Book Review: Please Look After Mom

wpid-2015-06-21-09.24.44-1.jpg.jpeg

Was that, he wondered, the most romance Mom was able to experience in those days?

Please Look After Mom, by Kyung-sook Shin

When I was younger, I remember reading books in Korean. A little haltingly, but still able to read in Korean naturally. Nowadays, the most Korean I read is in the on-screen text of the entertainment shows I watch with my parents (Korean TV shows are filled with on-screen text) and occasional news articles.

I was born in Seoul, but I’ve spent approximately two-thirds of my life in North America. Throughout elementary and junior high, the only Korean I spoke was at home or with family friends. At school, there were Korean kids like me, but we conversed strictly in English. Like me, they felt awkward speaking Korean, and the Korean they spoke with their parents was mixed with English. And, like many immigrant children, I was slightly embarrassed of my parents’ conservative, traditional ways.

I’ve always considered myself as distant from my Korean background, so when I picked up the English translation of Please Look After Mom at the bookstore, I didn’t expect to connect with it so much. I’d heard of the book before, and since it was half-off, I decided to buy it. At the very least, I thought, I’d be able to discuss it with my parents.

Please Look After Mom is the story of a family whose mother goes missing. While on a trip to Seoul to visit her children, Park So-nyo is separated from her husband and disappears. Throughout the course of the novel, the family members deal with their grief, mostly independently. The book is more about their relationships with the mother, rather than the search itself.

I particularly related to Chi-hon, the older daughter of the family, who is an unmarried writer in her thirties. Chi-hon attempts to respect her mother’s traditional, sometimes superstitious beliefs, but she finds herself often frustrated with her mother’s values, which insist her on getting married and having children, and frown upon her casual relationship with her boyfriend. Chi-hon is often short and unnecessarily brusque with her mother, which is something I recognize in myself.

Traditionally in Korean culture, mothers are expected to sacrifice their own ambitions for their families and assume a rather subservient role to their husbands. Most Korean mothers I know married relatively young and have been housewives for their whole lives. The novel made me question how much I take my mother’s sacrifices for granted, especially as a young woman who is expected, traditionally, to do the same someday. I have absolutely no intention of living my life as a housewife, so why did I take it for granted that my mother, a college-educated woman, wanted to do the same?

Interestingly, large portions of the book are written in second person. When I learned about second person in English class, my teacher said that the only true example of second person voice is Nick Carraway’s narration in The Great Gatsby. But here, the narrator will describe Chi-hon’s actions in terms of “you”, as in “You knelt in front of Mom.” At first, the second person narration feels stilted and forced, but as I read it, it made me step into the shoes of the characters and reconsider my own relationship with my mother, which I think is what the author aimed to do.

YES OR NO?: A strong YES. This is an excellent novel through which you can learn more about Korean culture, both past and present, beyond the plastic surgery epidemic and carefully orchestrated idol stars. But more than that, it examines mothers and the sacrifices they make for their children, which is something all cultures can relate to.

Book Review: East of Eden

DSC_0002

But “Thou mayest”! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win. 

East of Eden, John Steinbeck

A few summers ago, I read Anna Karenina in its entirety. I’m not sure how long it took me, but it was my pre-Kindle days, so I remember lugging the huge volume around on the bus to and from work all summer. It was one of those few books that I thought lived up to its reputation and its author’s reputation. When I was reading Anna Karenina, I was quietly awed by Tolstoy’s power to describe people and places in ways I had felt before but never been able to put into words.

While reading East of Eden, I got a similar feeling. I was never assigned to read Steinbeck for school, and this was my first time picking up one of his works. But I simply loved the way characters were described, in ways that were fresh and original but also instantly understandable. One of the first lines about Mrs. Hamilton, describing her head as “small and round, and [holding] small round convictions”, made me rethink my use of clichés in my own writing.

One other thing that I personally felt while reading East of Eden was a form of nostalgia. As a kid, I spent some years growing up in Silicon Valley, and while it isn’t exactly the Salinas Valley that Steinbeck describes so minutely for his readers, the familiar place names like Stanford and Monterey brought back some warm memories. Seeing Stanford described without fanfare as “that school Leland Stanford had built on his farm” was also funny.

I loved the descriptive prose of East of Eden, but I found many of the characters unconvincing, especially the women. A few of the women in the Hamilton family are briefly highlighted, and mostly praised for their prudence and modesty, but the central female characters are Cathy/Kate and Abra. Abra herself is not incredibly interesting, but Steinbeck’s treatment of Kate was problematic for me.

From her first appearance in the novel, Cathy is described as missing a single thing that all people have. That single thing is what makes people, people. In other words, what she lacks is empathy for others. While delicately and angelically beautiful on the outside, Cathy heartlessly manipulates others to meet her needs, stopping at nothing. At the end of the novel, she becomes somewhat more sympathetic, as she herself wonders at her own lack of empathy and suffers through ill health. Still, though, I didn’t buy her as a character. She was flat. A trope. A convenient antagonist.

Despite this, the other characters are fully fleshed out and interesting, especially Lee. As an Asian immigrant to North America, I couldn’t help appreciating Lee as an intellectual and a central, necessary presence in the Trask household. To think that East of Eden was written more than fifty years ago and the portrayal of Lee is more complex than many Asian-American characters in today’s media is interesting to think about.

YES OR NO?: Definitely YES! The plot moves in a quiet and subtle way, and sometimes the inclusion of the Hamilton family’s happenings seems unnecessary. Still, I enjoyed this book so much more than I thought I would. And for a book written six decades ago, it is surprisingly relatable.