Han Kang: Vegetarian

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What is normal? What is mental illness? These are the questions that spring into mind while reading Han Kang’s Vegetarian. It is a nightmarish, yet beautiful novel. And it is very much Korean. I have a tendency to fall for Korean novels, there’s been several good ones in my reading list lately: The Girl with the Seven Names by Hyenseo Lee, Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin and The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-mi Hwang. Vegetarian takes the lead by far.

Han Kang: Vegetarian

Author: Han Kang
Publisher: Gummerus 2017, Finland (the Finnish edition)
Category: Fiction
Original language: Korean
Rating: 5/5

Helmet Reading Challenge 2017, number 49: A new book of 2017.

Yeong-hye is a modest and quiet woman, living in a very traditional Korean marriage, which presents itself to a western reader as a kind of house-keeping & sex arrangement. Her husband Cheong is the epitome of a self-centred, cold abuser, but Yeong-hye couldn’t possibly expect anything more, because she has been used to being abused already in her childhood home by a violent father. To the outside she appears to have adapted to her life, but maybe not entirely.

One morning her husband wakes up to a whole new wife. Yeong-hye has discarded all meat products, ceased to serve him and become almost entirely mute. Only thing Cheong can get out of her is, that she’d had a dream. Yeong-hye has become a militant vegetarian, who refuses all meat, and almost all food anyway. As her body withers away, her spirit seems to travel beyond the real world too.

Her family doesn’t take the decision well, in fact they try to force her back to the old ways. But Yeong-hye is beyond their reach. She doesn’t want to live a human life – her mind is set to transform into a tree. When she tries to take her own life, her husband leaves her and her brother-in-law finds an opportunity to act out his own twisted fantasies. In the end the older sister In-hye is the only one in Yeong-hye’s life besides the medical personnel in an asylum. She has her own issues to work through about their shared childhood and her own life choices.

Han Kang’s languages is poetic even when describing horror. She doesn’t categorize, or name the issues under the surface and actions of her characters. She just describes their life, immerses the reader in the actions and feelings. And while she shows us the evolving mental illness of her main character, she also shows us the inhumane, even sick acts that the so-called normal people resort to.

Susan

The Vegetarian:

The Girl with Seven Names:

Please Look After Mom:

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly:

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Jukka Viikilä: Aquarelles from Engel’s town – FinLit

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Engel was the architect, who planned the classical city centre of Helsinki in the 19th century. Jukka Viikilä has put together his fictional diary. It shows a man, who forever ponders whether he made the right choices.

Aquarelles from Engel's town

Jukka Viikilä: Aquarelles from Engel’s town (in Finnish: Akvarelleja Engelin kaupungista)

Author: Jukka Viikilä
Publisher: Gummerus 2016
Category: fiction
Original language: Finnish
Rating: 4/5

HelMet Reading Challenge 2017: number 27. A book about the place you live in.

Jukka Viikilä writes with an easy flow, but with quite economical sentences. Engel’s diary is supposedly for his daughter Emilie, who is often weak with illnesses. Engel observes the life around him, worries about his family, but stays apart. He’s constantly feeling inadequate and selfish for keeping his family in this God forsaken place called Helsinki, where they catch illnesses and can only dream of the past in the real home town, Berlin.

Private considerations are punctuated with descriptions of the architectural projects. For Engel, Helsinki is a grey town, always too cold, raw and uncivilized.

Right after finishing the book, it felt beautifully written. It was very easy to read and held my attention, although there was very little if anything really happening.

A few moments later came the second thoughts. There are some discrepancies with the timeline and what e.g. age Emilie appears to be. But the most annoying element of the book is that the story is so bland. Viikilä has written a description of the life of one of the main architects of Finland and there are absolutely no highlights in his life. It is one long gray rainy day with just a couple of tumbles into even deeper layers of depression when he encounters personal tragedy.

However much the real Mr Engel felt sorry for settling in Helsinki, I’m sure there were happier days in his life. Viikilä has decided to describe a man, who is sinking deeper and deeper into the dark waters surrounding the town, in which he didn’t want to stay.

What is it that makes so many Finnish authors completely forget the existence of happiness and the simple fact that without ups the downs don’t really feel much anything? This form of emotionally monotone writing seems to be in fashion now.

Viikilä received the highest Finnish literary award, Finlandia Prize, for this novel in 2016.

Susan

 “Spring 1816. German Carl Ludvig Engel has been selected to plan the new Helsinki and the architect has moved to the town with his family. A town, which is a scarcely populated rock on the sea, still an undiscovered pearl of the Baltic Sea, and consists mostly of an inaccessible mountain base.
-Only six years, I say to Charlotte. Is there an architect, who would say no to building an entire town, even if it is to be built in this dark, cold and remote location?
Helsinki never became his real home, but it became his life’s work. Engel’s family had to pay a high prize, a prize Engel tried to figure out ‘til his death. Aquarelles from Engel’s town is his fictional night diary from the years 1816-1840.
Jukka Viikilä writes clear, poetic prose and brings to life a period, when one architect’s vision became a capital of a small northern country.”

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Salla Simukka: As White As Snow

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Salla Simukka’s Snow White trilogy has been enormously popular and has been translated into dozens of languages. I happened upon the second part of the trilogy, As White As Snow, and unfortunately it didn’t really woo me.

Salla Simukka As White As Snow

Author: Salla Simukka
Publisher: Tammi 2013
Category: YA fiction
Original language: Finnish
Rating: 3/5

HelMet Reading Challenge 2017: number 2. A book discussed in reading blogs.

The novel is well written and full of action, but lacking motivation and a goal. It is easy to read as a stand-alone novel, I didn’t feel like I was missing anything not having read the first part. In fact it is hard to see how this part adds anything to the series. The reader doesn’t receive any new information regarding Lumikki’s family, which is depicted as secretive to the extreme and which seems to be the main mystery of the series.

What bothered me the most was the lack of credibility of the plot. A teenager like Lumikki – albeit 18 years old already – may make unorthodox decisions, but in this story her actions are not really based on the nature of her character. In fact, the decisions Lumikki makes, seem quite the opposite of what might be expected based on everything the reader learns about her. The final resolution also comes a bit too quick and easy to my taste.

As the number two of a trilogy this book seems to be just an unavoidable stepping stone to the final climax. I’m not quite sure, whether I’ll give a try to the two other parts. If for just one reason, I might do it to find out whether this trilogy has any connection to the Snow White fairy tale, as implied in the name and the MC’s name (translates to Snow White). In this part I didn’t find anything pointing to that direction.

Susan

 

“Lumikki Andersson is backpacking in Prague, where the weather is scorching hot. A girl approaches her in a small café and claims to be her half sister. Lumikki’s parents seem to be hiding a secret concerning the family’s past, so the girl’s claim rouses Lumikki’s interest. Despite her erratic behaviour, the girl manages to persuade Lumikki to join a religious family community. Later it turns out that the members are no relation to each other, after all. But it is not until Lumikki learns that the cult leaders are planning mass suicide that she understands just how dangerous the cult is. Furthermore, someone is planning to profit from the tragedy. Lumikki gets acquainted with the streets and graveyards of Prague when she is forced to run for her life to prevent the tragedy. The religion of the cult is not pure; and innocence is not as white as snow.”

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John Polidori: The Vampire

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John Polidori (1795-1821) wrote one of the first modern vampire stories The Vampire, a tale of the bloodthirsty Lord Ruthven. It was first published in 1819, just three years before Polidori’s own death. This story is far from its current day contemporaries – the Vampire Diaries and Twilight exist in a whole different paranormal universe. Despite that or maybe because of it, the novel is an interesting introduction to the dawn of the genre. It is also incredibly fast reading – with its 83 pages in size A6 it is a veritable nibble.

John Polidori The Vampire

Author: John Polidori
Publisher: Faros-Kustannus Oy, 2005
Category: paranormal fantasy
Original language: English (Read in Finnish translation, based on The Vampire and Other Tales of the Macabre by Oxford Universtiy Press 1997)
Rating: 3/5

HelMet Reading Challenge 2017: number 42. A Debut book

At the time of Polidori, vampires were still considered mainly horrifying monsters and his tale is firmly grounded in this concept. Polidori doesn’t bring much light onto the nature of vampires or their customs neither the logic of their existence. The story revolves around an innocent bystander, young gentleman called Aubrey, who finds himself bound by a promise of secrecy that will gradually drive him into madness and even cause the death of his sister.

Polidori was the first author to create an aristocrat vampire, who prefers innocent virgins as his meals. However, the author doesn’t really describe much the vampire’s actions. Lord Ruthven is presented to the reader as a withdrawn character, who’d prefer solitude to the society. The seductive processes, which evidently take place are left to be played in the imagination of the reader.The short story that Polidori claimed to have written during “two or three lazy mornings” is more a tale of a one man’s reaction to a vampire than of that vampire.

Vampire is also an introduction to fictional style of the early 19th century – e.g. there is no dialogue at all in this story. Polidori was one of the first in a new trend of vampire stories that were consequently published in the 1800s, culminating in the major work of the genre; Dracula by Bram Stoker in 1897.

John Polidori is an interesting person in the history of horror fantasy. He was born into an Italian family very interested in literature – his father Gaetano Polidori translated the horror fiction novel The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole into Italian. John Polidori graduated as a medical doctor from the University of Edinburgh at the age of 19. He was hired by George Byron as his personal MD for his trip to Europe in 1816. The travel company included Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Godwin Wollstonecraft (better known as Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus). When they settled in a house by the lake Geneva, the famous writing contest of horror stories took place. One of the contestants was Polidori’s the Vampire.

Susan

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