4

Armchair Travelling: Korea

My boyfriend and I had planned to travel to South Korea last year; evidently it did not happen.  Like almost everyone else, the majority of my travelling since March 2020 has been through the medium of books.  I am so keen to go to South Korea – I am obsessed by its food, its films, its fashion – but until I can safely step on a plane and explore properly, I thought I would gather together some books in case anyone wishes to join me in armchair travelling.  I have read the first of these, and count it as one of my favourite novels, but the others are high on my wishlist.

1. Please Look After Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin ***** (review here) 9720572
When sixty-nine-year-old So-nyo is separated from her husband among the crowds of the Seoul subway station, her family begins a desperate search to find her. Yet as long-held secrets and private sorrows begin to reveal themselves, they are forced to wonder: how well did they actually know the woman they called Mom?  Told through the piercing voices and urgent perspectives of a daughter, son, husband, and mother, Please Look After Mom is at once an authentic picture of contemporary life in Korea and a universal story of family love.

6132182. When My Name Was Keoko by Linda Sue Park
Sun-hee and her older brother Tae-yul are proud of their Korean heritage. Yet they live their lives under Japanese occupation. All students must read and write in Japanese and no one can fly the Korean flag. Hardest of all is when the Japanese Emperor forces all Koreans to take Japanese names. Sun-hee and Tae-yul become Keoko and Nobuo. Korea is torn apart by their Japanese invaders during World War II. Everyone must help with war preparations, but it doesn’t mean they are willing to defend Japan. Tae-yul is about to risk his life to help his family, while Sun-hee stays home guarding life-and-death secrets.

3. The Calligrapher’s Daughter by Eugenia Kim 6400109
In early-twentieth-century Korea, Najin Han, the privileged daughter of a calligrapher, longs to choose her own destiny. Smart and headstrong, she is encouraged by her mother—but her stern father is determined to maintain tradition, especially as the Japanese steadily gain control of his beloved country. When he seeks to marry Najin into an aristocratic family, her mother defies generations of obedient wives and instead sends her to serve in the king’s court as a companion to a young princess. But the king is soon assassinated, and the centuries-old dynastic culture comes to its end.  In the shadow of the dying monarchy, Najin begins a journey through increasing oppression that will forever change her world. As she desperately seeks to continue her education, will the unexpected love she finds along the way be enough to sustain her through the violence and subjugation her country continues to face? Spanning thirty years, The Calligrapher’s Daughter is a richly drawn novel in the tradition of Lisa See and Amy Tan about a country torn between ancient customs and modern possibilities, a family ultimately united by love, and a woman who never gives up her search for freedom.

299837114. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Pachinko follows one Korean family through the generations, beginning in early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them all. Deserted by her lover, Sunja is saved when a young tubercular minister offers to marry and bring her to Japan.  So begins a sweeping saga of an exceptional family in exile from its homeland and caught in the indifferent arc of history. Through desperate struggles and hard-won triumphs, its members are bound together by deep roots as they face enduring questions of faith, family, and identity.

5. I Have the Right to Destroy Myself by Young-Ha Kim 797192
A spectral, nameless narrator haunts the lost and wounded of big-city Seoul, suggesting solace in suicide. Wandering through the bright lights of their high-urban existence, C and K are brothers who fall in love with the same woman – Se-yeon. As their lives intersect, they tear at each other in a struggle to find connection in their fast-paced, atomized world.  Dreamlike and cinematic, I Have the Right to Destroy Myself brilliantly affirms Young-ha Kim as Korea’s leading young literary master.

175915606. My Son’s Girlfriend by Mi-Kyung Jung
At once an ironic portrayal of contemporary Korea and an intimate exploration of heartache, alienation, and nostalgia, this collection of seven short stories has earned the author widespread critical acclaim.

7. The Guest by Hwang Sok-Yong 1447640
Based on actual events, The Guest is a profound portrait of a divided people haunted by a painful past, and a generation’s search for reconciliation.  During the Korean War, Hwanghae Province in North Korea was the setting of a gruesome fifty-two day massacre. In an act of collective amnesia the atrocities were attributed to American military, but in truth they resulted from malicious battling between Christian and Communist Koreans. Forty years later, Ryu Yosop, a minister living in America returns to his home village, where his older brother once played a notorious role in the bloodshed. Besieged by vivid memories and visited by the troubled spirits of the deceased, Yosop must face the survivors of the tragedy and lay his brother’s soul to rest.  Faulkner-like in its intense interweaving narratives, The Guest is a daring and ambitious novel from a major figure in world literature.

175915728. No One Writes Back by Eun-Jin Jang
Communication—or the lack thereof—is the subject of this sly update of the picaresque novel. No One Writes Back is the story of a young man who leaves home with only his blind dog, an MP3 player, and a book, traveling aimlessly for three years, from motel to motel, meeting people on the road. Rather than learn the names of his fellow travelers—or even invent nicknames for them—he assigns them numbers. There’s 239, who once dreamed of being a poet, but who now only reads her poems to a friend in a coma; there’s 109, who rides trains endlessly because of a broken heart; and 32, who’s already decided to commit suicide. The narrator writes letters to these men and women in the hope that he can console them in their various miseries, as well as keep a record of his own experiences: “A letter is like a journal entry for me, except that it gets sent to other people.” No one writes back, of course, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some hope that one of them will, someday…

Have you read any of these?  Which have piqued your interest?  I am also keen to make this ‘Armchair Travelling’ a mini series on the blog, so please let me know if you’d like recommendations from a particular country.

11

Favourite Books of 2018

Another year has come to an end. 2018 has been a crazy busy year and I barely managed to squeeze in 50 books, quite a few being under 100 pages. Although I read significantly less compared to past years, the books that kept me company in 2018 were primarily books I thoroughly enjoyed, which is a big win for me.

Since the ‘bad’ books were so few and since I’d like to focus on the more positive aspects of 2018, I decided to compile a list of 10 of my most favourite reads of 2018. They were not all 5 star reads, but all of them managed to amaze me in one way or another and stayed engraved in my heart and memory. With no further ado, my favourite books of 2018 were the following:

Pachinko by Min Jin Leepachinko

Whatever I say about this book will be too little, any words I choose will be too insuficient to fully express my love for this book. I read Pachinko early on in the year, in January, and it quickly became one of the best books I’ve read in the past few years. It’s a family saga, a chronicle of the life and tribulations of a Korean family as they set foot on Japan after the war in hopes of a brighter future and the harsh reality that they have to face every single day. Through this novel, I learned a lot about the zainichi, the Korean expats that reside in Japan. One wonderful thing about this book is that, although it focuses on the zainichi and their experiences, the everyday struggles and hardships they go through can extend to an international scale and resonate with refugees and expats from any and every country. This book is much more than a story, a tale of loss and family, of race and nationality, of love. It is a life lesson and I really feel a much more enriched person after reading it.

Lullaby by Leila Slimani

lullabyLullaby (Chanson Douce in the original French and The Perfect Nanny in the US edition) is a brilliantly crafted thriller and suspense novel that keeps you glued to every page until you reach the very last one. After hearing so much about it, I finally purchased it at the Glasgow airport during my visit in May. Its premise is rather terrifying, as it starts with a young couple finding both their children dead. Even though the novel begins with the outcome and then goes back and recounts the events leading up to this horrible event, the suspense is ever-present and Slimani’s writing is utterly captivating.

 

The Eye by Vladimir Nabokovtomati

I had wanted to read Nabokov’s works for the longest time, and even though I owned Lolita, the timing was never right for me to dive into its conflicting world. Instead, I came across this short novella in its Greek translation (where the cover is from, as I much prefered it to the English language covers I found) and it truly enchanted me. Nabokov’s writing is smart and witty and he manages to create a very interesting story through which he can critically comment on the society of his time (which, sadly, isn’t radically different from that of today), while also making the reader wonder what really happened and what was a figment of the protagonist’s imagination.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

conveniencestoreReading Convenience Store Woman was such an experience for me. I always enjoy reading about people who are considered ‘outsiders’ and who don’t want to conform to the society’s rules, especially when said rules go against who one is as a person. The matter of having a ‘respectable’ job and panning out your life according to certain standards is a very important one, especially since things have started changing in recent years, and people resort to non-traditional professions more and more. Murata’s protagonist is a Japanese woman who started working at a convenience store part-time but still finds herself in the same job years later. Despite her family and acquaintances urging her to find a ‘real job’, she feels conflicted, since she should abide by society’s rules, yet she feels oddly comfortable exactly where she is. It’s a novel that will certainly resonate with many young people today, myself included.

Old Magic by Marianne Curley oldmagic

To be quite honest, Old Magic is a book I would never think of picking up (at least as an adult), and yet here I am putting it in my list of favourites for 2018. My boyfriend, who never reads, had once told me that he had one favourite book he had read as a teen, and he gifted it to me so I would see what he liked back then. I was infinitely skeptical, but started reading it immediately, as I was in need of some very light reading at the time, and I just couldn’t put it down. Written by an Australian author, the book is about a young witch, her struggle to be accepted at her school since she comes from a ‘weird’ family, a journey back in time and, of course, romance. I can’t quite pinpoint why I liked this book so much – it reminded me of the fantasy books I used to read as a kid/teenager and it made me so nostalgic. I truly enjoyed reading Old Magic and I think I will try being more open to books, even if they initially seem like something I would never pick up for myself.

The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley

26114478A book of essays on a wide variety of topics, but mostly focusing on being a woman writer, a female geek in this (mostly) male-dominated field, something which Hurley proves is very difficult yet possible and rewarding. I haven’t read Hurley’s fiction, yet through reading her essays, some of them being quite personal ones, I felt a deep appreciation for her work and her craft. Some of the stories she told were funny, others empowering and others thoroughly moving, especially those regarding her initial financial difficulties and her health problems. Usually I’m a bit weary when it comes to feminist texts, but this one totally fascinated me and I will certainly seek out Hurley’s fiction in the future.

Το Τέλος της Πείνας (The End of Hunger) by Lina Rokou endof hunger

Once in a while I stumble upon contemporary Greek literary works that are true gems. The End of Hunger is one such example, and, sadly, not (yet) translated in English. The story revolves around a young woman who lives in Athens and, searching for ways to find some money, she starts selling parts of her body to a passing street seller. She sells him her teeth, her spleen, her old diaries and he still asks for more. Rokou’s writing is whimsical and poetic and absolutely beautiful. Her descriptions of the nonsensical and surrealistic events that occur to her protagonist are lyrical and imbued with the right dose of emotion. One could say that this entire selling process described is nothing but the process of falling in love, of giving away every last bit of your self to the other person and then ending up feeling completely empty by the end of it. This kind of blend of surrealism with reality is precisely my cup of tea and I truly hope this book gets translated soon so more people can discover the beauty of it.

A Biography of a Chance Miracle by Tanja Maljartschuk

40800042Another gem of a book which I didn’t expect to enjoy as much as I did. I read A Biography in September and have already posted a full review of it here in case you would like to read more about it (and you should!). Maljartschuk is a Ukrainian author who created a whimsical and thoroughly witty tale full of social satire, magical realism and the cruelty of life. Lena, the main character, always has a tendency to help others and when she gets into university she decides to open her own business selling miracles. The writing is superb, and the translation by Zenia Tompkins excellent.

 

La lettrice scomparsa (The Lost Reader) by Fabio Stassi40242756

Another fabulous read, not yet available to the English speaking world. I read its Greek translation (The Lost Reader is my literal translation of the title) and was utterly fascinated. Originally written in Italian, The Lost Reader is a mystery like no other. The protagonist is an unemployed teacher who opens a booktherapy business, in which he recommends the most fitting book to his patients according to the problems they have, as he’s a firm believer of literature’s healing powers. While trying to get used to this new job and everything that it entails, an old lady from his apartment complex suddenly vanishes and he embarks on a quest to find her and uncover the secrets hidden behind her disappearance. An ode to literature, an inventive mystery and witty quotes hidden in almost every page – what’s there not to love?

The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang

33846708Last but not least, I have a book I read during the last days of December, proving that it’s never too late in the year to discover a wonderful book. The Black Tides of Heaven belongs to the recently invented silkpunk subgenre, as it is set an Asian-inspired fantasy world. The first of JY Yang’s short novellas set in this world, this book focuses on one of the twins that we get introduced to in the beginning of the story (and its twin novella focuses on the other twin sibling’s story). I adored the world and all of its fantasy elements and I found Yang’s writing fabulous. I’d like this to be a full novel just so I could stay more in this world with these fascinating characters, and that’s why I read its twin novella, The Red Threads of Fortune, immediately after. The fantasy elements I loved were all there, and even enhanced, but I was very disappointed in other parts of the story, a topic which I might discuss in a different post.

It was kind of difficult to choose only 10 of the books I read in 2018 to feature in this post, but I think I chose the ones that left the biggest impression on me and the ones which I thoroughly enjoyed reading, regardless of their literary merit. I hope my reading in 2019 will focus more on quality over quantity again, and I can’t wait to share my reads with you in the new year, as well 🙂

Have you read any of those books, and if yes, what did you think of them? What were your favourite reads of 2018? Let me know in the comments below.

 

2

‘Finding Home: The Immigrant Experience’

Powell’s Bookstore, in Portland, Oregon, is somewhere I dream of going in future (and preferably with an empty suitcase…).  I peruse their website from time to time, and have come across some absolutely wonderful book lists over the years.  One of their latest showcased shelves is entitled ‘Finding Home: The Immigrant Experience’, which collects together books about people who have moved to many different countries and experienced culture shocks and the like.  Travel is a big part of my life, and I am always interested in reading such accounts, both fiction and non-fiction.  I thought it would therefore be a nice idea to collect together eight of these novels, the first four of which I have read and would highly recommend, and the final four which are high on my to-read list.  You can view the full list here.

97806184852221. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Namesake is a finely wrought, deeply moving family drama that illuminates this acclaimed author’s signature themes: the immigrant experience, the clash of cultures, the tangled ties between generations.  The Namesake takes the Ganguli family from their tradition-bound life in Calcutta through their fraught transformation into Americans. On the heels of an arranged wedding, Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli settle in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Ashoke does his best to adapt while his wife pines for home. When their son, Gogol, is born, the task of naming him betrays their hope of respecting old ways in a new world. And we watch as Gogol stumbles along the first-generation path, strewn with conflicting loyalties, comic detours, and wrenching love affairs. With empathy and penetrating insight, Lahiri explores the expectations bestowed on us by our parents and the means by which we come to define who we are.’
2. Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota (review here)
‘In the north of England, a group of young Indian immigrants struggle to begin something new–to support their families; to build their futures; to show their worth; to escape their pasts. An epic for our times, The Year of the Runaways is a stunning work of fiction that explores what it means and what it costs to make a new life, the capaciousness of the human spirit, and the power of humanity in the face of unspeakable suffering.’

3. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (review here) 9780749399573
‘Four mothers, four daughters, four families whose histories shift with the four winds depending on who’s “saying” the stories. In 1949 four Chinese women, recent immigrants to San Francisco, begin meeting to eat dim sum, play mahjong, and talk. United in shared unspeakable loss and hope, they call themselves the Joy Luck Club. Rather than sink into tragedy, they choose to gather to raise their spirits and money. “To despair was to wish back for something already lost. Or to prolong what was already unbearable.” Forty years later the stories and history continue.  With wit and sensitivity, Amy Tan examines the sometimes painful, often tender, and always deep connection between mothers and daughters. As each woman reveals her secrets, trying to unravel the truth about her life, the strings become more tangled, more entwined. Mothers boast or despair over daughters, and daughters roll their eyes even as they feel the inextricable tightening of their matriarchal ties. Tan is an astute storyteller, enticing readers to immerse themselves into these lives of complexity and mystery.’
4. Brick Lane by Monica Ali
‘After an arranged marriage to Chanu, a man twenty years older, Nazneen is taken to London, leaving her home and heart in the Bangladeshi village where she was born. Her new world is full of mysteries. How can she cross the road without being hit by a car (an operation akin to dodging raindrops in the monsoon)? What is the secret of her bullying neighbor Mrs. Islam? What is a Hell’s Angel? And how must she comfort the naïve and disillusioned Chanu?  As a good Muslim girl, Nazneen struggles to not question why things happen. She submits, as she must, to Fate and devotes herself to her husband and daughters. Yet to her amazement, she begins an affair with a handsome young radical, and her erotic awakening throws her old certainties into chaos.  Monica Ali’s splendid novel is about journeys both external and internal, where the marvellous and the terrifying spiral together.’
97814197294855. The Displaced: Writers on Refugee Lives, edited by Viet Thanh Nguyen
‘Viet Nguyen, called “one of our great chroniclers of displacement” (Joyce Carol Oates, The New Yorker), brings together writers originally from Mexico, Bosnia, Iran, Afghanistan, Soviet Ukraine, Hungary, Chile, Ethiopia, and others to make their stories heard. They are formidable in their own right–MacArthur Genius grant recipients, National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award finalists, filmmakers, speakers, lawyers, professors, and New Yorker contributors–and they are all refugees, many as children arriving in London and Toronto, Oklahoma and Minnesota, South Africa and Germany. Their 17 contributions are as diverse as their own lives have been, and yet hold just as many themes in common.  These essays reveal moments of uncertainty, resilience in the face of trauma, and a reimagining of identity, forming a compelling look at what it means to be forced to leave home and find a place of refuge. The Displaced is also a commitment: ABRAMS will donate 10 percent of the cover price of this book, a minimum of $25,000 annually, to the International Rescue Committee, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to providing humanitarian aid, relief, and resettlement to refugees and other victims of oppression or violent conflict.’
6. The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu
‘Seventeen years ago, Sepha Stephanos fled the Ethiopian Revolution for a new start in the United States. Now he finds himself running a failing grocery store in a poor African-American section of Washington, D.C., his only companions two fellow African immigrants who share his bitter nostalgia and longing for his home continent. Years ago and worlds away Sepha could never have imagined a life of such isolation. As his environment begins to change, hope comes in the form of a friendship with new neighbors Judith and Naomi, a white woman and her biracial daughter. But when a series of racial incidents disturbs the community, Sepha may lose everything all over again.’
7. Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya 9781594632143
‘In this account of two decades in the life of an immigrant household, the fall of communism and the rise of globalization are artfully reflected in the experience of a single family. Ironies, subtle and glaring, are revealed: the Nasmertovs left Odessa for Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, with a huge sense of finality, only to find that the divide between the old world and the new is not nearly as clear-cut as they thought. The dissolution of the Soviet Union makes returning just a matter of a plane ticket, and the Russian-owned shops in their adopted neighborhood stock even the most obscure comforts of home. Pursuing the American Dream once meant giving up everything, but does the dream still work if the past is always within reach?  If the Nasmertov parents can afford only to look forward, learning the rules of aspiration, the familys youngest, Frida, can only look back.  In striking, arresting prose loaded with fresh and inventive turns of phrase, Yelena Akhtiorskaya has written the first great novel of Brighton Beach: a searing portrait of hope and ambition, and a profound exploration of the power and limits of language itself, its ability to make connections across cultures and generations.’
8. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
‘Profoundly moving and gracefully told, Pachinko follows one Korean family through the generations, beginning in early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them. Betrayed by her wealthy lover, Sunja finds unexpected salvation when a young tubercular minister offers to marry her and bring her to Japan to start a new life.  So begins a sweeping saga of exceptional people in exile from a homeland they never knew and caught in the indifferent arc of history. In Japan, Sunja’s family members endure harsh discrimination, catastrophes, and poverty, yet they also encounter great joy as they pursue their passions and rise to meet the challenges this new home presents. Through desperate struggles and hard-won triumphs, they are bound together by deep roots as their family faces enduring questions of faith, family, and identity.’

Which are your favourite books about the immigrant experience?  Have you read any of these?

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