Kyung-Sook Shin, Please Look After Mother (South Korea)

please-look-after-mother1

“You had never thought of Mother as separate from the kitchen.”

I think I’m a pretty good person. And the people in this book – all fine people. Not terrors of the human race by any means. But it’s a story of guilt and regret, and those feelings washed over me whenever I opened the pages.

The book begins with a family who has lost their mother. How could that happen is a fair question. But if you have been to Seoul, maybe you have a better idea of how an elderly woman who (we slowly learn) is suffering from physical health issues and what seems to be at least the beginnings of dementia can disappear into a crowd at a subway station as her husband gets on the train and is left behind then never seen again.

Each chapter is told from a different person’s point of view (with an interesting use of the second person which pretty much is never used outside of dialogue and was a little trippy at first). There’s the oldest daughter, oldest child/son, other daughter, father and then mother as a sort of spirit because SPOILER it does not end well exactly.

I don’t know if it’s really feasible to write a whole novel about a missing mother and putting up posters about it, so of course throughout we learn the family’s history and secrets, which I won’t give away because read the book yourself! But I will say you get caught in their lives pretty fast, and you feel their pain and their shame, deserved or not.

The theme of the novel – taking things for granted, not appreciating something until it’s gone – isn’t really innovative. And the slow reveal of family conflict or secrets in the wake of tragedy is also a fairly common narrative ploy. But I did find the book fresh and interesting, largely due to the setting. As someone who spent 6 weeks in Seoul and has a very rudimentary grasp of Korean culture, I welcomed the peak into more traditional and rural Korean life, everything from sleeping mats to ancestral rites to life in the Korean war. I could also taste the kimchi every time it was mentioned, which makes me think a Korean dinner date is in my near future – if you’re in Toronto, Korean Village is where it’s at (that’s a restaurant, not an actual village).

Of course, despite the differences, we’re all people and I could relate. Not to losing my mom but certainly to reflecting on all she’s done for me and recognizing that I probably don’t appreciate it enough.

Anyway, I’d just like to take this opportunity to say thanks mom. Please don’t take subways ever. (And shout-out to my dad who is also great and probably wouldn’t lose my mom but he does have really long legs and walks fast so who knows anything could happen BE CAREFUL).

seoul

                                 Seoul

Advertisements

BIFB Side Project: October, Vincent Lam, Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures

The Bare it for Books Calendar, sold in support of PEN Canada, is chock full of naked Canadian authors who stare at me from my wall and keep track of all my social engagements. It only made sense to read a book by each author in the month they grace. Click here for more info.

Bloodletting_and_Miraculous_Cures

“Because their motivations were clean, they were certain they deserved it more than those among them. They did not ask why they wanted to serve, be humane, or to give.”

When I was younger I wanted to be a doctor. I had a cute little scrubs outfit and my favourite book was Berenstain Bears go to the Doctor. Later, when I graduated with my BA in history and global studies, a desire to do good and no vocational skills, I reconsidered the idea. Yes my family laughed when I told them, reminding me I passed out watching my sister get a needle the previous year, but I diligently researched what I had to do to get into medical school – what courses, what exams, how much more education. Anyway, now I have a journalism diploma.

All of this to say that medicine has always piqued my interest, and with Vincent Lam starring in the Bare it for Books calendar this October it was the perfect excuse to bump this book to the top of my to-read pile. I felt like it would give me the inside scoop on doctorhood, which it sort of did, and now I’m really glad I gave up on that dream.

Somewhere between a novel and a short story collection, the book follows four doctors in med school and beyond, the individual chapters not necessarily linked or chronological. The doctors aren’t always the stars of the stories, just the common thread. Recounting their experiences as they diverge into various medical fields allows Lam to touch on all sorts of topics; dissecting cadavers, mental health, child birth gone wrong, emergency room antics, stopped hearts, cancer, international patient retrieval, SARS, as well as personal problems including alcoholism and infidelity. It was not particularly uplifting.

That said, I found it fascinating. You do get a sense you’re glimpsing the side of things you’re not supposed to see. The doctors aren’t presented as unassailable heroes, an important characterization for anyone who’s ever been frustrated by a medical professional, which is probably everyone. They’re not villains either. And they’re not immune – they die. There’s a lot of death in general.

Despite the heavy medical jargon (explained by a glossary), the stories focus on patients as much as doctors, making them relatable for anyone. The set up of the book, existing in a singular world inhabited by the four doctors but branching off anywhere from there, allows Lam to explore the perspective not only of his medical pros but patients under the knife, patients who return home, and families of people who didn’t make it.

Accurate and accessible medical writing is hard to find. Lam, as a physician, has an obvious edge when it comes to telling these stories which were not only absorbing but educational. I often declare to my boyfriend that I am qualified to diagnose something because I “almost went to medical school.” Now I can add, “and I read Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures.”

futuredoc

Me on the left. Apparently my sister was destined to be a sailor.

One year on, one line reviews

2014-10-22 22.28.37

To reads, have reads, evidence I need more bookshelves…

It’s a year this month since I started seeking out international female authors and writing about their books. In that year I’ve managed to read a bunch of other books for non-blog purposes, but in celebration of this anniversary and in the tradition of my one line reviews, here are some thoughts on them:

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt – You’d think bombs, drugs, murder, love and art theft could easily sustain even a rather thick novel, but this didn’t warrant its 770 pages.

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey – Told by Maud, an elderly dementia-stricken woman with a mystery in her past and present, it’s a strikingly original and frustrating read but that’s kind of the point.

Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan – It’s hard enough to write science-based stories in a way that’s not only accessible but enthralling. I imagine it’s even tougher when that story involves your mental collapse and your family’s anguish. Kudos to her.

Hector and the Search for Happiness by François Lelord – Short and sweet, I liked the story but didn’t love the portrayal of women.

The Submission by Amy Waldman – Not as 50 Shades of Grey esque as it sounds, this is the could-be-true-but-isn’t story of American reaction to a Muslim designing the 9/11 memorial, an interesting concept that ultimately didn’t make a great novel.

Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang by Joyce Carol Oates – The writing style takes a bit of getting used to, but I was quickly caught up in the escapades of this 1950s girl gang, and gang is not used lightly.

The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood – Atwood’s first novel and my first Atwood (sorry literary world). Contains some provocative plot points, but I expect she gets better.

The Orenda by Joseph Boyden – Absolutely one of the best books I’ve read this year. More compelling and challenging than pretty much any Canadian history class I’ve ever taken (and I’ve taken many).

Cockroach by Rawi Hage – The life of an immigrant man on the fringes of society in Montreal makes for an uncomfortable read.

Blood: The Stuff of Life by Lawrence Hill – Did not realize I’d find every angle on blood so fascinating; from history to religious symbolism to the science that keeps you alive, I was captivated.

Oxtales: Fire – A book of short stories from a variety of authors to benefit charity, the first gruesome story of a princess on an island is all that stands out in my mind.

The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick – A book I liked more in retrospect than while reading, it’s really a series of vignettes about a woman with a life somehow both extraordinary and ordinary.

Annabel by Kathleen Winter – The story of an intersex child raised a boy in an isolated town on Canada’s east coast, Annabel is heartbreaking in its sincerity.

The Devils of Loudon by Aldous Huxley – “Those who crusade, not for God in themselves, but against the devil in others, never succeed in making the world better.”

The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith – I don’t know exactly what I was expecting from a 69-page mini-novel but something more than I got.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion – Not sure what it says about me that I wanted a less happy ending…everything worked out TOO perfectly!

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green – I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed and then immediately got over it.

Make Good Art by Neil Gaiman – Probably I should just turn this into wallpaper and slap it up in my room as a constant reminder.

The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan – A blend of truth and fiction set in late 19th century Paris that entangles the lives of young dancers with Degas and the notorious Emile Abadie. Like any good historical tale, it had me googling all those involved to find out more.

Death With Interruptions by José Saramago – A rare case of a novel being totally novel.

The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida – The q&a format didn’t appeal to me, but this 13-year-old offered some enlightening insights into autistic life.

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann – Skillfully weaves together several lives you would never expect to intersect around an event you would never anticipate (if it hadn’t already happened). On a related note, I can’t believe I still haven’t seen Man on Wire.

Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog (France)

9781933372600

“When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things.”

Despite its 325 pages, not much happens in The Elegance of the Hedgehog. The characters meet people and become friends. Granted, there are stories based on less, but it’s not surprising that Muriel Barbery is a philosophy professor because the main characters spend a good chunk of their respective first-person narration pondering the world. And I enjoyed it immensely.

Paloma, the remarkably intelligent 12-year-old, has determined to kill herself on her 13th birthday because life is meaningless. In her last year, she records her “Profound Thoughts” as well as her “Journal of the Movement of the World,” an attempt at finding beauty that might make life worth it. Despite her rather morbid plans, Paloma isn’t self-pitying or overly morose. She’s just come to accept at a very young age that death is her ultimate fate and there’s no point in living. At least, that’s initially what she thinks.

Renée is the concierge in Paloma’s upscale building. She decided long ago that her place in social system means she must hide her intellect and cultured tastes, playing dumb with the wealthy tenants, until the newest building dweller figures her out (with the help of Paloma) and finds her delightful.

For all its philosophical meandering, the characters draw you in, particularly Renée. It’s hard not to root for her, self-educated and unassuming, largely overlooked by the posh, arrogant tenants. Her uncertain but overwhelming joy at finding an intellectual equal, a companion, endears her immediately to the reader.

My understanding of this book before I read it was totally off base. Whatever brief summary I read months ago gave me the impression that Renée was a secondary character – something along the lines of “A remarkably intelligent 12-year-old girl decides to commit suicide but then befriends her concierge.” I’m sure it was slightly more detailed and well-written, but that’s the gist. Really though, in hindsight the book is much more about Renée’s journey than Paloma’s – I found the young girl is not quite a prop but certainly an aid in moving Renée’s story forward. Of course, in doing so she’s changed too.

BIFB Side Project: September, Sachiko Murakami, The Invisibility Exhibit

The Bare it for Books Calendar, sold in support of PEN Canada, is chock full of naked Canadian authors who stare at me from my wall and keep track of all my social engagements. It only made sense to read a book by each author in the month they grace. Click here for more info.

invisibilty

“Last week’s headlines.

Wrapped fresh meat.”

Sachiko Murakami’s first collection of poetry casts an eye on the missing women of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. For me, the most striking poem was the simply titled News. It’s possible that because I work in news, the media angle hit me hard, but I think it’s more than that. The stark imagery immediately gripped me, and so many thoughts flooded my mind. It’s one of the shortest works in the whole collection but I feel like I could talk the most about it, such a compelling, nuanced story in less than 30 words.

The whole thing paints a picture of people so naturally absorbed by their own lives. The butcher’s patron hasn’t done anything wrong exactly, or different from what most people would. Last week’s headlines don’t have anything to do with him. Not directly anyway. But should they emotionally? As someone who works in news, it’s something I already think about – how can you make people care? Particularly when they’re inundated constantly about the plight of others who they don’t know and probably never will.

The title poem, The Invisibility Exhibit, also caught me. Written more like prose in way, the shortest of stories, it’s such a novel idea that sparks my imagination.

Invisibility is often envisioned as something powerful you should want to attain. It’s a top answer when people ask, what superpower could you have, if any? Murakami herself references “that old superhero’s trick.” Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak got him out of a lot of jams, and even James Bond drives an invisible car in Die Another Day. People crave the ability to make themselves vanish (and invisibility cloaks are slowly being developed for real).

But actually, how terrifying is that? What if no one ever saw you again, constantly overlooked and ultimately forgotten? Murakami turns the idea of invisibility as an advantage on its head. “You can sit in the chair and look through the mirror. You can actually feel like you aren’t even there.” What an uncomfortable thought.

%d bloggers like this: