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.

Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto

“Forgiveness is moving on. It is a daily act that looks forward. Forgiveness smiles.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 210 pages.
Read from February 20, 2018 to February 27, 2018.

This was the one book in the 2018 Canada Reads that I was most excited for. While the book started slow I was absolutely captivated by the brutal history of this family and was soon not able to put it down.

Sakamoto’s family has a rich, tragic and courageous history. His grandfather on his mother’s side, a white-Canadian from the east coast, joined the war efforts in WWII where he was captured in Hong Kong by the Japanese. He lived and suffered intensely for four years in POW camp. His grandmother, on his father’s side, is a Japanese-born Canadian. Sakamoto details the horrifying things that the Canadian government did to his grandmother’s family and the Japanese living in Canada during WWII, especially after the Pearl Harbour bombing. This is a part of history that most Canadians know little about or the brutality of what we did to our own people. I know I sure didn’t and it really opened my eyes. Canada is often viewed as an untainted and tolerant place to live but our own history is just as stained as others. Additionally, I imagine very few Canadians know of the regiments that served out in Hong Kong and the losing battle that they had to endure.

The book continues through Sakamoto’s family saga and the remarkable ability for his grandparents to forgive was a constant foundation in his life. Can you imagine when Sakamoto’s parents wanted to marry how that might have felt to their own parents? Each had suffered so much from each other’s different ethnicities and tet their powerful understanding, shared suffering, and ability to move forward is nothing short of courageous. Sakamoto also details the difficult upbringing he had with his alcoholic mother and how that shaped his future ambitions and responsibilities.

Mitsue Sakamoto, the author’s grandmother, Phyllis MacLean the author’s mother, Ralph MacLean, the author’s grandfather and Stan Sakamoto the author’s father in Medicine Hat Alberta in 1968. Source: The Daily Mail

Sakamoto’s story is highly emotional and I would be lying if I did not say I welled up in few parts.  The suffering and tenacity of his grandparents and even the death of his mother were hard to bear as a reader. Sakamoto really drew into some great emotional depth with his story-telling. The added pictures in the book were also a great touch as it really felt like you knew his family.

While I ended up loving this book, I did not start off feeling that way. The book had a slow start for me as I was initially unsure as to where this story or memoir was going. I found some of the initial story transitions to be a bit clunky, though once his grandfather set off for the war things smoothed out and the main theme of the story was starting to finally come together.  While I enjoyed the story of his upbringing and the suffering endured by him and his mother with her alcoholism it was a massive shift in the direction of the book. The book was now reading more like an autobiography. This disjointing and lack of connection from his grandparent’s story to his own story was not as successful as the rest of the emotionally enticing parts about his grandparents. While his own story is moving in its own right, the novel just did not feel like a complete whole on the theme of forgiveness.  Even with that,  I decided on a 4-star review instead of 3 for this book because of how the book made me feel and for how intently I could not stop reading certain portions.

As I currently live in Hong Kong, I found the parts of his grandfather’s time there especially interesting.  However, Sakamoto mentioned that Kowloon is part of the New Territories and part of mainland China, which isn’t correct. Kowloon is a part of Hong Kong and is its own district.  Since 1997, China has since reclaimed Hong Kong but it is technically still its own country and many locals would not be happy being referred to as mainland China! It was wonderful envisioning these areas that I know well and what they would have been like during the war.  As a Canadian, it was also intriguing to read about a battle that took place during WWII that I imagine many Canadians don’t know about. There are some historical museums and treks in Hong Kong that I am now anxious to partake in.

So far, I have read 3 out of the 5 books in the 2018 Canada Reads. Compared to The Marrow Thieves and Precious Cargo, this novel is definitely one to “open your eyes” as the horrors of the Canadian government during WWII and the part that those Canadian regiments played out in Hong Kong are remarkable and need to be known. The content of this novel is truly jaw-dropping and extremely relevant in the context of today’s racial issues and learning from our own past. As it stands, this novel best meets the criteria for the debate in my opinion but what will the final two books hold? We will soon find out…

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

A biologist tries his hand at anthropology and does a pretty decent job.

4/5 stars.
Paperback, 480 pages.
Read from October 25, 2017 to November 27, 2017.

“History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves.”

I honestly did not know that this book was published in 1997. I remember working at Chapters in 2005 and this book being very popular so I assumed that it was published at that time. Little did I know that this book created such a wave that it became a basis and main theory contender for how humans developed in countries all over the world. What is even weirder is that Diamond is not even an anthropologist, he is a biologist! After spending 30 years of his career in New Guinea he wanted to answer one of the biggest questions in anthropology: Why did some areas of the world develop more than others?

“Why you white men have so much cargo [i.e., steel tools and other products of civilization] and we New Guineans have so little?”

Diamond’s basic argument is that farming and agriculture enabled some areas to develop faster than others as the lands native and natural vegetation and species adapted and took well to domestication, like the Fertile Crescent. The abundance of easily available and mass-produced native vegetation allowed for the expansion of a population which then leads to more innovations and progressions. Some areas of the globe, like New Guinea, did not have the land, space, population or resources to introduce farming and agriculture making it an unstainable move away from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.  Hunter-gatherers have to put all their time and energy into attaining food, leaving little time for other innovations and developments.  Hunting and gathering is no easy feat either. It requires a lot of specific skills and knowledge and within that other types of innovations are made. Diamond goes into detailed examples of the progression of human history in a variety of areas around the globe as well as the spread of contagion, military developments and the invention and use of writing and its effects.

giphy (1)Diamond’s arguments and examples are solid and I was intrigued for the first half of the novel but sadly, towards the end, I was found the content a bit dry, regardless of the facts he was presenting and their importance. I suppose it is because I read this novel 21 years after its initial publication in which, Diamond’s ideas and arguments already seem so commonplace, but I imagine when his book was first published it would have been quite revolutionary.

I do not know how Diamond’s works hold up in the current anthropological environment but the book is still an important one to consider reading. Especially if you have ever asked yourself the same question Diamond did, which I would say is one of the most important questions of human history. Diamond’s intention was to show a scientific and anti-racist approach to some of the ‘whys’ of our human history. I believe he succeeded in that.

In short, Europe’s colonization of Africa had nothing to do with differences between European and African peoples themselves, as white racists assume. Rather, it was due to accidents of geography and biogeography—in particular, to the continents’ different areas, axes, and suites of wild plant and animal species. That is, the different historical trajectories of Africa and Europe stem ultimately from differences in real estate.”