Books in Translation, fiction, reviews

Thoughts: Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin

Please Look After Mom
Kyung-Sook Shin
Translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim
256 pages
Publication Date: April 5, 2011
Publisher: Knopf
Source: Bought it
It’s been one week since Mom went missing. . .

Park So-nyo is an elderly woman who’s trailing behind her husband in a crowded Seoul subway station when the two become separated as it’s time to board. It should have been a routine trip to the city from the country but turns into a mysterious disappearance as hours turn into days without Park’s return. What follows is a sometimes lazy, other times desperate search for Mom by her husband and five grown children as they reflect on their lives with her.

Usually when an author uses a second-person narrative, I can’t read past the first page.  I often find this point of view gimmicky and too distracting to become engaged in the book. I think it speaks volumes of not only Shin’s talent as a writer but Chi-Young Kim’s talent as a translator that PLAM doesn’t read this way.

There’s so much that I can say to describe PLAM. I can tell you that it’s about family and motherly love. I can also say that it’s about guilt and the role of mothers in any culture. As a mother, I can tell you that being a mom is one of the most rewarding roles that I have ever had but it’s also the most demanding and hardest. There’s no off-days, no breaks, and you’re “on call” for the rest of your life. Shin expertly illustrates how much women sacrifice for their children without children always being aware of it. Park is the mother who sells her wedding ring so that her child can have what they need and who’s constantly working in the fields to make sure her children have enough food to eat. I’ve read reviews about this book that described Park as a martyr and I think that shows how cynical people have become of mothers. A martyr is someone who accepts their suffering which is the opposite of this character. Park doesn’t accept her suffering but gets through it without harming others.

Shin does a beautiful job exploring the life of Park through the eyes of her family and herself. Readers learn about a woman who was slowly becoming sicker the older she became, who had headaches that were so bad she couldn’t cry when she learned that her only sister died. But readers also learn the roles about the family has played in Park’s disappearance: the husband who was so selfish that he refused to acknowledge the growing pain his wife was in; the daughter who’s also a famous writer and her inability to have a conversation with her mom about the places she travelled; or the son who was his mother’s favorite but never did enough for her.

You don’t understand why it took you so long to realize something so obvious. To you, Mom was always Mom. It never occurred to you that she once taken a first step, or had once been three or twelve or twenty years old. Mom was Mom. She was born as Mom. Until you saw her running to your uncle like that, it hadn’t dawned on you that she was a human being who harbored the exact same feeling you had for your own brothers, and this realization led to the awareness that she, too, had had a childhood. From then on, you sometimes thought of Mom as a child, as a girl, as a young woman, as a newlywed, as a mother who had just given birth to you.

Even with such a selfish family, I carried hope with each turned page that Park would be found. I hoped that her family would have a chance to write the wrongs of the past. I believe good writing does that: it makes you carry hope when there is none, it makes you even despair with characters as though they are real. I glanced through the eyes of these children as they saw their mother as a person not just a role and admitted their wrongs while wishing for a second chance.

Told with  tenderness, Please Look at Mom is a story that will have readers exploring their own relationships with their moms.

This review has been crossed-posted at Color Online.

Books in Translation, graphic novel, nonfiction, reviews

Review: Embroideries by Marjane Satrapi


Marjane Satrapi

Translated from the French by Anjali Singh

144 pages


Pantheon Books

Source: Library copy

I love Marjane Satrapi’s work. Her first book, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood is a masterpiece.  Whether she’s talking about her childhood or about an uncle who was determined to die after the loss of a beloved instrument (Chicken with Plums), Satrapi’s subject matter is always one that really doesn’t disappoint. In Embroideries, the author writes about the lives of women, their thoughts, and dreams.

It’s only after an afternoon meal and once the men go off for their naps, that the women of Satrapi’s family along with various neighbors get together to talk. Gossip about other neighbors and friends is mixed in with tears and laughter as the women discuss arranged marriages versus marriages of love, the cultural pressure that’s placed on a woman to stay a virgin until marriage, and more.

Click on the picture to enlarge.

This is a book of woman’s stories. It’s not a book about war or death. It’s not about living in a conservation society or oppression. It’s more than that. This book is about the everyday lives of women and how they navigate around the things that happen to them. Satrapi’s grandmother was married three times, a cousin was married off to an elderly general at the age of thirteen while a neighbor’s husband ran off with their wedding gifts right after they were married. These stories aren’t any less important than the stories that we consider to be the stories of men who set off to change the world and such.

The author really knows what she’s doing because the close atmosphere that, as a reader, I felt as I read about these women’s lives.  I didn’t feel like a reader but like someone who was sitting in the same room as the characters and listening to all the stories. This is a book that deserves a place in my permanent library collection.

Books in Translation, nonfiction

Review: The Day Nina Simone Stopped Singing by Darina Al-Joundi

The Day Nina Simone Stopped Singing

Darina Al-Joundi with Mohamed Kacimi

Translated from the French by Marjolijn De Jager

Publication Date: March 2011

144 pages

Feminist Press

Source: Personal Library

My philosophy of life was very simple. I was convinced that I was going to die at any moment, so, hungry for everything, for sex, drugs, and alcohol, I doubled my efforts. I always had a bottle of whiskey in my bag, a pack of cigarettes, and a candle that I would light on the sidewalk on the corner of Makhoul Street where I would spend hours by myself. I wanted to take a sexual revenge. I made love like a madwoman, with anyone anywhere. Although I felt nothing I’d do it under porches, on the gravestones of the orthodox cemetery, on the beach, in showers, in cars, and especially in the bathrooms of bars. With a brutality that left no room for desire and even less for any feeling.

As a child, Darina Al-Joundi was raised by a very liberal father and a mother who’s strong and caring but who also stays in the shadow of her husband. As a result of her father’s influence, mother’s silence, and the ongoing civil war in the country, Darina grows up trying to rebel against all the horrors she witnesses: murders, starvation, and bombings. She rebels but with mixed results: three marriages by her mid-twenties, a bad reputation in her city, but the knowledge that she is more than her surroundings.

When I first started reading this book I thought it was really disjointed. One minute the author would talk about Beirut, the next a prank that she pulled on her grandmother which resulted in her first spanking. But as I kept reading I realized that the structure of the book is intentional. The first thirty years of Darina Al-Joundi’s life was chaotic. Her father was a man who thought that religion was the root of all evil and taught the author and her two sisters to never join a religion. He would rather they do anything else but that. He was raising his children in an extreme way: there was no discipline, the girls’ first cigarettes and glasses of liquor came from him, and their mother had almost no say. Al-Joundi was wild from the start and became a woman who tested her limits all the time.

The reader doesn’t have to know anything about Lebanon to follow the story – the author fills in the blanks about the years of war that ravaged the country and damaged its inhabitants,

It felt strange to walk the city streets without the militia shouting and the noise of bullets. It would take just a few days for the city’s [Beirut] features to be completely transformed. Everyone was so eager to turn the page, to forget the 150 thousand who had died for nothing. The snipers, the gunmen, the assassins melted away into the crowd in no time. An army of assassins vanished into thin air with a wave of the magic wand called amnesia. . . Everyone had turned the page very fast, without reading it. The Lebanese disposed of their war history like a dead body.

The Day Nina Simone Stopped Singing is a memoir that shocks while also making the reader nod in agreement about Al-Joundi’s journey. You could call this memoir a war story but it’s so much more than that. It’s also the coming-of-age tale of a woman who refuses to be anyone but herself.

Books in Translation, fiction, reviews

Review: Revenge by Taslima Nasrin


Taslima Nasrin

Translated from the Bengali by Honor Moore

176 pages

Publication Date: September 7, 2010

Publisher: The Feminist Press

Source: Personal library

Jhumur is a young physics student living in Bangladesh when she meets Haroon, a businessman of the same age. In Haroon, Jhumur thinks she’s found everything she’s looking for and marries for love. Once she becomes his wife, life changes drastically. No longer can Jhumur work or leave the house unaccompanied, she must wear a head scarf at all times, and is expected to be the perfect bou: daughter-in-law. When Jhumur becomes pregnant, it’s a dream come true. That is until Haroon tells her that her unborn child couldn’t be his. Shocked by this revelation and unable to get her husband to believe her, Jhumur starts to plot her revenge with a neighbor who’s unaware that he’s the key to Jhumur’s revenge.

After I read the book’s synopsis, I thought Revenge could be a really interesting read and it was. Jhumur is a girl with hopes and dreams of being a physicist. Raised in a somewhat non-traditional family, Jhumur had parents who gave her freedom that is usually given only to men. She was encouraged to stick up for herself, fight if she had to, dive into whatever career that she wanted, and marry for love instead of money. But when Jhumur marries Haroon, all of that goes out the window. She isn’t content to stay at home and care for her husband’s family, but she doesn’t think about not going against her husband’s wishes and stay an individual. One of the great things about this book was the peak into Bangladeshi culture readers are given. Without it, I don’t think we would have been able to understand why Jhumur didn’t get a divorce (which would have labeled her an outcast), and instead plotted a revenge in the only way she could in her culture.

Here’s an excerpt from the book:

He was utterly impervious to the fact that he violated me. He had shattered my dreams and destroyed my belief in love, which was my only excuse for marrying into a situation in which all that my life and education had prepared me for was wasted! Instead of taking a job in a physics lab, I took care of my in-laws. I had dreamed of a happy married life that would not deprive me of individual freedom that respected differences, allowed contradiction-a venture built on trust, sympathy, honesty, and compassion. How naïve I had been! How blinded by desire! How stupid not to have asked ahead of time what Haroon’s dream of marriage was! Yet even in the midst of these thoughts, I was feeling a bit sorry for him.

Readers see a change with Jhumur after she starts going through with her revenge. It’s not a change for the better and she becomes cold and calculating, very different from who she is in the beginning of the book or when she’s around her best friend or new neighbor. The change was interesting to read about and it pushed me to read to the end. For such a small book, it packs a punch that leaves readers thinking about women and the roles that a society wants women to fit into – usually perfectly, without the thought of the consequences behind those roles.

Highly recommended.

Books in Translation, fiction, reading challenges

Emily’s Piano by Charlotte Gingras

gingasEmily’s Piano (2005)
By Charlotte Gingras
Translated from the French by Susan Ouriou
Illustrations by Stephane Jorisch
60 pages

Middle school fiction

Grown-ups think I don’t understand anything. They’re wrong. I watch soap operas just like everyone else. What’s more, I have hypersensitive ears and piercing eyes. Even my sense of smell is much better than most people’s. I’d make a great bloodhound.


Emily’s family life is not the best. Her father rarely comes home at night and her mother spends her days crying. One day the family has to move from their grand house to a much smaller apartment. Most of their things are sold including the family’s old black piano.

Emily thinks that if she can just get her mother’s piano back, it would make her mother feel so much better. She goes  on walks all around the city, looking for the piano. Will she find it and bring her mother happiness?


I enjoyed reading this book. The author never tells you Emily’s age but I imagine her to be a  tween, ten or eleven years old. Everyone from her parents to her much older sisters are too busy with their own lives to pay her any attention.

As an adult and a parent it was sad to see that no one in that family was focused on Emily. Though Emily herself is a little sad about her parents’ divorce, she’s still going on with her life, taking care of herself while understanding her mother’s grief.

Here’s two more great quotes from the book,

There’s no hope of a truce in this family now. We criticize each other, we tell each other’s secrets. Sometimes we scream insults.

Emily’s conversation with her father,

He says children can’t know how complicated and strange grown-ups’ lives are, even to them. How sometimes life is like a canoe trip down a dangerous river when the canoe tips down and sinks. How sometimes a person has to run away, or how . . .

What about me? Do grown-ups know what they’re doing to me?

Though this  is a short book, readers travel with Emily on a journey through sadness and emotional maturing that has a beautiful ending.

Congratulations to Sarah for winning the Karma Wilson giveaway!