Review Redux: Penguin Titles Thread

Hi All,

There are a number of academics and graduate students in this community and I wanted to let you know about the academic services department over at Penguin:

I'll occasionally update the newest penguin titles if you want to take advance of the academic services, which are numerous. Thanks!

A Review of Catherine Chung’s Forgotten Country (Riverheard Books, 2012).

There is much to commend about Catherine Chung’s lyrically lush and elegiac debut novel, Forgotten Country. We’re gifted with a first person narrator who gives us so much to sink our teeth into as readers—her nuanced observations and sure storytelling voice always anchors us. The protagonist, Janie (Jeehyun), is a doctoral student in mathematics who must deal with two big family crises, one involving the sudden disappearance of her sister, Hannah (Haejin), and another involving the terminal stomach cancer diagnosis that her father has received. Her parents decide that it is best to move back to Korea for treatment, while Janie attempts to track down Hannah to see if some sort of familial rapprochement can be made. It is unclear for most of the novel why Hannah wanted so radically to break ties with her family, but Janie does read Hannah’s distance as a kind of betrayal. When it becomes apparent that Hannah will not easily be persuaded to return to the family despite their father’s condition, Janie travels to Korea to be with her family. Much of the novel patiently reveals the tragic circumstances of her family’s immigration to the United States. Janie’s father, once a brilliant student himself, had written a controversial and politically engaged pamphlet denouncing the Korean government in the wake of the Kwangju uprising; they travel to the U.S. under asylum, but must leave behind their extended family and struggle to make new lives. Once in the U.S., Hannah and Janie must contend with the arrival of their Aunt (their father’s sister), a particularly dour woman and mother of two sons; this connection will have major ramifications (especially for Hannah) over time. Further still, Janie’s mother harbors considerable trauma over the ill-fated disappearance of her own sister, presumably kidnapped by North Korean authorities. Rather than make any claims to her disappearance and incite possible political scrutiny, Janie’s mother’s family simply covers up the circumstances and pretends as if she has died. With all such family secrets and histories coming to the surface, Chung writes a novel that elegantly dispels the model minority ethos. Indeed, Janie’s own doctoral dissertation becomes secondary to being with her father has he slowly succumbs to metastatic stomach cancer. And though the novel does not end with a felicitous family reunion and hope for a united future, it does show us the tremendous costs related to immigration—how young children will come to leverage their futures on what the literary critic erin khue ninh denotes as a kind of unbearable sacrifice that can finally never be repaid. And of course, Catherine Chung’s Forgotten Country adds to the growing body of work that has focused more largely on contemporary Korean and Korean American social contexts (alongside other books reviewed on this site, including Sonya Chung’s Long for this World, Samuel Park’s This Burns My Heart, Sandra Park’s If You live in a Small House) a welcome shift in the publication realm that has expanded the kinds of fictional worlds we read.

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A Review of Krys Lee’s Drifting House (Viking, 2012).

It’s too bad that short story collections are not as popular as they once were; it seems that every year fewer and fewer collections are being published. Interestingly enough, I believe it to be one of the most innovative and dynamic forms for Asian American writers, many of whom have published brilliant collections. Krys Lee’s debut, Drifting House, is most often reminiscent of a minimalist style that has been used to great effect by others such as Jhumpa Lahiri, Paul Yoon, Mary Yukari Waters, and Yiyun Li, though Lee occasionally strays from this aesthetic comfort zone in the occasional first person or second person narration. Like most short story collections I’ve read lately by Asian American writers (most recently for instance Xu Xi’s recently reviewed Access), Lee’s narratives take flight in the domestic terrain of Korean and Korean American family relationships made unstable through transnational movements. For instance, the opening story, “A Temporary Marriage,” focuses on Mrs. Shin, a woman who gets a green card marriage in order to search for her daughter, Yuri, who has been taken by her husband to the United States. Though Mrs. Shin at first is leery of her green card husband, Mr. Rhee, she eventually grows to depend on him and even develop some feelings of affection for him. Using the help of a private detective, Mrs. Shin eventually tracks down her daughter, but her reunion is far from the felicitous moment she had hoped. “At the Edge of the World” focuses on a precocious young boy, of mixed Chinese Korean parentage must negotiate the tense relationship between his biological mother and stepfather, who end up together as a result of their collective refugee status. My favorite story, “The Goose Father,” explores the idiosyncratic relationship that develops between an aged Korean man and a renter. Lee’s stories are more largely notable because they often move between Korea and the United States, providing us with a transnational aesthetic more largely seen in other Asian American short story collections, including Angie Chau’s Quiet as They Come and Aimee Phan’s We Should Never Meet. Further still, Lee is part of a new generation of Korean American writers to really focus on representing (post)modern Seoul (see the excellent second person narration from “The Salaryman” for instance) with all of its density and vertical stratification. Another definite must-read for Asian American literature fans.

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if i ever publish i book, i will have the marketing folks do some kind of reader-participation thingy where they submit photos of their dogs reading the book. :D
Doggie!! i need to get these books. i'm not sure how interested monty will be, tho.