human acts by han kang

Human Acts by Han Kang

Han Kang’s latest novel (2014, English translation 2016) is about the Gwangju Uprising in South Korea. In 1980 students from Jeonnam University protested against Chun Doo-hwan’s government. The students were tortured, beaten, and shot by the government military. Ten days later, hundreds were dead.

Kang guides her readers through the uprising and its aftermath. Through chapters, we first learn about Dong-ho, who is dead and still processing the atrocities to him and around him. We then hear from his friend, a censored editor, a prisoner, a factory girl, and finally, Dong-ho’s mother who still suffers from the loss thirty years later. Kang’s narrative is poetic and, though describing horrific violence, somehow quiet. She allows the reader to slowly grapple with the historical event, an event I am sure many of us in the West who are younger than 40 have never knew occurred. Her prose provides space for the uninformed reader to contemplate the government-issued violence while also asking the deeper question, “what have we done?”

Please note: I received a free copy of this book from LibraryThing in exchange for a review.

the little blue chair

book coverCary Fagan has written a timeless children’s book about the journey of a little blue chair from its first owner, a little boy, to its final owner, the daughter of the now-grown boy. Each owner declares the chair perfect for their particular need, traveling from suburbs to oceans to jungles. Thought a bit worse for wear and painted red, the now-grown boy easily recognizes the little blue chair.

When I request children’s books from LibraryThing it is almost always because of an interest in the illustrations. Fagan’s story isn’t new so illustrator Madeline Kloepper must reinvents it through charming images.

illustrations from books








In her sketches, Kloepper combines simplicity with sophistication. The colors are primary, but great subdued and cloudy, nostalgic. No two people are alike in size or color so that everyone can find themselves within the pages. Her illustrations are childish pencil drawings that are layered into an engaging visual narrative that not only compliments but enhances the story.

Overall a wonderful book!

Please note I received a copy of this book from LibraryThing in exchange for a review.

the witch of lime street

The Witch of Lime Street book jacketThe Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World by David Jaher (Crown Publishers, 2015)

The 1920s may elicit feelings of nostalgic glamour, but it was a time of emotional desperation for a country recovering from the enormous losses World War I. It’s no wonder that people turned to the paranormal in an effort to reconnect with loved ones and scientists dedicated their studies to proving the occult true.

Jaher’s story centers on one of these unusual collaborations between psychics and scientists. The magazine Scientific American was offering a cash reward to the first medium who a panel of experts deemed authentic in their ability to connect to those on the other side. It is here in our story that two famous men enter – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini. Doyle believed in the paranormal and in particular the power of one woman, known as Margery. Houdini, however, knew a con artist when he saw one; as an illusionist, he saw what others were too distracted to notice. Houdini sat on the magazine’s panel entrusted with proving – or debunking – psychic ability. Margery needed to convince Houdini that it was the spirit of her departed brother Walter who was coming forward in séances.

In case you want to find out for yourself if she succeeds, I’ll leave you to read the over 400 page story. It’s mildly entertaining; who doesn’t love a good séance with the Handcuff King. The Scientific American competition must be well-documented because the entire book is focused on this one event in paranormal history. However, if you (like me) are not well-rooted in early twentieth century American culture, Jaher’s re-telling of this moment in time may feel detached. I would have preferred less detail about *every* séance Margery performed and more background on the social history of a country that suddenly found its people desperate for a new religion. Context regarding women’s place in this society would have made Margery feel real; she seems as lifeless as her dead brother.

As an aside, an examination of our scientific understanding of anatomy in the 1920s may also have kept me more focused on the crux of the story. There are *so* many references to Margery’s vagina and what she may have possibly stored there as instruments to aid in deception during paranormal practice. You simply can’t end a paragraph with “Margery’s vagina might be a storage place for spirit hands and fake teleplasm,” and give the reader no details. And later, “Was the medium in the hypnotic state…when she packed artificial hands into her vagina?” It’s as though all these learned men think women have a built-in handbag. It isn’t until page 359 that we get one of them admitting that the others are “Comically ignorant…of the physiology of the female subject – and the true proportions of any woman’s vagina.” Thank god they weren’t all idiots.

Jaher’s book is ok. It’s likely a favorite among fans of the paranormal who are well-read in the practices and history of the occult. If you are new to this period in American history and the subject of psychic ability in general, the text can be overwhelmingly nuanced without providing any general backdrop for the events played out on its pages.

Please note: I received a free copy of this book from LibraryThing in exchange for a review.

entwined: sisters and secrets in the silent world of artist judith scott

Entwinted: Sisters and Secrets in the Silent World of Artist Judith Scott by Joyce Wallace Scott (Beacon Press, 2016).

Outsider Art has become a rather vague term to describe any artist outside the mainstream art world. It’s further complicated by the surge in galleries and museums selling work by these artists who are unaware of the sociopolitical economic landscape of the art world. Many scholars have returned to Jean Dubuffet’s original definition of Art Brut, Outsider’s predecessor, with a focus on the marginalized and institutionalized. It is here, in Raw Art, that Judith Scott is a creative genius.

I first learned about Judy when I saw this photo.

I was a textile major in graduate school and in this image I saw an artist who understood the emotive quality of fibers. Like Judy, threads are silent storytellers that contain memory, both literal and figurative. Though Judy could not hear or speak she could see and feel, recognizing that fibers can be shaped into bodies of comfort and sculptures of joy.

Entwined is Joyce’s story, Judy’s twin. Among her many accomplishments Joyce is a poet, evident in her lyrical narrative about helping Judy, and herself, ultimately find that joy. This only happened much later in life, after Judy survived a lifetime of violence due to neglect and unknowing. Born at a time when no one understood (or seemingly cared to understand) (dis)ability like Down’s Syndrome or deafness or learning (dis)abilities, Judy was institutionalized. This harmed Judy, but also Joyce who struggled to live independently of her twin.

As an adult, Joyce was determined to find a different way for Judy to move through life. She moved Judy to California and daily brought her to Creative Growth, a studio space for adults with various (dis)abilities. For two years, Judy rarely participated. When fiber artist Sylvia Seventy visited the studio, Judy recognized the material that would give her voice.

Judy worked doggedly on hundreds of sculptures during the final years of her life, a process in which Joyce and her family were able to participate. Her book is both an important account for understanding Judy’s work and a remarkable memoir about family and (dis)ability. Though Judy, who died in 2005, is the internationally acclaimed artist who introduced Outsider Art to the American public, we have Joyce to thank for this. Through dogged determination and blind faith Joyce reunited with her twin and then shared her with us. We are all forever changed.

Please note: I received a free copy of this book from LibraryThing in exchange for a review.

the cauliflower by nicola barker

The Cauliflower by Nicola Barker

Sri Ramakrishna is a guru, perhaps godly and wise or maybe just desperate and crazy. Hriday, the guru’s caretaker, seems to think the latter but insists his uncle is the former – convincing the reader this story is really worth listening to.

I’m not so certain. Barker’s new novel has multiple narrators and shifts randomly through the latter years of the nineteenth century. I was reminded a little bit of Salman Rushdie, probably for the Indian context and a little less for the stylistic devices.

I wasn’t bored reading about the life of Sri Ramakrishna and his devotees, but I won’t say I was entertained either. I slipped in and out of focus, which is partially my own fault as a poor reader, but I’ll argue Barker’s constant switch of time, place, and prose to poetry left me unable to immerse. If I hadn’t been reading it for LibraryThing, I may not have finished. That’s rare for me, but I wasn’t emotionally invested in any character or plot to care.

Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read it. But I’d rather just read a biography of Sri Ramakrishna and keep the fiction for something else.

I received a free advanced reader’s copy of this book from LibraryThing in exchange for a review.

the blue jackal

BLue Jackal_revised Spreads.cdrThe Blue Jackal by Shobha Viswanath with illustrations by Dileep Joshi

Viswanath’s retelling of The Blue Jackal is in rhyme, making it enjoyable to read aloud. Children can search for Juno the jackal on each page, who becomes blue after falling in a vat of Indigo. The other animals, who once abused and neglected him, now think Juno must be a god and seek to obey his orders. But what will happen as Juno’s real color starts showing?

This children’s book recounts a tale from the Panchatantra, a 3rd century Indian literature consisting of five books of animal fables. They are much like Aesop’s fables, delving into difficult topics like morality, philosophy, and ethics. This tale is from the first book, The Separation of Friends, which is the longest book in the set.

Though I am interested in fables, it was the illustrations that attracted me to this book. Burgundy and violet dominate with white-painted figures and landscapes to tell the tale, and an Indigo-dyed jackal throughout. The illustrations are done in the painting style of the Warli. The Warli tribe on the outskirts of Mumbai has had little outside influence and their artwork was only discovered in the 1970s.

Their paintings resemble prehistoric cave paintings, but they are far more complex and offer details into both animal and human communities and relationships. The paintings are done inside their huts, with walls made of earth, branches, and cow dung. This must count for the rich burgundy background. The white pigment is painted on using a bamboo stick, providing a painterly quality stroke with little fine detail. The limited color palette and simple illustrations are expected in a children’s book, but they also help readers absorb a rather serious tale about contempt.

* Please note that I received a free copy of this book from LibraryThing in exchange for a review.

the library at mount char

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This is Scott Hawkins first novel and he’s likely to become a popular author for fantasy readers. To be honest, I’ve read very little in this genre, or science fiction, but was curious about the story. Carolyn is a Librarian – but not the human kind. With training from Father she is now super-human in her abilities and has forgotten most of her childhood schoolgirl days. But now Father is missing and only one Librarian can replace him. Is Carolyn ready?

A word of warning, Amazon has this listed under Horror, Dark Fantasy and there is good reason for that. This isn’t reading for squeamish. Unimaginable violence occurs from the very first chapter. There was enough bloodletting and death that I wasn’t sure I would continue, yet I was completely hooked. I really wanted to know how it would all end. If you can stomach the (literal) char-broiling, stabbing, and eye-gouging, you might just be pleasantly surprised by the finesse in Hawkin’s writing to tell a twisted story.

Please note: I received a free copy of this book from LibraryThing in exchange for a review.

invisible beasts

Screen Shot 2014-06-27 at 8.12.08 PMInvisible Beasts by Sharona Muir (Bellevue Literary Press, 2014)

This is a collection of short stories centered on Sophie, an amateur naturalist who sees invisible creatures. These aren’t creatures of her imagination, but rather a secondary kingdom of animals that wander among us (including the human-like Keen-Ears).

Though the stories are imaginative, it’s hard to call them fictional. Muir’s tales are full of philosophy, morality, and environmental activism. Some of the essays are much stronger than others; many have been published before and perhaps it’s growth in Muir’s storytelling that makes some stories more interesting than others. The best ones are those that actively involve Sophie as she moves between the seen and unseen, rather than her merely describing the creatures as if writing laboratory notes.

This is the second book by Bellevue Literary Press I’ve reviewed. I reviewed The Odditorium in 2012. When Bellevue sent me my LibraryThing copy of Invisible Beasts, they also sent Widow by Michelle Latiolais. I’m reading Widow now and will have another good review coming soon!

Bellevue publishes “books at the intersection of the arts and sciences.” More from their mission:

“We believe that science and the humanities are natural companions for understanding the human experience. With each book we publish, our goal is to foster a rich, interdisciplinary dialogue that will forge new tools for thinking and engaging with the world.”

I’m really happy a publisher like Bellevue exists. They are producing great work and promoting cross-disciplinary conversation. Librarians, if your collections support literary fiction, please support Bellevue authors!

(I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a review.)