October Book Club Meetings: “Broken Summer” by J. M. Lee, Thursday 13 October; and “Concerning My Daughter” by Kim Hye-jin, Thursday 27 October (Both at 8pm!)

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes.

Sorry for the lack of posts everyone—I’ve just been exceptionally busy and frantic this start of the new semester. On top of all that, my order for Broken Summer seemingly vanished into the aether after processing(!), meaning I finally only received a copy today. That’s much too late for a September book club meeting unfortunately, so instead that one will now be on Thursday October 13, followed by the next one for Concerning My Daughter on Thursday October 27 (both at 8pm).

If you are interested in attending either, please contact me via email, or leave a comment below (only I will be able to see your email address). I will contact you to confirm, and then include you in the club reminder email with the Zoom link a few days before the event.

Once I’ve read it myself, below will be a SPOILER FILLED list of suggested discussion topics and questions for Broken Summer which we’ll use to loosely structure the meeting (I’ll write a separate post and list for Concerning my Daughter next month). But they will be suggestions only, as I stress that the meetings are very small and informal really. And also, to help ensure that they remain as safe a space as possible, that there’s a limit of 12 participants including myself. So please get in touch early to ensure your place (and give you time to read the books!).

In the meantime then, please enjoy the books, and watch this space for an update with the list of discussion topics. And I’ll look forward to seeing you on Zoom! :)

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

August Book Club Meeting: “Violets” by Kyung-Sook Shin, Thursday August 25, 7pm

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes; 8 minutes with questions.

After a brief rest last month, the book club is back in August with Violets by Kyung-Sook Shin, first published in 2001 and translated into English by Anton Hur this year. Probably neither giant in Korean literature needs any further introduction though(!), so let me direct you post-haste to some reviews of the book instead—Books and Bao, The Guardian, Washington Independent Review of Books, Tony’s Reading List—and then, if Violets still appeals, to invite you to our meeting on Thursday August 25 at 7pm Korean time.

If you are interested in attending, please contact me via email, or leave a comment below (only I will be able to see your email address). I will contact you to confirm, and will include you in the club reminder email with the Zoom link a few days before the event.

Finally, below is a SPOILER FILLED list of suggested discussion topics and questions that we’ll use to loosely structure the meeting. But these are only suggestions, as I stress that the meetings are very small and informal really. And also, to help ensure that they remain as safe a space as possible, that there’s a limit of 12 participants including myself. So please get in touch early to ensure your place (and give you time to read the book!).

See you on Zoom!

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1) One thing I really liked about this book was Kyung-Sook Shin’s knowledge of her subject, which she gained from working on a farm for six months. As I read, I was surprised at how I couldn’t help but grow more and more intrigued by the intricacies involved in the care of trees and flowers, despite my having no real interest in the subject previously.

Are there any other books that have piqued an unexpected interest for you like this? Or at least, a greater appreciation of the subject? How about just a respect for the depth of the author’s research? In my own personal recent reading history, “The Secret Lives of Dresses” by Erin McKean comes to mind for the former, and “Limitless” by Alan Glynn for the latter two. How about you?

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2) Showing my age, another thing I enjoyed was the frequent mention of using phonecards and phonebooths, something I too reluctantly spent a lot of my time and loans on as a student in the 1990s. Are there any other little time and/or setting-based details like that which you found endearing? Or put you off for that matter?

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3) Is it a fair characterization to say that the first half of the book comes across as a very contemporary and grounded story, akin to previous book club selections like “If I Had Your Face,” “Love in the Big City,” and “Shoko’s Smile”? Only then, upon San’s second meeting with the photographer, to sequeway into something much darker, psychological, and surreal, more akin to, say, “The Vegetarian”? (One reviewer mentions there are “several moments when the narrative voice takes over, appearing to have more power and agency than the characters”; another, that “at times San felt more like an abstract idea rather than a character.”)

Were any of you surprised with that shift? Or, being more familiar with her novels than I am, already knew that surrealism was characteristic of her work? Were you disappointed by the shift? Alternatively, did you not find the transition so jarring, if indeed you agree there was one at all?

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4) There are many ways in which this book explores the themes of misogyny and sexism. For example, in how San’s mother is so ostracized as a single mother after her husband’s death, and so limited in economic opportunities as a woman in rural 1970s Korea, that even with her hair salon work she still has to live with boyfriend after boyfriend in order to provide for herself, mother-in-law, and her daughter—and yet still finds that task so thankless and miserable, that she ultimately leaves them both.

Without prompting, what other examples of these themes stood out to you, or resonated with you the most? Why?

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5) But now very much with prompting, my unpopular opinion is that I’m also finding a great deal of hyperbole and exaggeration about the book’s contents, with many reviewers shoehorning various feminist themes and elements into the book which I argue simply aren’t there at all. (See The Feminist Press for an extensive collection of such blurbs.)

Let me give two specific examples. First:

I have a deep interest in how our usage of (seemingly neutral) public space is very gendered. So, when I heard from Willow in Books and Bao’s “10 Best Books of 2022 (so far…)” video, where they cover Violets from 4:35 to 6:30, and say that (starts at 5:18)…

“It looks at the ways in which men invade women’s spaces, in a very invisible way that we all just take for granted…by touching their arm, or touching their lower back as they scoot past them in a train aisle, or they all just go up to a woman and talk to her when she’s busy, because they believe they have the right to interrupt women. There’s this sense of patriarchy that what a man has to say or do is more important and more valid than what a woman is doing by herself. And there’s a lot of moments in the book that explore that.”

…then I was instantly sold. That they don’t actually mention any of those moments in that video, was of no consequence because they couldn’t in the two minutes available.

You can imagine my frustration then, as I waited in vain for those moments to appear while reading the book. Likewise, in Willow’s earlier dedicated review video below, in which they expound upon this theme of men invading women’s personal space in great length (starts from 9:00), still they ultimately give one brief instance—the goosebumps incident—from the book itself:

Simply put, I’m just not seeing what they’re seeing. And in that vein, I’m not seeing a lot of what’s claimed in the blurbs either. (Which are exaggerated in order to sell you the book, granted—but I’m finding them echoed verbatim in the reviews.)

That being said, I’m not saying those examples are not necessarily there. They may have just been too subtle for me, consequence of not approaching the book with the right frame of mind, and/or my baggage from a long life of unwittingly dominating my own personal space as a cishet male. If anyone could point out what went under my radar then, I would be very grateful. Similarly, is there anything you expected to see, but likewise struggled to find? Please mention them, and hopefully we can all help each other to find them!

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6) The second specific example: in the afterword written in 2021, Kyung-Sook Shin herself says (my italics):

 “This is the story of a woman unable to find a place to fit in the world, suddenly swept up into a warped desire for love that eventually breaks her; it is the story of a woman punished by violent men in a cruel city because she is unable to express her confused desire for love and connection, who then disappears into the dark.”

Which, not least because it’s coming from the author herself, sounds like a perfectly fair, uncontroversial characterization of the book, especially in light of the brutal ending. But still—would it completely unreasonable to point that except for that specific incident, almost all of the bad things that happen to San seem to be self-inflicted?

Of course, there are good reasons for San’s psychological sabotage and frail, weak, violet-like condition. Many of these reasons—most even—seem clearly related to the patriarchal circumstances of her upbringing, of her society in general, and of her present-day circumstances. But, crucially, only indirectly. So, with the proviso that in the second, more abstract half of the book I struggled to grasp what was happening most of the time, is it not fair to ask:

  • Does she literally only meet the photographer three brief times in the entire novel? The last occasion only after a gap of many months, after which he has no memory of her?
  • If true, how is her overwhelming, consuming obsession with him and his confusion—it can’t even be called rejection—his fault? Or men’s fault in general?
  • Who, other than herself, causes her to enter a fugue-like state and prostrate herself in a  on the construction site?
  • Who, other than herself, “punishes” her? Which “violent men” do so, other than her rapist in the penultimate chapter?

Again, please forgive me if I’m appearing willfully polemical and disingenuous in raising what may seem such awkward questions, but my confusion and slight misgivings about popular descriptions of the contents are genuine. So, if anyone can help address those, and/or help me look at the book in a new light, I’d be very grateful!

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7) But still with the unpopular opinions sorry(!): San’s first meeting with the photographer, in which he is not shy expressing his disdain for what he considers an aesthetically bland photo subject (violets), and by implication shows his dismissal of San’s expertise, occupation, and/or interests, is again often cited by reviewers as a powerful example of the pervasive sexism that San encounters in her daily life. And by all means, I get that vibe too. I appreciate that (most) men often act that way (knowingly or unknowingly) towards women but not men, and so women encounter it to a degree which men might find astounding.

And yet, technically, in that particular scene, can the reasons for the photographer’s attitude be unequivocally tied to his and San’s respective genders or sexes? As a long-term resident of three countries beyond my native UK so far, whose interests and opinions in each have often been decidedly non-mainstream in my host cultures, and sometimes even considered a direct challenge to perceived norms of masculinity and sexuality, I’ve often been the brunt of similar dismissive attitudes towards what I hold dear, from men and women alike. Which is why the claimed gender symbolism of San and the first photographer’s meeting rings a little hollow for me.

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8) Finally, back to Willow’s dedicated review and description of a crucial scene at the beginning of the book (from 8:20 below), in which they say…

“San and her friend [Nam-ae] in Chapter 1 have the most beautiful, romantic moment in literature that I’ve read in literature in years. It took my breath away, these two young girls, exploring their intimacy with one another.”

…and go on to describe it as an unfortunately sad, but very much life-defining moment for San. Which raises two final questions:

8a) San and Nam-ae are only ten in this scene. Ten. Do you have any similarly explosive, life-defining moments from such a young age? Romantic or otherwise?* Because without wanting to detract from anyone’s ability to interpret and enjoy a novel in any way they damn well please, personally I can’t but help but see Willow’s takeaway as a projection of a more mature sensibility onto San than her age really warrants.

(*I realize this may be too private and TMI for a book club meeting. So please don’t worry—as with any of these questions, answering is completely optional!)

8b) Lest we forget, recall we are talking about two nude ten-year old girls kissing.

Although I personally question if “romantic” is really the correct term to describe such an interaction between children, I don’t deny anyone the right to regard it as such, regardless of their age, gender, or sexuality. But do you sense a huge double-standard in who would be publicly admit it? What would be your reaction if you were at a bookish party and met someone like myself, a middle-aged cishet man, who claimed that that scene was the most romantic moment he’d read in years? That he found it so romantic in fact, that it made him cry? No, really?

See you in the meeting! ;)

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

June Book Club Meeting: “Korean Teachers” by Seo Su-Jin, Thursday June 30, 7pm

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

The semester is finally winding down, I’m finding free time to research and write, and I’m happy to announce that I will have new posts for you very soon (thank you for your patience!). But in the meantime, great minds continue to think and…er, read alike, which brings me to this month’s book: Korean Teachers by Seo Su-Jin (Harriet Press, Aladin, Amazon), first published in Korean in 2020 and then in English in March this year. In short, it’s a quick, very readable, and very contemporary book about four Korean teachers in a Seoul university, which anyone who’s ever worked a Korean hagwon, school, or university will instantly be able to relate to, as well as students of Korean too. But as the synopsis from the publisher Harriet Press explains, really it’s about much more than that:

Winner of the Hankyoreh Literature Award, Seo Su-jin’s debut novel follows four Korean language lecturers at Seoul’s prestigious H University over the course of an academic year. Readers will spend one season with each of the four protagonists—Seon-yi in the spring, Mi-ju in the summer, Ga-eun in the autumn, and Han-hee in the winter—getting a close glimpse into the challenges and joys of sharing a new language and culture with students from abroad.

As readers delve into the story of each woman and the unique paths they have chosen to become a Korean lecturer, they watch Seon-yi, Mi-ju, Ga-eun, and Han-hee deal with a myriad of social and ethical challenges that accompany their job and their personal lives. From asserting themselves as modern-day career women braving sexism from both students and coworkers, to the shocking revelation that students, too, are treated unfairly as some are deemed to be more ‘desirable’ than others by H University. Some of the teachers had to bow to these pressures, but what fate would befall those who fought against the grain? Each of these women must ultimately find her place as a conduit between her students and an increasingly multicultural Korean society.

Praised as a novel that questions why highly educated women are still facing the formidable hurdle of ‘becoming somebody’ in Korean society, Korean Teachers is gratifyingly piquant as it skillfully peeks into the lives of contemporary women and how they challenge the societal norm where gender discrimination is ever so prevalent.

For further information, both about the book and more about the reality of conditions for Korean university teachers, please also check out this author interview in the Korea Times and this dedicated Reddit thread.

If you’re interested in attending, please contact me via email, or leave a comment below (only I will be able to see your email address). I will contact you to confirm, and will include you in the club reminder email with the Zoom link a few days before the event.

Finally, below is a SPOILER FILLED list of suggested discussion topics and questions that we use to loosely structure meetings. But the meetings are still very small and informal really, and, to help me ensure they’re as safe a space as possible, there’s a limit of 12 participants including myself. So please get in touch early to ensure your place (and give you time to read the book!).

See you on Zoom!

Update: With many parallels to the issues for Korean teachers raised in the book, the Yonsei’s Korean Language Institute Union is currently in the second year of its dispute with Yonsei University.

Update 2: For the July 28 meeting, we’ve chosen Violets by Kyung-sook Shin (2001, trans. 2022). A separate announcement will be made later, but in the meantime please enjoy these reviews from The Guardian and Books and Bao:

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General Questions/Thoughts

  • Anyone who’s ever worked a Korean hagwon, school, or university will instantly relate to the teachers’ many complaints about their management, bureaucracy, and students. Do you have any similar experiences to share?
  • How about similar experiences as a Korean language student?
  • The teachers in the book all have different opinions on the appropriate levels of how social to be with students, how difficult to make their courses, and what the students’ needs are. Which teacher’s opinions are most like your own?
  • Did anyone else find the romanized Korean words pretty difficult to follow at times? I wish the original Hangul had also been included alongside them, and am frustrated that so few translations of Korean works provide these!

Spring Semester—Seon-yi

  • If you were a teacher, what would you do if you discovered that your adult students were surreptitiously taking (appearance focused, but non-sexual) pictures of you at your workplace and uploading them to social media?
  • Obviously, Seon-yi is very upset that Quan is ultimately going to be deported, losing all the considerable money he and his wife Phuong invested in coming to Korea. It also results in a mass exodus of Vietnamese students, for which she is unfairly blamed. Should she have handled it differently? Could she have handled it differently, seeing as, ironically, she was the only victim among the teachers who didn’t file a police report?

Summer Semester—Mi-ju

  • Have you, or someone you know, made a similarly egregious case of misgendering someone? What happened and what were the consequences?
  • How could Mi-ju have avoided her own mistake?
  • In Korea, my students invariably struggle with my attempts to use even the most basic sexuality and gender-inclusive language in the classroom, and would much prefer I stuck to simply he/she and assuming everyone is heterosexual (admittedly, most of my students are low-level; by no means is their reluctance necessarily due to ignorance or homophobia). What have been your own experiences with using such language in Korea, or indeed in any country where little thought is given to political correctness, let alone preferred pronouns?

Autumn Semester—Ga-eun

  • I liked the point about Ga-eun being popular with the students partially because she teaches low-level classes—whereas as you advance, progress becomes much more difficult and frustrating, and this gets reflected in lower student evaluations for those trying to teach you more difficult stuff. This is reflected in my own evaluations!
  • Are there points where Ga-eun is too accommodating of Tanya’s depression? Which sounds cold, so let me rephrase it: are there instances where accommodating Tanya’s mental health needs ultimately defeats the purpose of her attending the classes at all? To further explain: in a “Korean Gender” summer school course I taught once, I required students to give a presentation, having learned from my own favorite lecturer 20 years earlier that being able to give presentations is a much more useful and necessary skill than writing essays, and that gaining confidence in public speaking, does, well, ultimately require actually speaking in public at some point. Then I was confronted with a student who was able to give a perfectly fine presentation, but only to me alone—which placed me in quite a dilemma.
  • What do you think of Hye-seon’s method of warning Ga-eun of the possible consequences of her illicit relationship with Yuto? Seeing as it shocks her into quitting her job, then I’m guessing not very highly. But how would you have handled it instead?

Winter Semester—Han-hee

  • I respected Han-hee’s realism in this story, her having no illusions about the chances of taking up comfortable university positions in England after her English husband Jacob’s absence from academia for four years. Ironically then, the notion of a PhD holder settling for teaching at a kindergarten, one of the standard, entry level ESL jobs for foreigners in Korea which most do straight after graduating, felt anything but realistic.
  • Were the problems with her physical health ultimately her own fault? How badly did she need to continue working in the late stages of her pregnancy? Certainly, it seems clear that she wouldn’t have been hired at H University again, which is why she wanted to prove how essential she was. But would getting a similar job elsewhere later, at a commensurate or slightly lower pay and level, really have been that difficult? Or am I completely underestimating the sexism and difficulties faced by mothers hoping to return to the workforce?
  • I admired Han-hee’s grit too, in resolving to wait for years if necessary for the sake of justice. But in light of what happens at H University in the next story, do you think in the end she will give up and move to the UK with Jacob?

Short-Term Winter CourseSeon-yi

  • Did anyone else cringe at how immature the international students sounded, finding them more like high-school children than adults?
  • Do you think that, again, Seon-yi will be made a scapegoat, in this case by both H University and the media?

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

May Book Club Meeting: “I’m Waiting for You: And Other Stories” by Kim Bo-young, Thursday May 26, 7pm

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes.

For this month’s meeting, we’re covering I’m Waiting for You and Other Stories by SF giant Kim Bo-Young (2021), translated by Sung Ryu and Sophie Bowman. As described by Amazon:

Two worlds, four stories, infinite possibilities 

In “I’m Waiting for You” and “On My Way,” an engaged couple coordinate their separate missions to distant corners of the galaxy to ensure—through relativity—they can arrive back on Earth simultaneously to make it down the aisle. But small incidents wreak havoc on space and time, driving their wedding date further away. As centuries on Earth pass and the land and climate change, one thing is constant: the desire of the lovers to be together. In two separate yet linked stories, Kim Bo-Young cleverly demonstrate the idea love that is timeless and hope springs eternal, despite seemingly insurmountable challenges and the deepest despair.

In “The Prophet of Corruption” and “That One Life,” humanity is viewed through the eyes of its creators: godlike beings for which everything on Earth—from the richest woman to a speck of dirt—is an extension of their will. When one of the creations questions the righteousness of this arrangement, it is deemed a perversion—a disease—that must be excised and cured. Yet the Prophet Naban, whose “child” is rebelling, isn’t sure the rebellion is bad. What if that which is considered criminal is instead the natural order—and those who condemn it corrupt? Exploring the dichotomy between the philosophical and the corporeal, Kim ponders the fate of free-will, as she considers the most basic of questions: who am I?

For further reviews, please see Locus, Asia Media, London Korea Links (who advises against the audio version), and, of course, Books and Bao (from 1:52 if the video doesn’t automatically start there):

If you’re interested in attending, please contact me via email, or leave a comment below (only I will be able to see your email address). I will contact you to confirm, and will include you in the club email a few days before the event with a list of suggested discussion topics and questions that we use to loosely structure meetings. But the meetings are still very small and informal really, and, to help me ensure they’re as safe a space as possible, there’s a limit of 12 participants including myself. So please get in touch early to ensure your place (and give you time to read the book!).

See you on Zoom!

(Apologies for the very short notice this month BTW! Meanwhile, the book choice for the next month’s meeting, to be held on Thursday June 30, will be “Korean Teachers” by Seo Su-jin)

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

April Book Club Meeting: “Shoko’s Smile: Stories” by Choi Eun-young, Thursday April 28th, 7pm

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes.

Don’t you just hate it when that happens?

The moment I choose the acclaimed Shoko’s Smile for April’s bookclub meeting on Thursday the 28th, I learn that author Choi Eun-young and translator Sung Ryu will be giving a live virtual talk at the Korean Literature Night the night before!

Time may be of the essence though—a note on the signup page says there’s a deadline of April 10 to register. While that may actually just be referring to entering the draw to win a free copy of the book, and indeed a moment ago I was still able to register to attend, if you also want to do so I recommend registering as soon as possible just in case.

But I still recommend attending our own meeting too of course!

If you’re interested, please contact me via email, or leave a comment below (only I will be able to see your email address), and I will contact you a week or so before the event. To keep the meetings remain small and informal, and to help me ensure they’re as safe a space as possible, there’s a limit of 12 participants including myself, so please get in touch early to ensure your place (and give you time to order and read the book!).

See you on Zoom!

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

March Book Club Meeting: “Tower” by Bae Myung-hoon, Thursday March 31st, 7pm

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes.

Just a short announcement sorry—this first week of semester has been very hectic, and on Friday I injured my knee, making it painful to walk (did I mention my university is on a steep mountain?). But more posts are nearing completion, and in the meantime it gives me great relief and pleasure to direct you to Philip Gowman’s excellent review and many related links at London Korean Links for this month’s book club choice—Tower by SF maestro Bae Myung-hoon, (2009), released in translation last year.

If you’re interested in attending, please contact me via email, or leave a comment below (only I will be able to see your email address), and I will contact you a week or so before the event. To keep the meetings remain small and informal, and to help me ensure they’re as safe a space as possible, there’s a limit of 12 participants including myself, so please get in touch early to ensure your place (and give you time to order and read the book!).

See you on Zoom!

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)