June in Books: The Waves; The Crossing; One Hundred Years of Solitude

I’ve spent a lot of time on trains this month, and a lot of time waiting in train stations. But as bad as that sounds, the upside is that it means I’ve had an awful lot of time for reading, which I’ve put to good use catching up on a couple of those overlooked classics kicking about on my to-be-read pile.

The Waves, Virginia WoolfAny time of the year is a good time of the year for reading Virginia Woolf, but with a title like The Waves this book was really crying out for the summer.

I’ve really loved getting back into some Woolfian waters at last (this is the first book of hers I’ve read since To the Lighthouse last year), and after being a little numbed by Tad Williams’ gargantuan Stone of Farewell last month it felt really good to follow up with something short and fluid. As a writer, too, it was fascinating to see yet another way of presenting a narrative, through the streaming monologues of six friends rather than conventional prose—like The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, only with added modernism. Definitely something I’ll come back to pore over again in the future.

The Crossing, Samar Yazbek
It’s become such a cliché these days to describe a book as “important” or “a must-read”, but when it comes to The Crossing—the testimonies collected by journalist Samar Yazbek during three illegal border crossings to the Syrian frontline—it really is difficult to find any other way words to use.

As you can probably imagine, The Crossing is quite a heavy-hitting book. But it wasn’t so much Yazbek’s depictions of bloodshed and atrocities (harrowing though they were) that made her account so affecting, it was the human stories she retells—that of the student intent on sitting her university exams despite losing her home to shelling, the children without schools who sell petrol to soldiers on the roadside, and the building contractor who now repairs salvaged tanks for the rebels. If you’ve ever wanted to learn more about Syria than the names and cities in the news, you could do worse than start at The Crossing.

One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
This is a book that’s been on my reading list for some time now, having been recommended to me first by several friends, and then again by its frequent mentions alongside Evelio Rosero’s The Armies, my Colombian Booktrotting read and one of my favourite novels.

At first, I really struggled to get into One Hundred Years of Solitude, and I suspect that’s because those constant comparisons with The Armies proved to be spectacularly wide of the mark—besides their respective authors both being Colombian, there really is little stylistic similarity between Rosero’s desolate stream of grief and war, and Márquez’ multi-generational tale of the trials and triumphs of the Buendía family.

But once I got going, I found it really hard to put this book down. Sometimes Márquez’ magical realism and heavy use of symbols made Solitude a little too velvety to swallow all at once, but overall his lucid style became something I enjoyed coming back to the more I read. Much like The Waves, this wasn’t necessarily the gentlest of novels on the mind, though I’m sure I’ll be returning for another read one day.


Booktrotting in Korea: Drifting House

From the mountain springs of Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country and across the Sea of Japan, my Booktrotting journey returns to mainland Asia via the Korean peninsula, with Krys Lee and her short story collection Drifting House.

The day the siblings left to find their mother, snow devoured the northern mining town. Houses loomed like ghosts. The government’s face was everywhere: on the sides of a marooned cart, above the lintel of the gray post office, on placards scattered throughout the surrounding mountains praising the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. And in the grain sack strapped to the oldest brother Woncheol’s back, their crippled sister, the weight of a few books.

Earlier in the year I read Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, a grim collection of short stories that read like a blacklight shone on the murkier fringes of American society. The book wasn’t entirely to my taste as a reader, but I did think once finished that its focus on race, gender, age and class in the States would have made it perfect for when this Booktrotting tour eventually reaches the USA.

It was a good sign, then, that when I started reading Drifting House—Krys Lee’s debut story collection about modern life on the Korean peninsula—I was immediately reminded of Everything Ravaged. Like Wells Tower, Lee takes a country known for its soaring economy and progressive society, and opts to show none of that; instead, her stories turn to families blasted by domestic violence, women in the grip of oppressive husbands, the laid-off living rough at the foot of luxury high rises. She visits America too, where once well-off immigrants from Seoul are pressed into cramped Koreatown apartments, and even takes one story across the Demilitarised Zone to follow two North Korean brothers desperately seeking refuge in China.

Seoul by night, Philippe Teuwen / CC BY-SA 2.0

As you can imagine, that doesn’t exactly make Drifting House the gentlest of reads. For only nine stories and 210 pages, Lee creates an awful lot of truly unsettling scenes—one particular standout for me was in the very first story, ‘A Temporary Marriage’, in which a browbeaten divorcee tracking down her abusive ex-husband in Los Angeles braces herself expectantly for a beating when she angers the man with whom she is staying.

But as awful as the actual events of these episodes are, it’s Lee’s writing (in the best possible way) that really drives home the discomfort. Compared with Wells Tower, whose gritty style often balloons into pure shock value, Lee never appears to revel in what her characters do; instead, she narrates their actions almost matter-of-factly, as if torn somewhere on the line between abhorrence and sympathy. She suggests that her characters aren’t inherently bullies, thieves and murderers, but are gradually made more capable of committing vile acts by the harshness of what surrounds them: in the final story, ‘Beautiful Women’, Lee writes “here, boys blow up a frog to see how many pieces are created. There is a camaraderie in robbing small shops at knife-point. Men beat up their wives, their wives beat their children, the children beat their friends.” With the lengths to which Lee goes to understand her characters’ motivations, even their vilest actions are made somehow human—and all the more frightening for that.

View from Busan Tower, Iwy / CC-BY-2.0

I can’t say I was that surprised to find conflict forming such a key theme in Drifting House. From what I already knew of Korea’s history (chiefly the Korean war of the 1950s and the peninsula’s prior occupation by Imperial Japan) I was expecting some elements of that violent past to still be present in Lee’s stories—much like how the many guerrilla and revolutionary wars of Latin America weighed heavily on my Booktrotting reads there.

But what did surprise me was how much of Drifting House‘s conflicts centred around personal issues, such as family relationships and in particular the treatment of women in Korean society.

Historically, thanks in large part to the teachings of Chinese philosopher Confucius, the lives of Korean women centred around little more than domesticity. Access to formal education was rare and basic legal rights sparse, and for the most part young Korean girls were raised with deference and subordination to their future husbands in mind. Officially, that all changed after the Second World War, when South Korea’s 1948 constitution ruled all citizens equal before the law and free from discrimination; since the late 1980s especially the south’s government has been pushing to address gender inequality, starting with a series of employment and welfare acts designed to level the legal standing between men and women.

But according to Krys Lee and Drifting House, whilst Korean women may have legislative equality, their social status is still very much dictated by patriarchal traditions. The female characters in Lee’s stories are often educated, working, even wealthy, but none of that counts for them when it comes to demands to obey their fathers and husbands, or keep a respectable house. And when those demands aren’t met, all too often the response is force and intimidation; the result, unhappiness and pain.

Koreatown, NYC, Ingfbruno / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Next on my Booktrotting tour of Asia is the grasslands of Mongolia, the inspiration for Chinese writer Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem.

Summer Reading List: America, Asia, and Desert Heat

Last year, my summer reading was all about taking on some of classic literature’s biggest slogs—namely Moby DickUlysses and Don Quixote. But as much as I enjoyed that challenge, this year I’ll be sticking to some much smaller and more easily-digested novels—some continuing the swing in my reading this year towards American voices, others picking up on some of the new authors I’ve fallen in love with recently.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon

Of course, while I may not have any mind-bending Joyce or Tolstoy epics lined up, I’d still like to tackle at least one Big Read this summer, and Michael Chabon’s 600+ page opus about two Golden Age comics writers taking on the Nazis fits that bill splendidly. I really loved Chabon’s madcap Wonder Boys, so hopefully this will be more of the same—and if I enjoy it, I might just have to extend my stay in New York with Megan Bradbury’s Everyone is Watching or Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill.

Heat, Ranulph Fiennes

I’ll admit, summer isn’t my favourite time of the year—like land snails, lungfish and the East African hedgehog, I thrive much more when the temperature is well below my age. Quite why that makes me want to spend these aestival months reading about Ranulph Fiennes’ “extreme adventures at the highest temperatures on Earth”, I’m not sure; maybe it’ll have the same cooling effect as a hot drink during a heatwave?

The Vegetarian, Han Kang

With my Booktrotting journey currently moving through East Asia, I’ve been eyeing up a few books to compliment those stops, like Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads and Rebecca Mackenzie’s In a Land of Paper Gods. As I’m currently reading through Korea this month with Krys Lee’s Drifting House, it seems like the perfect opportunity to add Han Kang’s Man Booker International-winner The Vegetarian to that list.

After Me Comes the Flood, Sarah Perry

When I lost my heart to The Essex Serpent earlier this year, one of the first things I did (besides recommending it to literally everyone I know) was order Sarah Perry’s first novel, After Me Comes the Flood. It goes without saying that I’m really looking forward to this one: at the risk of sounding bitter and/ or jealous, Perry’s writing is pretty much everything I wish I could do, and then some. Whilst I’m spending some time revisiting new favourite authors, I also dug Jessie Burton’s The Muse (follow-up to 2014’s The Miniaturist) and Eleanor Catton’s debut The Rehearsal out of a charity shop recently, so I’ll line those up for later.

Skin, Ilka Tampke

My summer reading is already set to be pretty fantasy-heavy as I continue working through the Mistborn and Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series’, but even so I’d still like to find room for this novel. I can’t say I know anything about Skin or Ilka Tampke—this was really just an impulse buy based on my soft spot for Finnish writers and awesome female leads. But if there’s any time of the year to try something new, when better than summer?

May in Books: Stone of Farewell; The Deathly Hallows; In a Land of Paper Gods

With May bringing the first heatwave of the summer, the days have been just perfect lately for sitting under a tree and reading al fresco. And even though that means the weather here is beyond lovely, I always like my books this time of year to go somewhere—whether that’s to the fantasy realm of Osten Ard, a Chinese missionary school, or back to the nostalgic halls of Hogwarts.

Stone of Farewell, Tad WilliamsWhen I found The Dragonbone Chair, the first part of Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series, last year, I fell in love with it completely—not because it’s a well-crafted paragon of the fantasy genre, but because it’s utterly ridiculous, dripping with just about every trope you can imagine, and absolutely impossible to take too seriously.

Stone of Farewell, the second part of the series, is pretty much more of the same. Admittedly, it was quite slow-going compared with The Dragonbone Chair (it’s more or less 800 pages of displaced heroes traipsing about and trying to regroup in the wilderness) but the middle books in trilogies are always a bit hit-and-miss, and it’s not as if I was expecting anything more than what I got—a harmless, silly flight of fancy.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling (reread)

Nothing says summer like a bunch of school leavers on a camping trip, right? Granted, those school leavers also happen to be on the run from the forces of magical fascism, and they spend less time drinking round the campfire and more time just trying not to die—but nevertheless, when it comes to some light-hearted adventure reading, you can’t really go wrong with revisiting Harry Potter.

Though saying that, I think this will probably be the last time I reread these books for a while now. It’s been an interesting experience going back to where I fell in love with books in the first place, especially from this new perspective of being a writer and an English student, but as much as I adore Harry Potter I think it’s time to put him back on the shelf and leave him be for a while.

In a Land of Paper Gods, Rebecca Mackenzie

In a boarding school atop the mountain of Lushan, a band of mischievous missionary children play at being prophetesses whilst their parents pursue their calling across China. But at the mountain’s feet lies a country at war, and as the children play their games the Japanese are drawing ever nearer to Lushan.

Paper Gods is a book that’s been on my radar for a while now, but it wasn’t until I was introduced to Japan’s wartime conquests in eastern Asia by The Garden of Evening Mists that I got round to picking it up—although once I did, I could barely put it down again. There’s not really much more to say about it other than it’s just that compelling; except that it would be wrong not to mention Mackenzie’s brilliance in bringing the relatively alien world of a missionary school in 1940s China to life, a skill which took Paper Gods  to the shortlist for the 2017 Ondaatje Prize.

If you’re a devotee of Second World War fiction or you just want a book that’ll take you somewhere this summer, In a Land of Paper Gods will do you just fine.

Booktrotting in Japan: Snow Country

After beginning the Asian leg of my Booktrotting tour with Tan Twan Eng in Malaysia, I now move on to Nobel Prize-winner Yasunari Kawabata and his novel Snow Country, a tale of unfulfilled love on the slopes of the Japanese Alps.

It was a stern night landscape. The sound of the freezing of snow over the land seemed to roar deep into the earth. As the stars came nearer, the sky retreated deeper and deeper into the night colour. The layers of the Border Range, indistinguishable one from another, cast their heaviness at the skirt of the starry sky in a blackness grave and somber enough to communicate their mass.

Numbed by the idleness of his comfortable city life, wealthy Tokyo socialite Shimamura boards a train to Yuzawa, an isolated mountain resort in Japan’s eastern snow country, on a journey he hopes will restore some meaning to his empty emotions.

He is drawn there by Komako, a geisha he met on a previous trip and one with whom he believes he is in love. The two know that their affair cannot last beyond Shimamura’s stay in Yuzawa: he has a wife and family to return to in Tokyo, whilst Komako’s work binds her to the resort. And yet in that very impermanence they find the freedom to give themselves to each other—even though their awareness of what cannot be becomes a pain that haunts their time together.

View from the Kasumi Room, Yuzawa, Daderot / CC0 1.0

At first it felt a little out of place, reading a book entitled Snow Country in the middle of a May heatwave. But the more I read, the more fitting it seemed.

After all, there is little about Snow Country that isn’t a contradiction in one way or another. It is set in a snowbound town, the main attraction of which is the warmth of its hot springs; it is described as both a work of great beauty and also of waste and desolation; its plot revolves around a love affair made all the more keen by the fact it cannot last.

Another contradiction is that, for a novel with such a complex emotional undercurrent, it’s also incredibly short. Given how Kawabata builds the story around the inner development of his characters, you might expect Snow Country to be a book pushing at its binding with questions, internal monologues, maybe even some stream-of-consciousness narration—and yet instead, it’s capped off at a succinct 175 pages. The dialogue is sparing and the descriptions rarely linger; even the characters themselves are pared down, with Shimamura and Komako often referred to simply as “the man” and “the woman” respectively.

It’s a novel that feels as though it’s had every word weighed and measured until only the most essential are allowed to remain, using a “less is more” philosophy that draws clarity from economy. Its suggestive subtlety is often compared to haiku; the Times Literary Supplement described Kawabata as “using the same delicate, glancing technique [to probe] a complicated human relationship”. (In fact, in 1972 Kawabata reduced Snow Country yet further, reworking the novel into an eleven-page abbreviation titled Gleanings from Snow Country.)

Matsumoto Castle, 663highland / CC-BY-2.5

When reading, I did wonder if the effect of Kawabata’s “light touch” writing style was in part a consequence of his translation into English. It’s inevitable that when a story is taken out of its native tongue its rhythm and lucidity will be somewhat coloured by the process, but the disparity varies from language to language; German, for example, shares very similar roots with English, and so less is lost when translating between the two.

Japanese, however, is vastly different to English—not just in terms of the characters used to write it, but also grammatically and phonetically. Check out any list article of “untranslatable Japanese words” and you can get an idea of the difficulties of producing a faithful English version of a Japanese novel, especially one like Snow Country that explores the subtleties of love, loneliness and desire. And so with Kawabata already well-known for his “brushstroke suggestiveness”, it’s hardly surprising that any English translation of his work will be even more spartan again by virtue of what’s lost in conversion.

But while that sounds like it might be frustrating, or even make Snow Country difficult to follow, that’s actually one of the things I really love about reading fiction in translation. Because although it’s true that the lack of overlap between English and Japanese can at times leave Kawabata’s writing seeming vague and stilted, I feel it’s precisely those “gaps” in the translation that allow his elegance to shine through. It’s as if by reading Snow Country in a language so jarringly different to the original, the brain tries to compensate by looking for the rhythm that should be there, the way each sentence should read—much like how when you listen to a good song on a crappy stereo, your brain will instinctively “fill in” the missing frequencies so you don’t hear it sounding as tinny as it really is. It’s a phenomenon I’ve mostly seen before with Finnish writers like Emmi Itäranta, and also with The Garden of Evening Mists on my last Booktrotting stop, and I’m eager to delve further into Japanese literature to see if that’s systemic to the language rather than just Kawabata’s style.

Tsurunoyu Onsen, Fumiaki Yoshimatsu / CC-BY-SA 2.0

The next stage of my Booktrotting journey takes me eastwards across the Sea of Japan to South Korea, where my guide will be Drifting House, Krys Lee’s short story take on the the Korean-American relationship.

Booktrotting in Malaysia: The Garden of Evening Mists

After a brief tour of Oceania, my Booktrotting tour now begins its Asian leg, with a window on post-war Malaysia in Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists.

It was Sunday, and the tea-fields were deserted. In the valleys, the points of light from the farmhouses were as faint as stars behind a weave of clouds. The moon was retreating behind the mountains, the same moon I had seen at almost every dawn in the camp. So long after my imprisonment, there were still moments when I found it difficult to believe that the war was over, that I had survived.

It is 1951, and Malaya is beginning to undo the damage wrought by its brutal Second World War occupation by Imperial Japan. Its people are recovering too, and for Teoh Yun Ling, a former detainee in a Japanese internment camp, that means constructing a memorial garden for her sister, who perished where Yun Ling survived.

Her endeavours lead her to the mist-bound slopes of Malaya’s mountain highlands, and to the door of Nakamura Aritomo: once the chief gardener to Emperor Hirohito himself, now living in exile in the land his own people ravaged. Under Aritomo’s guidance, Yun Ling learns how to bring to life the garden her sister always dreamt of—and all the while comes to terms with the horrors of her past.

Bharat Tea Plantation, Bjørn Christian Tørrissen / CC-BY-SA-3.0

When I started my Booktrotting project, The Garden of Evening Mists was exactly the kind of novel I hoped I would encounter. As a story it’s spellbinding, a rich weave of complex characters and emotions that unfolds delicately through Yun Ling’s pain-driven narrative; and, spanning as it does some of the most seismic events in the region’s recent past, I could hardly have asked for a better grounding in the historical foundations of modern Malaysia.

Although the events of this novel are huge in scale (covering not only the Pacific War but also the communist guerrilla “Emergency” that followed) its thematic focus is relatively small. Tan treats the sweep of Malaya’s military struggles as more of a backdrop than the cornerstone of his plot, training his focus instead on the ground-level story of Yun Ling—on the raw grief of her sister’s death, her hatred of the Japanese, and the thorny duality of her relationship with Aritomo.

In that sense, The Garden of Evening Mists is very reminiscent of Evelio Rosero’s The Armies. As Rosero used his narrator’s agony at the loss of his wife to reflect the wider damage wrought on Colombia by its conflict, so too does Tan Twan Eng seem to be speaking in terms much larger than an individual character when it comes to the enduring effects Yun Ling’s internment had upon her.

Penang, Tys / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Throughout The Garden of Evening Mists many characters remark on Yun Ling’s understandable anger towards her captors, and how her inability to move beyond that stage of grief is not only preventing her emotional wounds from healing, but is also causing her more pain the longer she dwells on it. Indeed, at the beginning of the story Tan reveals that this has already cost Yun Ling her job: as a state prosecutor, she was fired after publicly criticising the colonial British government for acting too leniently towards Japanese war criminals.

But the irony here is that Yun Ling is doomed to leave her past behind, whether she wants to or not—she suffers from aphasia, a brain condition robbing her of her memories. The other characters who urge her to let go are entirely unaware that the reason Yun Ling clings so fiercely to her past, and especially to its most traumatising scenes, is that the resulting pain is the only thing sharp enough to keep her from losing such an integral part of herself.

In an interview with bookbrowse.com, Tan described Malaysia as “very forgiving—or forgetful” when it comes to the legacy of the Japanese Occupation; he added that following the release of his debut novel The Gift of Rain, set in wartime Penang, many Malaysian readers said that they had been unaware of story’s historical events prior to reading it.

(In an interesting side-note, Tan also advocates the educational preservation of Malaysia’s historic and colonial-era buildings, which he feels are too readily discarded to make space for modern developments like the iconic Petronas Towers.)

It’s not hard, then, to imagine that The Garden of Evening Mists was written in response to this. Through Yun Ling and the characters surrounding her, Tan calls for a balance between the pain of remembrance and the dangers of being all too hasty to forget; a balance that allows Malaysia to look to its future without disregarding the lessons of its past. For whilst the horrors of the Japanese Occupation are inevitably hard to hold on to, the alternative—losing those memories forever—would be far, far worse.

Petronas Towers, McKay Savage / CC-BY-2.0

The next stop on my journey takes me northwards to Japan itself, and the setting of Snow Country by 1968 Nobel Prize-winner Yasunari Kawabata.

Like Riding a Bike

I’ve been playing a lot of guitar lately.

Now, that shouldn’t be too much of a revelation. After all, I’ve been a guitarist for more than half my life now; a period in which my instrument has taken me gigging across the country, into studios and on stage with artists of near every kind imaginable—hell, we’ve even played Glastonbury together.

But in recent years, my six-string and I have become somewhat estranged. If you’ve ever visited this blog before, you probably won’t be too surprised to hear just how neatly that decline in my guitar playing correlates to the increase in my struggles with depression and anxiety over the years, and nor should you.

It’s pretty well-established that one of the most visible symptoms of depression is a lack of motivation (or avolition, if you prefer the formal term), which can impact sufferers in a multitude of ways. Sometimes it’s as simple as not having the energy to cook dinner or make the bed; at other times it can be a cause for immediate concern, its effects being so drastic as to make you feel you can’t even move (otherwise known as psychomotor retardation). Make no mistake, this is no synonym for mere idleness: that is an active choice not to do something, but a full episode of depressive avolition is more like finding all of your limbs suddenly deaf to your brain’s instructions.

Indeed, one of the key differences between the two is that whilst general laziness usually centres around a desire to avoid something tedious or unpleasant, depression (being ever the colossal dick) will more often than not target the things you actually enjoy doing.

And so it was for me and my guitar. Pre-breakdown, music was always one of my go-to escapes whenever I was feeling down or unwell; but when the Big D came along I just lost all enthusiasm for it, and even when I could bring myself to pick up an instrument I found all of sudden that playing them gave me none of the pleasure it used to.

And as the days between practices grew into weeks and months, in came the Big D’s cretinous companions—anxiety, self-doubt, inward negativity. Each time I tried to reconnect with music, my illness would be there to remind me what a deficient guitarist I was: “I don’t know how,” it would whisper in the back of my mind, “but you’ve got even worse since last time.” Before long, just the sight of my once-cherished Epiphone Dot was enough to make me feel like a fraud; what used to be a proud reminder of my achievements as a musician now just made me think of all the other, better guitarists who I believed deserved those opportunities more than me. I soon stopped performing live, then stopped writing and recording too, and before I knew it I had all but walked away from music for good.

Ironically, it’s exactly those feelings that have brought me back to my guitar now. Over the last few years I’ve made some huge strides in reasserting control over the Big D, but in all that time I’ve somehow never come to terms with my lost love of music. I guess if I’m being honest, spending so much time away had left me a little afraid of my guitar: if I didn’t think I was any good before, how bad would I be with four years of rust on my muscle memory?

But the difference between then and now is that, having finally seen the Big D for what it is, I know that that fear was just another one of its lies: I might not be the greatest guitarist in the world, but I’m certainly not as bad as I’d let my illness convince me all those years ago. And like any of the Big D’s previous falsehoods, once confronted it unravelled like the sham it really was—if you’ll forgive a little simile it was like finally managing to open a window in a stuffy room, but instead of a breeze coming in it was Meters riffs and Nile Rodgers’ chords, things I’d learnt years before and apparently never forgotten. Everything I thought I couldn’t do is coming back to me at last, and each spare moment I spend with my Epiphone feels like a mini triumph in itself, complete with a shot of “good on ya” dopamine to keep me coming back—it’s no wonder I haven’t been able to put the thing down for over a month now.

And sometimes, that’s what “getting better” is all about. It’s not always known or understood, but the road to overcoming a mental illness often lies in those little victories, those small pieces of land once lost and now recovered that make the end goal that much closer. It’s not always a case of taking big steps forward—sometimes it’s enough just to remember you can still play the guitar.