Friday, March 23, 2012

Forgotten Country - Book Review



Forgotten Country by Catherine Chung

March 1, 2012, Riverhead Books
Format - oversized paperback

Why? A Read-A-Long with Jenn (Devourer of Books) and Nicole (Linus's Blanket)....supposed to be posted on Feb. 28 :/
What Now? I'll donate this one to the library...there are definitely parts here to remember, but this one won't be a re-read for me.

Golden Lines

My father had always wanted a son.  We women were unreliable creatures, prone to fits of emotion and flights from logic that generally ended with him at the receiving end of a pointed finger.  "Yes!" he'd said, when I told him I'd decided to study math.  He reached out his hand and said, "Shake!" While he pumped my hand up and down, he said, "Math lasts."

Long ago, when she was a child, families of dissidents had been driven to churches and town halls and burned into piles of ash.  You breathed in that ash, my grandmother told me.  It covered your skin.  You held that ash inside you: it coated your lungs.  It clung to your eyelashes and settled on your hair. 


My parents loved us.  I never doubted that.  But sometimes I still wonder if they would have traded me in for the son they wanted.  I never asked.  I did know that my mother aborted two girls before she refused to keep trying, and that her refusal sparked a coldness between my parents that lasted for years.


"Jeehyun," she said, lying down next to me on my twin-size bed.  "You must not be like me.  When you are a wife, do not fight.  Obey your husband.  Fulfill his wishes.  Bear him a son.  Jeehyun?  Are you listening?  Earn his love."


"...regardless of whether we die today or fifty years from now, life is always transient, and true enlightenment is letting go."


"I think joy can stop time," my father said.  "I think joy can do the trick."  Satisfied with this answer, he nodded his head, lowered himself back down, and closed his eyes again.
I turned to look at him, my father half sunken in the grass, the blades pushing up around him.   The sun in his eyes, the light all over him, and the grass, and the arms of trees meeting overhead.  He was smiling with his eyes closed, pleased with his answer, pleased with himself.  I felt the weight of it upon my chest.  Yes, I thought.  Joy can stop time with the force of its insistent, incomprehensible weight.


My whole life I had always belonged to my family, and there had been comfort in the belonging.  I'd always thought Hannah and I were irrevocably entangled: the connection  always between us no matter how far she went.  I had spent my whole life afraid that I would be bound to her, responsible.   I had been afraid my family would never let me go.

Summary

Janie (Jeehyun), Hannah (Haijin) and their parents lead a very complicated life as Korean immigrants trying to assimilate into American culture while holding on fiercely to their own.  Janie is the oldest and bears the weight of firstborn responsibilities on her shoulders.  Those responsibilities include keeping up with her troubled sister who decides early on in the novel to disappear.  Their family's forced exile is lifted when their father becomes ill and needs to return to Korea for treatment and to live out the last days of his life.  Janie once again has to negotiate her own personal demons, her professional life and struggles with those of her parents, the knowledge that she is slowly losing her father, and her angry sister who hates everything their family stands for.

What I Liked

At times I was reminded of Maxine Hong Kingston's Warrior Woman...but there seemed to be more holes in Chung's story...I can't really put my finger on it yet...

the old stories told by family members...both true and legend.  The stories help outsiders such as myself see things as much as possible from another perspective.  We all grow up with stories...those stories make us who we are.  Sometimes we forget that other people have very different stories that they believe just as much as we believe our own.

the story of how Janie and Hannah's parents met was my favorite, although the person their mother was as a young woman was totally different than the middle aged woman she is in the book...the reader is not given much information about how that transformation took place...or maybe I missed it.

Hannah and Janie's father...this is going to sound really silly, but he reminded me of the father character in the Disney movie Mulan...there I said it.  Don't laugh at me; Janie and Hannah's father saw the value in his daughters...he loved them...even though he had no sons.  Their mother was rougher on them than their father, and that surprised me.  Their mother was often brisk and cold with them, almost as if she blamed them for wasting her childbearing years.

Janie and her father's relationship - besides the math, they gardened, they talked, they hiked, and their connection was only deepened as he slipped painfully out of their lives.  I wondered in some way if her father had to die for Janie to really begin to stand on her own two feet and to go on with her life...that in some way, Janie and Hannah both had to let go of the past in order to truly belong in the future...?  I purposely have not read anyone else's reviews yet, but am looking forward to see how others felt about this particular aspect of the story...can we hold on to who we are while becoming the person we want or are intended to be?  Does that even make any sense?  Or, is the dance between our families and ourselves just that complicated?

What I Didn't Like

I knew Hannah's big secret...figured it out immediately once certain family members were introduced...and then wondered for many pages why the author didn't say more about it.  And, then, all of a sudden everything was ok...Huh??

All the math talk...I ain't a math person (see my posts on keeping budgets, credit cards, etc. etc. etc.) and the math that Janie discusses with her dad is even more complicated than that.  There were times as Hannah talked through her dissertation findings that I might as well have been reading German (I don't speak German btw).

the cousins and their mother...they reminded me of the fat boy in the Harry Potter movies.

the whole "bear him sons" thing...this has nothing to do with the writing in this book...it's a cultural difference...a big one for me.  While Janie and Hannah's mother encouraged them to be good wives and mothers as if that is their whole purpose in life, American society teaches young women just the opposite...that marriage and motherhood are choices.  As the mother of 3 daughters, I especially had a hard time understanding their mother's attitude...she seemed to accept totally her "place" in life and preached to her daughters to do the same.  Most mothers I know preach to their daughters to get a good education, even better job, make themselves happy, have fun and then maybe down the road some day, possibly choose to have a family, which may or may not consist of children.

the major professor side story...where oh where did that come from??  Another undeveloped line of thought here.

Overall Recommendation

Anyone interested in cultural differences, particularly Korean and American cultures, father daughter relationships, the slow death and caretaking of a parent by adult child and/or becoming ones own self amidst the turmoil of a dysfunctional immigrant family, will like this book...I have to be honest and say that there were many times I had to force myself to keep reading this book...it is not a happy book, even though Hannah and Janie to take first steps into the future by the end of the story...
Also, while there were several places I thought the writing was superbly descriptive and emotional, I just didn't always feel that way...and the holes in the story distracted me so much that I almost missed some of the good.

**FTC Disclosure - I was provided a copy of Forgotten Country free of charge in exchange for an honest review.

Other Reviews:


Between the Covers
Booking Mama
Book Cover Justice
Take Me Away Reading
Starting Fresh



14 comments:

  1. I generally enjoy stories about the immigrant experience but I think some of the issues you mention would really bother me if I were to read this book.  Thanks for the honest review :)

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  2. I enjoyed your honest review. I thought this novel was very well written and complex and I do think you had a point about Hannah having to stand on her own only after losing her father.

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  3. Thanks again for another great book review...since I will probably NEVER get around to reading the book (and most of the others you graciously review), I so enjoy reading the reviews.  It's like a quick read for me.  :)

    I hope things are better with you and your blessing!  Do you still have her phone?

    Thank you for all of your comments today.  I walked a mile and a half this morning, and helped my girls get Clay's birthday party ready, but when the party started, I sat in a chair with my feet up for 3 hours!!  I still feel like I am one step forward, two steps back.  But Jimmy said, no you are two steps forward and one step back!  Anyway, here it is 8:00, and I am in the bed with two of my girls. I plan to read until I get sleepy....I am resting!  :)

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  4. Some other reviewers didn't mind the "holes" as much as I did...but it really bothered me after a while.  I know we're not supposed to know everything, but I couldn't figure out why a few things were even mentioned in the first place if they weren't going to be developed.  

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  5. Complex is a really good adjective for this one...and I actually meant Janie having to stand on her own.  Janie was the one still trying to please her parents long after Hannah had stopped trying.  Sorry if I was unclear about that :)

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  6. :)
    I gave the phone back but you would be astonished at the attitude change...so far...she even told me "thank you" on Facebook! (I almost fell out of my chair!) :pI agree with Jimmy...I watched some videos on recovery after mastectomy on youtube yesterday morning...you just have to listen to your body...don't fight its healing process.  I am always blown away when I think about how God wired us and created us with processes in place for life's challenges.  

    The best mornings/evenings of all around here are the ones where all 3 of our girls end up in our bed with us...Layla too sometimes :) It doesn't happen as often now that Kendal lives in the dorm...they need you near them too right now. 

    Keep RESTING :)

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  7. I don't think I have really read a book on Korean culture, so this one sounds just perfect. Loved reading your thoughts on this one!

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  8. I do like to read about cultural differences, but it sounds like this book has some problems.  I'll have to think about it.

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  9. BibliophilebytheseaMarch 27, 2012 at 5:42 AM

    I've been curious about this one, and yours is the first review I've read.  I FEEL LIKE i MIGHT NEED TO TRY THIS ONE.

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  10. interesting review, especially the part about the mother being harder on the girls than the father - sounds like in this book, the father actually did a lot more with the girls than a lot of *American* fathers

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  11. I have read a couple of others over the years...the only thing this one has that is different from my past reads is the intertwining of the Korean folklore...those stories are really entertaining :)

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  12. I still haven't decided, Kathy, if I would read this one again...I don't think so...but I also wonder if maybe for some reason the reader is supposed to feel as if he/she doesn't know everything...?

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  13. I'll be interested to see what you think :)

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  14. He really does, Stacy...he honors his daughters and is more tender, more emotional with them even than their mother...very different from what we expect.

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