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Archive for July, 2013

Please Look After Mom

It’s been oplease look after momne week since Mom went missing.

The family is gathered at your eldest brother Hyong-Chol’s house, bouncing ideas off each other. You decide to make flyers and hand them out where Mom was last seen. The first thing to do, everyone agrees, is to draft a flyer. Of course, a flyer is an old-fashioned response to a crisis like this. But there are a few things a missing person’s family can do, and the missing person is none other than your mom. All you can do is file a missing-person report, search the area, ask passerby if they have seen anyone who looks like her. Your, younger brother , who owns an online clothing store, says he posted something about your mother’s disappearance, describing where she went missing; he uploaded her picture and asked people to contact the family if they’d seen her. You want to go look for her in places where you think she might be, but you know how she is,: she can’t go anywhere by herself in this city. Hyong-Chol designates you to write up the flyer, since you write for a living. You blush. as if you were caught doing something you shouldn’t. You aren’t sure how helpful your words will be in finding Mom. (pages 3-4)

In Kung-Sook Shim’s English debut novel, Please Look After Mom, an elderly woman goes missing in the crowded city of Seoul. Mom was just behind her husband at a packed subway station when the subway doors closed leaving mom behind. By the time the father gets off at the next station and returns for his wife, she is gone. Mom and Dad live in the Korean countryside and could be considered country bumpkins, unsophisticated, and, in the mother’s case, illiterate. Their four children are successful, having been pushed  by mom to become more than their peasant farmer parents. The story is told through the eyes of the oldest sister, a writer, the oldest son, the husband, and finally, the mother herself. They relate their mother’s story – married at age 17 to someone she did not know, working a farm, raising four children with a reluctant partner, cooking, cleaning, just getting through the days.

As the story unfolds we learn more about Mom, her illiteracy, her struggles with health, her hidden desires, her hidden life. That is the good part of the story. This is a novel about guilt and apology and I felt that part of the novel became a little repetitive. I didn’t know if this was due to cultural differences between America and South Korea. The novel is a best seller in Korea and has been published in 20 different countries so there is obviously something there that resonates with people’s experiences and emotions. Contrary to what you might think, this is not a story about what happened to mom. This is a look inward into a person taken for granted by those  around her, a provider of food and nurturing, a pusher, a believer, someone who perseveres against a myriad of obstacles.

I didn’t necessarily like this book – I didn’t enjoy the guilt and angst of the children, and I thought the husband was a tad overdone – his epiphany was a little too much, a little too late. And I found it difficult to  understand how the mother stayed so hidden from her family (again, I didn’t know if this was a cultural difference). However, the best part of the book was the part that was in the mother’s voice as she wandered the streets of Seoul. That section was worth waiting for – lyrical,  haunting, evocative – spare in tone. I only wish the rest of the book measured up to that section.

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More sun and more heat – I am very grateful for air conditioning. Himself continues to work on his trees and on projects around the house going for bike rides in the early morning to beat the heat. This is the first year we are not watching The Tour de France as Himself is too disappointed with the doping situation to have more interest than checking occasionally on-line. The absence of the tour makes this a very different July. It was a sad week for us also as my mom’s mastiff, Yogi Bear, passed away. I have loved everyone of her mastiffs but Yogi was my best bud. Sigh. I did finish At Mrs. Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor and Little Sinners and Other Stories by Karen Brown so I did have good reading this week.

Here is what caught my interest this week:

I have really enjoyed Vishy’s series on reading French Literature and now have to add another book from his reviews to my reading list. Patrick Modiano is a prolific and prize winning French novelist and Missing Person is his 6th novel. Guy Roland was given his name and life ten years earlier by the head of a French detective agency and he has decided to try and find out who he is and where he is from. The novel is set in post-war Paris, so Guy is digging through the tangled history of the occupation. I absolutely love the quotes Vishy includes in his review – the writing has that spare, evocative quality I really enjoy. I looked at Amazon to see what else the author has available and unfortunately not much of his work is available in the United States. Even so, I am also keeping an eye out for Dora Bruder (or The Search Warrant) as I loved the premise of this as well.

We actually have a family friend that unknowingly married a bigamist. Her wedding and the subsequent fallout of her realization of the truth was one of the dramas of my childhood so The War of the Wives sounds like it would be a great read. Reviewed by Leeswamme ‘s blog, this is the second novel by Tamar Cohen. Simon Busfield dies unexpectedly in London (he is suppose to be in Saudi Arabia) and at his funeral, appear two wives, both shocked by the appearance of the other. Now lives need to be sorted out, relationships (there are new sibling relationships), as well as the mystery of how and why Simon dies.  This sounds like a great travel read.

Finally, thanks to The Literary Omnivore, I found this marvelous essay by Ross Gay so pertinent in the light of what is happening in our country. I highly recommend it.

Happy reading!

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THE GUEST HOUSE

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Jelaluddin Rumi

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Another summer week gone by. Himself and I looked at the calendar and figured out if we were to take some needed items to Youngest we would have to do it this week (this also allows me to get a much needed haircut from my mother’s hairdresser – she is excellent and worth traveling for. So we loaded the car up and drove down on Thursday and back yesterday. Got some time in with my mother and a load of groceries and his bike to the starving student. I also got a lot of reading in (I love it that I can read in the car). I finally finished Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin and I read Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler which made me wonder how terrible racism still is in this country. I read Josephine Tey’s The Man in the Queue and have already ordered the second Inspector Grant mystery from the library. Finally  I read The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald while short does represent a dint in the to-be-read stack.

Here is what caught my interest this week:

I have always been interested in how and why people reinvent themselves – the circumstances that leads someone to deliberately change their lives. Vichy’s Blog  reviews  a memoir by Emma Brockes, She Left Me the Gun: My Mother’s Life Before Me. Brockes’ mother left South Africa and emigrated to England in the 1960’s. She married, had a child, and built a life of happiness. She told her daughter that she would explain her past at some point in time but died before she could do so. So Brockes travels to South Africa, meets her numerous aunts and uncles and learns why her mother left. I love what Vichy says about the book:

She Left Me the Gun’ is a beautiful book. It is depressing and haunting, because of the events it describes and the secrets it reveals. But it is beautiful too, because of the way Emma’s mother comes out of the traumatic events which affected her to build a life which is filled with beauty and happiness and brings joy and happiness and camaraderie to the people who touch her – her family, her friends, her colleagues, her boss. Though the secrets revealed are dark and depressing, the book is ultimately life affirming and I loved the book for that.

It is Anita Brookner Month throughout the Blogosphere and the reviews have started appearing. Last year I picked up Hotel du Lac to read in July – reviewed by Alex in Leeds.  Now I may need to pick-up another one of her books, her second novel Providence reviewed by Heavenali. Kitty Maule is a lonely academician who, while successful in her professional life, finds her love life utterly lacking. Lonely and unfulfilled in a profound way, she steps up her pursuit of her colleague Maurice. Like most of Brookner’s work, little happens in terms of plot and much happens in terms of characterization. But, like Ali, I like those types of books.

Dorothy Parker is an iconic figure in American letters and having grown up with The New Yorker sitting on the coffee table, she is a figure I am well acquainted with. So it was with delight I find her a character in a novel by Ellen Meister, Farewell Dorothy Parker. Violet Epps is a “powerhouse” of a movie critic with a strong voice which she achieves by channeling her hero Dorothy Parker. However, this does not translate into her personal life where she is a retiring wallflower unable to express what she wants or needs. Devourer of Books reviews this fourth novel by the author of The Other Life. After a visit to The Algonquin Hotel, the ghost of Dorothy Parker follows Violet home and wrecks havoc in her personal life. This sounds like a very fun read for the summer.

Finally, The Devourer of Books informs us that author JK Rowling has previously written a crime novel, Cuckoo’s Calling, under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. The BBC News has the full article. It is available in the US by electronic reader.

Happy Reading!

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From Little Sinners and Other Stories by Karen Brown:

Memorial Day in Sunset Bayou begins and ends with drinks in an organized circuit of the neighborhood. The following morning everyone awakens to some form of destruction. The St. Augustine flattened and muddied, blown debris caught in the Winslows’ gardenia hedge, left under the Barringtons’ cast-iron recliniers – lipstick-stained napkins, toothpick American flogs. shards of Noritake, a pair of beaded mules with a broken heel. They’d face highball glasses abandoned on patio bars, the deteriorated lime gloating in the remains of gin, pools littered with grass and empty cigarette packs and a Monarch or two, struggling weakly, tragically, on the surface of the chlorinated water. (Swimming, page 17)

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tenthThe pale boy with unfortunate Prince Valiant bangs and cublike mannerisms hulked to the mudroom closet and requisitioned Dad’s white coat. The requisitioned the boots he’d spray painted white. Painting the pellet gun white had been a no. That was a gift from Aunt Chole. Every time she came over he had to haul it out so she could make a big stink about the wood grain.

Today’s assignation: walk to the pond, ascertain beaver dam. Likely he would be detained. By that species that lived amongst the old rock wall. They were small by, upon emerging, assumed certain proportions. And gave chase. This was just their methodology. His aplomb threw them looks. He knew that. And reveled in it. He would turn, level the pellet gun, intone: Are you aware of the usage of this human implement.  (Tenth of December, pages 215-216)

George Saunders is an award winner author specializing in short fiction and I have never heard of him before his latest collection was chosen as the read of the month from one of my book groups. Award winning is an understatement – Saunders has won the MacArthur Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship in the same year as well as placing as a finalist in a number of story competitions.  He is highly regarded by other authors including one of my favorite short story authors and The New York Times Magazine calls Tenth of December: Stories “the best book you will read this year.” This is why I like being part of a book group because I don’t know if or when I would have found this collection without it.

I did find the collection hard to get into. Saunders has a particular style that took some getting used to. He excels at writing from the thought process of a character so there is a stream of consciousness aspect to his work, however that was not the sticking point for me. Saunder’s stories have a disquieting atmosphere to them which, led to a slower reading experience than normal. I found myself rereading stories, or parts of stories and waiting a period before moving onto the next one. In one case, I waited three days between stories, as the one I had finished completely haunted my thoughts.

But at the end I was very glad to have read the collection. I think Saunders is a very intentional writer, a master at conveying the angst of life in America today from its commercialism, its corporatism, the moral quandaries people experience, the loss of identity, the need for connection, and the black humor that lurks at the corners of our experiences. I did not care for all of the stories. Al Roosten, the story of an angry, somewhat bumbling antique/junk dealer, did not resonate with me at all.  And I had to read Puppy (two mothers struggling to make the right choices) several times and I still didn’t know how I feel about it. One story, Sticks, is a two paragraph marvel but it didn’t seem to fit with the others. Most of the stories are about vectors meeting and converging – there is a very geometrical feel to them. Sticks is a recollection of the narrator’s father and the father’s relationship with the family by describing “a kind of crucifix he’d built out of a metal pole in the yard” through the years. Quite an accomplishment in two paragraphs.

Two stories deserve special mention. Escape from Spiderhead is the story that made me pause for three days. Set in the future, some human subjects are put through a series of experiments to test pharmaceutical drugs that allow them to feel certain emotions.  At the end, I did not know what impact the narrator’s choice would have so did that make it a wrong choice? What is the meaning of sacrifice? And how does the futility of an action play into a decision a person makes? The last story, Tenth of December, also features two characters who have to make choices: a young boy on a winter walk living in his imagination when he is suddenly faced with a real choice and a real danger, and a man with cancer walking in the same woods facing choices of his own. These two vectors meet and the story becomes an elegy of remembrance, love, wanting the best for someone. Where as Escape from Spiderhead represented the desolate side of Saunders, Tenth of December represented the hopeful side.

Saunders likes ambiguous endings (in Victory Lap, the reader is left unsure of what really happened) and moral quandaries. Saunders doesn’t want you to be entirely comfortable; he wants you to think. Many of his characters have to make the choice to break out of their confines (physical and psychological) in order to do the right thing or to act in any way at all. This is reality. Human beings have choices to make everyday – some of which may have a huge impact on someone else. How we make those choices, if we make those choices,  if they have a positive or negative consequence, and how those actions resonate with other people involved…this is all the fabric of life itself. As one member of my group said “There is a lot of Humanity” contained within these pages. And this is why I found some of these stories to be extraordinary.

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Summer is in full swing here in the Hinterland. We had a few days of very hot weather but it seems to have settled down  to more seasonable temperatures. Himself is done with his traveling and aside from a few days in the office, he is spending his time in the house and yard making one dog very happy. It does make the days run into each other and I lose track of what day of the week it is. The Fourth of July is a very big deal in our small town and we went to the local parade and annual BBQ at friends. I made a spinach and grapefruit salad and Kahlua Mocha Chocolate Cream cookies (a big hit). However absolutely no reading went on this week. And I am slowly getting used to Feedly – still some kinks to work out.

Here is what caught my interest this week:

JoAnn from Lakeside Musing posted a sentence from Claire Massud’s novel The Woman Upstairs:

Above all, in my anger, I was sad. Isn’t that always the way, that at the heart of the fire is a frozen kernel of sorrow that the fire is trying – valiantly, fruitlessly – to eradicate.

What a delicious sentence. The Woman Upstairs is about Nora, a forty-two elementary school teacher leading a lonely unfulfilled life – a life that doesn’t fit her expectations at all. Then she becomes obsessed with the family of one of her students – an obsession which she feels leads to her living an authentic life. But is it real? It sounds like a novel that explore the intricate illusions we weave in our own lives.

Speaking of sentences, Heaven Ali has a post on the best opening lines of classic fiction (Pride and Prejudice and Rebecca, among others). I really liked the opening line of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between:

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

Written in the 1950’s, The Go-Between is the reminiscence of Leo, looking back at his life, particularly the events of the summer of 1900 when he was thirteen. Leo became the go-between between the daughter of the house he was staying at and a tenant farmer, a clandestine relationship doomed because of the differences in social strata of the two. The look back allows Leo to see the huge impact being a go-between had on his life.

Two non-fiction books caught my interest this week. The first is The Truth about Luck by Iain Reid (reviewed by Buried in Print). Iain Reid is just starting his adult life and his ninety-two year old grandmother comes to visit him in Kingston, Ontario for five days. They explore London and during their “staycation”, Iain learns about his grandmother’s life. I am very grateful that my mother has a wonderful relationship with my boys and they also love hearing her stories (as do my nieces and nephews). If the author can convey the specialness of this relationship, then he has succeeded in doing an important thing.

The second non-fiction work is also about family but on a macro-scale is Carolyn Abraham’s The Juggler’s Children: A Journey into Family, Legend, and the Genes That Bind Us (also reviewed by Buried in Print). Being from a LDS (Church of Latter Day Saints) background, genealogy is a part of my heritage. If I have a question about any branch of my family, chances are some relative of mine has done the research. When Carolyn Abraham’s daughter is born, she becomes interested in exploring her ancestors and one of the tools she uses is DNA. Her use of mitochondrial DNA leads to interesting results and interesting conversation both within her family and with the reader. Buried in Print writes, “Carolyn Abraham has come to see the family search as a ‘modern tango, a dance between DNA and documentary evidence, science and paper'”.

Happy Reading!

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