A look back at our 2020 reading diary

Like many readers, we started the year with good intention of blitzing through the pile of new titles that were promised for the coming months, as well as making inroads into the backlog. And we genuinely got off to a good start with a string of fun K-thrillers, some of them new, some not: The Plotters, The Boy who Escaped Paradise, The Only Child and Seven Years of Darkness. Experience with non-fiction was more mixed. Two enjoyable and informative books on the Joseon dynasty – one focusing on the reign of King Jeongjo and the other a translation of a seventeenth century memoir – were offset by a rather heavy-going collection of essays on Queer Korea. Fortunately Heonik Kwon demonstrated that it is possible for an academic to write engagingly, and his After the Korean War – an Intimate History is probably my top non-fiction book of the year. I need to return to Jooyeon Rhee’s highly readable The Novel in Transition: Gender and Literature in Early Colonial Korea – maybe alongside Sinae Park’s The Korean Vernacular Story, which I have not had a chance to open yet.

Two novels focusing on family and gender roles may be considered side by side. The one that has received most press – Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 – is important and necessary but dreadfully dull. On the other hand the story of a stalwart lathe operator and a well-meaning judge from 1980s North Korea manages to be warm-hearted and socially instructive without being too didactic. So Friend, a thirty-year old title from the DPRK carries a higher recommendation than the latest offering from the South.

By the time summer came the initial easing-off of work that occurred at the start of lockdown had more than reversed. The reduction in free time combined with eyestrain caused by a home office set-up that would probably not pass normal occupational health standards meant that the reading tailed off a little in the second half of the year. But I still managed to slot in, from the back catalogue, one of the most enjoyable reads of the year: Yi In-hwa’s cracking Joseon Dynasty mystery / thriller Everlasting Empire. A real page-turner which also manages to help explain some of the doctrinal and factional differences at court in the 18th century.

My two top recommendations of the year are a title that was hotly anticipated by her many fans (among whom I did not count myself), and a title that came out of the blue. I surprised myself by liking Bae Suah’s Untold Night and Day; and was easily won over by the pace and sophistication of Cheon Un-yeong’s Catcher in the Loft, aided by an excellent Fulton translation.

Added to the backlog which I hope will not get much bigger are two titles that I want to read as soon as I can: Ha Seong-nan’s Bluebeard’s First Wife and Kim Soom’s One Left. Here’s hoping for plenty of time to read these and the exciting titles promised for 2021.

And here’s a list of all the books I should have got through this year if I’d managed to read everything that was published and registered on the radar.

Titles referenced

(Links below are to the books’ entries in LKL’s book database. The individual entries contain a synopsis and links to reviews and online stores where available)

Non-fiction

Fiction

4 thoughts on “A look back at our 2020 reading diary

  1. Everlasting Empire is wonderful isn’t it – it’s the Korean novel I tend to recommend to people who’ve ask for a recommendation they might not otherwise have heard of. (Indeed I think I mentioned it here once in a post).

    And definitely with you on Untold Night and Day – I am a Bae Suah fan but this was her best yet in
    translation – and Catcher in the Loft.

    From your ‘unread’ list, yes One Left and Bluebeard’s First Wife are definitely worthwhile. I loved Winter in Sokcho (albeit written in French) but was less taken with Almond, ‘b, Book, and Me’ and The Disaster Tourist albeit in each case that’s more a function of the type of book, i.e. not books I’d normally read if they weren’t Korean literature.

    Reviews of those I’ve read are on my Korean literature shelf:
    https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/3250759-paul-fulcher?order=d&ref=nav_mybooks&shelf=korean-literature&sort=date_read

    I’ve a feeling Table for One: Stories and On the Origin of Species and Other Stories have both slipped into 2021 – neither seems available now (Table for One is a bit confusing as Amazon sells a Kindle version but I think that is only the title story not the collection)

    Will you be having a 2021 preview (or indeed have you and I missed it)?

    1. Yes, there will be a 2021 preview sometime next week. And yes, I fell for the Table for One trap: thought the Kindle version was a bargain until I realised it was only one story…

      I am grateful for the Everlasting Empire recommendation. I’m not sure I would have searched it out without your tip. I have a half written review which I hope I’ll finish off in due course!

      1. Thanks

        Incidentally – do you know if when Farewell Circus by Cheon Woon-Yeoung was ever published? Not sure of translator but Kaya Press were to be publisher.

        It was announced in 2018 (https://kaya.com/topics/farewell-circus/), Amazon has it published in 2020 but unavailable (https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1885030584/ref=ox_sc_act_title_1?smid=A3P5ROKL5A1OLE&psc=1), Barnes & Nobel shows it as a 2021 book, and I can’t see it on the Kaya Press site other than the original announcement, or indeed on your database.

      2. Hmm. Given that according to Worldcat it’s not in any library’s collection (and LTI Korea aren’t yet listing an English version) my guess is that it hasn’t been published yet. I just dropped Kaya a line to see what the story is. But thanks for pointing it out to me – I’ve now put it in the database with the B+N date of June 2021.

Leave a Reply to Philip Gowman Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.