Reading: “The Vegetarian” by Han Kang

IMG_20180606_090015_416.jpg

I’ve seen Han Kang and her work all over bookstagram in the recent months and I always thought “Ok, well, this sounds interesting” but without actually thinking about getting one of her books because my tbr pile is still huge. A few days ago Wonderguy brought me a surprise gift, two books: I love Dick by Chris Kraus and The Vegetarian by Han Kang – this is my guy, who knows what I love: good books! 🙂
I leafed through The Vegetarian and wasn’t even sure which one I should start with, but the moment I read the first few lines of Han Kang’s book I was hooked, so Dick had (has) to wait …
The Vegetarian is divided into three parts with three different narrators. The main protagonist, the vegetarian herself, never tells us her story in her own words. We hear certain things ABOUT her, but never from her.

The first time we meet our main protagonist, Yeong-hye, it is through the gaze of her husband, who complains about his growing irritations with her and her lifestyle changes. He is a charming little piece of shit, which gets pretty obvious in “his” – the first – part of the book. Let me use a quote to demonstrate what I could possibly mean by describing him in the best way possible:

“The only respect in which my wife was at all unusual was that she didn’t like wearing a bra. When I was a young man barely out of adolescence, and my wife and I were dating, I happened to put my hand on her back only to find that I couldn’t feel a bra strap under her sweater, and when I realized what this meant I became quite aroused. […] The outcome of my studies was that she wasn’t, in fact, trying to send any kind of signal. So if not, was it laziness, or just a sheer lack of concern? I couldn’t get my head around it. It wasn’t even as though she had shapely breasts which might suit the ‘no-bra look’. I would have preferred her to go around wearing one that was thickly padded, so that I could save face in front of my acquaintances.”

Let me tell you: bras are hell. Next to corsets and shoes that are three sizes too small bras feel like shit and I’m positive that some nasty male designer prick created them out of a deep-seated hatred for all womankind. For any male readers: wearing no bra means feeling as light and free as you feel all the time – like, normal. Now of course, some women love bras, some (think they) need them, and some don’t care much about it, wearing a bra when they want/feel the need to and not wearing one when they don’t want to. As I’m part of the last group I definitely prefer my no bra days, and I do understand someone who doesn’t want to wear one because they prefer to be comfortable rather than to abide to society’s idea of a female standard wardrobe. Whatever floats your boat is fine with me, what I wanted to illustrate here is the fact that Mr. Husband is a narcissist piece of shit – I hope I’ve managed to do just that. But let us move on from this “Ode to the braless life”, because this book is about much more than underwear…

Let’s get back to Mr. Husband (isn’t he a delight to be with?): Seeing the world only in relation to how certain things and actions could reflect on him, his main concern is the behavior and appearance of his wife in public, especially when he is invited to join his boss and other managers at a fancy restaurant for the first time. His wife being the braless, introvert vegetarian she is makes him nervous, and sure enough over the course of the evening he feels embarrassed by her refusal to eat meat or talk to the other wives sitting next to her. Feeling like he can’t take this anymore, he calls her older sister In-hye (after having called her mother before to talk some sense into her daughter, to no avail), the efficient one, the successful one, the one who always does what she is supposed to do. Together they stage a family invention, ending in Yeong-hye’s hospitalization for attempted suicide. We’re leaving Mr. Husband right here, because we already spent way too much time on him and his part of the book is about to come to an end anyway.

In the second part of the book, Mongolian Mark, we start to see Yeong-hye through the eyes of her brother-in-law, which seems like an odd choice but over the course of the story it does make sense … I guess. This part of the book is set two years after Yeong-hye’s hospitalization, as she is now reccovering from those past events. Contrary to Mr. Husband, Mr. BIL remains nameless throughout the book, which is a feature I always appreciate, as it somehow opens up the character a bit, at least in my opinion. So, Mr. BIL is am artist, though not one who lives off his art – he lives off his wife. After discovering that Yeong-hye has a mongolian mark above her buttocks back when he carried her to the ER, he developes a deep infatuation for her, fantasizing about including her in a semi-pornographic work of art. Trapped between his growing fascination with his sister-in-law and his ordinary life with his wife and son, Yeong-hye once more serves as a sort of sheet on which his male ideas about her are sketched. She has no voice of her own and the male gaze once again is the only perspective we have. Though it becomes clear that she is adamant about her eating habits and is fragile in a lot of aspects, especially regarding her mental state, apart from that her story is the story of her brother-in-law (though thankfully, this time it’s not a first person narrator …). And since settings like these rarely end well, let me tell you that it does not end well – ‘I’d like you to model for me’ is nothing one should say lightly …

The third and final part is told from the perspective of Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye. Four years older than her sister, she was always the responsible and reliable one, and she is the only one taking care of Yeong-hye when her mind and body deteriorate further once she refuses to eat at all. And only now we finally hear about a childhood lived under the constant threat of a violent father, which in the light of the events told in this books seems to connect some dots:

Yeong-hye had been the only victim of their father’s beatings. Such violence wouldn’t have bothered their brother Yeong-Ho so much, a boy who went out doling out his own rough justice to the village children. As the eldest daughter, In-hye had been the one who took over from their exhausted mother and made a broth for her father to wash the liquor down, and so he’d always had taken a certain care in his dealings with her. Only Yeong-hye, docile and naive, had been unable to deflect their father’s temperor put up any form of resistance. Instead, she had merely absorbed all her suffering inside her, deep into the marrow of her bones.

So, one thing is clear: this novel has way too many layers for me to comprehend and I will not pretend that I have. While the fact that Yeong-hye suffered physical abuse and beatings at the hand of her father may explain her increasing withdrawal into her own little world and her growing irritation regarding her physical needs and wants, this is only the peak of the iceberg, to put it mildly. I hardly know anything about the Korean society and culture to understand certain symbols and images. I’ve read repeatedly that vegetarianism is not that much of a thing in (South) Korea, still I don’t understand why it becomes SUCH an issue (yeah, I know, artistic freedom and such, but still that HUGE?). I missed out on a lot of things in this book and I hope to discover new layers and insights every time I come back to it. Some books fascinate us even though we know it’s way out of our league. The Vegetarian by Han Kang is one of those for me.

Reading: “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer

IMG_20180306_202307_034.jpg

This will be quite a different reading report compared to the ones before; first, Foer’s book is a factual report of how animals, or rather ‘livestock’ is treated in the US and most certainly in a lot of other parts in this world; furthermore, this is not just about reading a book, this is about acting on it: stop eating meat. However, this does not imply everyone who reads this book has to do so, too. This is not the Allen Carr of carnivores, this is a well researched and written report about what eating meat and animal products does to us and our planet, and, most importantly, to all the more or less living creatures we eat.

European readers (like me) may calm their souls by telling themselves that Foer is mainly describing the situation in the US and there are significant differences between the US and the EU. This is indeed so, especially regarding the use of growth hormones and genetically engineered food/crops; this, however, does not mean that the EU is a safe haven for Wilbur (or Charlotte, for that matter). So the fact that Foer focuses on meat production and consumption in his home country should not encourage non-US readers to think what he describes does not apply to European (or international) meat production, for example regarding poultry and battery farms. It’s not like lovely purple Milka cows are caressed to death until they end as tasty steaks on our plate in every other part of the world except the US.

I have never eaten that much meat, mainly because I hate cooking and meat requires a certain amount of proficiency to taste good; I didn’t want to waste money on ruining perfectly fine food, so I’ve mainly stuck to vegetables, rice, pasta, and the like to fuel my body with the energy it needs. Therefore, the decision to quit eating meat after reading Eating Animals was not as much of a challenge as when I decided to quit smoking. Reading that a huge part of what’s wrong with the system Foer describes is the (American) system itself — the bigger the better, the Walmartization of their world — makes me sad and angry at the same time … this complete and utter disregard for nature, the world we live in, and the creatures this planet could support if they were worthy of support and protection.
But I digress; even though discussing economical aspects of animal rights will lead to political issues most of the times, I’m focusing on the US in this context because a) Foer focuses on it, and hey, this post is about his book, at least somehow, and b) I know the US much better than China or Russia (thanks to work, life, and family) and it’s easier to argue about stuff you know than stuff you’ve never even heard of. And while it is definitely not fair to focus my criticism on only one side/country/system, again, this post (and all my ranting) refers to the things I read in Foer’s book, in which Chinese planned economy only plays a very marginal role…so to speak. So bear with me while I try to reach a sane conclusion on why reading a book results in changing my diet.

On a scientific, factual level, no one really matters. People invented religions to overcome this flaw of evolution, but still: we are a random mix of genes and cells (people with a medical background would use better terms to describe this …) and that’s it. But on an idealist, personal level, every one of us matters in various ways — for example if you choose to stop eating meat, become vegan, only eat meat from small producers (you may even know personally), start living plastic-free, give up your Nespresso for something less evil and more sustainable, or stop shopping at Primark, H&M, and the like — there are many different ways we can matter if we want to. And if we don’t want to take certain responsibilities and even begin to matter, we most certainly will not read a book like Foer’s Eating Animals.

Dammit, I just hope this post isn’t too damn self-righteous and moralizing. I’ve been reading about sustainability, fair fashion, green living, and vegetarianism for quite a while now and all my interest and accumulated knowledge up to this date obviously climaxed in this post right here. I mean well and I hope this is evident … because the road to hell is paved with good intentions and to hell we’ll go no matter what, so it might as well be sustainable and peaceful, without being bothered by something online.

Reading: “The Nest” by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

IMG_20180225_133652_488.jpg

 

Leo had been avoiding his wife, Victoria, who was barely speaking to him and his sister Beatrice who wouldn’t stop speaking to him—rambling on and on about getting together for Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving. In July. Leo hadn’t spent a holiday with his family in twenty years, since the mid-’90s if he was remembering correctly: he wasn’t in the mood to start now. 

So this is Leo and this will be Leo for the rest of the book, no matter how much he seems to undergo any sort of reformation; people like Leo do not reform, they perform. To an excellence it may even fool themselves at times…

In The Nest we encounter the Plumb family – mother Francie, brothers Leo and Jack, sisters Bea and Melody (in this oder), their late father Leonard Sr., ever-present thanks to his financial legacy called “the nest”, as well as his second cousin George – and a variety of people in their lives, most notably Stephanie, Bea’s former literary agent and Leo’s former lover; Walker, Jack’s husband; Walter and twins Louisa and Nora, Melody’s family…to just name a few. Leo, the oldest brother and the most successful sibling regarding monetary matters, crashed his car while high and drunk getting a handjob from 19-year-old waitress Matilda Rodriguez, whom he picked up at the wedding he attended with his wife and sister. George Plumb, trustee of “the nest” and family attorney, seeks the best possible option for Leo, with his wife Victoria filing for divorce and the New York high society already waiting for a scandal involving Leo Plumb: he pays out Matilda using a huge part of “the nest” and gets Leo into rehab, away from everyone and everything, until the dust settles and no one will even remember who Leo Plumb is. Which seems a good idea – but it’s not, at least not regarding to the rest of the Plumb brood.

Especially Jack and Melody desperately need and count on the money from the “nest.” They would get their share of the trust on Melody’s 40th birthday, which is just months away when we enter the story; now, after George and their mother Francie decided to use the money to get Leo off the hook, their shares shrunk significantly and are not enough to cover the expenses they already made and pay back their debts.
But of course, this book is not only about the money. In the end, it is hardly about money at all, but about a dysfunctional family in a dysfunctional society in a traumatized city full of traumatized people who try to make a living in the best ways possible. And that’s were the magic starts, at least in my opinion. Focusing on the basic themes – moderately rich or well-off white brats going through life more or less aware of a world and people around them; immigrants trying to make it big or at least bigger than their parents in their new home country; people traumatized from war, injuries, 9/11 and its aftermath – we have seen it before (and better) BUT I’m always ready for more if it’s well done (which is totally subjective, of course) and I really like the way Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney tells the stories. There’s a number of characters and a lot of names, so I had my usual problem remembering who is who at times (husbands Walter and Walker, for example), but this happens to me all the time, so it’s nothing special. My ADHD and lack of focus is not an author’s fault, anyway.

Most importantly, at various points throughout the novel, just when you start thinking “hello clichĂ©, no surprise meeting YOU here,” she takes a different direction, not necessarily one that no one would have foreseen BUT one that you would not expect her to go, simply because novels of this category – “light fiction”: funny with some (dark) humor, entertaining, bit of a critical undertone, but overall enjoyable – often choose the easy way out, ‘rewarding’ clichĂ©d expectancies with the appropriate clichĂ©s. This rarely happens here, so I really enjoyed spending my time with the Plumbs and the people around them, even though some twists and turns were more foreseeable than others. Besides, some twists seem foreseeable because they are familiar – don’t we all know this ONE SPECIAL friend/family/ex-lover/colleague/acquaintance/asshole in exactly the same situation as Leo, Jack, Bea, …?

So what happens to people spending with money they haven’t gotten yet and, thanks to the overall human incompetence of their oldest brother, will likely never get? They are in a world of shit…so to say. And we are there with them, front row special seats. It’s a composition of different life stories and their various voices, perspectives, and worlds; an enthralling novel and a real pleasure to read. If you want something entertaining, humorous, and diverse to read, check the blurb and if you like it, go for it!

I want to close with a quote I love from the last chapter of the book – SPOILER ALERT – so be warned and continue reading on your own risk, knowing too much too early OR not understanding a thing:

Years later, when the tree had grown and formed the perfect canopy over the rear of the yard, Lila would marry beneath the massive leafy boughs turning red and orange on a blindingly beautiful October afternoon. She would ask Jack to escort her down the leaf-strewn path to her partner. Jack would be good to Lila all her life, showing up whenever she was missing a father. On the day of her wedding when Lila appeared on Jack’s almost-seventy-year-old arm, Stephanie would see Leo at her side and for a debilitating moment would be crushed by the enormity of everything he’d missed.

I love this quote because it is so positive, it is not about the daughter being left behind and missing out, but the father missing all the wonderful stuff that comes with having kids. To me, there is so much love in this small passage, I cried the first time I read it (you may need to read the whole story before even trying to understand my emotional exaggeration…).