Korean American Books

Summaries and reviews of fiction and nonfiction books by Korean American authors,
books about Korean Americans and Korea, and Korean literature in English translation,
including some academic works and a sampling on the Korean War

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee

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

In the Shadow of the Sun, by Anne Sibley O'Brien

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

Old Korea: The Land of Morning Calm, by Elizabeth Keith and E.K. Robertson Scott

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

You For Me For You, by Mia Chung

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. 

Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea's Elite, by Suki Kim

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

Here I Am, by Patti Kim, illustrated by Sonia Sánchez

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

The Fruit 'n Food, by Leonard Chang

This early KA novel (first published 1996), centered around the Fruit ’n Food grocery, focuses on a somewhat aimless young man who gets involved with the grocer's daughter. The compelling story shows a Korean perspective of the race riots of the 1990s.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Racial Asymmetries: Asian American Fictional Worlds, by Stephen Sohn

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

Modern Korean Literature, Peter H. Lee

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. 

A Gesture Life by Chang-rae Lee

Rich language describes a Korean-Japanese-American former WWII medic living quietly in Connecticut in a small provincial town. Because of his past in the Pacific War post of Burma in 1945, and the Korean comfort women there, he lives a gesture life, one where all is sacrified in order to fit in and have surface equanimity. His adopted Japanese daughter hates him; guesses that she serves some purpose in his life that has nothing to do with her. Townfolk support the lead characters with finesse--he avoids passion and loses love and living. Smoothly transitions to flashbacks from present-tense daily contemporary life. Lee excels in expressing nner emotion, grander themes and gravitas in soliloquies that ache the heart. Eloquent writing, dense and thoughtful.

Native Speaker by Chang-rae Lee

With this 1996 debut novel, Chang-rae Lee entered the pantheon of literary best-sellers. Part mystery, part spy story, part immigrant experience, the story examines the character and identity of Henry Park. With this character, Lee begins his theme of studying the externally remote, yet internally tortured man—one who is haunted by trauma or tragedy in the past, most often relating to events in Korea. The complexity of this novel, combined with Lee's signature muscular prose and precision sentences, have made it a continued excellent read.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Turn to the East, by Caroline Singer and
C. Le Roy Baldridge

As a piece of "living history," this fascinating large-format volume brings together the narrative of Caroline Singer and artwork of her husband, Roy Baldridge, of their year (likely 1924-25) in the Far East, including Japan, Korea and China. What makes this work fascinating is the sensitivity of these Westerners about what they experience and how it compares to other Western and political prejudices. From the Foreword: "So here…rendered in two different media, brought together because they are complementary, the imprint of the East on two different personalities. 

"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

The Korean Americans, by Brian Lehrer (The Immigrant Experience series)

A middle-grade book that appears to be part of a series on the immigrant experience. What strikes me foremost is that it was published in 1988, four years before Sa-i-gu, the Los Angeles race riots, which was a benchmark for change in Korean American and American relations. And so, in that light, it's interesting to see how this book both attempts to delineate the particularities of the Korean American experience while simultaneously reinforcing burgeoning stereotypes of the KA culture. The photographs and brief modern Korean history up until the repeal of the Oriental Exclusion Act are interesting. A good “history in it’s time” brief reading.

I Married a Korean by Agnes Davis Kim

My family knew Agnes Davis Kim as "Auntie Agnes," though she wasn't a blood relative. My Korean parents knew her, perhaps from Korea, perhaps afterwards as immigrants in America, but her book was always on our shelves, and we would visit Auntie Agnes and Uncle David on their farm in the Catskills every summer when I was young. I saw a calf being birthed on their farm, circled cow pies, drove in the herd, woke early to watch the milking machines, had my first (awful) taste of raw milk straight from the cow (blue strings in it), and smelled chitterlings cooking for the first time ever when I sneaked into the worker's quarters. I slept on a cot in the living room with my 5 other siblings, and roamed the fields and woods during unforgettable farm summers. I finally read her book, and though I remember seeing her lovely and informative illustrations, it is only now that I can appreciate what she went through to have accomplished an interracial marriage in that time. The American community in Korea was against it, aghast, really, and she faced them all and insisted on the choice of love. She adapted her life with pioneer-woman strength to the more close-to-the-earth kind of life of Korean women of the day, and created many modern conveniences within her own home (especially the kitchen) in order to run a smooth household. Among them: a method of creating hot running water, learning how to perserve and keep food through the winter the Korea way, learning how to be subservient in appearances for her husband's sake, and creating and running a successful women's clinic in the midst of Japanese colonial oppression. I had never known she was medically trained, nor had I known the kind of racism she had experienced for her choice to marry. It is an informative and interesting book that portrays these kinds of personal struggles, as well as the inventive solutions she applied to overcome them. Her love of both her husband, his family, and the Korean people is palpable, and honorable, and her illustrations bring to life in detail the challenges of her life in Korea. The image isn't the book cover (a navy blue cloth binding) but is the frontispiece, one of Mrs. Kim’s illustrations presented throughout the book.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Remembering Korea 1950: A Boy Soldier's Story by H. K. Shin

This slim volume, a gem, tells Shin's story of his boyhood and his experience in the Korean War as a sixteen-year-old ROK soldier. While many books written in English cover the action and politics of the war, especially from the American point of view, few tell in such a personal way about the individual Korean experience of this war on families, on refugees, on the young men in battle. Laced with important historical hindsight about the movement of the war, the narrative has the ring of truth of the young man who witnessed many aspects of this confusing war and reconstruction, and who managed to survive in order to continue his education. It is both informative and charming, as the narrator's voice is one of self-deprecation and gentle humor.

Forgotten Country by Catherine Chung

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

I Am the Clay, Chaim Potok

An old woman and an old man flee from their village outside of Seoul (south of the river Han) when the Chinese join the North Korean People’s Army and invade Seoul for the second time. In the early days of their journey they find a boy, bleeding with a shrapnel wound, in a ditch. Having lost a son in childbirth, she rescues him more than once from the brink of death, her prayers to the spirits constant, while the old man resists helping this stranger. They struggle to survive crossing the mountains and the wretched last winter of the Korean War. In the old man's opinion the boy has special powers that have brought them meat and relative health. While the old woman finds peace in the belief that this is a son sent to her.

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.

Knopf, 1992

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Orphan Master's Son, Adam Johnson

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

Monday, November 7, 2011

Miles from Nowhere, by Nami Mun

With stunning prose and a sensitive eye for detail, Mun unfolds five years from age 14 in the gritty and difficult life of a young Korean American runaway on the urban streets. Not only does Joon quickly lose her innocence and succumb to the seemingly soothing beguile of drugs, leading to heroin addiction, she must fight for a lost identity as she attempts to reconcile being the daughter of an abusive and abandoning father, and a neglectful and strangely behaving mother who only has eyes for the father. Though what Joon lives through and what she remembers is horrific and exactly as awful as one imagines such a hardscrabble life can be, Mun's unsentimental take on it and her stunning prose that reaches deep into the core questions of what makes us continue when so much is lost, when even the self is seemingly without redemption, is what makes this book a breathtaking reward.