What have we been reading in 2019? Here are the highs and lows of our reading diary

Best of 2019
Our pick of recent publications

I alternate my reading, on no systematic basis, between fiction and non-fiction, trying to maintain a balance between keeping up to date with the most important new publications and working through the guilt pile of past publications that I failed to read when they came out. I don’t have time to read much apart from Korea-related material, though occasionally I might dip into some Chinese or Japanese texts. But even then I am often led back to Korea. A particularly random Japanese read this year – a translation of Keisuke Matsuoka’s Sherlock Holmes story – had an unexpected Korean connection: the detective teams up with the Japanese Prime Minister Hirobumi Ito to defuse an awkward diplomatic incident between Japan and Russia. Ito was later Resident-General in Korea and was assassinated in 1909 by An Jung-geun.

So here’s what we’ve been reading this year – and it’s the usual mix of duty and pleasure.

Non-fiction

One of my favourite non-fiction books this year was also the longest read: Samuel Hawley’s Imjin War (RASKB, 2005). After a visit to Jinju castle in 2015 (site of two famous sieges), various battle sites associated with Yi Sun-shin on the south coast in 2012 and 2016, and two temples associated with leaders of the monk armies – Daeheungsa (Haenam-gun, 2016) and Pyochungsa (Milyang-si 2018) (both visits yet to be written up), I thought I ought to read something more detailed about the Japanese invasions of Korea than Stephen Turnbull’s Samurai Invasion, which I read before I started this website. Hawley’s book is totally riveting, and even though it extends to 664 pages I wish it was twice as long.

Non-fiction

Other enjoyable reads have been Kirk Karsen’s Tradition, Treaties and Trade (Harvard, 2008) – an examination of late Qing imperialism in Joseon Korea, as the Chinese sought to balance the growing influence of Japan and the Western powers in the region. Thanks to Kay for that particular gift: I was a very contented beneficiary of your relocation clear-out. And an unexpected Christmas gift last year provided a highly enjoyable start to the New Year: Min Kym’s Gone (Viking, 2017).

Less enjoyable was Stephen Gowan’s Patriots, Traitors and Empires (Baraka, 2018), in principle a worthy project, presenting a North Korean view of history. But because it is written in a language that will alienate most readers apart from those who already hold an anti-US, leftist view of history, it will not be taken seriously by what is presumably its target audience. Equally hard going, but for different reasons, was Jinsoo An’s Parameters of Disavowal (Univ of California, 2018) – an examination of how South Korea has come to terms with the colonial period through film. I often get misled into buying a book by an interesting and enticing topic, and ask my local bookshop to get it for me. Then, when I open the cover and read the first few pages, I find it’s like wading through treacle. Often with film and social studies books it’s best to try before you buy. I’ll try with this one again, because it addresses a range of genres such as the Manchurian Western and the gisaeng film. But before then, I’ll make inroads into another examination of Korean film, Joseph Jonghyun Jeon’s Vicious Circuits (Stanford UP, 2019), which just got added to my reading pile.

Cultures of Yusin and Revisiting Minjung

By contrast, two impulse buys at Foyles – while waiting for Bae Suah’s talk on North Station – have been a source of constant interest without being too indigestible: collections of papers on South Korean cultural life in the 70s (Cultures of Yusin, ed Youngju Ryu, 2018) and 80s (Revisiting Minjung, ed Sunyoung Park, 2019). Congratulations to the University of Michigan Press, responsible for both of them.

Books on North Korea are always hard to avoid. An impulse buy in Daunt netted Travis Jeppesen’s See You Again in Pyongyang (Hachette, 2018), an entertaining account of a month spent on a pioneering Korean language course in the DPRK capital. While some of the themes are familiar from other accounts, Jeppesen has some interesting insights on North Korean art in Wonsan and on relations within the defector community (review in Asian Review of Books).

Two non-fiction books have stood apart from the rest in terms of coverage in the press and social media this year. Anna Fifield’s The Great Successor (John Murray, 2019), an account of the life of Kim Jong Un, is valuable in particular for the research on his life in Switzerland, the Otto Warmbier case, the visits of basketballer Dennis Rodman and her tracking down of overseas relatives of the Kim family. Even when she is covering familiar ground (eg the emergence of the Jangmadang generation) she is highly readable.

Non-fiction

And then there is Euny Hong’s The Power of Nunchi (Hutchinson, 2019). I have a feeling that Korean Nunchi will have less staying power than Danish Hygge1, but Hong’s book was reasonably fun while it lasted. It’s a quick read, and you can get the gist of it by reading her New York Times article on the topic, while the book at times feels as if it could have been written by an SEO consultant: the relevant keyword appears that many times on the page. An unscientific straw poll of Koreans in London confirms that nunchi is indeed a Thing in Korea, but that probably it’s an even bigger Thing in Japan. Nevertheless, we can all learn from the sensible advice that you should assess the mood of the room before acting.

Literature in Translation

In fiction, I’ve had a similarly mixed year. I devoured, without much enthusiasm, Yu Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station (tr Morgan Giles) and Hwang Jung-eun’s I’ll Go On (tr Emily Yae Won) (Tilted Axis, 2018 and 2019). I dipped my toes into Kim Hyesoon’s Autobiography of Death (tr tr Don Mee Choi, Norton, 2019) and Bandi’s The Red Years (tr Heinz Insu Fenkl, Zed, 2019). As expected, I got no further than the first story in Bae Suah’s North Station (tr Deborah Smith, Open Letter, 2017) before deciding that Untold Night and Day, coming in January 2020 and which everyone says is amazing, is Bae’s last chance. If I don’t enjoy that one I’ll never buy anything more of hers. I approached Park Duk-kyu’s The Rabbit’s Tale 2020 – a modern-day retelling of the Sugungga P’ansori tale – with an open mind, but finished it with an unanswerable question: Why on earth did anyone think it was a good idea?

Fiction

Having thus had little joy of Korea, I moved across the East Sea to Japan and Durian Sukegawa’s Sweet Bean Paste (tr Alison Watts, Oneworld, 2017), a book full of human warmth featuring an appreciation of slow food, set in the historical context of the way sufferers of Hansen’s Disease were isolated from society. The book led me to re-read two Korean novels: Jo Kyung-ran’s Tongue (tr Chi-young Kim, Bloomsbury, 2009) – for the foodie aspects – which was every bit as impactful as when I first read it ten years ago, and Yi Chong-jun’s Your Paradise (tr Jennifer M Lee + Timorthy R Tangherlini, Green Integer, 2005), about the leper hospital on Sorokdo. This was one of the first Korean novels I read in translation, and at the time I found it rather puzzling. But having fallen in love with Yi’s writing in the interim period I now appreciate it the more.

Fiction: Mold and Mina

Faith in Korean literature restored, I moved back to the current reading pile. One book that I was expecting to enjoy, and didn’t, was Kim Sagwa’s Mina (tr Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, Two Lines Press, 2018); while a collection of short stories I was expecting to find quite tough (Ha Seong-nan’s Flowers of Mold – tr Janet Hong, Open Letter, 2019) passed in a flash. And a classic that I was expecting to find dusty and dull proved to be excellent fun: The Tale of Cho Ung (tr Sookja Cho, Columbia UP, 2018) is a rip-roaring read of chivalry, revenge and romance (review in Asian Review of Books).

Catching up on the previous year’s backlog, Pyun Hye-young’s The Hole (tr Sora Kim-Russell, Arcade, 2017) was mysterious and rewarding; Hwang Sok-yong’s At Dusk (tr Sora Kim-Russell, Scribe, 2018) both tantalising and poignant; and, coming bang up-to-date, Kim Young-ha’s Diary Of a Murderer (tr Krys Lee, Mariner, 2019) thoroughly lived up to expectations.

I didn’t read The Plotters this year – it’s not yet out in a normally-sized paperback version, something that will be remedied in 2020. Other novels still not out in a bookshelf-friendly format in the UK are Pyun Hye-young’s City of Ash and Red (again due in 2020), and Shin Kyung-sook’s Court Dancer. The latter seems to be in a permanent UK publishing limbo.

Fiction - Jeju Massacre

Finally, somewhat inspired by Mary Lynn Bracht’s sensitive treatment of the Jeju Massacre in White Chrysanthemum (one of last year’s picks) I got hold of Hyun Kil-un’s excellent short story collection Dead Silence (tr Hyunsook Kang, Jin-ah Lee + John Michael McGuire, Eastbridge, 2006), and complemented it with Hyun Ki-young’s Suni Samch’on (tr Lee Jung-hi, Asia Publishers, 2012). Both are worth seeking out, particularly Dead Silence.

A detour into science fiction

Way back in 2014 when Korea was guest of honour at the London Book Fair, I remember there being conversations in some of the forums about why there isn’t any Korean genre fiction such as thrillers or sci-fi – or rather, if there was any, why none of it had been translated into English. Since then, we’ve seen Korean thrillers in translation (Korea is the new Scandi Noir). And this year we’ve had what is the first anthology of translated Korean science fiction (Readymade Bodhisattva – ed Sunyoung Park, Kaya, 2019). Not only this, but the analysis of sci-fi and speculative fiction in academic circles has now come onto my radar. The two Michigan collections of articles on cultural life in the 70s and 80s mentioned above contain papers on minjung sci-fi and speculative fiction under Park Chung-hee.

Readymade Bodhisattva
Park Seonghwan’s Readymade Bodhisattva and Kim Ji-woon’s Heavenly Creature

As for the sci-fi anthology, it contains a range of short stories and excerpts from novels from the 1960s through to the present day. In general, I find excerpts unsatisfying, preferring instead to read the complete work. Thus, I was annoyed by the excerpts from Kim Young-Ha’s Quiz Show (2007, tr Haerin Shin) and Mun Yun-seong’s Perfect Society (1965, tr Sunyoung Park and Dagmar van Engend) because both made me yearn for the full monty. But I was grateful for the supremely tedious excerpt from Choi In-hun’s Empire Radio, Live Transmission (aka Voice of the Governor General, 1967-76, tr Jenny Wang Medina) as I can now cross something off my wish list.

On revisiting the collection to write this round-up, I find I’ve only got halfway through it, so there’s more fun to come. But of the complete stories I’ve read so far the Highlander-style Storm Between My Teeth (Lim Taewoon, 2009, tr Sunyoung Park and Randi Vaughan) is hilarious, and the title story, by Park Seonghwan (2004, tr Jihyun Park and Gord Sellar) is interesting as a compare and contrast with Kim Ji-woon’s short film adaptation Heavenly Creature. Altogether a welcome compilation.

The pick of the reads

So, of the reading I’ve done this year, what are my favourites? I’ll split the accolades between new publications out this year and books I could (and should) have read in previous years.

Best fiction 2019

In fiction it’s probably Kim Young-ha, narrowly beating The Tale of Cho Ung; and from the back catalogue it’s At Dusk narrowly beating The Hole.

In non-fiction it’s Anna Fifield, though I know the more academic books will give pleasure in the future; and in respect of books I should have read in previous years Samuel Hawley and Min Kym share the honours.

Best non-fiction 2019

  1. I’m not sure which Hygge book was the first, but there are several MeToos judging by a search for the keyword on Amazon []

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