Category Archives: #DiverseDecember

The Vegetarian – Han Kang

It seems apt to be posting a review (which I meant to post last week) about this novel at a time when the idea of eating anymore meat makes me feel slightly queasy post Christmas dining like a loon. The Vegetarian by Han Kang is a book I have had on my shelves since this time last year, however the buzz and word of mouth praise around it had been building and building. Then when a copy of her next novel to be translated (again by Deborah Smith) Human Acts landed through my letter box I was reminded that I needed to get a wriggle on and read the first, erm, first.

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Portobello Books, 2015, paperback, fiction, 186 pages, translated by Deborah Smith kindly sent by the publisher

When The Vegetarian opens we are taken into the rather contented, safe and traditional world (as he sees it) of Mr Cheong. He describes how he met his wife, Yeong-hye, and fell for her not because of love but because she was basically very average, quite unremarkable and wouldn’t threaten his life or lifestyle. Okay, so she didn’t wear a bra which was rather shocking but nothing too radical, she would be a good ‘wife’ to him. That is until a few nights ago when he is awakened to his wife getting all the meat out the fridge and freezer, throwing it away and declaring that from now on she is a vegetarian. Her reason? All she will say to him is that she has had a dream and from there the novel starts to spiral, first with Mr Cheong (with a small detour to his shocked and appalled colleagues) and then Yeong-hye’s immediate family reacting badly, a reaction – when her father tried to force feed her pork – which is the start of a real change in Yeong-hye’s life and those close to her.

People turn vegetarian for all sorts of reasons: to try and alter their genetic predispositions towards certain allergies, for example, or else because it’s seen as more environmentally friendly not to eat meat. Of course, Buddhist priests who have taken certain vows are morally obliged not to participate in the destruction of life, but surely not even impressionable young girls take it quite that far. As far as I was concerned, the only reasonable grounds for altering one’s eating habits were the desire to lose weight, an attempt to alleviate certain physical ailments, being possessed by an evil spirit, or having your sleep disturbed by indigestion. In any other case, it was nothing but sheer obstinacy for a wife to go against her husband’s wishes as mine had done.

I don’t want to give too much away, I never do, yet I will need to give a few additional teasers to really get into the heart of why I loved the book and also the way it was written, structured and stunningly translated by Deborah Smith. The Vegetarian is a book in three parts, which were originally three separate novellas about several stages in Yeong-hye’s life. What is really interesting is that none of them are told by Yeong-hye herself. Firstly we have the story told by her husband from the lead up to the announcement of her vegetarianism and to the family dinner where it all unravels. In the second section we switch to the viewpoint of her brother in law as he becomes erotically obsessed with his sister in law and believes she will be part of his next great art work. The third is told through her sister as she visits Yeong-hye who is residing in an institution after a breakdown.

There was much I loved about the way in which this works for a reader. As we read on we gain insights and glimpses into the society in Korea, what it finds acceptable and inacceptable and what your role within that society is deemed to be. Yeong-hye is meant to be the perfect wife, the perfect sister, the perfect daughter, the perfect muse. The simple act of becoming a vegetarian, I say that flippantly because here in the UK it is a simple act, conspires to a full breakdown not only of Yeong-hye herself but of those close to her and even those who have only met her a few times and/or have to interact with her.

It is not just people and their roles or their expectations that Kang is looking at either. In the first part Mr Cheong looks at his career, the corporate world and the traditional roles of marriage and the expectation of each spouse. In the second part we look at the art world, the creative, the erotic and the role of desire (in good and bad ways) and society’s views on sex in and outside of a marriage. Thirdly we see society’s attitudes to mental health, and the health care system as it stands, which of course by its very nature defies ‘the norm’ or what is deemed acceptable behaviour. This last section I found incredibly powerful. Pressure and judgement is everywhere, one act can have major reverberations and one small fracture in a family can cause complete wreckage, whereupon who is left to pick up the pieces, if anyone wants to.

 ‘Ah, you’re visiting today?’
The woman is Hee-joo, how is receiving treatment for alcoholism and hypomania. Her body is stout but her round eyes give her a sweet look, and her voice is always somewhat hoarse. In this hospital, the patients who are in good control of their faculties look after those with more acute psychological problems, and receive a little pocket money in return; when Yeong-hye had grown difficult to manage, refusing point blank to eat, she had come under the care of Hee-joo.

It actually turns out that Yeong-hye is not the small act that lead to this, in a way is a case of her using some form of control to deal with another act from her past, which I don’t want to spoil for anyone who hasn’t read it because it is incredibly powerful, from a single line, when the penny drops. I was left feeling very numb for sometime afterwards. I will say no more on this part of the book, other than it is superbly, superbly done showing the power of Han Kang’s writing and Deborah Smith’s marvellous translation from the original Korean.

Speaking more of the writing, to avoid any spoilers, not a line is wasted in this book; it is precise, beautiful and quite searing. Kang manages to create scenes, landscapes and sections of society and the culture around it effortlessly – let us not forget this is a slim volume even made up of three novellas. Her triumph in The Vegetarian though is the creation of Yeong-hye and her story. Yeong-hye is at once a complete individual and also a symbol of many, many women and the pressure and expectation that is put on them. She speaks for no one and yet everyone, and yet she also never speaks. Her family, society and everyone else does the talking for her and yet somehow Kang makes these characters see her from only their viewpoint yet the reader is given her fully formed. The only things we ever hear from her are a few small sections from her dreams/nightmares and I think we all know what Kang is trying to say with this.

Dark woods. No people. The sharp-pointed leaves on the trees, my torn feet. This place, almost remembered, but I’m lost now. Frightened. Cold. Across the frozen ravine, a red barn-like building. Straw matting flapping limp across the door. Roll it up and I’m inside, it’s inside. A long bamboo stick struck with great blood-red gashes of meat, there’s no end to the meat, and no exit. Blood in my mouth, blood-soaked clothes sucked onto my skin.

If I am making this book sound to heavy it is honestly not, which is also what is so brilliant about it. There are some very funny, magical, titillating and sexy moments in the book amongst the thought provoking and questioning layers throughout. You can also just read this as being a book about a woman who decides to stop eating meat and become a plant. Yet The Vegetarian is so, so, so much more than that. It is a book that has imprinted itself on my brain and one I will be recommending to anyone and everyone, it is certainly one of my books of the year. I cannot wait to read Human Acts which I have on my bedside table waiting for the first week of January when I will devour it. If you haven’t read The Vegetarian yet I seriously recommend you do and will be reminding you so again in a few days – yes, it is one of my books of the year!

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Filed under #DiverseDecember, Books of 2015, Granta Books, Han Kang, Portobello Books, Review

Blackass – A. Igoni Barrett

If I had to pick the book which I have picked up and put down most in book shops in 2015 then A. Igoni Barrett’s Blackass would probably win that title. Everytime I picked it up the same things went through my head. Yes, for the name, which I found cheekily (no pun intended) daring. No, because it compared itself to Kafka’s Metamorphosis, which takes itself far too seriously and takes me back to secondary school drama where I was a beetle for a month and a table for two. Yes, lots of people I trust really loved it and spoke of it highly all over the shop. No, lots of people I trust felt let down by it at various points. Someone at Chatto &Windus clearly felt my panic in the ether (or as some call it Twitter) and soon it kindly fell through my letter box and, instead of my usual ‘pop it on my chest of drawers and think about it’ routine I started reading it straight away…

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Chatto & Windus, 2015, paperback, fiction, 272 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Furo Waiboko awoke this morning to find that dreams can lose their way and turn up on the wrong side of sleep. He was lying nude in bed, and when he raised his head a fraction he could see his alabaster belly, and his pale legs beyond, covered with fuzz that glinted bronze in the cold daylight pouring through the open window. He sat up with a sudden motion tha swilled the panic in his stomach and spilled his hands into his lap. He stared at his hands, the pink life lines in his palms, the shellfish-coloured cuticles, the network of blue veins that ran from knuckle to wrist, more veins than he had ever noticed before. His hands were not black but white… same as his legs, his belly, all of him. He clenched his fists, squeezed his eyes shut, and sank into the bed. Outside, a bird chirruped short piercing cries, like mocking laughter.

When Furo wakes up on the morning of a very important job interview, as job interviews are few and applicants many, he initially thinks that he is still dreaming for the body he seems to be housed in no longer resembles his own. Overnight it seems that somehow he has turned white, well not quite all of him, as the titles suggests part of his anatomy is still very much its original colour (something we the reader know from the off but Furo discovers sometime later in a very funny scene). What follows in Blackass is how Furo deals with the physical change, initially just in the interim and then over the longer term, followed by the deeper change as he discovers life as a white man in Nigeria is initially alienating and then quite useful, if somewhat detrimental to his soul.

I found following Furo a rather eye opening experience unsurprisingly. As he walks through the streets of Lagos people point, jeer and mutter. He has become a minority very quickly, yet once he starts to speak to people in Nigerian he becomes an oddity, why would a white man know pidgin Nigerian, something must be suspect with him. Yet at the job interview this makes him a valuable asset in the business world and soon finds him offered a position far above the one he was aiming for, all because of his skin colour, but what will he do in the two weeks before he starts his job? Can he go back to his family and if not what will he do as a poor man, easily noticeable and therefore vulnerable?

He had always thought that white people had it easier, in this country anyway, where it seemed that everyone treated them as special, but after everything that he had gone through since yesterday, he wasn’t so sure any more. Everything conspired to make him stand out. This whiteness that separated him from everyone he knew. His nose smarting from the sun. His hands covered with reddened spots, as if mosquito bites were something serious. People pointing at him, staring all the time, shouting ‘oyibo at every corner.

Initially we have the discussion of race and skin colour, how does the colour of your skin affect you and define you? Yet as the book goes on the remit gets wider both as Furo’s situation changes but also through the people he meets along the way. Through his circumstance we soon look at how the world changes be you rich or poor, lowly or powerful. As he meets Syreeta we are initially given an insight into the world of the trophy mistress and the kept woman, yet with her relationship with Furo we find ourselves looking at the trophy white lover and the kept man, which I found fascinating.

In a rather unexpected twist, with the character of an author called Igoni, we also look at the changes in gender and hinted sexuality. If I had one wish it was that the Igoni sections had been fleshed out and explored more as they were really interesting and yet we don’t get into the crux of them as much as I would have liked, there felt much more to discuss rather than a whole section of the book being in tweets. There was a lot that could have been done here and whilst I found a whole section of the book in tweets very modern, and rather meta with the character of the author having the same name as the, erm, author, I felt we only skimmed the surface of this transition and we could have got even more riches if Barrett had gone deeper. Anyway, a small quibble that has lead me to digress.

There are many layers and many riches in Blackass. I found the way Furo changes externally drastically yet changes internally much more slowly compelling and rather confronting reading. It raises all the questions I mention before whilst also unflinchingly and bluntly looking at society and the flaws it can all too often try to hide. Yet whilst doing this it doesn’t take itself all too seriously or do it without any witt or vibrancy, quite the opposite and how could it with its title which is a very clever move. Lagos pours off the stage with it’s hustle and bustle, the smells, tastes and noises all unfurl around you and the characters, if often not always likeable, arrive fully formed with all their complexities and quirks.

I can’t really comment on the parrallel’s or riffs that it has with Kafka’s Metamorphosis if that is what you are after, I have tried to wipe those weeks being a table from my memory. I don’t think it is right or beneficial to either. How can you compare the two?  Yes they both have levels of metamorphosis in them, yet one is a cult European classic and one a new satirical (and a lot more fun) tale of modern Nigeria. Where does it get us to compare the two? Read them both if you like, or don’t – personally I would suggest reading this one, you’ll have more fun and be made to think just as much.

I think Blackass is a really interesting and different novel from many of the things I have read, or have seen published, this year. You can simply read it as a darkly witty escapist fairytale/myth/fable or you can or as a wonderful, sattircal and occasionally daring way to look at society and questions of class, gender and race. Either way you are going to have a great read ahead of you. One thing I know for sure, I need more of this kind of quirky and thought provoking fiction in my reading diet. Don’t we all? I should have picked it up off the book shop shelves sooner.

I didn’t read this book for #DiverseDecember, it would be a great one to add to your reading list for the month though if you are still looking for titles, really it should just be on your reading list regardless. Has anyone else read Blackass and if so what did you make of it? Have you read Barrett’s short story collection, I shall be adding that to my collection at some point in the future.

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Filed under #DiverseDecember, A. Igoni Barrett, Chatto & Windus, Review

#DiverseDecember

Many of you will have heard that some good souls have started the reading initiative #DiverseDecember which has seen umpteen people joining in to read BAME authors, who many feel don’t get the coverage or attention that they deserve. I am not going to open up that whole can of worms as I think I have made my thoughts quite clear on it over the last few months. However if you missed the origins of all this it was based around the lack of BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) on the World Book Night 2016 selection of titles which caused some debate in various parties – to put it mildly, some people should have been ashamed – and then this positive idea was born by Dan of Utterbiblio (one of the good souls mentioned above) saying he would read only BAME authors in December and encouraging other people to join in.

I need little encouragement with things like this. I am a big fan of voices from all minorities and genders being read, I wouldn’t have started a prize for LGBT authors if not. However, to only read books by BAME authors, whilst being very diverse I am sure, I don’t think really hits the spot for my reading taste and views. I could do it and I am sure I would love it, yet wouldn’t that then be excluding some very talented non BAME authors from my reading life? I thought about this a lot when the subject of publisher’s only publishing books by women for a year came up when I said…

So could I read only books by women for a year? Yes, easily and I bet it would be a real treat at times and less of a success of times, just like and (and every) reading year. Will I do it? No. You see only reading books by women by its very nature wouldn’t be me reading for equality, it would be halving the experiences I could have in missing out great male authors of all walks of life and backgrounds. Narrowing your reading options really doesn’t do anyone any good. For example, if I chose to only read BAME authors or LGBT authors I would be missing out on white or straight novelists of both genders form all sorts of social backgrounds. In any of these scenario’s I am going to be cutting out some wonderful reads and with books that is what I want: wonderful reads, so I would be missing out really.

So what I have decided to do is read four BAME authors for #DiverseDecember, roughly one a week. I am going to read a favourite BAME author, a BAME novel I have wanted to read for ages, a new to me BAME author and some BAME non fiction. These are the titles…

Americanah –Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I love, love, love Chimamanda’s writing and was thrilled when she won the Best of the Baileys a few weeks ago. I started Americanah when the proof arrived and stopped, why I do not remember, so now I shall return to it.

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As teenagers in Lagos, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are fleeing the country if they can. The self-assured Ifemelu departs for America. There she suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race. Obinze had hoped to join her, but post-9/11 America will not let him in, and he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London. Thirteen years later, Obinze is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a blogger. But after so long apart and so many changes, will they find the courage to meet again, face to face?

Delicious Foods – James Hannaham

This is a book I bought at the first book shop I entered in America as I had been dying to get my hands on a copy since several people, including Nikesh Shukla who has been writing very openly about the BAME issue of late, raved and raved and raved about it. Why did I buy it in America? It has yet to get any UK release date. I loved Hannaham’s God Says No, which is one of the books I lost when I moved up north. I must replace it.

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Darlene, a young widow and mother devastated by the death of her husband, turns to drugs to erase the trauma. In this fog of grief, she is lured with the promise of a great job to a mysterious farm run by a shady company, with disastrous consequences for both her and her eleven-year-old son, Eddie–left behind in a panic-stricken search for her. Delicious Foods tells the gripping story of three unforgettable characters: a mother, her son, and the drug that threatens to destroy them. In Darlene’s haunted struggle to reunite with Eddie, and in the efforts of both to triumph over those who would enslave them, Hannaham’s daring and shape-shifting prose not only infuses their desperate circumstances with grace and humor, but also wrestles with timeless questions of love and freedom.

The Vegetarian – Han Kang

I have not read Han Kang but have both of her books on my shelves as Granta have kindly sent them my way. I find both North Korea and South Korea and their cultures fascinating so this will be a really interesting look into the South I am hoping. Plus, lots of people I trust have loved it.

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Yeong-hye and her husband are ordinary people. He is an office worker with moderate ambitions and mild manners; she is an uninspired but dutiful wife. The acceptable flatline of their marriage is interrupted when Yeong-hye, seeking a more ‘plant-like’ existence, decides to become a vegetarian, prompted by grotesque recurring nightmares. In South Korea, where vegetarianism is almost unheard-of and societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye’s decision is a shocking act of subversion. Her passive rebellion manifests in ever more bizarre and frightening forms, leading her bland husband to self-justified acts of sexual sadism. His cruelties drive her towards attempted suicide and hospitalisation. She unknowingly captivates her sister’s husband, a video artist. She becomes the focus of his increasingly erotic and unhinged artworks, while spiralling further and further into her fantasies of abandoning her fleshly prison and becoming – impossibly, ecstatically – a tree.

Negroland – Margo Jefferson

I spotted this book out the corner of my eyes in Foyles when I had accidentally fallen in on one of my work trips of late and was intrigued. I then saw BuzzFeed raving about it and when I went back (on another work trip, I always seem to pass it between one or two meetings) couldn’t see the display shelf but they had one left hidden away. Hoorah. Its sounds an interesting memoir from a very different angle…

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Born in upper-crust black Chicago—her father was for years head of pediatrics at Provident, at the time the nation’s oldest black hospital; her mother was a socialite—Margo Jefferson has spent most of her life among (call them what you will) the colored aristocracy, the colored elite, the blue-vein society. Since the nineteenth century they have stood apart, these inhabitants of Negroland, “a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty.” Reckoning with the strictures and demands of Negroland at crucial historical moments—the civil rights movement, the dawn of feminism, the fallacy of postracial America—Jefferson brilliantly charts the twists and turns of a life informed by psychological and moral contradictions. Aware as it is of heart-wrenching despair and depression, this book is a triumphant paean to the grace of perseverance.

So those are the books I am reading. Head over to The Writes of Woman if you want more on #DiverseDecember and where Naomi (another one of the good souls) will also give you some good recommendations too. I now want Claudia Rankine’s Citizen quite badly. I will clearly be buying many BAME books this month to show my support so do recommend some of your favourites too in the comments below, oh and let me know if you have read any of the above.

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Filed under #DiverseDecember, Book Thoughts