Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo

Rain in August and a lightning storm to boot. Also we are in the middle of a heatwave. Isn’t 2020 crazy enough already?

But this strange weather on Sunday gave me the chance to sit down and think more about this interesting book by South Korean author Cho Nam-Joo, translated by Jamie Chang, and originally published in 2016

A story that begins with a 30-something-year-old “everywoman” who’s pressured to leave her job to care for her newborn. She begins to impersonate other women, both alive and dead. And her husband sends her to a psychiatrist.


The book focuses on the gender inequality experienced by Korean women – in their families, in schools, in the workplace, in society.


It’s told in a rather cold third-person voice and this may be a little difficult to get into, but it is a fascinating portrait of the life of this Korean everywoman, following all the sexism she faces, right from a very young age – when Kim Jiyoung is born, her mother even apologizes to her mother-in-law for not having had a boy instead!

It’s a short book but the 176 pages sure pack a punch.

If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim

A moving, accomplished debut.

At its heart is a love triangle. There is Haemi, 16. The war has forced her, her mother and sickly younger brother, out of their village and into a refugee camp. There is Kyunghwan. They sneak out together late nights on his bicycle, looking for makgeolli to get drunk with. Jisoo is Kyunghwan’s cousin, he’s more well-off than Kyunghwan and wants to marry Haemi before he enlists.

Haemi eventually marries him, as she feels Jisoo is the best way to ensure that her family is secure, but her decision to forsake Kyunghwan continues to affect her – and her family – through the years.

I loved how Kim effortlessly weaves historical events through the story – the aftermath of the Korean War.

Haemi’s story continues to echo in my head even after finishing the book. She’s not an easy character to like as she struggles to accept this life that she chose. But I appreciate that Kim doesn’t turn her life into a bright shiny happy one and instead leaves the reader wondering, would she really be happier if she had chosen otherwise?

If you’ve read some of my book thoughts on my blog/Instagram, you may know that I’m always interested in books that feature food and If You Leave Me will make you hungry for Korean food. While I do love eating at Korean restaurants, I learnt a lot about Korean food that aren’t found in Korean restaurants here, such as steamed silkworm pupae, hotteok (a sweet pancake with brown sugar and walnuts), tea made with persimmon leaves.

Edinburgh by Alexander Chee #AsianLitBingo

This review is not going to do justice to this book. This book needs a proper, more insightful one than these notes I’m writing. Because it’s the kind of book that makes you go, wow, this is a writer who can write. This is a writer whose words can move mountains, make tea go cold without noticing, tears fall from unsuspecting eyes. This is a writer whom, I imagine, writers look up to, but also are perhaps afraid, wondering, can I write like this too?

For Alexander Chee has taken a subject that is ugly and perverse and has sculpted it into something moving and somehow, beautiful.

(Autocorrect keeps changing my “moving” into “loving” but really, loving is an equally suitable word for this book.)

A young boy joins a boys’ choir. Aphias or Fee is 12 and Korean-Scottish. He may look a bit different from the other boys but like them, he is sexually abused by the choir director.

Edinburgh is the story of how he overcomes this childhood trauma and the loss of those he loves.

It is no easy read but it is haunting and spectacular, even more so when I realized this was his debut novel. It may seem like a weird juxtaposition but this book was both beautiful and brutal.

River of Stars by Vanessa Hua #AsianLitBingo

At Perfume Bay, women are getting ready to give birth. It is a facility specifically for women from China who want to have their babies in America, for to be born in America gives their babies citizenship.

Scarlett is one of the twelve pregnant women, sent there by her lover Boss Yeung, a powerful man with lots of guanxi and gets her the best room in the house.

But at an ultrasound, Scarlett discovers that the baby boy she’s been expecting is actually a girl. Another daughter for Boss Yeung. She worries about the future of her daughter, and when she learns that Boss Yeung wants to pay her to hand over the baby, whom he still thinks is a boy, she decides to run away. Another Perfurme Bay inhabitant, Daisy, a teenager whose parents sent her away to have her baby, takes off with her too.

The two pregnant women head to San Francisco’s Chinatown where they struggle to figure out how to support themselves and their two babies. Meanwhile, Boss Yeung continues to search for his son, and Daisy begins to search for the father of her baby. Scarlett’s tourist visa is expiring and while desperately trying to scrounge for money for rent and necessities, she also has to worry about how to stay on in the US.

A solid story about motherhood and the American dream. The desperation and struggles that  the two women go through is honest and moving.

(Spoiler alert!)

 

 

 

 

The women’s stories were compelling but the men in this story seem rather uneven. Boss Yeung, I can’t really tell sometimes whether we are meant to dislike him or not. At times he’s  heartless or is he really just in pursuit of his true love? But for me, the part that doesn’t seem to sit well with the rest of the book is the super-sweet ending that Daisy receives. Maybe if her ending turned out different, I would have rated this higher. Maybe if the book had kept more of its focus on the two women? It bothered me, this saccharine ending. Maybe I am just too skeptical…

 

 

 

I read this for Asian Lit Bingo – Asian Immigrant MC

My Brother’s Husband Vol 2 by Gengoroh Tagame

This is volume two of this two-part series so if you haven’t read it yet, please understand that there may be spoilers!

So go go go! Go read the first part!

Ok!

So since you’re still reading, I’m guessing you know that this is a continuation of the stories of Mike, Yaichi and Kana. Mike is still staying with Yaichi and Kana.

Yaichi continues to understand more about his feelings towards Mike’s relationship with his brother. He’s starting to realize that they make a family too, even though they may not look like your typical Japanese family.

The three of them, as well as Kana’s mother, take a trip to an onsen and you’re going to want to start booking a trip to Japan because oh, I definitely did after reading those pages!

But wanderlust aside, I loved how Yaichi continues to grow in this volume. His talk with Kana’s teacher is a lesson in calm and sensibility. His realization about his treatment of his brother is devastating and yet also redeeming.

And I shed many a tear as the book drew to an end.

What an absolute pleasure this series was to read.

(I just found out that there is a TV series based on the book – three episodes were aired in Japan in 2018 – hopefully it’ll be something that will be available in the US??)

 

 

I read this for Asian Lit Bingo – Graphic novel with Asian MC.

The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay #AsianLitBingo

This book took me by surprise. I often go into books not really knowing much about them. And this one I knew absolutely nothing about at all. I could tell by the author’s name that she was South Asian and I wondered what the flowers and the title meant.

From the first chapter, we know that this is not a happy story. The narrator, a woman aged 30, talks about a man who vanished from his home in the mountains, a man who vanished partly because of her, because of things she said and things she didn’t say. And she also mentions the death of her mother. A woman who could be vicious, a woman who could be snarky.

“It’s hard not to wonder how much might have been prevented if only I had loved him more, or, perhaps, loved her a little less. But that is useless thinking, and perilous. Better to let things stand as they were: she, my incandescent mother, and I, her little beast.”

Shalini travels to Kashmir in search of a man who was once a big part of their lives – her and her mother’s. She doesn’t know anyone else there but somehow these complete strangers help her, let them stay with her. She becomes a part of their lives. Yet her being there threatens their safety.

I loved reading about the mountain villages in Kashmir. I have never been to Kashmir or India but when I was in university, I traveled to Nepal to do a trek to Annapurna base camp. And while it was years ago, I can still picture all those little mountain villages we walked through and stayed at. I always remember marveling at these two young kids in school uniform – an older girl and a younger boy – skipping and hopping down the path ahead of us, out of their village and off far away to wherever their school was, something they did every day, twice a day, probably passing many other foreigners like us who were slowly clomping and stomping their way through the mountains.

It also brought to my awareness the conflict in Kashmir, something I know little about, but wanted to know more of after reading this.

The author writes beautifully but her main character Shalini was not easy to connect with. She sometimes seems a bit naive for her age and that proves disastrous for the people around her. But I loved reading about Shalini’s foray into village life in Kashmir, so far and different from bustling Bangalore where she’s from. And it’s these little moments that make this book a beautiful and moving one.

 

I read this for Asian Lit Bingo – South Asian MC

The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo

A book like this just makes me wish I were years younger! When I was a teenager, YA didn’t really exist. And really, pretty much all the books I was reading as a teenager were probably written and starring white people. Don’t get me wrong, plenty of these books I read (especially for school), were great books. I am especially grateful to one of my A-Level English lit teachers for introducing Carol Shields to me. But I hardly remember reading anything with an Asian protagonist. Or if there were Asian characters they tended to be your stereotypical nerdy Asian kids.

So to read this book by Maurene Goo, many years too old for this genre, was with a wistful, oh, if only I could have read this when I was younger. But also a eh, who cares if I’m reading this too late, I’m just glad someone out there is writing this for the young girls of today.

Clara Shin is a prankster. But she takes a prank one step too far and is suspended from school, along with, Rose, the girl she fought with.

Clara’s dad, who owns a food truck selling Korean-Brazilian food, convinces the principal to switch the suspension to having them work on the KoBra for the summer and pay off the damage they caused. And that becomes a life-changing experience for her.

First of all, I love that this book was pretty much a love letter to LA. I have been to LA a few times but I don’t really know it that well, still it was fun to read about places they go to. And while I live in the northern part of CA, where there is a pretty decent variety of food from Asia, it cannot beat LA especially when it comes to East Asian food.

And on that note, a book that features food always makes me happy. I really want to try some kimchi and cheese pasteis. I love kimchi (although I’ve not eaten it with cheese!) and we eat Korean food regularly but I’ve never had Korean-Brazilian food before.

Clara wasn’t easy to like at first. She comes off initially as really immature but as the story progresses, she grows into herself and I really liked being on this journey with her and her friends.

I’m excited to read the rest of Maurene Goo’s books. And whee, she’s got a new one out!

This is my read for East Asian MC for AsianLitBingo

The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo is an enchanting read

Dark, magical, and bewitching, The Night Tiger transports the reader to colonial Malaya where weretigers supposedly roam, strange deaths are happening in a sleepy town in Ipoh. A young boy is searching for a missing finger and is mysteriously connected to a woman trying to make some money as a dance hall girl.

Choo permeates her story with all the sounds, smells and tastes of Malaysia. She brings in so many Malaysian foods that I am often left hungry after reading a few chapters (Malaysian and Singaporean foods are quite similar).

She deftly weaves in a variety of folklore and superstitions like the pontianak and weretigers. It’s a great mix of supernatural and historical. And overall, a beautifully written, magical tale blended with some mysteries that left this reader guessing until the end.

Fifth Chinese Daughter by Jade Snow Wong

I came across this book via the 500 Great Books by Women Group on Goodreads. It’s a group that discusses the list in the book by Erica Bauermeister. It’s also a list on List Challenges if you like ticking off things online and that sort of thing.

And like in Family Trust by Kathy Wang, a book I was also reading at around the same time, it’s a book set in San Francisco. Unlike the 2018-published Family Trust, Fifth Chinese Daughter by Jade Snow Wong was originally published in 1945, and it’s quite telling of its time, with a 73 year difference between publication of these two books.

Fifth Chinese Daughter is an autobiography but is written more like a novel. And it has a rather educational tone to it, like it’s trying to teach the (presumably) white person reading it. So as a modern Chinese-Singaporean reading this book, it sometimes is amusing but more often it feels a bit heavy-handed and didactic.

I must admire Wong’s life and her determination to be educated and find a career. It wasn’t easy at that time for women, and I must imagine, even more so for a Chinese woman living in the US. Her father, while pushing education, especially Chinese-language education, when she was younger, is unwilling to pay for college, as he’s already paying for her brother’s medical school.

“You are quite familiar by now with the fact that it is the sons who perpetuate our ancestral heritage by permanently bearing the Wong family name and transmitting it through their blood line, and therefore the songs must have priority over the daughters when parental provision for advantages must be limited by economic necessity. Generations of sons, bearing our Wong name, are those who make pilgrimages to ancestral burial grounds and preserve them forever. Our daughters leave home at marriage to give sons to their husbands’ families to carry on the heritage for other names.”

She then begins working as a housekeeper for various families and manages to also find herself a scholarship to a college.

It’s an interesting account of various Chinese traditions, such as a funeral, a baby’s first full month with red eggs (which is something that Chinese families in Singapore still do) and pickled pigs’ feet (that was new to me).

Fifth Chinese Daughter may be a bit dated but it does offer an insight into the life of a young Chinese-American growing up in San Francisco at the time and trying to find a balance between her traditional Chinese upbringing and the more American lifestyle she’s becoming accustomed to as she goes to school and finds a career for herself.

This is my read for Back to the Classics – Classic From a Place You’ve Lived as it’s set in the San Francisco Bay Area

 

Family Trust by Kathy Wang

This book appealed to me for several reasons.

– it’s set in the San Francisco Bay Area and perhaps more importantly, not just the city itself but also the rest of the Bay Area. Don’t get me wrong, I like the city (well parts of it at least), the husband works there and all, but we live in the East Bay and it’s nice to see other parts of the area talked about.

– it’s a story about East Asian immigrants. They are originally from Taiwan, as are many of those in the Bay Area and I’m always interested in stories about immigration, particularly from Asia.

Also it opens with a whopper of a first sentence.

“Stanley Huang sat, naked but for the thing cotton dressing gown crumpled against the sterile white paper in the hospital room, and listened to the young doctor describe how he would die.”

He’s been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and this is the story of how he and his family deal with it.

He has a son, Fred, Harvard Business School grad, who’s been trying to make it big in the fintech industry but hasn’t quite yet. His daughter Kate is doing well at a well-known Silicon Valley company but is struggling with the balance of home and work. Also something seems to be up with her husband who is trying to get his start-up going.

Then there is their mother, Stanley’s ex-wife, Linda, perhaps a less-than-usual Asian woman of her time, one who continued working for decades, and yes, even divorced her husband. She’s even been thinking of dating again!

“What was one supposed to say, when one’s now-ex-husband of thirty-four years was struck with such a diagnosis?”

Stanley’s current wife Mary is 28 years younger than him. She’s a former waitress and has devoted her new life to caring for Stanley but now with Stanley dying, his family is suspicious of her motives.

For Stanley has often hinted at his riches – in the millions! Who deserves it more, the one who’s been caring for him in recent years? His children? Linda is determined to make sure her kids get their fair share.

Family Trust is a Silicon Valley story. It is also an Asian family story. It is also an American story. It’s a story about the pursuit of success, about money, about family obligation. There probably will be Crazy Rich Asians comparisons but as someone not a fan of that series, let me just say that Family Trust is better. Its characters are complex yet relatable, its observations of Silicon Valley life and family relationships are astute and witty. A great debut!

Honestly, Linda has some of the best lines.

“The woman likely didn’t even think she spoke English, regarding her as just another sexless Asian dotting her periphery – someone who could be ignored at will, like a houseplant.”

 

And here’s another – apparently there are differences according to where you landed up as an immigrant.

“Everyone knew that the best Chinese immigrants of their generation were settled in California, and mostly in the Bay Area. There were some in Los Angeles, but then you ran the risk of ending up with some sleazy import/exporter. And Linda had no intention of being matched with some grocery store operator in, say, Reno.”

 

“She knew exactly how Americans saw women like the Mercedes driver – as indistinguishable from herself. An Asian lady consumed with the creation and consumption of money, who neglected to hug her children. Why did white people like to pick and choose from cultures with such zealous judgment? Of course they just loved Szechuan cuisine served by a young waitress in a cheap cheongsam, but as soon as you proved yourself just as adept at the form of capitalism they had invented? Then you were obsessed. Money crazed. Unworthy of sympathy.”