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.
(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)
- Heonik Kwon: After the Korean War: An Intimate History, Cambridge University Press, 2020
- Jooyeon Rhee: The Novel in Transition: Gender and Literature in Early Colonial Korea, Cornell East Asia Series, 2019.
- Sinae Park: The Korean Vernacular Story: Telling Tales of Contemporary Choson in Sinographic Writing, Columbia University Press, 2020
- Christopher Lovins: King Chŏngjo, an Enlightened Despot in Early Modern Korea, State University of New York, 2019
- Na Man-gap: The Diary of 1636: The Second Manchu Invasion of Korea, translated with an introduction by George Kallander, Columbia University Press, 2020
- Queer Korea, ed Todd A Henry, Duke University Press, 2020
- Cho Nam-joo: Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, tr Jamie Chang, Scribner, 2020
- Paek Nam-nyong: Friend, tr Immanuel Kim, Columbia University Press, 2020
- Seo Miae: The Only Child, tr Jung Yewon, Point Blank, 2020
- Cheon Un-yeong: The Catcher in the Loft, tr Bruce and Ju-chan Fulton, Codhill Press, 2019
- Kim Un-su: The Plotters, tr Sora Kim-Russell, Fourth Estate, 2019
- Lee Jung-myung: The Boy who Escaped Paradise, tr Kim Chi-young, Pegasus, 2018.
- Jeong You-jeong: Seven Years of Darkness, tr Kim Chi-young, Penguin / Little, Brown, 2020
- Yi In-hwa: Everlasting Empire, tr Yu Young-nan, Eastbridge, 2002.
- Bae Suah: Untold Night and Day, tr Deborah Smith, Jonathan Cape, 2020