Tuesday, May 23, 2017
The accolades for this fine, epic novel are deserved. In her second novel, author Min Jin Lee follows members of a family (and many equally fascinating ancillary characters) from the Japanese Occupation era in Korea, to the Korean diaspora in Japan, up to 1989. She manages this expansive timespan through third-person omniscient voice, allowing a kind of economy in the storytelling that would otherwise be limited to structural concerns. It’s both a feat of intricate character development and a rapid-moving plot that makes one love the people, even the antagonist, and live through a hundred fast-moving stories that kept pulling at me long after all the pages were turned. Much is written about her inspiration and about the story itself, so I leave this post brief, with a final urging to read this stunning book.
Friday, May 12, 2017
It’s been a while since I read a book, YA or adult, that captured me so thoroughly that I didn’t want to stop reading, and that I couldn’t stop thinking about until I finished reading it. IN THE SHADOW OF THE SUN was such a book. It follows Korean adoptee Mia Andrews and her brother Simon on a tour gone terribly wrong that devolves into a frightening and thrilling journey in one of the most closed countries on earth, North Korea. The author, who grew up in South Korea, has done thorough homework—the story feels authentic and the details ring with the truth of cultural accuracy and historical veracity. The book has a unique structure that includes a smart introduction to North Korea via a “travel guide,” and short interludes of voices of certain North Korean characters whom the youth encounter, if only briefly, on their harrowing journey. This combination brings a wider perspective on Mia and Simon's dilemma, and gives valuable glimpses of a varied and complex North Korean society and daily life. While the action is a page-turner, Mia’s inner journey of identity and courage, as well as Simon’s, and the shift in their brother-and-sister relationship is equally authentic and compelling. Mirroring today's political dilemma with issues of trust with North Korea, Mia and Simon are constantly confronted with questions about who to trust, and their instincts and choices are a lesson for us all. A terrific book about how a girl’s daunting journey enriches her inner journey, and a story and setting that expands one’s understanding of this country that is often in the news, and about which little is known.
Friday, February 24, 2017
A 1946 tourism or culture info book for Korea, written and illustrated during the Colonial Period, gives the traditional look (by Westerners) at Korea's culture and customs. Color illustrations are vivid and traditional. You can sense the wonder of these two Westerners about the "orient," which infuses both the reportage and commentary, as well as the quality of the artwork and the subjects selected for illustration. Still, it's an interesting period look, though one that is glossed with sentimentality and charm. Sampling of illustrations below.
Thursday, February 23, 2017
This acclaimed indie play is about two North Korean sisters who attempt to defect. Its premise is mostly how one sacrifices herself for the other, and that trope in Asian life of sacrifice and martyrdom. I haven't seen the play, but the staging is clear from Chung's careful description, and I can see how even the fantasy elements would deliver the strong emotional effect she desires in examining the relationship between an older and younger sister and the consequences of fatal choices.
Wednesday, February 22, 2017
Separated @ Birth: A True Love Story of Twin Sisters Reunited, by Anaïs Bordier and Samantha Futerman
A friend of a Korean adoptee finds a photo on Facebook of a girl who could be her double. Indeed, they begin to talk to each other from California and France, and soon learn there are too many similarities in their adoption stories for their same looks to be mere coincidence. The journey of these two young ladies, one an actress, the other a fashion design student, and their families is a stirring portrayal of lost twins found again through sheer chance and perseverance. Also a well-made documentary.
Suki Kim went undercover as a Christian missionary among Christian missionaries who went undercover to North Korea under the guise of educators to young men of that nation's privileged elite. Admittedly an atheist, her double subterfuge is compounded by the oppressive regime under which she became a professor of ESL. I devoured this book in one morning both for its stellar writing and for a story that grips from the get-go and doesn't let go. The rarity of her experience, and the slow burn of its impact on her character and her life are intimately portrayed, and her love for the youth she instructed shines through with to augment the conviction of her purpose in going there. It is a book of rare courage, in which betrayal is necessarily a part of its existence, but one that feels justified by the exposure of the complexity of what it must be like for even the cream of the crop to live in this cloistered land.
Tuesday, June 3, 2014
Vivid illustrations enhance this wordless book, showing a touching story of surprising depth. A recently arrived immigrant boy in an American city feels alienated by the language and all that is new to him. His longing for his homeland is embodied in a seed he carries in his pocket. But he loses the seed, and his search to recover it leads him to adventures that open his eyes to wonderful discoveries and friendship. The universal story of the irony of loss that leads to acceptance and growth is portrayed with a rich, yet simple, sequence of lively drawings that express his shift in understanding the language and culture.
Thursday, May 29, 2014
Tuesday, April 22, 2014
Literature Review from ENTROPY, by Peter Tieryas Liu. Stephen Hong Sohn has written one of the smartest, analytical books on literature in the past year with Racial Asymmetries: Asian American Fictional Worlds. Sohn isn’t just a scholar, but an excavator, an archaeologist, an explorer, and a poet, traversing racial narratives to challenge “the tidy links between authorial ancestry and fictional content, and between identity and form, to expand what is typically thought of as Asian American culture and criticism.”
Saturday, April 12, 2014
Translations of contemporary (up to 1990) Korean writings include poetry, fiction, essays, and drama, predominantly focus on the difficult, tragic and resilient history of Korea during the twentieth-century.
Thursday, October 24, 2013
"It is no easy task, this rendering. Only the dull rush heedlessly into print with 'impressions of the Orient." To those with more sensitive perceptions, the East is too overwhelming for easy articulateness. It intimidates. The first few hours in Peking not only confuse, they frighten. Color is too vivid, motion in too unfamiliar a rhythm, mass too imposing, the content of the life about one too alien for translation into term intelligible to the Western mind. Another barrier also intervenes: the prejudices of foreign residents. To escape the influence of either their over-enthusiasm or maladjustment is difficult for one thrown suddenly into an alien culture."
But the two manage, despite all that. She overcomes her culture to strip and change in front of a crowd of welcoming swimmers (men and women) to Japanese men's underwear (the only garments that would fit her), enjoying the swim, only to realize the white garments are transparent in the water. But by then, she recognizes that no one cares, and so she lets it go and enjoys the company and the swim, to the horror of her husband. His illustrations are without prejudice, sensitive to the reality he portrays and skilled in his artistry to show it as real.
For Korea, they take note of the modernization that Japan brought with colonization, but also note that it was unwelcome, and she tells one particular story that exemplifies the effect of such change—hard white highways built by the Japanese, excellent railways, and in particular one steel bridge:
"Last night from the steel bridge a Korean girl threw herself into the river. Her body was found by fishermen at dawn.
"Not much over sixteen, she had been wed to a youth of her own age, wed in the traditional manner by arrangement between families. Such a marriage being almost inviolable, a divorce would be the affair not of individuals, but of clans. From the first, the girl was gentle, knowing a wife's duty. But the young man was of a newer mold, a rebel against tradition, against old-fashioned authority. He wished to choose a wife for himself. [He went] to the local authorities, the new rulers whose power is naturally greater than that of a subject's father…[and appealed] in the name of the law as new as the bridge, and as alien. What he demanded was granted—a modern divorce.
"She who had been a bride was now neither a wife nor yet a maid free to reenter her father's house, eligible again for marriage. No respected Korean family would accept her as daughter-in-law. Scorned publicly by her husband, she was disgraced, and her shame became the shame of her bewildered relatives. In her father's house she was, as in her husband's, unwelcome.
"Wearing fresh white linens from her bridal chest, she ran, last night, to meet death. Through stinking streets, past barred gates of unfriendly houses, past barred gates of the mission's gardens, she ran, a whimpering thing in white, while we lay between decent sheets, dreaming. This is the story I got this morning from the missionary's wife, whose cook had it from the gatekeeper, he having listened to the group of peddlers.
"Today I will not go down to the river."
Wednesday, September 18, 2013
Tuesday, December 18, 2012
Catherine Chung's acclaimed debut novel (a Booklist Starred Review, among other terrific press) earns its accolades with elegant prose and a story of an immigrant family. Set in both America and in Korea, Janie's complicated relationship with her missing sister, Hannah, stands as a metaphor for Janie's own complicated relationship with her parents and with her identity. The story examines the loyalties in family love, how they originate and how they evolve and affect each family member. Much of what makes this book sing is Chung's gorgeous writing and sensitivity to the subtle, and the leaps from a tiny moment of emotion that expands its meaningfulness to the universal, regardless of one's country of origin.
Tuesday, September 18, 2012
This intense character study of two simple people whose lives are utterly altered by war is deeply felt and written with power and grace, without attempting to soften the gruesome brutality of war. It is also an excellent point of view on the Korean War from peasants’ lives.
Excerpt from Chapter 3, page 63:
Fearful, they stood at the mouth of the cave staring into a darkness that would not open itself to their eyes. The dank fungus smell of sun-starved stones and earth brushed against their faces and filled their nostrils.
Sunday, January 15, 2012
Riding a crest of enormous praise, this debut novel by an American man about a North Korean citizen is a worthy achievement, and one I couldn't put down for two days straight. Its numerous twists of plot that in fiction often seem too coincidental, but the reader's sympathy and alignment to the protagonist is deeply enough felt that these happenstances feel mostly believable, and are almost forgivable. The dog, in particular, was over the top for me. The book paints a harsh reality of life under Kim Jong Il, and though I think there is much basis for the events portrayed in this novel, it seems still to be a decidedly Western take. The notorious North Korean extremism of the ideology and the brutality of prison camp life and interrogation techniques are undeniable, and feel thoroughly researched. My 2-star rating of the book relates to its core premise, which over time grew to be more difficult for me to swallow: the desire for freedom portrayed here is a Western sense of freedom; the striving is for an unknown entity of "freedom" by the North Korean people. Though Korea has a long history of oppression and suffering, our Western notion of yearning for freedom cannot be so easily applied to North Korean citizens. I lament how subtleties of Korean language and culture are unable to be captured, and how that lack of authenticity allows situations that would be rare if not impossible in that culture. But the book is a page-turning thriller, with a heroic man living under the pressure of exceptional times, undergoing gradual change that challenges his identity. Some of the characters, like the Captain and Mongyong, as well as minor incidental characters with mere walk-on roles, like the Japanese girl on the pier, are memorable. The telling of this story is structurally interesting (something the Pulitzer committee in the past several years seems to admire), interwoven by DPRK Citizen’s broadcasts, and with shifting points of view to bring in several aspects to present a communal take on an American writer's view of North Korea. I recommend instead the real-life story of Shin Dong-hyuk, in the book, Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden.
NY Times January 15 review
NY Times January 15 review