Tuesday, October 2, 2012

How Did the Book Club Discussion Go? On Kyung-Sook Shin, Mothers, and the Literary/Commercial Divide.

This month we read Please Look After Mom, but Kyung-sook Shin. I had been very excited to read this book because I love tackling books in translation, and I’m very interested in Korean culture. The book was a finalist for the Man Asian Literary Prize.

It’s been a crazy last few weeks, as I’ve already mentioned, and it turns out that one of the events we picked up was Stephen Pastis, author of the Pearls Before Swine comic strip (signed copies available). He was scheduled at Next Chapter for the night of the book club, and it made since to pick it up. Because Stacie was out of town, I knew I’d have to juggle both events. The book club can take care of itself, but how can I report on it for the blog when I’m only hearing every other word?

The book is about a family in Seoul. The mom goes missing on a visit from the parents. Dad is walking ahead of mom when she doesn’t make it onto the train. The story is told through the various family members, including the parents and the siblings, of which there were five, but one has died and another has run away from the family.

The story is one of great societal change. In one generation, the family has gone from poor farmers, squeezing cabbage (for kimchi) and onions (one of the many plants that apparently make a useful juice) out of the land, to city dwellers. And while the family is not able to afford to send the first daughter to college (the son, while favored, also tests at scholarship level), by the second daughter, they are able to not just afford college, but pharmacy school, or so it appeared to me.

Going into publication, the novel got these amazing advance quotes from Gary Shteyngart and Edwidge Danticat and Geraldine Brooks. But we had an interesting discussion on whether the novel was really a commercial book or a literary book. And J. made an interesting point, “Why can’t you be both?” This is a point that came up during Jonathan Evison’s talk, when I was selling books at Zane, so I didn’t know about it. And I understand that during the writing process, you can either be writing for yourself or to please others. But it’s almost during the editing process that you have to decide who your first master is, the critics or the reading public. And then if it’s the reading public, who exactly? Folks who are in AWP? Book critics? Indie bookstore customers? The buyer at B&N or Walmart or Costco? The person (or person equivalent) at Amazon who decides if you're book is a pick for the month?

Kyung-sook Shin’s Korean cultural differences make the story immediately more literary in a lot of our heads, only because reading books in translation is always a tougher cultural leap for Americans. And that was a lot of what we talked about in our discussion. Was this a story that was universal, or was a linked to a specific cultural experience? C. certainly felt it needed to be set in a place where there was great economic change in just a generation. But you could certainly have substituted a lot of details (the way they do when they adapt French films into American ones, for example) and still keep the gist of the story. (The book jacket for the Korean edition is at right.)

One of our regulars, N., was not able to attend. But fortunately she send me this lovely note.

“Sorry, I can't make it tonight. But I want to share a few thoughts about this book. Please Look After Mom is a powerful book---a specific story made universal. The second person narration somehow works--and adds to the power of the story. The title is perfect (I know it's a translation and have no way of guessing what the original title was, but it is exactly right), "look after" in the sense of taking care of someone and "look after" in the sense of watching, in a psychological sense, one's mother walk into "the other world" as one narrator said, with "you" following or looking after. There's a richness in this story, a complexity that gradually emerges. What always bothers me about mother stories is that they are almost always told from the child's or the children's point of view; mothers, alas, rarely get subjectivity. How wonderful that this mother gets her say, gets subjectivity, along with everyone else in this narrative! It's an elegant, beautiful, and sad tale.”

N. was not alone. Most of the attendees liked Please Look After Mom, much like most of South Korea (the poster for the musical is at left). One of our booksellers told me afterwards that G. didn’t like it, so I asked her the next day, because I was there for her thoughts and they seemed positive. “No, I really hated the title,” is what she replied. And whatever we thought, the discussion quickly developed into several folks talking about their relationships with their own mothers.

So the first daughter winds up becoming a successful writer, much like Shin herself, but the twist is that with all this modernization, mother is still illiterate.

It’s clearly in the structure that Shin (I think they used a traditional name format in the body of the novel, and a Western structure when referring to the author) was trying to be more adventurous. By telling the story through several voice with one being in the second person, which of course is always a literary novel, there were signifiers that this book was aiming a bit more for a critical reception. And then I wondered, had this book been published by Crown instead of Knopf, how would critics react? That’s why Crown created Hogarth and before that, Harper created Ecco, so that I’d assume that there was quality in the imprint. Yes, they did it for me, back when I was a buyer. OK, perhaps other folks also make these assumptions. But who doesn't like shorthand?

Pico Iyer was very enthusiastic in the Wall Street Journal:

"Please Look After Mom is the most moving and accomplished, and often startling, novel in translation I've read in many seasons. We watch the same story unfold through the eyes of the family's eldest daughter (a writer), the eldest son, the husband and, finally, the lost mother herself. Ms. Shin's careful, unflinching descriptions of a woman in "blue plastic sandals"—with three of the sections delivered in a plaintive, almost accusatory second-person voice ("You all blamed each other for Mom's going missing, and you all felt wounded")— achieve an emotional clarity and directness that speak straight to the heart.”
But I guess you can’t fool Janet Maslin. She obviously felt the book was a commercial read, structure be darned, because of the way it played on her emotions. She pretty much ripped it apart. Here's a quote from her review in The New York Times:

“The book is about the selfish family of Park So-nyo, a woman who got lost in the crowd at a train station in Seoul and has not reappeared. Shocked into decency, her husband, two sons and two daughters find themselves replaying all the button-pushing, tear-jerking moments that illustrated this woman’s love and devotion. It would be a grievous understatement to call her a mere martyr.”


Art Taylor in TheWashington Post was a little more forgiving.

“Still, despite the simplicity of the underlying message here — Call your mom now! — and the occasional monotony of its delivery — Did you hear me? Call your mom now! — these memories will strike a chord with many readers, perhaps stimulating their own recollections or regrets.”

And you’ll have to excuse me, but I think I need to call my mother now. Before I dial, here are our upcoming in-store lit group discussion dates and titles.

Monday, November 5, 7 pm:
The Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles.

Monday, December 3, 7 pm:
When She Woke, by Hilary Jordan.

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