Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Korean American writers: musing on Min Jin Lee, Don Lee, Patricia Park, Samuel Park, and one other author I can't remember!

Back when I lived in Queens, one of my father's favorite walks was down Northern Boulevard, all the way from Bell Boulevard, near where we lived, to Main Street, where he would have lunch at one of the many Chinese restaurants. I accompanied him on his walk many times, and one of the things we enjoyed was the changing cultural influences as we moved through the borough. It was a long time since our neighborhood had been heavily Jewish, but there still was a delicatessen on 73rd Avenue which had particularly good potato knishes. Along the way were pockets of Irish, African Americans (despite most Black people living on the south side of Queens, there was a long-established black community just off Northern Boulevard), Greeks, Chinese, and Koreans. By the time our walks ended, that Korean community had expanded, and that's one of the reasons I am enjoying Re Jane, the novel from Patricia Park which came out in 2015. Much of its setting is along the very strip of Northern Boulevard that I used to share with my Dad.

After having a good reading summer, I've been stuck, spending long periods of time reading books I can't finish, and in some cases, can barely start. I knew I needed something that one of my fellow booksellers (Jane) calls light with a bite, and when I saw Park's novel while shelving another book, I picked it up. A contemporary take on Jane Eyre set in Brooklyn and Queens? I think I can do this! I want to sit down and not come up for air for 100 pages. This intoxicating feeling was hammered home to me yesterday when I was speaking to one of the families at the event for Katherine Rundell's The Explorer last night. First Charlie read it, and then his dad got a hold of it, and didn't stop reading for three hours. As Liz Lemon often said in 30Rock, I want to go to there.

There are nobody of reasons why Korean American literature is on my mind. For one thing, tensions with North Korea are at an all-time high. I wonder what it's like to live in South Korea right now. I'm reminded of what my Jewish friends have told me about their relatives who live in Israel, or our former Lebanese customer (he's coming back for an event at Boswell when his novel is published, and it will be) when he visits family in Beirut. But is it that different from living in the prospect of (or the wake of) hurricanes or earthquakes or gang violence? You go on with your life.

But my focus in this post is not on Korean writers in South (or North) Korea. I'm interested in the Korean American experience - how it's parallels the stories of other groups and how it's different. But sometimes, like in this year's Pachinko, the story is not set in the United States, but living here probably affects the narrative.

I'm always thinking about events, and as you know, we're cosponsoring a ticketed event with Min Jin Lee for Pachinko on Thursday evening at the Lynden Sculpture Garden*. Pachinko was just longlisted for the National Book Awards, plus our recent author (and old friend) Bill Goldstein raved about it at his talk for The World Broke in Two. Plus fellow bookseller Jen just told me that the novel is going in her top five for the year, meaning even if it doesn't win the National Book Award (I'm well aware it's a long long long shot) we'll be featuring the novel through the end of the year. If you like historical novels and maybe don't want to read the 34th one set in World War II Europe, maybe you should consider this, a multi-generational saga about Koreans living in Japan. Here's Anita Felicelli's review in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Jen told me that as soon as she finished Pachinko, she knew it would be in her top five and had she not picked it, it might have been in mine. Instead, I went with another recent novel I've written about before, Lonesome Lies Before Us, by Don Lee. It's the novel I can't stop thinking about this year, and being that it focuses in on both cultural identity and class, it should be at the forefront of way more people's consciousnesses. I think that part of the reason it's not is because it takes on identity by not writing about it - almost all the characters are brown, black, or yellow, but nowhere are there any physical descriptions. I'm guessing a lot of folks interested in this sort of thing want to be more, well, direct. And of course there's a place for those books. But there's also a place for this one.

I think I wrote this once before but Don Lee and Allegra Goodman would be great in conversation together, as I think Goodman was trying something similar with her most recent novel, The Chalk Artist. 

But come on, how can you not love a failed alt country singer who blames his weight, his stage fright, and his hearing loss, but not the implied fact that he's Korean? Both my sisters read the book, and while they both liked it a lot, one called it terribly sad. But it's funny too. And I like sad-funny a lot. I think it's the two best emotions to put together in a book. I think most people prefer scary and romantic, but maybe not together. If you've not read this blog before, catch up with Lloyd Sachs's review of Lonesome Lies Before Us in the Chicago Tribune.

Speaking of sad, I keep thinking about another Korean American writer who told me about the second book he was working on when he visited us twice for his first (twice). Samuel Park taught at Columbia College in Chicago and recently passed away. He told me this story about a glamorous Korean actress, and as I remember, the story kind of had a high-drama noir vibe to it. We still have a copy of his first novel, This Burns My Heart on our shelves, and I think you should read it.

Did you know that there's at least one novel about the Milwaukee Korean community and it came out from a major publisher? I read it but here's the thing. I don't remember the author or title. But if I did, I'd mention it now. I think it came out from Dutton and might have been published about twelve years ago. Any ideas? (Editor's note: our friend Jason, who I think worked at Penguin at the time, came up with the answer. It's In Full Bloom, by Caroline Hwang.)

So maybe see you Thursday night, but before I get to work today, i'm going to spend a little more time reading Re Jane. And then I'm going to try to figure out a good place to get sweet potato noodles, a delicacy I haven't had since Seoul restaurant ended their lunch buffet several years ago.

*There's a second daytime event on the UWM campus for Min Jin Lee, focusing on students.

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