2016 has been quite a year – with fresh political, environmental, and financial extremes seemingly every other week – and here at the Oxford Writers' House, we've been especially thankful for the artistic and literary highs which have kept us sane, and kept us going. In the first of two installments, our staff team look back at their favourites of the year: two novels, and one production!
April Pierce – Director
The Sellout, Paul Beatty
With tongue deeply embedded in cheek, The Sellout calls attention to the very real and often invisible struggles of Southern California’s marginalised communities.
Twenty minutes before boarding a Cyprus-bound plane, I grabbed a copy of The Sellout from the terminal’s paperback shelves. Two days after arriving in Larnaca, and roughly ninety-three percent of the way through The Sellout, I received a call from a fellow Oxonian living in Nicosia. She invited me to a book review meet-up in my town the following week to discuss: The Sellout, by Paul Beatty. Coincidence, or zeitgeist?
Beatty’s writing deals with a heady blend of city and national politics. With tongue deeply embedded in cheek, The Sellout calls attention to the very real and often invisible struggles of Southern California’s marginalised communities. I loved this book — not only for its bold appraisal of the haves and the have-nots of modern America, but for its brutal elegance. Beaty’s unrelenting wit toys with morbidity at times. It’s a cerebral, rather than a sensory journey — highly recommended.
Alongside The Sellout, I’m in the process of working through Ralph Ellison’s short stories. Though the themes treated by both books are similar (slavery, race, segregation), a stark and enlightening stylistic contrast has emerged from reading the works in tandem. Consider Ellison (published 1997, posthumously):
“I ran across the Square to the other side, where the sheriff and his deputies were guarding the wires that were still spitting and making a blue fog. My heart was pounding like I had been running a long ways, and I bent over and let my insides go. Everything came up and spilled in a big gush over the ground. I was sick, and drops of rain were beginning to fall. I headed down the street to my uncle’s place past a store where the wind had broken a window, and glass lay over the sidewalk.”
And then Beatty (2015) :
“By this time, before the tenth drop of blood had landed on the table, and before my father could blurt out the answer (seven), I pressed the red button, self-administering a nerve-shattering, growth-stunting electric shock of a voltage that would’ve frightened Thor and lobotomized an already sedated educated class, because now I, too, was curious. I wanted to see what happens when you bequeath a ten-year-old black boy to science.
What I discovered was that the phrase ‘evacuate one’s bowels’ is a misnomer, because the opposite was true, my bowels evacuated me. It was a feces retreat comparable to the great evacuations of history. Dunkirk. Saigon. New Orleans. But unlike the Brits, the Vietnamese capitalists, and flooded-out residents of the Ninth Ward, the occupants of my intestinal tract had nowhere to go.”
Francesca Beretta – Publications Assistant
The Vegetarian, Han Kang
The Vegetarian is a compelling read, though by no means an easy one.
Although Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was first published in Korea in 2007, it was not until this year’s Man Booker International Prize that it received world-wide recognition, thanks to Deborah Smith’s English translation. The Vegetarian is a short novel in three acts, focused on Yeong-hye’s decision to become a vegetarian, which, to her, means to become one with the natural world, not as a human participating in nature, but as a plant-like being.
The Vegetarian is a compelling read, though by no means an easy one. Apart from being a gripping book in itself, the novel in Deborah Smith’s English translation has the merit of having introduced many people, like myself, to a literature that, though seemingly very distant from what recent American and English literature has accustomed us to, is actually much more relatable and can fulfill our desire for complex, truly contemporary works.
Sophie Badman, Publications Assistant
Love's Labours Lost, Oxford Shakespeare Company
The production was slick, light and mobile, bringing out those very qualities too often left dormant in a text sometimes viewed to be Shakespeare not-quite-up-to-scratch.
Over the summer I took my Mum to see the Oxford Shakespeare Company's production of Love’s Labours Lost in the Wadham College gardens. I knew very little about it, and had read no reviews. With the unjustifiable – though I believe not uncommon – suspicion of the 'rogue' take on the Bard (where do we get such anti-'timeless' protectionism from?!), I was worried that a musical version in flares would ... wince?
I could not have been more wrong. The production was slick, light and mobile, bringing out those very qualities too often left dormant in a text sometimes viewed to be Shakespeare not-quite-up-to-scratch. The music held its effortless own; naturally, I remembered. Our age is shyer about song onstage than the Elizabethans. We overdo it, lash the word ‘Musical’ to it, and expect to see it nowhere else. Finally, the production team made canny use of such a picturesque setting in, conveniently, golden weather. No labours lost!