Monday, January 8, 2024

2024 in Books - Week One

 I used to post a list of books I was reading/listening to on Twitter each year, but since that site has turned into a billionaire's personal "pick me" project, I thought that perhaps this year I might do something different and post the books here. Plus instead of just a brief one or two lines for each book, I might flesh out my thoughts my thoroughly.

If you're here, then hi! Hope you find a book or two you might like!

Generally, January 1st is a big reading day for me. I feel like if I don't start the year reading, then I won't read at all. This year I started with two short stories for work (I introduce translated Korean fiction and poetry every week on Arirang Radio) - one from The Penguin Book of Korean Short Stories and the other from the internet (thanks to the good people at the LTI Korea.

The Penguin Book of Korean Short Stories is well worth an investment of time and money, you get a great selection of translated stories from a range of time periods, some previously unpublished. However, you are getting it curated by editor and translator Bruce Fulton, who has his own preferences when it comes to authors and translators (he really does seem to prefer the works he and his partner Juchan Fulton translate themselves a lot of the time). Nothing wrong with that, but it should be said that the Fultons are very much old school when it comes to translation. They've been around for decades and have been responsible for getting some great Korean books into English, but the feel is a little more old fashioned than some of the... ahem... more youthful translators around.

I've been dipping in and out of this collection since I first got my hands on it and this week's selection was the final story in the book - Kim Ae-ran's The Future of Silence.

If you're not familiar with Kim Ae-ran, then stop what you're doing right now and go and order a copy of My Brilliant Life, her award winning novel about a teenager with progeria. It's deeply moving and also very funny and will have you wiping your eyes thanks to all the dust that's suddenly appeared in the room.

The Future of Silence is not so lovely, this is Kim getting close to horror in some ways. We're introduced to a narrator who is leaving the body of their dying host, an old man, and seemingly on their way to their own demise. At first we're not sure exactly who is talking to us, but as the story unfolds it is revealed that the host is the last speaker of his language and that the narrator is the language itself. We also learn of his imprisonment in the Museum of Moribund Languages and the awful fate that awaits those who are the last to speak their mother tongue. 

As you read there's a sense of creeping dread, but it is the conclusion to the story, which I won't spoil here (but did spoil on the radio) that really gets you. The idea of language as a living thing is fascinating, as are the questions that Kim puts into the reader's mind about cultural preservation and whether sometimes we need to let go or let things disappear. 

It's a story that has been rolling around my head all week and it's worth picking up the anthology for it alone (at least for me).

Next up was another short story, but this time from 1928. LTI Korea have dispersed a whole heap of translated classic Korean short stories online for free and this is one of them - The Human Arachnid by Kye Yong-muk, translated by Eugene Larsen-Hallock.

The story concerns two old friends who thought each other dead, meeting at a very strange carnivalesque exhibit. And yes, there is a human spider involved. Along with a great set up, there's some strong political and social commentary within about the plight of Korean laborers under Japanese occupation, especially those who thought heading to Japan for work might benefit them. It also has something to say about attitudes to disability in Korea back then and, to be honest, right now as well.

It packs a whole lot into eight pages or so and it's freely available for free online. The biggest takeaway for me was the realization that carnivals and freak shows were a part of Korean life back in the 1920s. I think it's the first time I've seen anything like that referenced to in Korean literature or even in Korean film and television and it has got me wondering what kind of performances and shows were traveling around the peninsula. I'm not sure how much information may be out there about it, but as someone fascinated with performance on the margins of society, it's something I may try to dig into in the coming year.

Books three and four of 2024, also read on New Year's Day were much lighter, sillier and gorier. Two graphic novels from the minds of Jimmy Palmiotti and friends - The Last Resort and Queen Crab.

Humble Bundle had a digital sale on of a collection of his work and I saw Garth Ennis mentioned and despite knowing nothing about him decided to pay the eighteen dollars and take a chance. 

Side note - if you're a comics fan and you've not heard of Humble Bundle then it's worth signing up to their mailing list. Once or twice a month they'll have a graphic novel/comics/manga digital bundle on offer, usually themed around a publisher or a creator. If you're a voracious reader, then it's a good way to stock up on things to read and a relatively cheap way to try out someone you're not familiar with. 

Back to Palmiotti...

The Last Resort is a full on sex sodden, ultra-violent zombie infested thrill ride. There's an infected man who washes up at an island resort, everyone gets infected, then there's a plane crash and what do you know? The survivors have to fight their way out if they can. It's not high art, but it's drawn beautifully and if you're a fan of B-Movie style Heavy Metalesque nastiness then you'll probably like it. As for me? It was fine. Like watching a dumb horror film in comic book form.

Queen Crab, on the other hand, is a much more impressive piece of work. Part thriller, part body horror, part over the top nonsense - we get treated to the tale of a young women who thanks to a dirty deed by her husband ends up with giant crab claws for arms and decides to take revenge. Again, it's utter nonsense, but it's done with real conviction and is beautifully drawn. I didn't plan it, but it's funny how The Human Arachnid and Queen Crab found their way to me on the same day.

Tuesday I needed some light relief so opted for a book from my childhood - Gargling With Jelly by Brian Patten. If you grew up in the UK in the 80s there's a very good chance that you might have encountered Patten alongside Roger McGough and Michael Rosen as one of your first introductions to poetry. Much of it is pure silliness or poems as gags, but Patten also sneaks in environmental themes or moments of poignancy in-between the nonsense.

One poem in particular stood out to me - "Someone Stole the" - where the missing item and the three words that make up it are completely gone from the poem and the reader must work out what the hell it is. 

Reading through the collection was a reminder to me of those days of young discovery, where every author was new to me and every book that fell into my lap could trigger explosions of ideas and imagination in my brain. Some books still do, but it has got rarer as the years have gone by.

My sixth book of the year was one I had started in 2023, put down and picked back up again in 2024. It had been sitting in my bag for the past couple of weeks, lying unloved and unread and I felt like it deserved to be finished.

The Korean Pentecost & the Sufferings Which Followed by William Blair and Bruce Hunt. It's a book of two halves with Blair charting the rise of Christianity at the turn of the 1900s and Hunt looking at the persecutions that followed during Japanese occupation and the splitting of the two Koreas.

Whilst both authors may be biased in their interpretation of events as missionaries in Korea, they offer absorbing first hand and second hand accounts that give not only an insight into that point in Korea's history, but also in the attitudes of western missionaries towards the country and their new flocks.

There is no doubt that the introduction of Christianity completely changed the course of Korea's social development. And I found that very much present in book number seven -  A Korean Model for the Healing of Leprosy by Joon Lew M.D.

I picked this up on a whim when I headed to Itaewon on Friday for a meeting and popped into the ramshackle second hand bookshop near Noksapyeong station. I've been visiting that place for over twenty years and it still looks the same. Not only has the decor remained constant, but even the location for each category of books remains as it always was. I hadn't been there for at least five years and yet I found my way around the shop as if I had been there just last week.

Back to the book... Why on earth would you be reading this, Paul?

Well, it piqued my interest when I saw it on the shop shelf. Korea did something incredible in the second half of the twentieth century, managing to almost completely eradicate new cases of Hansen's disease. This book charts not just the medical rehabilitation, but also the shift from shoving every leper into a segregated facility on an island to giving them a chance to make their own villages and make a living.

The book is written by the doctor who led this new initiative and it is a little bit too self-congratulatory in places, but it offers a wealth of photos from his work with his patients as well as giving a clear run down of how he and his colleagues and the patients went about radically changing Korea's situation and also the Korean people's view on Hansen's Disease.

So that's my week in books. Next week one of the Thursday Murder Club adventures will be making an appearance. What else? Not quite sure yet...

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