin Sunim’s book and the company it keeps

Next, I usually gives books in the self-help section of a bookshop a wide berth, usually finding them superficial and full of the bland and the obvious. But given that The things you can see only when you slow down by Haemin Sunim has sold 3 million copies in Korea I thought I’d give it a go. You could also think of it as Little bits of common sense that you sometimes lose sight of. A lot of the advice that Haemin Sunim gives us is obvious, simple; but that does not stop it also being wise and profound. Not all the wisdom is applicable in every situation (For example: “Do not let people’s opinions of you determine who you are. Instead of worrying about what others think, devote yourself to your dreams”- this might be a useful precept for conducting your life, but will not stand you in good stead at your annual appraisal where you are meant to learn from feedback and amend your ways.) But this is a book you should keep by your side, dip into once a day, read a page, and ponder deeply.

Disappointments

Han Kang: The White Bookjust not my cup of tea. Another example of high hopes being let down. I had lesser hopes of Bae Suah’s A Greater Music, and they were justified. When if comes to fiction, I think I have to conclude that I’m a bit of a lazy reader: if I’m not grabbed by a storyline pretty quickly I lose interest, and with both these works (as far as I got with them) the emphasis is more on poetry than action. I shall return to them when I am less impatient.

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