Human Acts by Han Kang

A historical-fiction on a vicious event in South Korean history.

4/5 stars.
Read from December 27, 2017 to December 31, 2017.
ebook, 171 pages.

After loving The Vegetarian by the same author, I was excited to read this book, especially after learning of its historical significance.

 “I still remember the moment when my gaze fell upon the mutilated face of a young woman, her features slashed through with a bayonet. Soundlessly, and without fuss, some tender thing deep inside me broke. Something that, until then, I hadn’t realised was there.”

In 1979 South Korea’s dictator, Park Chung-hee, was assassinated. Park’s successor, Choi Kyu-hah, and major general, Chun Doo-hwan, noting that the country was now unstable, seized power through a military coup d’état on December 12, 1979, and enforced martial law. After years of suppression under Park’s regime, this shift in power allowed for a revival in the democratic movement.  The Gwangju Uprising took place between May 18-27th, 1980.  On the morning of May 18th, around 200 students gathered in protest at the Chonnam National University in protest of its closing under martial law. By that afternoon the uprising and conflict broadened to 2000 participants where they were met with a staggering military force. Soldiers were reported to have beaten protestors and eventually opened fire on them, initiating a week-long bloody battle. On May 27th, the military regained control.

A paratrooper clubs a man arrested during anti-government demonstrations in Gwangju on 20 May 1980.
A para-trooper beating a man, 1980. From The Korean Times – May 19, 2015

An estimated 606 people died in the clashings but there is no generally accepted number or statistic on the exact amount.  While the movement failed in making an immediate change over South Korea’s oppressive regime at the time it, the event has been contributed as a major factor in South Korea’s move to democracy in June 1987.

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Photo from Hankyoreh – Aug 25, 2017.

This book follows a cast of revolving characters that are in Gwangju during this tumultuous time. Opening with a boy searching for the body of his lost friend through the mass of dead bodies from the recent student uprising. Rows upon rows of bodies in makeshift coffins line a school gymnasium. The bodies are rotting as they have not yet been claimed by family members.  Another character is a dead soul looking for its body and unravelling the moments that led up to its death.

“Is it true that human beings are fundamentally cruel? Is the experience of cruelty the only thing we share as a species? Is the dignity that we cling to nothing but self-delusion, masking from ourselves the single truth: that each one of us is capable of being reduced to an insect, a ravening beast, a lump of meat? To be degraded, slaughtered – is this the essential of humankind, one which history has confirmed as inevitable?”

The story is shocking and visceral, carrying the same haunting tone as The Vegetarian. This story, however, is less personal as it aims to embody the struggle of not just one person but of an entire nation trying to reshape its identity.  I enjoyed the majority of the characters and the encompassing stories and have since done some research to fully appreciate the scale of this incident. However, this book did not grab me and haunt me the same way The Vegetarian did. Thankfully, the writing is still exquisite, delicate but also brutal, and the story is of paramount importance to South Korean history. Additionally, the translation is exceptional and makes you feel like nothing is emotionally remiss or lost in translation.

The author, Han Kang, was born in Gwangju (both parents are writers as well) and she was 9 years old when, with a stroke of luck, her family left Gwangju for Seoul just 4 months before the uprising. This story is her testament to the event and the place where she grew up.

“That fact became a kind of survivor’s guilt, and troubled my family for a long time. I was twelve when I first saw a photo book produced and circulated in secret to bear witness to the massacre. ” – Han Kang, The White Review, March 2016

If you like historical fiction, fabulous writing, deep characters with a rich story, then you need read this book.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson

Straight forward approach, sure, but is the information anything all that revolutionary? And should we be taking advice from someone who has clearly had a pretty charmed life?

2/5 stars.
Paperback,  212 pages.
Read from December 19, 2017 to December 26, 2017.

I decided to give this book a go after reading and enjoying a few of Manson’s articles. However, after enjoying the first few pages the book soon started to unravel and instead of feeling enlightened, I just felt annoyed.

This book has been very successful after having been hailed the anti-self-help novel with Manson’s direct approach and insights intermingled with swearing and a dose of poop jokes, it seems like a self-help book has finally hit the mark in reaching out and understanding the millennial generation. Right? Not exactly. Manson really seemed to enjoy talking about how many girls he use to bang, that he grew up fairly wealthy and about all the great places he has lived abroad. While Manson did put in a ton of work into his writing to be successful, it can’t be denied that he lived a charmed life that does not compare to the average-joe which, is hilarious because while he advocates for people to learn to deal with the trials of life instead of the mantra of “think positively” that many other self-help books advise. It isn’t bad advice in and of itself it’s just entertaining in a way coming from someone who writes about all the great things he has done.

Manson also talks about how social media has changed the meaning of extraordinary to be the new normal, which ends up defeating the purpose of something being extraordinary if everyone can do it. That, I can agree on. I think social media has created a lot of problems for the millennial generation in terms of their self-worth and where they feel they should stack up with others. Issues, that previous generations did not have to face full-blown numerous times a day with no end in sight.

“Our crisis is no longer material; it’s existential, it’s spiritual. We have so much fucking stuff and so many opportunities that we don’t even know what to give a fuck about anymore.”

However, Manson then goes on to explain how we should accept our normalcy and that we would be a lot happier if we accepted that we are not going to achieve everything that we dream about. Again, hilarious coming from the guy who has achieved massive success with his writing and in his personal life. Even though the real point he is trying to make is that we should focus our energy on the things that matter and that will bring us more success and happiness. Again, good advice.

“Not everybody can be extraordinary, there are winners and losers in society, and some of it is not fair or your fault.”

The advice in this book is solid. I can’t deny that, but I would go from agreeing with Manson’s blunt sentiments and thinking about how I could apply to my own life, to rolling my eyes when he alluded to his own life again. I just could not get over feeling annoyed that he was the one giving me this advice. His smug attitude and humour were only amusing for the first twenty pages and there is only so much swearing and joking around that can cover it up.

The book makes reference to some interesting stories and academics and I particularly enjoyed the details Manson included on Willam James, the father of modern psychology. I mean, that is a guy who I would comfortably take life advice from!

Now the irritation that plagued me through this book, is it valid or is it just validating Manson’s points and perspectives on life and is only reflective of my own failures? I am going to say both. It natural to be envious of someone’s success and that can lead to feeling inspired and motivated but the tone of the book is too smug and did nothing but inspired disdain by the time I finished it.

“The more something threatens your identity, the more you will avoid it.”

Additionally, Manson made a terrible choice in alluding to false rape accusations in his section on false memories and beliefs. Yeah, seriously… It’s really distasteful and invalidating to rape victims as so many of them do not report their abuse out of fear or not being believed.

If you can separate the man and the ego away from the advice that he is giving than this book won’t be a complete loss to you if you end up reading it. I do think you could find the poignant advice from someone else however if the tone of the book doesn’t sit well with you.

“You and everyone you know are going to be dead soon. And in the short amount of time between here and there, you have a limited amount of fucks to give. Very few, in fact. And if you go around giving a fuck about everything and everyone without conscious thought or choice—well, then you’re going to get fucked.”

Overall, I am glad that Manson has been successful in his life to the point that he feels the need to share it. Good for him. Truly. But he is far from wise and still has a lot to learn, like the rest of us.

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Dear Leader by Jang Jin-Sung

“The General will now enter the room.”

4/5 stars.
Paperback, 368 pages.
Read from December 12, 2017 to December 15, 2017.

Who isn’t curious about North Korea? It is a strange and secretive country with an eccentric, peculiar, and potentially very dangerous leader that shuts out the world. How much of the North Korean propaganda is true? Are the people there truly sheltered and do they suffer? If you believe this defector and author of this memoir it will only make you hungry for more information on this fascinating country.

Jang Jin-Sung, a pseudonym for a North Korean man who was a famous and well-respected poet and government official. His life was much easier than many of his other friends and family due to his high ranking status. He was special as he was allowed into the small inner circle of people who got to meet their “Dear Leader” in person due to how well received his poetry was. Jin-Sung worked within The United Front Department (UFD) which is “responsible for inter-Korean espionage, policy-making and diplomacy” and in Jin-Sung’s job he was responsible for writing poetry and praise for North Korea under the facade of the praise coming from other countries, like South Korea. In order to do that, he was allowed to read South Korean newspapers and writings in order to keep with the style and approach of the writers there. The work was dangerous and highly controlled as with new ideas comes the idea that the North Korean regime is lesser. However, Jin-Sung began to question his “Dear Leader” after meeting him in person and after following a trail of dangerous thoughts and actions it eventually made him realise that he needed to defect or risk his life and potentially his whole family’s.

“I was restless with yearning to write realist poetry based on what I saw, and not loyalist poetry based on what we were all told to see.”

The harrowing description that Jin-Sung leaves an impoverished stifled and scared nation of people is hard to read. His escape is tragic and reads like a terrifying thriller that you are too afraid to look away from. I was completely engrossed in the story and was left hungry for more by the end. Books like this and others like them have come under scrutiny for their authenticity or have left many wondering how much was embellished for the sake of publications. It is almost easier to NOT believe that North Korea is a terrible as this book makes it sound as it is hard to fathom that so many people are living in such an oppressed and psychologically inhumane way. If this novel is as true as the author claims, it makes me thankful that my life is my own, that I have food in my belly, and that I express myself how I see fit.

“One reason why North Korea is unable to pursue reform and open itself more to the world is that this would risk exposing core dogmas of the state as mere fabrications.”

Whether you want to believe all, some or none of what is in this book you can’t deny the books high readability and enjoyability. In fact, this book made my top five favourite non-fiction reads of 2017 I enjoyed it so much. I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in history, espionage, North Korea or memoirs. I can assure you that Jin-Sung’s story is not one you are likely to forget.