Monday, August 24, 2009

Where Have You Been Korea?

To make this review all about me right from the start, Flower, I want to tell you about the startling revelation that came to me after reading "The Calligrapher's Daughter". I realized that in all my many years of reading novels set in Asia that this was the first one with a Korean setting that I had ever read. It's true. I can hardly believe it. I was as shocked as you are right now.

Ever since I discovered the satisfyingly chubby books of James Clavell (no relation to Miss Clavel as far as I know) the summer between high school and college I have hungered after novels set in Asia. So how did I miss Korea? There must be wonderful books out there set in Korea, right? Why are they unknown to me? As a buyer for an independent bookstore and wholesaler for 20 years I read every catalog every season from every publisher in order to do my buys and I cannot recall any Korean historical novels.

About 2 years ago an excellent contemporary novel about the daughter of Korean immigrants was published by Grand Central Publishing. It was "Free Food For Millionaires" by Min Jin Lee. You read it too didn't you Flower? I thought it was terrific. After I read it I wrote about it for our company newsletter and I was able to handsell it quite well. It's the classic second generation torn between duty to parents and the desire to attain what's perceived as All-American Success tale. The characters however were unique and intriguing, there was lots of humor in the book and the writing was first rate. I will definitely read what comes next from Min Jin Lee and I hope that good news makes her hurry up and finish whatever she's working on.

So? Back to no Korean historical novels. Where are they? If you know of any I'd love to hear.

In the broad strokes, "The Calligrapher's Daughter" is about the Japanese forcible annexation of Korea in 1910 that lasted until 1945 and Korea's entrance into the modern world after the horrors of the Japanese occupation ended. Up until 1910 the (united) Korea had been peacefully ruled for over 500 years by the Joseon Dynasty.

The intimate story of the novel is the life of the unnamed daughter of a successful calligrapher. Coming as she did with the Japanese so to speak the daughter is viewed by her father Han as a shame brought on the family and Han refuses to name the girl. As the Japanese take over more and more of the government, police and culture in Korea, Han becomes bitter and resentful. He is an artist and activist, a scholar who struggles to recapture Korea's glory and independence.

Najin's life, as the daughter is nicknamed at age 8, parallels her country's subjugation and modernization. She longs to fulfill both her Father's ideal of womanhood (essentially seen, not heard and make me another baby) and to get an education. When at 14 she gets unexpected help from her Mother to escape a marriage arranged by her Father and go and live in the King's court, it is her ticket to an education and to creating her own destiny. Of course it is not smooth sailing from then on in, but to know more about the plot you'll have to read the book.

The author, Eugenia Kim, based this novel on the life of her Mother. Kim's family story, detailed research and gentle writing style make Calligrapher's well worth reading. She does an excellent job capturing the desires for a lost world and the longing to have a future of your own.

"The Calligrapher's Daughter" is not without flaws. The religious aspects of the story, although important to the storyline, sometimes come across as preachy and the novel is written in such a completely straight forward and secondary plot-less manner that it does occasionally feel as though you are reading an upper level young adult novel. However. I have thoroughly enjoyed the book and I have learned an immense amount about Korean history and culture.--That has been fascinating and it's left me wanting more.

So where are those Korean novels?


P.S. I think the cover is beautiful and it did make me pick the book up to look at. Congrats to the designer!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

It's An Honor Just To Be Nominated

Flower, Flower, Flower.

I know that you love award shows but how do you feel about awards? I'm all for them. The more the better.

My fav award is the Man Booker Prize. I know. There's no red carpet, but if there was guarantee everyone would be badly dressed, don't you think? Hilariously so. The bad-ness might be Grammy level only with more florals and boiled wool. Oh and picture if you will the hair! Is my fancy for Man a mere sideline of my supreme attachment to books? Oh no my friend!

It's the whole Long List /Short List thing. It builds anticipation. I love that first you get the 13 books that the judges have selected from out of every novel published by a citizen of the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland. There's some reading for you. How many titles do you think that is? 40,000? 60,000? Are they all read by the judges? Let's just say, no. Then about a month later the Short List comes along. The 13 get shaved down to 5. Then a month after that comes the winner.

Here is this year's Long List with U.S. availability noted:

The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt---due out in September, hardcover
Summertime by J. M. Coetzee--- due out in October, hardcover
The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds ---no date yet for U.S. release
How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall ---due in September, paperback
The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey ---available, hardcover
Me Cheeta by James Lever ---available, hardcover
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel ---due out in October, hardcover
The Glass Room by Simon Mawer--- no date yet for U.S. release
Not Untrue & Not Unkind by Ed O'Loughlin--- no date yet for U.S. release
Heliopolis by James Scudamore --- no date yet for U.S. release
Brooklyn by Colm Toibin ---available, hardcover
Love and Summer by William Trevor ---due out in September, hardcover
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters ---available, hardcover

The Man Booker judicial chair, James Naughtie, says:

"The five Man Booker judges have settled on thirteen novels as the longlist for this year's prize. We believe it to be one of the strongest lists in recent memory, with two former winners, four past-shortlisted writers, three first-time novelists and a span of styles and themes that make this an outstandingly rich fictional mix."

I'll not argue.

I have done fairly well with the Long List. The really long list of all novels published in the Commonwealth this year, no so much. I have read: "The Little Stranger", "Me Cheeta", "Brooklyn" and "The Wilderness". Waiting to be read are "Wolf Hall" and "The Children's Book". I adored Stranger, found Cheeta to be old Hollywood gossip sewn together with a clever hook but ultimately a bit dull and sad, Brooklyn is a gorgeous, clear-eyed love story, and Wilderness is a heartbreaker about a novelist with Alzheimer’s.

Any books that I think should have made the Long List? hmmmmm... "Winter Vault" by Anne Michaels. A beautiful novel about a young couple in Egypt in 1964. The husband is there as an engineer working on the move of Abu Simbel. The wife is a botanist with a passion for anything that comes out of the Earth. The intensity of the temple move, the ethics involved, childhood memories and a tragic loss forces the couple to circle around love and grief, destruction and rebirth. The fluidity of Michael's writing is flawless. She has the precision of a master short story writer and the understanding of human psyche of Jung.

Any others? Not that come to mind immediately, but I'll think about it.


P.S. If judge James Naughtie's name is really pronounced naughty---I'm dying just like any other 12 would be.