Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui

“How nice it would be to die swimming toward the sun.” —Le Corbusier

4/5 stars.
ebook, 203 pages.
Read from July 5, 2020 to July 8, 2020.

I can’t remember how I found this book but I must have put it on hold at the library after reading about it somewhere. I was a competitive swimmer for the majority of my youth so I have always had a close connection with water, making this read a no-brainer. As a species, you could say that we’re really not meant to swim. We are in many ways, the least adapted to do it and yet we’re drawn to it and how it makes us feel. Whether its a pool, ocean or river, we are drawn to what the water gives us.

Bonnie Tsui is a swimmer and wanted to explore the deep connection that humans make with water. She talks to people from around their world with their unique experiences with swimming.  The author explores the science on what happens to our bodies in water and how some are capable of changing and adapting to its environment. The author visits Iceland to swim in its waters and to talk to a minor celebrity whose uniquely adapted body allowed him to survive in freezing water for more than 6 hours as he swam to safety after his fishing boat sank. He was the only one on the ship to survive. In Iceland, swimming is ingrained in every community as an important survival skill and beloved pastime. The author talks to renowned open water swimmers and Olympians, to those living in wartime Bagdad where swimming lessons occurred amidst the war, to Japan with its unique history of samurai swimming, all to explore the many ways that we find solace, danger, and challenge in water.

If you don’t swim or have an aversion to water, this book likely won’t speak to you. However, it may help you understand why many are drawn to water when you’re less inclined. For me, this book told me much of what I already felt and knew when it came to my experiences with water. It was wonderful to follow this author’s journey and feel her passion and get the science and history behind some of the unique aspects of our relationship with water.  This book is a subtle love letter to water, a thank-you, an expression of appreciation and an insight into our relationship with it. The writing is concise and really gives you a feel for the people that the author is interviewing as well as insights into her own passion and history with water creating a well-rounded and accessible non-fiction read.

If this book sounds at all intriguing to you, then I would highly recommend reading it. It’s short and sweet and made me look up a few further interesting facts and stories based on what the author discussed. Like samurai swimming, I just had to know what it looked like. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell

“Like Lincoln, I would like to believe the ballot is stronger than the bullet. Then again, he said that before he got shot.”

3/5 stars.
Hardcover, 258 pages.
Read from January 22, 2019 to January 31, 2019.

This is not a book I would have normally picked up which is why book clubs are so amazing. This funny and slightly morbid travelogue is about all the assassinated Presidents of America. Sarah Vowell has a very entertaining writing style which makes you wish that she could have authored every single history book you read in school.

You likely know who Sarah Vowell is but may not recognize her face. She has a unique voice and is involved in a number of popular podcasts but she is best known for her voice in The Incredibles Movie as the character, Violet. In this novel, Sarah goes on a road trip visiting all the murder sites of each of the assassinated Presidents throughout American history. This isn’t your typical vacation and the author recognizes her strange obsessions with humour as she drags her reluctant friends and family around the country with her in order to feed her assassination hobby. Sarah discusses the political reasonings and outfall of each of the assassinations as well as giving some, often hilarious, insights into the lives of each of the presidents and how they have come to change the face of America today.

I can’t say I have ever cared about dead America Presidents but Sarah’s passion, wit and humour on the subject comes through in her writing and this book made for an enjoyable and engaging read.

 

 

 

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.