Monday, December 31, 2018

BOOKS! (Please Look After Mom + Friday Black)

Whew! I said that I'd write a second book review during the month of December, and I made it just in time! Today I've got two books that were recommended to me out of the blue (I rarely ask for recommendations because my TBR list stays ridiculously long, haha!). The first was recommended to me by a really good friend, and the second was recommended to me by a bookstore employee whom I met while purchasing An American Marriage and Human Acts in the Bay Area (four months later and that trip is still coming up, go figure). Let's get to it!

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin
(translated from Korean by Chi-Young Kim)

I knew that I'd seen this cover previously but I never paid attention to it because it's rather generic. What a shame that this gem and Man Asian Literary Prize winner didn't get a cover that was more unique and eye-catching. I honestly thought it was just another Amy Tan or Lisa See novel (no shade to them, I just wasn't interested). But then my friend Irene randomly messaged me about this book last month saying, "It's messing me up so bad. Like, in a good way," and I appreciate her taste in books so I swiftly ordered it from ThriftBooks.

The year is 2007. An elderly couple ("Mom" and "Father") arrives at Seoul Station from the countryside to visit their children, all of whom are grown and living in the big city. Contrary to their past visits, none of their five children is there to pick them up, so they decide to make their way to their eldest son's home on their own. When transferring to a different train, the husband steps in assuming his wife is right behind him. The door closes, the train takes off, and he turns around to see that she's not there. He goes back to Seoul Station to retrieve his wife, but she's gone. Thus commences almost a year of efforts and revelations and guilt and family fallouts, as Mom's children desperately search for her.

The novel shifts from the perspectives of the middle child (Chi-hon, the eldest daughter who's also a writer), to the firstborn and eldest son Hyong-chol (Mom's favorite, the one on whom the family's socioeconomic mobility relied on the most), to Father, to Mom, and back to Chi-hon. While some family members are more involved in the search than othersChi-hon, once the most distant, winds up being the most guilt-driven and devoted to finding Mom, forsaking nearly all elseall of them learn something about Mom in the process that none of them cared to know or paid attention to before. And of course, with Mom being a long-suffering provider from a generation that survived colonization and war (she was still a teenager when she and Father married shortly after the Korean War), there was plenty that she hid from her family as well. I found myself most sympathetic toward Chi-hon and most disappointed, angered even, by Father. This was probably by design, given that Kyung-Sook Shin lays it on pretty thick about how self-interested and oblivious Father was. Either he was a rolling stone repeatedly leaving the family for weeks or months at a time, present but still leaving Mom to handle most of the housework, child-rearing AND farming, or he simply prioritized his own ailments over Mom's, never considering that there might be something serious going on with her.

Obviously the driving questions of the novel concern what happened to Mom: why and how she disappears, where she goes and what she does while missing in Seoul, and whether or not her family finds her. I'm not going to ruin any of that for you. I will say that though this is one of the saddest books I've read this year, and that it even prompted me to talk to my mom about whether I've been a decent daughter or not, it is totally worth the read. If you enjoy Korean literature, family drama, or mystery, if you love your mom, and if you've ever been taken for granted or taken someone else for granted, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"Most things in the world are not unexpected if one thinks carefully about them. Even something one would call unusualif one thinks about it, it's really just a thing that was supposed to happen. Encountering unusual events often means you didn't think things through" (30).

"How could you only do what you like? There are things you have to do whether you like it or not... If you only do what you like, who'd going to do what you don't like?" (60-61).

Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

When I was checking out at Books Inc. in Mountain View, the woman ringing me up asked me what my favorite book of the year had been so far. Put on the spot, I was stumped, and the only book I could think of was Marriage of a Thousand Lies. She seemed to be familiar with it, and told me that a new book was coming out that I would also enjoy, implying that it was similar in some way to the one I'd mentioned. "It's called Black Friday, I think. Wait no, Friday Black! That's it, Friday Black is what it's called." Now. I'm not sure if she actually read Marriage of a Thousand Lies or was thinking of a different book when assuring me that its and Friday Black's sensibilities would match. Because those two books aren't similar at all! Other than that they're both written by children of (Black/Brown) immigrants, and that they both emphasize the oft-ignored struggles of certain people of color, they're completely different! However, I'm still glad that she recommended Friday Black to me, and that I put it on my Christmas list (thanks, Ma!). It's the last book that I read in 2018, and it's one of the strangest and most special wonders of them all.

I started reading it on Christmas Day, shortly after seeing the trailer for Jordan Peele's upcoming horror masterpiece, 'Us'. Now I'm writing about that same novel, the day after watching the newest episode of 'Black Mirror' ("Baldersnatch"), while also rueing that I can't give my full attention to the annual New Year's 'Twilight Zone' marathon that's airing on Syfy right now. And what superbly fitting works to bookend my experience with Friday Black, because the novel is reminiscent of all those styles. Black horror, satire, science fiction, stories with a moral or twist that refuses to go easy on you. I love those kinds of material. And like the anthology series 'Black Mirror' especially, it's hard to describe this collection of stories without giving away something essential, and I honestly feel like it's best experienced the first time, completely blind. I was intentional about not researching too much about Friday Black before reading it; I didn't even read the back cover or inner flaps so as not to spoil anything for myself. 

What I can say is that this novel is very, very Black. All of the main and most of the supporting characters are explicitly or implicitly noted as being Black. And two of its most disturbing stories reference Trayvon Martin and other Black youths who have been killed by white or white-adjacent people (especially cops) without justice. The book opens with "The Finkelstein 5", in which a young Black man's methods of self-determination, survival, and solidarity change when the white man who beheaded five Black children at a library gets acquitted of their murder. Later on, "Zimmer Land" blends the Trayvon Martin case and the woes of working in corporate America by following an employee of an amusement park where white people can massacre Black and Brown actors for sport. 

Other personal favorites of mine include "Friday Black" (where consumerism is a virus that turns mall customers into zombies and trampled people's bodies are simply shoved out of the way), "How to Sell a Jacket as Told by IceKing" (where a top seller in a department store witnesses himself being usurped by a newbie), and "In Retail" (where said newbie, now a manager, tries not to be bothered by the fact that an employee commits suicide inside the mall every six months, but the sales never stop). The way Adjei-Brenyah describes store operations, witnessing customer depravity, and having to find satisfaction in the dressed-up nothingness that's offered to you as an employee.... As someone who's worked a couple dead-end jobs (including retail) in the past, I just KNEW that he must've worked retail before, because there's no other way he would've been able to get those details so right! And after reading some of his interviews yesterday, I learned that I was correct!

These stories are both devastating and confusing at times. Adjei-Brenyah takes his time laying out the worlds of each story, spelling everything out in some and intentionally not answering certain questions in others, but nonetheless getting his point across in them all. Like a lot of the best satire, he takes facets of American life and current events, ratchets up certain elements to the extreme, and then lays them back in our laps to show us how absurd our real-life behaviors really are. There's so much grief, rage, violence, isolation, and suffocation that has to do with various Black experiences (as well as capitalism, and classicism, and war). And at the same time Adjei-Brenyah weaves in moments of humor. Hope, even. Like, how in the world does he manage that, in his first book no less? Friday Black is a marvel that I'm still trying to figure out. While I'm not sure if it's my favorite read of 2018 or not, it's certainly the most unique. Just read this book! That's all I've got to say.

Favorite quotes:
"If I had words left in me, I would not be here" (9).

"People say 'sell your soul' like it's easy. But your soul is yours and it's not for sale. Even if you try, it'll still be there, waiting for you to remember it" (100-101).

"you have to dig happiness up, 'cause it's not gonna just walk up to you and ask you how you're doing" (159).

Monday, December 10, 2018

BOOKS! (Human Acts + If Beale Street Could Talk)

I had planned to read like crazy in November and post two or three reviews... and somehow, yet again, time got away from me. Now it's December! At least with this review coming out today, I can confidently say that I'll be writing another book review before this month (this year) ends, and two book reviews in one month is more than I've been able to do in a while! In 2018 I started writing down the book pairs that I'm going to read and write about, so hopefully doing the same in 2019 (and being more consistent about pushing through that list) will help me get more reviews out. But for now, here goes:

Human Acts by Han Kang
(translated from Korean by Deborah Smith)

This was the other novel I bought at Books Inc. while I was in California, in addition to An American Marriage. I had a feeling that I couldn't just leave with one book in hand, so I walked through the rest of the store and willed something else to speak to me. And then I spotted Human Acts. Now, let me just say that I LOVED The Vegetarian when I read it last year. I was devastated by it, but in one of those readerly ways where a book profoundly touches my soul and jostles my notions about humanity. And at the time, I vaguely remembered that Han Kang had another novel out that was highly-praised, but I never looked into it. Now was the time!

Human Acts centers on the Gwangju Uprising or Gwangju Massacre (May 18th-27th, 1980), where protestors against dictatorial leadership and inhumane labor practices were met with violent repression by government troops in Gwangju, South Korea. As explained in the introduction written by translator Deborah Smith (also the translator of Bae Suah's A Greater Music), this sensitive subject is also incredibly personal to Han Kang because she lived in Gwangju for the first 10 years of her life and moved to Seoul not long after the uprising happened. It follows that this book is not simply an ode to Kang's hometown but a carefully-researched tribute to the victims and survivors of that tumultuous time, from activists and bystanders to missing persons and souls never fully set free. Along with the epilogue, each of the six chapters unveils the perspective of someone connected to a character named Dong-ho, a junior high student and volunteer who takes care of newly-dead bodies that await being claimed by loved ones during the uprising.

The first chapter ("The Boy, 1980") features Dong-ho going about his duties hours before soldiers are expected to descend upon Gwangju again. The second chapter ("The Boy's Friend, 1980") features the spirit of Jeong-dae, Dong-ho's missing best friend, recounting the shock and confusion of observing his body as it's added to a pile of other bodies. The third chapter ("The Editor, 1985") features a publishing editor named Eun-sook who used to volunteer with Dong-ho, as she contends with government censors and recovers from being assaulted by a police officer. The fourth chapter ("The Prisoner, 1990") features an unnamed political prisoner and torture survivor who served in a makeshift militia with Dong-ho. Next is Seon-ju ("The Factory Girl, 2002"), another woman who volunteered alongside Dong-ho, who's prompted to revisit her trauma when a researcher requests an interview with her. The last chapter features Dong-ho's mom ("The Boy's Mother, 2010"), speaking to her participation in a group of mother-activists, as well as to a family tragedy that's had a ripple effect for decades. And then the epilogue ("The Writer, 2013") features a fictionalized version of Han Kang as the writer in question (and the daugther of Dong-ho's former teacher), who returns to Gwangju to research the uprising and what happened to Dong-ho.

To depict the horror, absurdity, and confusion of these situations, Kang does not spare readers from the intimate details of violence and the desecration of human life and bodies. But somehow she manages to relay this information with care. And I'd learned about the Gwangju Uprising in college, but was flabbergasted by the context that Kang adds to it, namely the fact that Korean soldiers were trained to act brutally and mercilessly (and were rewarded for it) when fighting in the Vietnam War on the US's behalf, only to then return home and use those same tactics on fellow Korean people during the various demonstrations that arose in the 1980s. While I can't say that I have as strong an affinity for this novel as I do for The Vegetarian, I appreciate Human Acts so much for the honesty and vulnerability it conveys. If you're interested in historical fiction, Korean history, social movements, victims' testimonies, survivor's guilt, or how society supposedly moves on after a momentous tragedy happens, then read this book!

Favorite quote:
"what is this thing we call a soul?
... is it like a kind of glass? 
Glass is transparent, right? And fragile. That's the fundamental nature of glass. And that's why objects that are made of glass have to be handled with care... Before, we used to have a kind of glass that couldn't be broken. A truth so hard and clear it might as well have been made of glass. So when you think about it, it was only when we were shattered that we proved we had souls. That what we really were was humans made of glass" (129-130). 

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

I rushed to get this book so that I could have it read in time before November 30th, when its film adaptation (Barry Jenkins! Regina King!) was supposed to come out. But then the film's wide release date got pushed back to Christmas Day, so now rather than being just in time, I am considerably early. Lucky me! Set in New York City, the premise of Beale Street is fairly simple. Tish and Fonny grew up together, and as young adults they've transitioned from merely best friends to being lovers as well. After consummating their relationship, they make plans to get married and find an apartment of their own. But then, Fonny is targeted by a racist white cop, arrested and charged with a rape he didn't commit, and thrown in prison. Not long afterward, Tish finds out she's pregnant. So now it's up to Tish, her family, and Fonny's family to band together to fund Fonny's defense, and hopefully get him out of jail before the baby comes.

I have to admit that I'm not a lovey-dovey person. Romance in and of itself doesn't interest me all that much, so the "love will prevail" theme that's so prevalent throughout the novel didn't do much for me. However! A black family striving at all costs to free an innocent son from jail and fiercely defend a little black baby from hateful people before it even enters the world? The women in said family primarily leading the charge and making ish happen? Two young people trying to build the life they envision without institutional racism dragging them down? I can get behind all of that! That's what I appreciate so much about Beale Street. It's not just a love story (which, sorry y'all, *snooze*), but a testament to the phenomenal good that can happen when people are seen, understood, and have folks who care stick up for them. Also, what a coincidence that I am just reading this book this year, amidst #metoo, as the book defends Fonny while still attempting to honor the suffering of Victoria (his accuser, who was raped but not by him).

I only have two disappointments regarding this novel. First: we don't learn as much about Tish as we do about Fonny, which is surprising considering that Tish narrates the entire novel. She's painted as naive and innocent, which is fair given her age and that she's the baby of her family, and she mostly just goes along with what Fonny wants to do because she trusts him. She's forced to become stronger and more intentional as a soon-to-be mom and the main one fighting for Fonny's freedom, but again, that transformation happens only in connection to Fonny. I appreciate Tish being a regular black girl just living her life, but she also doesn't have much of an identity apart from her fiancé.

My other disappointment is with the ending. The last paragraph repeats the same imagery previously used to describe a dream of Fonny's, so it's not clear to me if he's just dreaming again while still in jail, or if he's actually free and at home with Tish and the baby. It feels like a fakeout, and I'd like to think that I can appreciate an ambiguous ending, but if the movie ends the same exact way I know I'll be a little miffed. We'll see. Though the ending is unclear, it is a refreshingly hopeful story, even amidst the lived experiences of anti-black racism and isolation that often come up in James Baldwin's works. If you enjoy love stories, #blacklove, stories about young people trying to make it in the big city, family drama, black mothers, or anything written by Baldwin, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"For you see, he had found his center, his own center, inside him: and it showed. He wasn't anybody's nigger. And that's a crime, in this fucking free country. You're suppose to be somebody's nigger. And if you're nobody's nigger, you're a bad nigger: and that's what the cops decided when Fonny moved downtown" (37-38).

"he kissed my tears and then he kissed me and then we both knew something which we had not known before" (76).

"And they know nothing at all about the song they are singing: which causes Sharon to wonder if they know anything about themselves at all" (151).