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

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Shelter by Jung Yun

This acclaimed debut novel deserves all the great attention and accolades it's received. Both a turn-the-page thriller and a literary investigation of a family's survival from trauma, both recent and decades old, the writing elevates the story into deeper understandings of the nuances in family relationships and how they seep into every act of living. It is a refreshing change that Kyung's Korean-ness is not the central focus of the story, and his being Korean is only incidentally part of the narrative, an essential part of his identity, yes, but not the main focus. Yun also manages to make an unlikeable protagonist sympathetic, which is difficult to do, and at times uncomfortable to read. I found myself rooting for him to step up and overcome his history, but of course, he couldn't, just as all the others in the novel cannot deny how they were shaped because of their familial histories. Because the story is a thriller, I'm loath to reveal how the novel progresses, but it's a high recommendation that will keep you stuck to it until the last page is turned. 

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Tell Me Everything You Don't Remember: The Stroke that Changed My Life, by Christine Hyung-Oak Lee

Enhancing an already enthralling beginning about the surprising facts of a young woman’s stroke at age 33, the writing in this book is what continues to beguile and capture, elevating the work to a mesmerizing memoir of a condition and a long recovery that changed her life, and the lives of many others as well. The author’s sense of detail and her reference to her journals of those days, combined with impressive research that only adds to the narrative, makes the memoir a sensitive portrayal of the condition of stroke and its result of making the brain and its memories a jumble. She writes of her experience not merely as a metaphor for her own psychological condition where the stroke made a dividing line of before and after, but also as a journey of exploration and compassionate understanding of the fraught emotional delicacies contained in that before and after, specifically the loss of her marriage, integrating her childhood history of violence, a core change in personality, of becoming a mother, discovering her body in health, and finding love anew. The book is organized like memory—fragments of scenes that appear and reappear, information and deep reflection salient to those fragments, and overall a sense of artfulness in the manipulation of time as an apt way to organize a story that threw the narrator herself out of linear time. It is an honest, heartfelt and brave book, an absorbing read not just about the condition of stroke, but about identity and finding self-love.

Monday, June 5, 2017

A Small Revolution, by Jimin Han

In her startling debut novel, Jimin Han captures several genres at once—a terrifying thriller, a coming-of-age story of first love, a historical novel of 1980s Korea and Korean Americans, and a work of literature with an interesting structure and use of point-of-view that only ramps up the tension. I am reluctant to talk about the actual story so as not to ruin its surprising drama, though it has been often reviewed, but do want to say it’s a writer’s book and a compelling read as well. Who said fine writing couldn’t take one’s breath away with suspense and action?

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."