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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

BPL Book Discussion: Please Look After Mom

The BPL book group met on Monday afternoon to discuss Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin.  Here is the publisher's summary:
A million-plus-copy best seller in Korea—a magnificent English-language debut poised to become an international sensation—this is the stunning, deeply moving story of a family’s search for their mother, who goes missing one afternoon amid the crowds of the Seoul Station subway.
Told through the piercing voices and urgent perspectives of a daughter, son, husband, and mother, Please Look After Mom is at once an authentic picture of contemporary life in Korea and a universal story of family love.
You will never think of your mother the same way again after you read this book.
There are questions at Lit Lovers but I have to say, this book pretty much discusses itself. Let's get to the report:
  • 5 votes for a solid "liked," 6 so-so. and 0 disliked.
  • A so-so voter started by saying she was more ambiguous then so-so on this book.  Ambiguous because I enjoyed reading it but had a hard time connecting with any of the characters.
  • All around people loved the mother and how the author portrayed her.  In fact, as you will see later, even though the mother is missing throughout the duration of the book, she is who we talked about most.
  • One of the most jarring things about this novel is that most of it is written in the second person voice.  It is hard to get used to and we began by address it up front.  Here are some of the comments on the narration in general:
    • Second person is "very Asian." Using "I" is too self centered.
    • Second person is from, for example, the daughter's perspective, but it is pointing you the reader back to someone else; in this case, the mom.
    • Every creative writing teacher I have ever had said to stay away from writing in the second person.  It is very technically difficult to do well.  Shin did is perfectly though.
    • We actually read a paragraph together from page 23 of the paperback in its original second person voice and then I went back and read it as if it were written in first person, replacing the you's with I's.  It had a completely different feel.  When we used I, the focus shifted to the daughter, the speaker.  But the second person was more distant. Maybe this is on purpose, we thought; the focus should not be on the daughter but on her search and feelings for her mother.
  • People started talking about the mother right away.  Here are some initial comments before I tried to focus us:
    • I connected with the mother, but I felt inadequate compared to her. She worked so hard.
    • But, chimed in someone else, I think she worked so hard because she was compensating for her own inadequacies.
    • I admired her for her life giving qualities.  Multiple characters comment on her ability to grow things, care for animals and children.
    • She was so alone; that was sad to me.
    • I admired her but felt sad for her. She spent her whole life caring for her kids and husband and no one appreciated her until she went missing.
    • This book taught me that as I am aging and I travel...I need to put my name in my clothes.  We had a giggle at that, but it does ring true too.
  • I asked more specifically: What is this book saying about what it means to be a mother?
    • It is about giving yourself to children.  The mother went to work at the orphanage after her children were grown.
    • Sacrifice
    • She was everything to her family.  She made a lot out of nothing.
    • When family members hit hard times, she was their to re-energize them.
    • Nurturing
    • I found this portrayal of motherhood to be refreshing.  The mother is not all good or all bad. She is a true person with faults and good things.
  • What about the mother herself? Share your thoughts.
    • She was very creative.  She was very smart even though illiterate.
    • All her kids turned out differently, but each okay in life.  That was interesting,
    • It is sad that there is no closure here, but it is clear that her children have grown because of their experience of coming together to look for her.
    • She was so courageous. In many ways, but specifically in trying to learn to read later in life.
  • This book makes me want to ask: How well do you [or did you] know your mother?
    • Not well enough
    • I wish I had appreciated my mother more
    • The author expressed this universal regret, at not knowing our mothers until they are gone, so perfectly.  This was the best part of the book.
    • It is as if the entire book is a metaphor for what we lose as a family and as a culture when the older members of our world begin to die
      • We went on a tangent to talk about the underlying themes of the modernization of Korean society in this novel. The book mentions the fading of traditions and a taking over of western ways many times, but only as more of a side note.  The mother going missing without a trace, without resistance, seemed like a metaphor for the death of the old ways that is hinted at throughout.
  • What does the title, "Please Look After Mom" mean?
    • Don't lose the heartbeat of the family
    • I liked that the title is used at the beginning as the heading for the missing person flyers and at the very end when the writer daughter asks the Virgin Mary statue to please look after mom.
      • One participant chimed in here that she loved that ending.  Even though the family does not ever find mom, the book still had closure for her.  Mary is the symbol of all mothers and now she will look after their mom.
    • Look after the family but also the traditions.
    • It is also a very literal title.  They don't know what to do.  The characters are pleading for help to look after her. They are asking us to help.  The author is asking us to be part of the story.  Help them to figure her out. We become entangled in the story because of the participatory tone of the title.
  • So what did happen to mom?
    • One participant said that in her addled state she had a sort of epiphany when left behind on the train platform and realized, I am free. So she went off, truly free for the first time ever.
    • It drove me crazy that we don't know for sure.  That's why I couldn't vote for liking the book.
    • I was so frustrated that they never were able to find her.
    • I loved that it was so ambiguous. That is why we are having such a great discussion because we don't know what happened to her. [Becky's note: I swear I didn't bribe this person]
    • When people say they thought they saw mom, was it actually her or her spirit that touched them? The chapter narrated by mom's spirit made me think she never physically made it to the nostalgic places, but her spirit did.
    • It was interesting that they did not have a recent picture of mom; this reinforced the family dynamic.
    • Mom being (and staying) missing was a universal statement about what we are all missing about each other as we go through life.
  • We talked a bit about the mother's relationships with her writer daughter, oldest son, and stay at home mom/pharmacist daughter. 
  • But it was the husband who touched a few of us greatly.  There is no doubt about it, he was a horrible husband, a true cad, but his regret was so genuine.  Many of us, myself included, were very drawn to the chapter he narrates.
  • What is the author saying about how we can do better in our own families?
    • Communicate better-- yes the children were bad at expressing their appreciation for mom, but she also never asked for help.
    • We need to figure out what it is about motherhood that doesn't teach children to appreciate their mothers.
  • We ended with words and phrases to describe this book:
    • haunting
    • multiple points of view
    • spare
    • 2nd person narration
    • moving
    • brilliantly written
    • ambiguous
    • regret
    • motherhood
    • still learning
    • sad/melancholy
    • something missing
    • elusive
    • family
    • secrets
    • east vs west
    • urban vs rural
    • perception
Readalikes: Most traditional RA resources focus on the Korea part of this novel, and while I do think that is an appeal factor here and did provide a link at the end of this list for readers who want more Korean set books, I really think this book's themes, tone, and unique story telling style are also important to consider. I want to focus my readalike suggestions in that arena since this is where they other resources are lacking.

The tone of this book, that of looking back on your life as you near the end reminded me of Rush Home Road by Lori Lansens which we discussed in book club here.  Although the settings share nothing in common (Canada vs South Korea) the feel is quite similar.

The character driven storyline with a haunting tone also reminded me of two other currently popular book club choices: The Light Between the Oceans by M.L Stedman and The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin.  Again these three books have very different frames and story lines, but their overall feel and "discussabilty" are eerily similar.

As I mentioned above, the second person narration was striking.  For some it was so different that it was distracting, but others were fascinated by how well it was done.  For readers who want to try some other critically acclaimed novels written in this voice I would suggest How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid and Invisible by Paul Auster.

A few other novels that also deal with secrets that come to light after the loss of a family member and have been described as haunting and moving are:
We also talked a lot [above] about motherhood after reading this novel.  Many people appreciated the multiple perspectives of motherhood presented here. Here are some other well received adult fiction titles that also offer this:
If you are specifically looking for more books by Korean authors or with Korean characters click here.

Finally, Please Look After Mom won the Man Asian Literary Prize.  Click here if you want to see a list of more winners.

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