I often feel shy, even embarrassed, when asked what I am reading. Books can indicate our likes, our passions; they can reveal what catches our eye when browsing, or what we seek out when no-one is watching us.
Granted, sometimes what we are reading says nothing about us beyond that we will force ourselves through anything if it is a gift from a beloved aunt, or that we mistakenly assumed Fifty Shades of Grey was a book about black and white photography. Nevertheless, the question of what one is reading can be—or at least feel—immensely personal. How do I tell you I’m reading something you’d potentially find silly, or pretentious, or boring, or offensive? When you ask me what Mrs Dalloway is about, do I elaborate on dinner parties, modernist expression, or repressed lesbians?
Do I tell you it is one of my favourite novels, or do I pitch off your raised eyebrow and say ‘oh, it’s not bad’, because you may be only asking out of politeness? Is it socially acceptable to bring strong emotions and personal investment to offhand questions and elevator small talk?
Sometimes a mundane answer is best, or at least easiest, because the question was asked more an aside to help us smile our way from Ground to Level 4. Other times, a person might have asked the question but have not been prepared to hear the answer. In spite of these potential reasons to hold back, it can be rewarding to approach the question of what one is reading as an opportunity to share: to reveal something one thinks about, cares about. Telling someone what you’re reading, with enthusiasm and honesty, can be an incredibly quick and effective way of building connection with the person asking.
My own reading habits are eclectic, spanning various genres and languages. P.G. Wodehouse rubs shoulders with Mary Oliver, ruining the peace of her forests; Zadie Smith and Dodie Smith leaf through one another’s pages and agree their works could only be cousins by marriage. French classics from bilingual schooldays sit by themselves, sulking over how little-read they are in the Anglosphere. My grandmother’s books for children, meanwhile, doze on the shelf as they gaze out the window, waiting for another reader to discover them.
I am not sure whether breadth of reading habits makes one a classy smorgasbord of taste or an indiscriminate, tumbledown fruit basket. But who cares? I love book clutter, both in my mind’s eye and on all surfaces in my immediate vision. Such endless possibilities and ideas buzzing beneath the bindings…! You’d have to be as cold as an uncharged Kindle not to get excited about it.
Nevertheless, staying excited about reading possibilities is hard—not so much because of the possibilities themselves, but because death cuts all emotion somewhat short. The time constraints imposed on reading by pesky mortality make choosing and forsaking books a necessary evil. Naturally, there is no obligation to choose per se; picking up books at random can be a marvellous adventure. What’s more, choosing based on recommendations won’t always lead to better or more interesting experiences, because the stories you might want or need may differ from those put forward to you. Like it or not, we are always making choices about what we prioritise—and to prioritise one book inevitably means sidelining many more.
With this in mind, here are three books I recently came across which I would highly recommend not sidelining; indeed, seek them out if you have the chance. All are of high quality, engaging, and noteworthy in that they’ve been translated into English from other languages, making them unusual within Australia’s Anglo-centric publishing market.
First is The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima, published in Japan in 1954. Set on a remote Japanese island in the years following World War II, the novel is a coming-of-age story exploring the relationship between fisherman Shinji and pearl-diver Hatsue. The pair are forced to navigate the competing pressures of class-based discrimination, family loyalties, love, gossip, and ambition.
I adore this novel. Its imagery is beautiful and it offers a glimpse into a way of life which is fast disappearing, if it has not vanished already—that of a fishing and pearl-diving community whose people have largely never left their island. The plot is elegant, not least because it is subtle and character-driven; indeed, the quiet depth Mishima allows his characters is striking. I was particularly impressed by how humane he rendered many of the female characters, including Shinji’s mother and the envious, conflicted young woman Chiyoko.
What also stood out about the novel was the way Mishima dealt with the issue of rape. While rape is not central to the story, there is a scene in which a self-proclaimed rival to Shinji attempts to force himself on Hatsue, reasoning that if he can just have sex with her, she will be too ashamed to admit her loss of virginity and will feel obligated to marry him. What stands out here, particularly in the present era of ‘MeToo’, is the way Mishima is uncompromisingly dismissive of the would-be rapist, repeatedly depicting him as boorish and cowardly. It’s a good reminder of how even though feminist stances on sexual assault and the treatment of women are sometimes countered as being modern developments to which men require time to adjust—you can’t blame people who were raised in a different era—there have always been people who have seen these issues for what they are, and who have seen women as people, regardless of the time and place in which they lived. Mishima, a man born in 1925, shows no tolerance for mistreatment of women in The Sound of Waves and approaches his female characters thoughtfully and with empathy. That’s more than what can be said for numerous authors today.
With this in mind, I would highly recommend looking up The Sound of Waves and Yukio Mishima, who is widely considered to be one of Japan’s most important 20th century writers. Mainstream media might have us believe that Haruki Murakami is the only Japanese author out there—he is promoted extensively, as if chosen by English-language outlets to be the single box-ticking Japanese author—but it’s well worth digging a little deeper. Besides, Mishima’s not even that obscure, so to reach his work barely requires picking up a shovel.
My second recommendation isn’t especially obscure either: The Vegetarian, by Han Kang. A three-part novella, it won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize and has since become a staple of ‘top picks’ displays in bookstores. Experimental and confronting, the book tells the story of Yeong-hye, a self-effacing woman and obedient wife who suddenly decides to stop eating animal products after a series of disturbing dreams—a choice which leads in turn to her gradual estrangement from family and society. As Yeong-hye becomes increasingly opaque to those around her, the book explores themes of violence, madness, patriarchal control, and what it means to be connected both to the world and other human beings.
The Vegetarian stands out to me for its unsettling tone, its courage in pursuing ideas to their extremes, and the spiralling of the protagonist as she sheds the constraints of societal norms and values. Moreover, even though food is ultimately not the book’s primary focus, as someone who aims to eat vegan where possible, the book hits close to home. The nightmarish scene in which Yeong-hye’s family tries to force-feed her meat is a clever and disturbingly familiar depiction of the way people sometimes attempt to control others and justify this exertion of power by claiming it is for others’ own good. Indeed, The Vegetarian‘s exploration of social parameters and the consequences for stepping outside of these is reminiscent of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. I would argue there are strong parallels between the protagonists of these two books. As for The Vegetarian‘s tone and experimentalism, it also brings to mind the excellent urban horror tale Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers by Alyssa Wong, which won the 2015 Nebula Award for Best Short Story.
So, if you want to read a truly experimental, thought-provoking piece of fiction, give The Vegetarian a try. At least in my experience, it’s a story one will continue to chew over long after having finished reading it.
My third recommendation also throws up surprises and is experimental in its own way. Tove Jansson’s short story collection Art in Nature was only translated into English in 2012—startlingly recently, considering the stories were first published in Scandinavia in the 1970s and Jansson herself is one of Finland’s best-loved authors, popular worldwide for her children’s stories about the ‘Moomins’. This delay in translating Art in Nature exemplifies the risk mentioned earlier in the context of Haruki Murakami overshadowing other Japanese authors: if Art in Nature was not translated earlier, it is because translating only Jansson’s most popular work felt like ‘enough’ within our Anglophone market.
Yet to translate only an author’s most popular writing—or indeed, a country’s most popular author—is inevitably to short-change ourselves. Tove Jansson’s writing for adults, only recently made available to English speakers, illustrates this truth. Art in Nature is a masterpiece: through its witty, often disquieting stories, Jansson explores our relationship with art, both as creators and consumers. In one story, for example, we see a shrewd method actress invite her cousin to stay in order to study her mannerisms, cruelly intending to use these as inspiration in portraying a character she finds insipid. In another, a cartoonist takes over a popular comic strip after his predecessor has a breakdown and disappears—an insightful and arguably self-reflective exploration by Jansson on how to retain authenticity and identity after one has achieved national fame. What’s not to love?
The stories are also commendable for including gay and lesbian couples without this inclusion being a big deal. Indeed, this is another reason to read Jansson’s writing for adults: only in these stories is her own queerness permitted to shine through. After all, for Jansson to be a successful children’s author globally, she was typically painted as sexless and loveless—yet this depiction is simply not true.
Looking back, I’d say that the desire to broaden one’s reading scope and ideas, so often delineated by publishing norms based on what is popular in America, is ultimately what underpins my recommendations. There are so many stories in the world which we will not come across unless we actively seek out writing beyond the mainstream—and this is especially true for English-speaking readers. So much content is produced in our dominating language that there isn’t much motivation for our publishers to translate and market novels from other cultures and languages, even if these are masterpieces in their own right. More’s the pity, especially in an age defined increasingly by inward-looking policies and closed minds.
When I’m asked what I’m reading in the future, I think I’ll try to be a little braver and more open in the answering. Reading even slightly outside the norm can be a self-conscious experience when others wish to know about the book in which one’s nose is so assiduously planted. If ‘normal’ is to be broadened to incorporate more experiences than those presently marketed to us, sharing what we are reading is a necessary start.
So, what are you choosing to read—and what will you do about it?
Rosalind Moran has written for anthologies, websites, and journals including Overland and Lip. She co-founded Cicerone Journal and was awarded 2018 Undergraduate Awards Global Winner for her research into biopics.