Wednesday, July 24, 2019

BOOKS! (If You Leave Me + The Fisher King)

I didn't post a review in June. But the good news is that I'm here now, and the even better news is that this time I can say with absolute certainty that I will be posting two reviews before July is over! Today's is the first of said two. Over the weekend, I entered a giveaway by Livre Cafe on Instagram (learned today that I didn't win), and as part of the giveaway I had to mention my favorite book that I've read so far in 2019. Since I have two IG accounts, I entered twice to increase my chances. And after thinking about it and scrolling through my Goodreads list, these were the two books I named as my favorites from this year. They're more like "surprise favorites", though. They're not my absolute favorite books ever (I rated them both 4 out of 5 stars), but I became more engrossed in them then I'd expected to be, and they each charmed me in their own way and left a lasting impression. The first is a novel that I found at Costco, and the second is a novel that I found at a gigantic used book sale at a mall.

If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim

Waiting months after buying this book to finally crack it open actually worked in my favor. By the time I was ready to read it, I dug right in instead of reading its back cover or jacket again, and so instead of following this tragic historical love triangle story with dread, I maintained a sense of hope to the very end. This novel does not have a happy ending, and each character is basically doomed, cursed even, as a consequence of the Korean War, but I didn't realize it until the book closed with that harsh and unyielding truth staring me in the face.

Spanning from 1951 to 1967, If You Leave Me shifts between the perspectives of three people who start out as teenaged refugees living in Busan. Haemi and Kyunghwan, both 16 years old, are best friends who grew up in the same village on the eastern coast of Korea. Fearing the approach of North Korean soldiers, Haemi had fled the village with her widowed mother and sickly younger brother, while Kyunghwan fled with his alcoholic widower father. Kyunghwan's 18-year-old cousin Jisoo, who comes from a much wealthier family in Seoul, had been sent to Busan alone. Haemi is in love with Kyunghwan, and they routinely sneak out past curfew to go barhopping and talk about what their lives have become. However, Jisoo decides to pursue Haemi as well and even proposes marriage. Despite normally being quite strong-willed, when faced with pressure from her mother and her brother's worsening condition, Haemi agrees to marry Jisoo so that her family will have a more secure chance of surviving the war. Jisoo enlists in the ROK military immediately after the wedding, and Kyunghwan is pressured by his father to do the same, and so the trio are separated starting in 1951.

What follows are multiple reunions and separations, with misunderstandings and missed opportunities aplenty, as each character grows into an adult and learns to survive both during and after the war. With an injured arm, Jisoo returns to Haemi and her family back near her hometown in 1953, and he finds his footing as an exploitative landowner and businessman. Kyunghwan moves to Seoul after the war and works menial jobs until he eventually makes a decent living for himself in sales. Haemi, who had once dreamed of pursuing an education, is unhappy and struggling with the expectations of being a wife and mother at such a young age. She exhibits signs of PTSD and other mental illnesses that only worsen as time goes on; Jisoo is less than understanding and she has no friends to rely on. Outside of taking care of her children, Haemi has nothing to do but turn the past over and over in her mind. What went wrong, how things could have been different. If only she and Kyunghwan had had the chance to be together. If only the war hadn't distorted their youth. After an unexpected letter arrives for Kyunghwan in Seoul, he goes to visit Haemi and Jisoo (well, really just Haemi) and the trio are together in 1963 for the first time in 12 years.That's when the somewhat stable and cohesive facade of their adult lives begins to unravel.

I joked with my friend who recommended Kyung-Sook Shin's Please Look After Mom to me that If You Leave Me is considerably more devastating of a novel. And with its multi-perspective approach, multiple female narrators, and long-suffering matriarchs, there are some similarities between the two. But with its intimate examination of war and the detrimental impact that average Korean people faced, I'd say that If You Leave Me is actually more similar to Min Jin Lee's Pachinko. In fact, if someone wanted to learn about Korean political  and economic history from around 1910 to the late 1980s through novels, Pachinko, If You Leave Me, and Han Kang's Human Acts fit together quite well chronologically. (I'm sure there's a wide array of selections to choose from; I'm just basing this suggestion on books that I've read so far.) If you enjoy reading about love triangles, tragic love stories, the Korean War or Korean history in general, are interested in refugee experiences, have ever been called "crazy" when you really just lacked support, or have ever wondered about "the one that got away", then read this book! You might need a hug afterward, though.

Favorite quotes:
"I wished I were alonein the ditch, or on the hillside still looking for herbs. Even on the open sea. But I hadn't been allowed the space or time or means to truly be by myself in years, and we were far from home" (59).
 "I realized we were lurching toward a new world... where Americans would never leave us alone, where they didn't simply provide us with money, but with their ways of living as well. We weren't rebuilding. We were shaping ourselves into a different form. I felt duped by my own blindness. Like a man who doesn't know he's soaked until halfway through a creeping storm" (189-190).

The Fisher King by Paule Marshall

It is 1984. Hattie is a middle-aged Brooklyn native who's been living in Paris for decades after following her two best friends there. Said best friends are a jazz musician known as Sonny-Rett Payne and a beautiful would-be starlet named Cherisse, who both originate from the same block of Macon Street in Brooklyn that Hattie does. Though Sonny-Rett and Cherisse have both passed away, Hattie is still in Paris raising their grandson, named Sonny after his grandfather. One day, Hattie receives a letter from Sonny-Rett's brother Edgar, inviting both her and young Sonny back to Brooklyn to attend  a memorial concert in honor of the 15th anniversary of Sonny-Rett's passing. Plus, young Sonny hasn't met his American relatives yet. Resistant at first, Hattie accepts the invitation and takes Sonny to the States for the first time.

Eight-year-old Sonny spends much of his time becoming acquainted with his great grandmothers on both sides. Ulene, Sonny-Rett's mother, is a stubborn Caribbean woman with dementia who makes clear who she likes and who she doesn't. The person she dislikes the most (and the feeling is mutual)  is Florence Varina, Cherisse's mother and Sonny's other great-grandmother, a Brooklyn native with roots in Georgia via The Great Migration. As such, at least four different shades of the African diaspora are presented to readers at once. Hattie as the Black American expat in Paris, Sonny as the French-born Black boy, Florence Varina as the Black American one generation removed from the deep South, and Ulene as the Caribbean immigrant. Edgar serves as Hattie and Sonny's guide during their two-week stay leading up to the concert, but Hattie is extremely protective and rarely lets Sonny get too far away from her for too long.

In all honesty, not being dramatic at all, I feel like this is one of those books that I was always meant to read. I originally picked it at the mall book sale because it was written by a Black woman, the back cover told me that the story involved Black people and jazz, and Paris, France was in the mix somehow. And much like Black Girl in Paris, I saw so much of myself in this book. But even more so, because  Hattie and Sonny live just one arrondissement over from where I was when I stayed in Paris. They live in the 17th; I lived in the 8th (near the edge between the 8th and the 17th), and did an internship in the 17th. Hattie even mentions Avenue de Clichy, which is part of my old neighborhood (near Place de Clichy)! There are other Parisian sites mentioned that are a familiar to me, but when Avenue de Clichy came up, I knew that this book was meant for me. Or rather, as I said, I was meant to read it.

Additionally, I can't say enough about how masterfully Paule Marshall flips the script in the very last chapter, after the memorial concert has ended. While most of the novel until this point focuses on innocent, artistic, slightly judgemental Sonny being exposed to Brooklyn and his relatives, with recollections thrown in from both him and Hattie regarding their less-than-fabulous life in Paris, the last chapter is all about Edgar confronting Hattie with what his true motives are. I had been giving Hattie the benefit of the doubt as Sonny's caretaker and the one who reveals the most about her, Sonny-Rett, and Cherisse's past, so it wasn't until this chapter that I realized how unreliable her perspective actually is. Something had seemed a little off all along, and with the final chapter I was finally seeing all the characters with clear eyes, and then the book ended just like that. We're presented with what's really at stake, but then don't witness the full fallout. And while I might have been annoyed with seemingly-abrupt endings in the past (Beale Street comes to mind), with The Fisher King I really don't mind it at all. If you're interested in Brooklyn, Paris, jazz history, non-traditional relationships, the Black diaspora, Black family histories, or literature written by Black women, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"You got some of all of us in you, dontcha? What you gonna do with all that Colored from all over creation you got in you? Better be somethin' good" (36).

"her wonderfully complicated, inexplicable self, proving to him, as she did each time they were together, that even an ordinary, unremarkable body such as hers possessed a kind of music, its own rhythms, harmonies, tonalities, crescendosmore than one, and that, at times her special music had the power to leave him in tears afterward..." (195).

"If you love him for himself, more than for something or someone you might be trying to hold on to through him, you'll give him a chance" (219).

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

My First-Ever Feature on a Book Blog!

I'm slightly delayed in mentioning this, but my friend Rachel from Life of a Female Bibliophile recently invited me to do a Q&A interview for her blog! I met Rachel in the first two Japanese classes I ever took at a local university while I was still in high school (if I remember correctly, we were the only Black girls there), and we've stayed connected online since that time. Rachel published our interview on her site on July 3rd.

Life of a Female Bibliophile
As with most things when people invite me to participate in things or want to know more about me, my internal knee-jerk reaction was Huh? Why me? But there were quite a few unconventional things that I pushed myself to go for in May and June, and in that vein I accepted Rachel's offer. She initially told me that I could either do a guest post on any book-related topic I wanted to write about, or I could do a Q&A. I asked her for a week to think about it but then didn't have anything I felt strongly enough to want to write about, so I chose the latter option. And I'm glad I did, because I was so impressed by how thoughtful Rachel's questions were regarding myself as a reader, my podcast (Young, Gifted and Abroad), and my online-diary-turned-book-blog-of-sorts (DeelaSees). Looking through her questions, it was obvious to me that she'd taken time and care to inform herself about the work I've been doing, and then formulate fun and respectfully probing questions to draw even more info from me. I haven't done many interviews in my life, but Rachel's is definitely the most comprehensive so far.

If you want to learn more about my podcaster self, my bookworm self, and/or my traveler self, check out our blog interview here. Thanks, Rachel!