Welcome to our weekly Books Digest where we round up the new books you should and shouldn’t, be reading. This week features I Want to Die but I want to Eat Tteokbokki by Baek Se-hee, The Book of Minds: How to Understand Ourselves and Other Beings, from Animals to Aliens by Philip Ball and The Hong Kong Diaries by Chris Patten.
For more books, take a look through our Books Digest Archive.
I Want to Die but I want to Eat Tteokbokki by Baek Se-hee (Bloomsbury Publishing, £10.35)
A young and successful social media director at a publishing house in South Korea, Baek Sehee, has the world at her feet. But scratch beneath the glossy exterior, and you discover the author is “rotting on the inside”, battling with self-doubt, and can’t help being highly judgemental of others. In the prologue, we learn that Sehee is diagnosed with dysthymia, a persistent depressive disorder (a state of constant, light depression).
I Want to Die but I Want to Eat Tteokbokki is a South Korean runaway bestseller that is a record of the therapy Sehee receives for dysthymia; the reader learns of her anxieties, relationships and decisions through a two-way dialogue between her and her physiatrist. Translated into English by Anton Hur, Sehee recorded conversations with this physiatrist over twelve weeks for the book and then expands on each session with a series of reflective micro-essays. Through this, Sehee begins to untangle all her harmful behaviours, inner criticisms and knee-jerk reactions that have kept her locked in a cycle of abuse.
While this part-memoir, part-self-help book contains many references to the pressures of South Korean culture, I Want to Die but I Want to Eat Tteokbokki bears a lot of truths about mental health that transcend borders too. In holding up a microscope to her anxieties and depression, Sehee offers a window into the mind of someone with dysthymia and, in doing so, provides a helping hand to anyone who suffers from the same symptoms. I Want to Die But I Want to Eat Tteokbokki is an emphatic exploration of mental illness and given the global prevalence of anxiety and depression, what better antidote than that?
The Book of Minds: How to Understand Ourselves and Other Beings, From Animals to Aliens by Philip Ball (Pan Macmillan, £14.79)
Read The Book of Minds by popular science writer, Philip Ball, and you will never confidently walk past a geranium again. For, according to Ball, it may have a mind and be scheming God knows what. Immediately, we are referred to the famous neurologist, Oliver Sacks’ encounter with an orangutang when, from behind a glass screen it mimicked his hand movements, so convincing him it had a “mind” akin to his own.
The argument is that because the orangutan waved back, maybe a Sunflower that follows the arc of our star in the sky has a mind of sorts, too. Geraniums must be unacknowledged geniuses. And what about everything else in the material world? Who are we to say those rulers and pencils on our desk are not communicating with each other, perhaps telling tales out of school? Artificial intelligence is creeping up on us, too.
The problem with Ball’s 458 tightly written and meticulously resourced pages is that most of the contentions in this ten-chapter book are irrefutable assertions. Descartes’ solipsism — how can we be sure of anything but ourselves? — is referred to early on, page 3, as a timely disclaimer.
So, the reader embarks on the next 455 pages aware that the author may be pursuing a philosophical dead end. And knows it himself. But, although the destination may be beyond reach, Ball takes us on a fascinating journey, posing questions about the working of our minds that are, well, thought-provoking and often entertaining.
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The Hong Kong Diaries by Chris Patten (Penguin, £20.99)
Chris Patten’s Hong Kong Diaries tells the inside story of Britain’s last Governor. The stories are sometimes interesting and often moving, his love and respect for his wife and three daughters is profound and oft-expressed. As is his commitment to and joy in his Christian faith: he loves his church. The stories are funny too, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not; he has a dry wit, but as an MP and a Minister Patten was well known for his earthy comments and was a political flame-thrower of the first order. So when he muses that he is perplexed why he frequently causes trouble and refers to himself as a well-meaning old liberal, the reader can be forgiven a smile.
Patten is also well known for being barely able to utter a sentence without mentioning Balliol, his old college, or either the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. From that point of view, the diaries do not disappoint. There are many references here to British politics and to newspaper comments. Too many in fact to believe that he did not care about either very much, despite frequent protestations that being Governor of Hong Kong was a big and important job.
Patten is obsessed with British politics and newspaper coverage. Indeed at one point, he notes that back in the UK, Hong Kong barely registers in the political or media debate. That is probably the single most telling insight in the book. There is good reason for thinking that if Patten himself had not become the Governor virtually no meaningful attention would have been paid by the media to the last five years of British rule at all. It was essentially him, not the place, that attracted British attention outside of the Foreign Office.
The fact is that being the last Governor was not a big political job except for the people of Hong Kong, whose future and fate was always to be returned to the country from whence they had been seized over a hundred years before. It is clear Patten tried hard to do the right thing and came to care passionately about the people, but as subsequent events over the last 25 years have shown, for Britain Hong Kong was a jewel in a vanished empire, for China the city was one of many in a huge and growing economy. Patten’s efforts were decent (a word he uses a great deal) and worthwhile, but China was always going to have her way.
The pity is not his doomed efforts in Hong Kong but his failure to come back and play a full part once again in front-line British politics. It was all too easy to take interesting but second-tier jobs at the EU, BBC, and all the rest. Front line politics needed him and at the key moment, he was missing. This is a readable and interesting book about events that belong to a long-gone era. More than anything else, the book has an underlying feeling of sadness and perhaps missed opportunity.