The Vegetarian by Han Kang
This novel won the Man Booker Prize for fiction, and I was concerned it might be too “literary” for my tastes. But it’s easily accessible, and I devoured it in two days. The title, while accurate, is pretty nondescript at explaining this complex work. Yeong-hye, an obedient and solemn wife, decides to quit eating meat, after she has a disturbing nightmare. No one in her family can understand her reasoning, or her consequent retreat into herself. Yeong-hye’s emotions seem to shut down, as she rejects those closest to her, and isolates. Her brother-in-law, an artist who has lost inspiration, becomes obsessed with Yeong-hye. His artistic vision requires her participation in an explicit sensual piece of performance art. In-hye, Yeong-hye’s sister, struggles with her own mental fragility, as she attempts to assist her ailing sister. Kang follows each character’s unique mental stability, delusions and dreams. It’s challenging to determine which character is falling into madness. This is truly a unique and dark look at the human mind, connections and instinct.
Kill Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul by James McBride
James McBride, National Book Award winner and musician in his own right, sets off to explore the roots of the iconic soul legend, James Brown. James Brown led a complicated life, and he was a very secretive man. Few people were let into his inner circle, and he purposefully kept his fans and entourage at a distance. Brown was born in South Carolina in extreme poverty, spent his adolescence with extended family and got interested in music at a young age. McBride delves deep into Brown’s past, interviewing past band members, family members and those who knew Brown best. This biography isn’t chronological, but collates a myriad of personal recollections, attempting to find the real James Brown. Unbeknown to me, James Brown informally adopted Al Sharpton, helping to shape the civil rights leader’s career and focus. McBride’s writing is easily digestible, and he provides a lyrical account of the racial environments that produced a legend. One of the best books I’ve read this year, and McBride may have set himself up for another award.