Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin, translation by Chi-young Kim
I wish I had read this book when I first arrived in Korea. Or before. It gives a wonderful account of life in rural Korea that I, as a foreigner in a big city, have never truly been privy to while I’ve been here. I’ve caught glimpses of it – women and men bent over in a flooded rice field, an old woman shucking heaps and heaps of garlic – but I haven’t been in it. And this book offers that, I think, to any local or foreigner who has not seen that side of Korea. It also shows us the complicated relationships between mostly children and mothers, but also between husbands and wives and brothers and sisters in Korea and especially in Korea of yore. That’s not to say it isn’t relevant to the here and now. It gave me a great window into the values and traditions and roles that each (most?) Korean holds dear. Where this book lost me a little was mostly in the style. The manner of writing is very…without flourish. The delivery is borderline dry and yet simultaneously oozes with idolatry of the mother and her sacrifices in the name of family. It struck me as extremely Korean, which might just make it perfect, and the story has stuck with me, despite still (weeks later) only being able to give it 3/5 stars.
The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag by Chol-hwan Kang and Pierre Rigoulot
Clearly, this one is not about South Korea. But it did offer quite a bit of information on traditional Korean culture and custom, as well as a bit of information on the war. Realistically, I am unlikely to ever visit North Korea but I felt that this book needed a place somewhere on my reading lists. It is an absolutely alarming and fascinating read about the life in North Korea that we could previously only speculate about. It’s not a long read, and though it can be difficult reading at times, the author never indulges in unnecessary exaggeration of the awful details. In fact, they are delivered with straightforward honesty and minimal feeling. Not because we are left doubting Chol-hwan Kang’s feelings, but because he refuses to be anyone’s victim. He maintains his personhood and discusses his struggle with that very thing during his ten years in a camp. And the camp is bad. It’s worse than you imagine. It’s Nazi concentration camps bad. Do yourself a favour and read this book.