The Korean craze washed right over me


The Korean craze washed right over me

Books editor DEBORAH STEINMAIR is easily bored by self-aware streams of consciousness and loves to read books with a storyline and characters who focus on others. Maybe you differ from her?


WHAT is the Korean craze about? KPop (Korean pop music) and Korean series and soap operas are currently on everyone's lips. I watched Beef and was riveted. It's about road rage, and about people who don't hesitate to exhibit the ugliest side of their personality, almost triumphantly. People who exploit revenge and spite to the maximum. It unfolds like a nightmare. The main character reminds me of a friend I once had. One of her overriding qualities was envy, hardly disguised. She would say to me, “YOU are so lucky!" if something good happened to me. With the subtext of: poor me. I, with my suffocating Calvinist upbringing and pride, prefer to subdue and hide my lower instincts, but she would not hesitate to show that she was green with envy or extremely offended by an innocent remark. At first, it's attractive — this person is as honest as a child, you think. Later, not so much. Everything is taken personally and every situation is analysed endlessly. She is always the victim.

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Then I started reading Korean books and wondering about the Korean psyche. The first was I Want to Die but I Want to Eat Tteokbokki, that striking title that is a worldwide bestseller. I wrote about it: I couldn't finish it, and I don't give up on a book easily. The main character is mildly depressed — mildly and constantly. She drives herself crazy by recording conversations, listening to them over and over, and analysing them to death. She second-guesses her own motives all the time. Also, her emotions and moods. Can she trust her feelings? Why did she do or say this or that? What did so and so really mean by this remark? Get over yourself, girl, I wanted to say. You keep spinning around your own arsehole like a compass in trigonometry.

Now I've picked up a second Korean book, because it's about a bookstore, my favourite space on earth. Welcome to the Hyunam-Dong Bookshop is described on the cover as “The runaway Korean sensation". At first it captivated me; the way in which the main character sets up her bookstore, the zen-like tranquillity of that magical space. Then her voice began to tire me.

Jouska is the word for the imagined inner dialogue that endlessly plays out and that a character edits, so that their answer is wittier and more elegant than it was in reality. In books, it bores me to tears. Yeongju, the owner of the bookstore, as well as her barista, Minjun, are chronically unsure of everything. What is their purpose in life, are they truly happy, have they ever been happy, will they realise when they are happy, will they be happy when they achieve their goals, what is happiness, what are goals? Excuse me, I find it exhausting. The whole book churns on in that vein. My bottom line: in Korea, the unexamined life is impossible. And jouska is second nature. I didn't finish reading this book either.

Who, what, where and how much?

Welcome to the Hyunam-Dong Bookshop by Hwang Bo-reum was published by Bloomsbury and costs R390 at Exclusive Books.

A delightful book that made me smile right down to my heels. The main character, Grace, in her seventies, is refreshing. She's not prone to over-analysis, instead she's a doer. She is still struggling to come to terms with her husband's death. She was never a housewife — he was the househusband and she held down a successful career as a rocket engineer and is still a model builder of note — trains, stations, whole villages — in a shed in her garden. She has a circle of friends who share her interests but is quite estranged from her successful daughter, Amelia, and sensitive granddaughter, Charlotte.

Then her dodgy son-in-law empties his and Amelia's joint accounts and takes out mortgages on their house to save his shaky business venture. He then moves in with his pregnant girlfriend. Amelia is bankrupt and homeless. She and her daughter move in with Grace in the house where Amelia grew up. It takes many adjustments — Charlotte becomes involved in a mysterious disappearance at the new school and Amelia struggles with self-esteem. Charlotte prepares comfort food.

It's an entertaining study of people in a crisis, thrown together and struggling to feel like they belong, to find themselves and each other. It restores your faith in humanity and makes you realise that love is never out of the question. It makes you feel good about life. I highly recommend it.

Who, what, where and how much?

The Art of Belonging by Eleanor Ray was published by Little, Brown and costs R400 at Exclusive Books.

Have you heard of Femi Kayode? He is of Nigerian origin and lives in Namibia. He is a psychologist who worked in advertising and wrote TV scripts. His first novel, Lightseekers, made headlines and won prizes. His second, Gaslight, landed on my desk. I was riveted.

It is set in Lagos, a bustling, dirty city with a street full of megachurches whose pastors and elders live in unprecedented luxury while their congregants are impoverished. Graceland is one of the largest churches in the country and the pastor, referred to as Bishop, is a handsome and charismatic cult figure. The church appoints investigative psychologist Dr Philip Taiwo to investigate the disappearance of Bishop's beautiful wife. Then the pastor is arrested in front of his congregation for her murder. Taiwo studied in America and was disenchanted early on by charismatic megachurches, but the pastor convinces him as an honourable, humble man. Ha. Fortunately, I knew better; see the title of the book.

Bishop is an outright psychopathic narcissist. Between chapters, his wife's desperate unhappiness comes to light through letters she wrote. Then her body pops up: she drowned. Police found it was suicide. Bishop is absolved. But Taiwo doesn't stop digging and comes across all sorts of horrors — so much so that his own and his family's lives are in danger. There is talk of an international money-laundering consortium, rape and murder under the banner of religion.

It's an interesting study of a type of personality that often rises to the top in religious circles. There are interesting snippets about corruption, police violence and the general mess in Nigeria. There are also glimpses into Taiwo's family life; his dynamic wife and his teenage daughter who is mocked at school in Lagos more than in America on account of her dark skin tone.

Kayode is a find. He creates memorable characters with humour and compassion. And he can spin a story economically and suspensefully.

Who, what, where and how much?

Gaslight by Femi Kayode was published by Bloomsbury and costs R420 at Exclusive Books.

What are we listening to? KPop, what else.

♦ VWB ♦

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