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.


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'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 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

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Lord, grant me the patience to endure my blessings...

Today was rough day.
It started last night actually.  
I've been stressed; my blood pressure has been up; I've sweated and even had chills.  I've yelled, I've cried, I've sat outside until I could compose myself and then I've yelled some more.  At work today I was a bleary eyed, emotional mess who couldn't concentrate on anything.

I firmly believe that God made teenagers with the idea that they would be so difficult to live with that we would be much more able to let them go when the time came.
I'm just about there.

At one point last night The Head of My Household and I ended up yelling at each other (something we actually seldom do)...and at one point, neither of us could figure out why we were mad at EACH OTHER.
That's when I knew it was time for a change.

I started this post earlier by listing out all the difficult things we've been going through with one of our kids lately...and at one point I realized something very important.  
I was listing out all the things my kid was doing...and then I typed, "I've done everything I know to do."  
I realized as soon as the period was typed that in actuality, I haven't done everything I know to do.
I've been so scared of "upsetting my kid" or "making her feel bad" that I haven't been a parent...

I haven't taken the keys away when she speeds down the road or runs a stop sign. 

I haven't expected her to pull her own weight financially; I just keep writing checks while she plays on the computer or texts, tweets and FB's.

I didn't take her phone away the day I pulled up beside her on the highway and saw her texting and driving.

I haven't made her stay home when her room and bathroom are trashed.

I've spent a fortune on doctors, tests, medicine and not made her be accountable for her own part of feeling better (taking her meds for one)

I have given her way too much freedom in the afternoons when she gets out of school.

I didn't force schedule changes, time efficiency and sleep when she came home with a bad grade on her report card and numerous tardy slips for not even trying to get to school on time.

and essentially

I haven't given her the opportunity to learn to be responsible...for herself.

Buddy, I am now.  
I already have the phone.  Not sure when I'm giving it back.

Maybe when hell freezes over.

I found some funnies to help my feelings tonight...

kinda mean...but hey...if the shoe fits...

This one made me laugh out many of us parents REALLY knew what we were getting ourselves into????

When everything seems to be working out smoothly, hold your breath and don't move

And, the reality...I can't help that I matter what they do to us, how they act, the choices they make...we love them...and we are willing to do whatever it takes to help them grow up into the people we know they are capable of being...even if it means they'll hate us for a while.
Pesky kids.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Happy Birthday, Kendal :)

19 years ago today this beautiful child came into my life.
The day we took her home I was scared to death...I secretly wanted to ask one of the nurses to go with us ;)

We learned a lot together during the 16 months she was an only child.  
how to love country music...
how to keep going with only 30 minutes of sleep at a time...
how to be still and quiet and almost not even breathe when she fell asleep in her carseat...
how to sleep sitting up in the rocking chair bc she LOVED to be rocked and 
how to fix "rabbit chockie milk."

Even after she was no longer the only child she was still my first, so all of her firsts were mine as a parent as well:   
Her first steps
Her first dance recital
Her first soccer game
Her first love 
and the inevitable first broken heart...

What I love most about my firstborn child is her spirit.
She is not afraid; she is adventurous and seeks challenge in whatever she does.  
She expects a lot of herself and a lot of life.  
She listens to me...and then makes her own decisions...sometimes agreeing but also sometimes going in her own direction.
I get scared sometimes...because I cannot imagine life without her...but I know especially now, that it is time for her to branch out more and more... become the incredible woman that I know she will be...

I love you, Kendal :)
Happy Birthday!!