THE BOOKS OF AUGUST 2019

HAN KANG《THE VEGETARIAN》

the vegetarian, though entrenched in the familiar rages, never roars. it speaks at a whisper, a conduit for its odd, sterile seduction. there is a constant sense of having travelled without making a single move—it is sudden, and malicious, and terrifying, that the mind can escape so far beyond the body, yet this is a culminated event, enforced by the way this world channels the inhuman out of the female. the way that han evokes sensuality and sexuality (seemingly always in a close dance with the violent) is absolutely faithful to how a great deal of east asian women have been trained to view themselves. so it is that the world has created what they fear in women—this unbearable sexual potential—and has used that to exercise all form of constraint, so that it never has to reckon with its inventions: the grotesque, the beaten, and the disappeared.

EMILY JUNGMIN YOON《A CRUELTY SPECIAL TO OUR SPECIES》

this volume—partly a commemoration for korean comfort women during WWII, and part an individual reckoning with an inherited suffering—is distinctly a product of migration: through countries, through time, through narratives. the poems, packed with brief, cinematic flutterings of image, interrogates this movement potently, bordered by notions and influences of identity. yoon is emotive with oration, sensitive to the tones of a voice in memory, and duly concerned with that ultimate poetic notion: noticing.

in a poem titled “Don’t Touch Me,” the last line reads: “I’m being as honest as a woman can.”

XIAOLU《VILLAGE OF STONE》

there are a great number of chinese narratives that begin with a girl leaving a small town, and the reason these stories are so enamoured with abandonment is because identities are so imbued within the land; for a character to change, the place must also. the premise of xiaolu is also like this: simply put, she is thinking about where she came from. for a novel whose majority portions take place in the rapid planes of memory, village of stone does not suffer for its seemingly platitudinous motifs. I wonder whether or not if it’s worth it to make this comparison, but certain elements are incredibly reminiscent of ferrante’s neapolitan novels. there is the same driving overwhelm of circumstance, the indifference of the present, and the environment a living animal. the girl lives—in this sentence alone there proliferate infinite stories.

严歌苓《波西米亚楼》

yan geling is one of the most well-known authors of contemporary china, known for her work in film as well as in the written word. bohemian house, a collection of her essays, betrays her vast life with sincere but primary discoveries, character studies, and anecdotes. perhaps due to her affinity with the visual medium, yan is reluctant to introduce too much didacticism or philosophy into these non-fiction work, relying on one’s interest in the painted scene to hold. though more than occasionally charming, this volume doesn’t survive the lack of mental impressions; jumping from stories of her time in africa to ruminations on her life of letters, the essays never linger to sink, preferring to tread lightfooted toward the next destination.

YIYUN LI《WHERE REASONS END》

the most baldly heartbreaking part of this book comes at almost exactly halfway. in imaginary dialogue with her deceased son, the narrator says:

Pre-living is not living. I will be sad today and tomorrow, a week from now, a year from now. I will be sad forever.

I thought you said you took forever out of your dictionary.

Once upon a time, I said. You put it back for me.

to know emotion is to know, intimately, the limits of reason, and in this book of grief, reason fades then returns, weaving the scene as a needle diving in and out of the cloth comes in and out of sight. one is almost annoyed at it, for its interruption of our comforts. but as li portrays so boldly, even comforts arrive with pain. there really is no peace, or rest, or solace in this book—how could there be? yet the language proceeds with such loving serenity that one is almost lulled into believing that the world—so indifferent to us, so ignorant—can be spun into a different kind of sense. as writers, we take to the page not to write the world in which we wish to live, but to write the world accurately, which is to say the world that makes such wishes possible, that makes wishing possible.

JAN HELLER LEVI《ONCE I GAZED AT YOU IN WONDER》

“there is happiness and there is something wilder than happiness.” this is my favourite line from this book. levi’s poems feel like that, too. something wilder than happiness. they have pace, have this inching forward then jerking back when about to contact the blue centre of the fire, then slowly pushing forward again, so as to be intimate enough to see it totally. her language does resemble that of the totemic contemporary american poet: interludes of the colloquial: indeterminate stanzas and lines, and floods of blurting sentiment as if manic from feeling and knowing and wanting to explain it too much. all of which she utilizes to great effect. when I read contemporary poetry I’m always looking for that precise application of our distilled time; now poets are obsessed with capturing the essences. “happiness and something wilder than happiness.” well, that was it.

shelly shan

hi, my name is shelly. I do a thing where I make words into unnecessarily emotional composites. I don't know why I'm allowed on the internet, but I like it here.