Monday 24 October 2022

Crying in H Mart - Michelle Zauner (2021)


Rating: Admirable

Crying in H Mart has made quite an impact since it was published last year, spending almost a year on the New York Times best-seller list and earning rave reviews around the world. The memoir deals with Zauner's relationship with her mother, her wider family and her mother's early death from cancer. Such themes are universal and Zauner, a musician and writer, deals with them in a straight-forward and honest manner, which are two reasons why this book has struck a chord with so many readers. Such books are also important culturally, as they give a voice for difficult themes that most people encounter in their life-times; it's either a preparation, or a point of recognition. Zauner delves deeply into her difficult childhood, during which relations with her demanding mother were strained. Her mother's illness is portrayed as a chance for her to repair relations before it is too late, but it also explores what is like to be part of a 'mixed-race' family, trying to fit into a culture (America) that is not always at ease with multiculturalism. Such themes makes for good reading fodder for book clubs, and in this case opinions ranged from dislike, to indifference, but also to acknowledgement and appreciation. Such variation of opinions makes for an interesting discussion, particularly when there are some differences of opinion when it comes to the morality of memoirs; are they exploitative and are they simply ego indulgences of the author? The jury was out....

Zauner is a competent writer and throughout the memoir her writing is good enough, without being exceptional. When it comes to a bookclub read I've always considered that, with my interest levels being usually low with such books, a sure sign of an exceptional book is that it can make me both interested and make me want to pick-up the book to read whenever I possibly can. Sadly, however, Crying in H Mart did not pique my interest in this manner. Despite the poignant themes and the worthiness of the memoir, I just couldn't fully engage and I ended up speed-reading the second half of the book. This is never a good sign for any book, but even so I acknowledge that it wasn't wholly the fault of Zauner, I just think that it wasn't for me, in particular regarding the constant references to Korean cuisine, which is central to the memoir. Am I heartless, or not dedicated to other peoples' stories enough? Actually, I just think that too many other cultural pursuits are attracting my interest at the moment (Spiritual Jazz, The Sopranos and buying up all the amazing CDs no-one wants because they are supposedly dead). I have to admit, Crying in H Mart, I just wasn't that into you. 

Monday 3 October 2022

Sabbath's Theater - Philip Roth (1995)


Rating: Excellent

My first Roth novel, finally. It didn't disappoint either, although at times it was too much to handle. Excessive is a suitable adjective to describe Sabbath's Theater, a novel dominated by the grotesque, yet strangely sympathetic character of Micky Sabbath. Sabbath is a sixty-four year old ex-puppeteer, at the tail end of a life dedicated to sexual debauchery. This is an outrageously dirty novel, full of lusty sexual proclivities that often veer into taboo territory, or at the very least into the realm of perverse transgressions. It's heady stuff, not least because of Roth's intensely verbose and dense prose style. Obviously seasoned Roth readers would be familiar with his dark rococo narrative style which manages to be both digressive and startlingly direct at the same time, but for yours truly, a first time reader, it was overwhelming. At times I found the novel to be impenetrable, then intensely entertaining, and then boring and indulgent, sometimes within a few pages. Ultimately, however, I couldn't help but be drawn into Sabbath's self destructive raging against the dying light of what it is to be a lusty heterosexual man, although one who has a very dodgy moral compass.

At some point I wondered just why Roth would have created a character such as Sabbath. Then I realised that he represents the primal sexual urge inside every man, no matter how conservative or repressed he may be, an urge that is both monstrous, but perfectly natural in essence? Perhaps.... As with Charles Bukowski's work, I wonder how women feel about Sabbath's Theater? Or Roth's writing in general? Roth is just as funny as Bukowski. Humour in literary fiction is difficult to pull off effectively, but here Roth excels, so much so my partner would often ask me what I was laughing about (I would get her to read some of the lines, which didn't have the same effect on her, perhaps answering my above question, although she does appreciate Bukowski). There's some incredibly funny scenes, such as when Sabbath places bets on an AA patient's blood-pressure, or his perverse adventures at his former producers' apartment, revealing himself to he the ultimate bad guest. Although sometimes Roth was totally over the top stylistically I will certainly read some more of his novels, including the infamous Portnoy's Complaint (1969), which I have an original hardback edition knocking about the house.