2020 Reading–February

Only five books finished this month, but, hey, it’s a short month, even with Leap Day!

Friend by Paek Nam-nyong

Friend by Paek Nam-nyung is a curiosity, at least. Paek is a North Korean and his novel is one of the few published in the West. It was originally published in North Korea in 1988, then published in South Korea a few years later, and more recently in France in 2011. It will be published in April in the U.S. by Columbia University Press, and look for my review of the book then in the New York Journal of Books. The novel’s focus is a judge, Jeong Jin Wu, who must adjudicate divorce cases in his district, a small city some distance from Pyongyang. A divorce petition is filed by a woman who is a singer. She wants to divorce her husband, a lathe operator. The judge investigates the case, finds that there is a child involved, and both parents are being selfish and obstinate. He also discovers the damage caused by an earlier case he handled in which he did grant the divorce and separated the two children of that couple by awarding custody to the parents of one child each. Given the author’s official status as a member of the Writers’ Union in North Korea, one might expect politics to find their way into the novel, but the book is interesting because it isn’t political. It deals with the everyday lives of these people, although it seems that they are all being exhorted to do their best for the betterment of their country. 

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips

Disappearing Earth by Julia Philips is beautifully written. Such fluid prose, capturing the look and feel of a setting—the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia—that is unfamiliar to most of us. It’s called a novel, although as I read it I felt that it was more of a novel in stories, in which the many chapters that focus on the large cast of characters all orbit around the central mystery: what happened to the two girls who were kidnapped? Although I liked the book a lot, I was reading it just after the controversy over another novel, American Dirt, came to my attention. That book involves a migrant from Mexico and the author has been lambasted by some critics (starting with a Latina reviewer) for a number of misdeeds, first among them being cultural appropriation. I reject the cultural appropriation label; artists should be free to depict anything their imagination desires. If they don’t do it with sensitivity, then the work may be said to be poorly executed, but that doesn’t make it evil. Disappearing Earth is a book about Russian and native peoples on the Kamchatka Peninsula. The author is neither Russian nor a native of that region, although she did spend time there doing research. Why isn’t she also charged with cultural appropriation? Because the native people of Kamchatka have no voice in America? Because we don’t care if another “white” (i.e. Russian, in this case) culture is appropriated? I’m genuinely curious about this. In any event, the book has received much praise that I think is richly deserved.

Only As The Day Is Long by Dorianne Laux

Only As the Day is Long by Dorianne Laux is a collection of new and selected poems that I picked up when I heard the poet read in Portland, Oregon at Powells Books last year, having visited that city for the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. The book includes a large number of selected poems from five earlier collections, as well as a number of new poems in the title section, “Only as the Day is Long.” There is a lot to love here and I’ve been reading it gradually over a month or more. I think I am most moved by the new poems, though, many of which deal with the death of the poet’s mother (who also appears in many of the earlier poems).

The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson

The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson begins with a description of a theft in 2009 of a huge number of preserved birds from the British Museum of Natural History. The author then describes how the bulk of the collection came to be in the museum, having been assembled by the British naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, who independently of Charles Darwin came up with a theory of the origin of species. Johnson becomes obsessed with the crime and tries to learn as much as he can about the thief, Edwin Rist, a gifted flautist and fly tier who himself was obsessed with the exotic feathers he craved for his most elaborate creations. While it’s an engaging story, I’m puzzled by Johnson’s insertion of himself into the narrative. He finds it necessary to explain that he heard about the theft while fly fishing during a difficult time in his life and that his research was somehow a relief from his work with refugees (also not relevant to the theft). Other than that, however, it was fascinating. It might also have been interesting if Johnson had explored the psychology of tying flies that will never be used to actually fish, which seems to me a bizarre pursuit.

Pigs by Johanna Stoberock

Pigs by Johanna Stoberock will be part of a panel discussion I’m moderating in March at the Virginia Festival of the Book called “Writing the Anthropocene.” The term Anthropocene refers to the human era and specifically the extreme impact humans have on the environment. In this case the subject is garbage, especially garbage that ends up in the oceans. On an island—somewhere, not specified—all the garbage washes up on the shore (including discarded humans), where a crew of children feed it all (with occasional but rare exceptions) to a bunch of pigs. Meanwhile, some adults live in a villa on the hills and party and drink martinis all day and force the children to work. The children are finely distinguished from each other—one is a toddler who doesn’t speak, until the day when she begins speaking in the language of an adult obsessed with acquisition and consumption. Very allegorical, and part of the fun of reading it is deciphering what the message actually is. I can’t say I’m entirely clear about that, but I’m still pondering it.

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