Beyond the Borders with Please Look After Mom

May 29, 2014 Book Review, reviews 15

Beyond the Borders with Please Look After MomPlease Look After Mom by Shin Kyung-sook
Published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing on April 5, 2011 {originally 2008}
Genres: Fiction, Literary
Pages: 280
Source: purchased



Several years ago I attended a specialized leadership course with a concentration on cultural diversity.  Of all the courses and conferences and workshops I’ve ever attended, that one was probably the most overall beneficial to my work and my life.  We all have prejudices; that’s a fact.  How we choose to act or even react to those prejudices is what makes us or breaks us.

Diversity takes on new meaning when looking inside the publishing world.  Accusations/discussions of book covers being whitewashed, disproportionate numbers of male authors winning literary awards as compared to their female counterparts, and the hoopla around BookExpo America that the Associated Press calls a “convention predominantly organized by whites, spotlighting books predominantly written, edited and published by whites.”  With all that it seems to me that the publishing industry could use that cultural diversity course I took!

So, in discovering what the discussion topics would be for this week’s Armchair BEA I was so pleased to have saved this particular book review.  Last weekend our book club met to discuss Please Look After Mom, an award-winning translated novel set in South Korea.  Yes, you read that right – the location was South Korea, the characters were ALL South Korean and the author was a female with a female translator!  {oh, and she won a few awards for this book too!}  A beautiful yet heart-breaking portrait of how a family discovers mom is an individual and not “just mom.”

The mom in this novel disappears at a hectic subway station in Seoul while trying to keep up with her husband.  When the family gathers to create flyers to post around the neighborhood they realize that they don’t have a recent picture of mom.  The story continues in the voice of the daughter, Chi-hon, eldest son Hyong-chol and the husband.  Each takes a turn at inner reflection and guilt in their part in mom’s disappearance, lack of photos, and basic deplorable behavior toward their mother.

In our book club we talked about our own mother’s and how this book made us look at the relationship {or lack thereof} that we have with this woman who gave us life.

To you, Mom was always Mom.  It never occurred to you that she had once taken her first step, or had once been three or twelve or twenty years old. Mom was Mom.  She was born as Mom.

This is a book that should be read by anyone with a mom.  The initial diving in takes a bit of getting used to as it is written in 2nd person “You.”  At first I thought it was the way the book was translated but by the end of the first section the point of view was apparent, easily understood and added to the reading experience.

The fourth part is Mom’s own story, in her words, and had me anxious to get to book club so I could see if I was guessing correctly about where mom went – sometimes I can be just a little slower on the uptake 😉

It was fascinating to read about some of the differences in culture and yet also some of the very same ways marriage and motherhood are viewed the world over.  How the first-born, especially the male first-born, is revered in the South Korean culture was disconcerting yet also reminded me of how things are in the Southern United States.  In my family on my mom’s side, the males were also revered.  Was it a cultural thing? a farming thing? Who knows – but it was interesting to see the similarities and differences.

I wish I had taken pictures of the food – especially the Kimchi with squid – but alas, I didn’t.  I can tell you what all we had though!  My book club likes to cook food that goes along with the book so for Please Look After Mom we had traditional Korean food.  Our resident vegetarian brought the most delicious Korean Veggie Pancakes aka Pajun.  One of our members couldn’t make it, but she cooked enough food for all of us AND all of YOU  – she sent three huge containers of Kimchi – the one with the squid, a fermented version and a regular version.  Oh my gosh was it s.p.i.c.y.  We also had fried rice and Korean barbecue beef, Spicy Korean Cucumber Salad aka Oi Muchim, and copious amounts of wine.  My oldest daughter hosted so we had an extra attendee – the Little Monkey provided the first dessert of Chips Ahoy cookies – he made certain to pass one cookie to each of us which was too too precious. . .then we had fresh strawberries and cream. . .of which the Little Monkey ate half.  All in all we had a marvelous time and so much food!  Please join us for our next book club – we will probably have enough food!

15 Responses to “Beyond the Borders with Please Look After Mom”

  1. Juli Rahel

    This sounds like an amazing read! I do think it is important that everyone#’ aware that everyone has prejudices. But it’s important how you act on them! I do think a bit part of the publishing industry is very white in America and Europe, but it’s currently also very romance and YA heavy. Sci-f-, fantasy and magical realism just seem to be a little bit ignored. A great thing about reading books from different cultures is that you also see how much you have in common with them! Great post 🙂

    Juli @ Universe in Words

    • Stacy (The Novel Life)

      excellent points about the romance and YA heavy books being predominant in America & Europe! It seems to me that every which way I turn that’s all I see, and neither are particular favorites of mine. It’s interesting you brought up magical realism because I do thoroughly enjoy a good read with a bit. I find the American South has a few good authors who incorporate magical realism. Also, I should have mentioned, there is just the slightest bit of magical realism in Please Look After Mom. Thank you for your candid comments – love the discussion!

  2. Elizabeth Bevins

    The cover on this is amazing. It really draws me in! Thanks for sharing about this one.

  3. Lindsey Stefan

    I’ve seen this on a few Beyond Borders lists today. It’s on my tbr list. 🙂

    • Stacy (The Novel Life)

      thank you for visiting! it’s a book that will make you think and if you have any interest in other cultures this author does a good job of highlighting good and bad within South Korea

  4. Katie @ Doing Dewey

    Your book club sounds like so much fun and I love your thoughtful post! I love translated fiction, I like to read women author’s, and I’ve heard only good things about this book, so it’s definitely one I need to get to.

    • Stacy (The Novel Life)

      when I finished this one I called my mom and told her I would be able to make it to a family dinner that I had previously said I couldn’t. . .and since I’ve made a concerted effort to spend time with my mom – it’s one of those game-changer books that shouldn’t be missed…would love to hear what you think if you get the chance to read it!

  5. KatrinaBookishThings

    Wow. This sounds like a book I need to read ASAP. I love reading books that make me feel something.

  6. Monika @ Lovely Bookshelf

    I could have sworn I replied to this earlier today. Must have happened in my head, ha!
    This sounds like a really good read, I’ve heard so many good things. Second person narratives usually annoy me, but it seems that it was done well? And the fact that the entire novel isn’t written like that keeps me interested.

    • Stacy (The Novel Life)

      I’m so glad I’m not the only one who does that! Just so happens I thought I had responded to a publicist’s email today but seems I hadn’t…I’m losing my marbles!

      Yes, the 2nd person narrative really brought the experience home. I think it was just the right balance of pov. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one!

  7. Coffee & a BookChick

    I’ve been drawn back to a more diverse book selection, and part of that is because of BEA’s embarrassing and nonchalant oversight. I think I read about this book some time ago, but I can’t be sure, and I’m excited to be reminded of this again! I will definitely be putting this on my reading schedule! And, oh I will definitely check out those pancakes!

  1. Armchair BEA: Introductions -

    […] in a hospital bed for three months.  Reading has taken me around the world into Seoul, South Korea looking for a lost mom; into Barcelona, Spain as Carlos Ruiz Zafón terrified with creepy marionettes; and from Canada to […]

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