I guess we wouldn’t be us if we didn’t uproot ourselves every few months. As we contemplate packing our possessions for yet another move, I marvel that people who live in one place for years don’t have hordes and hordes of stuff. Or maybe they do, but store it well. I suppose compared to the computer, six dishes, and two suitcases of clothes we have in Korea, most people have a lot of things. One thing we do amass at a very rapid rate, though, is books. It’s a deliberate amassing, as an ideal weekend isn’t complete without a trip to the bookstore and a few hours spent with our favourite authors. In that spirit, I thought I’d share with you the best books I’ve read since our arrival in Seoul.
Travels in the Scriptorium, Paul Auster
When it comes to Paul Auster, I’m probably Amazon’s most loyal customer, pre-ordering all of his books before they’re even released. His latest didn’t disappoint. He’s a magical storyteller, and this book revisits characters from many of his previous works, making it a nice reminiscence of Auster novels of the past.
Leaving Home, Anita Brookner
Brookner is another writer of whom I am a loyal reader, and Leaving Home has the same cloistered, quiet atmosphere of her other books. I admire her vocabulary and am always moved by her protagonists. I once had someone tell me The Misalliance was the most boring book ever written, and wrote that person off as having absolutely no taste in literature. Unforgiving, I know, but really, that novel (and this one) is brilliant.
Korea: A Walk Through the Land of Miracles, Simon Winchester
In the early 1980s, Winchester walked from Jeju Island in the south of Korea to the border with the North, where he had to abandon his intentions of reaching the North Korean/Chinese border. Required reading for anyone who is planning to come visit us; it will make you want to bring your walking shoes and recreate his journey. In my daydream-y moments I contemplate doing the same.
Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, Haruki Murakami
I’d never read Murakami before this year. How was I to know the genius I was missing? Norwegian Wood is tender and lovely, but it was the short stories in Blind Willow that made me add Murakami to my mental must-read authors list. I re-read many of the stories in the same sitting because I was so impressed I didn’t want them to end. I also found myself reading excerpts aloud to Lee, and begging him to read the stories to me again while I was recovering from eye surgery.
A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, James Shapiro
In 1599, Shakespeare wrote Henry the Fifth, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and Hamlet. Shapiro tracks the evolution of Shakespeare’s work through an examination of the politics of the theatre and the nation. Thoroughly well-researched, with nice imaginative leaps to keep us entertained.
The Aquariums of Pyongyang, Kang Chol-Kwan
More required Korea reading, this is the terrifying kind that stands in direct opposition to Winchester’s whimsical wanderings. The author was raised in the North and spent ten years in a North Korean Gulag before escaping to China, then South Korea. Kang left the North in danger of being arrested for listening to banned radio, which is just one example of injustice difficult for us to comprehend. I liked the honesty of this book, the description of his difficulties “fitting in” in Seoul, and the realization that escaping the North was only the first step on a long road to a comfortable life.
The Republic of Love, Carol Shields
A very satisfying examination of marriage and romantic love, with a prairie setting that reminds me of home.
Her Mother’s Daughter, Marilyn French
Is it a cheat to offer a re-read? I read this novel years ago. On my first trip to Seoul’s best English bookstore I found a hardcover copy on a dusty shelf in the far corner of the used section and gave it a home. I loved it as much the second time, maybe more. Happily, I have French’s newest novel on my shelf, waiting for my upcoming holidays.
Take Care of Yourself, Sophie Calle
This one is definitely a cheat because I have ordered it from Amazon as an end of contract reward for myself and haven't yet read it. Calle is a French conceptual artist whose latest work was featured at the Venice Biennale this year. I tried to convince Lee to fly to Italy on our summer holiday to have a look at her latest work, but he convinced me that it was far more practical to stay in Korea and buy the book. I am a huge admirer of all of Calle's work, have haunted YouTube to watch all the tourist clips of Prenez Soin de Vois, and believe that this book, like her others, will be beautiful and fascinating.
Do you have any reading recommendations for 2008, loyal readers? If so, do send them our way.