Sunday, January 17, 2010

What I'm Reading

Time again for my periodic book report. Looking back, I see I was still in the middle of Kafka on the Shore when I last wrote on Nov 22. It was an engrossing read, though I was rather disappointed in the ending, which relied too much on the surreal and fantastic to suit me. Since then, I have read:
  • The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl - this is a combination murder mystery, historical drama and literary novel by first-timer Pearl (His second book, The Poe Shadow, is next up after I finish my current book). The premise is that a serial killer in post-Civil War Boston is killing people by copying the punishments of the damned in Dante's Inferno. This is happening at the same time that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is undertaking the first American translation of the work, aided by his friends Oliver Wendell Holmes and James Russell Lowell (constituting the Dante Club). It also falls to them to solve the murders. The book cannot be faulted for its erudition or for its clever plotting; though it bogs down a bit in the middle, it races to a thrilling climax in the final third. Good read.
  • With Her Oil Lamp On, That Night by Lim Chul-Woo - the title story is confusing and unbelievable, but the second story, a character study of people waiting for a train in the eponymous Sapyong Station, almost redeems the slim volume. For only the second time, I cannot recommend an entry in the Portable Korean Library of Short Fiction series, because the translation is well below par. There are grammatical and/or spelling errors on practically every page, which I found very distracting. The second-best thing about these books, after their easy introduction to serious Korean literature, is their easiness on the wallet--the volumes are a uniform W5,000.
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz - won the Pulitzer Prize, though I'm dashed as to why. The story was a reasonably interesting tale of a Dominican immigrant family in New Jersey, but the author's little conceits were unrelievedly irritating: a) footnotes-copious, even multi page footnotes with invective-filled rants containing historical background about the Dominican Republic; b) Spanish terms-the occasional expression or term is no problemo, but the author repeatedly fills what seems like significant moments with full sentences of a foreign language without any context for understanding them. Skip over them, one might say, it doesn't matter--well if it doesn't matter, than he should put it in English! Dios mio! c) POV shifts-there are four to six different narrators, and if the reader can't even determine that, Junot, you're not doing your job!

  • I'm a Stranger Here Myself by Bill Bryson - this is a collection of columns written for a British newspaper after his repatriation to New England (from Old England) in the 1990s. (I never said I only read current books.) Bryson has a knack for finding the little things about a culture that illuminate the larger things about it: he writes about a trip to the post office or the number of cupholders in a car or lugging out the Christmas decorations in a way that makes me love America without actually wishing I was there.
  • The Last of Hanako by Choi Yun - one of few female writers so far anthologised in the Portable Korean Library series, the two stories in this volume are beautifully written, with a kind of understatement tells the essential truths without beating the reader over the head. The title story concerns a group of friends whose key member is seen by them as a superfluous hanger-on--only when Hanako (her nickname, thanks to a prominent nose) disappears from their circle do they realize her power. 'The Last Snowman' allows the reader to piece together a cell of the resistance movement of Korea in the 1980s that eventually brought about democratic rule. Good stuff.

Having waded into the last book on my pile (The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga), I went to the bookstore in Kyobo Towers at Gangnam today (the flagship store, I think, and the one I usually go to), and boy was it packed! Koreans apparently love to read--even though they have the fastest, cheapest, most ubiquitous wi-fi on the planet, they still like books, God bless 'em.

As will occasionally happen in a place like this, I was latched onto by an older Korean man who wanted nothing more than to be my friend, or at least converse with me. Here I am hoist on my own petard, believing as I do that we expats are also de facto ambassadors for our homelands--even though I was just out to replinish my current reading pile. Were we in a bar, I'd happily let him buy me some beers, but I doubt buying me a book was in his plans. I politely answered his questions while making it clear I was about selecting reading material, not conducting an interview.

Finally, he got the hint and beat a retreat--ten minutes later, he was pestering a young lass with questions about a book; though she kept saying she didn't know, as she hadn't read it, he was undeterred. Sometimes, you just want to smack a guy.


Tanner Brown said...

Yeah, I wanna give big "huh" to the many out there who slobbered over Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. Real sorry about her losses, but she should have called the book Me Explaining How Shitty It Was That My Husband Died Right When We Were About To Eat A Salad, with the subtitle And Not Much Else.

Did you ever get around to reading The Devil in the White City -- the one about the World's Fair that your bestest friend so sweetly gave you?

Charles Montgomery said...

Dear SP,

What is the other Portable Korean Library of Short Fiction book that you didn't like?

I'm reviewing them all at
Morning Calm

Haven't read "Oil Lamp" yet.. but have more or less like everything else.

OTOH I saw the ending of "Last of Hanako" coming from a mile away.. really didn't like it that much..

YMMV.. or already has!

Tuttle said...

TB: I left it in a storage unit somewhere in semi-rural Georgia.

Charles: I did not care for The Cry of the Magpies by Kim Dong-ni. As a rule, I find stories which begin with someone strangling someone else much more interesting than those that end that way.

As to Hanako, I thought it was a well-written exploration of an unusal set of relationships. My favorites in the series so far (I'm not reading them in order) are the title story of My Innocent Uncle, and A Dwarf Launches a Little Ball. A Toy City is good, but I hope they will print the rest of the series.

Charles Montgomery said...


Good news if I understood your comment about "Toy City" correctly...

it has been retranslated (a better job) and includes all three of the original stories...

My favorites of this series are "Photo Shop Murder" and "Dwarf" (which I'm sure you know is also printed in a more complete versions

Both available at most big bookstores in Seoul..

Tuttle said...


I'll try to find the complete Toy City, thanks for pointing that out! Oh, I forgot: I also highly recommend The Other Side of Dark Remembrance, in which a man's misplaced satchel triggers his memories of being a DP during the War.

Charles Montgomery said...


The Other Side of Dark Remembrance


Deep Blue Night

are also among my favorites from that series...

Specially since they both include drinking to the point memory is lost. ;-)

I'm also a general fan of Park Wan-Suh, though she writes stories that might generally appeal more to women...

Oh yeah.. looking at what Tanner posted...

The Devil in the White City is freaking great!