Book Review: “The Handsome Monk and Other Stories,” Tsering Dondrup

This review is thanks to J, who mailed me a copy of this book.

The Handsome Monk and Other Stories is a collection by Tibetan author Tsering Döndrup who is, according to the introduction, “ethnically Mongolian, culturally and linguistically Tibetan.” He stands as a writer writing in a time where writing “that reflects the experiences of modern Tibetans must now reflect a life colored and conditioned by the experience of existing in contemporary China.” Whether he is seen as Tibetan or Mongolian, he is “above all concerned with the hardships faced by ordinary Tibetans in a world that is both rapidly changing and yet somehow immutable.”

Some of the topics he discusses through fiction include “the corruption of both religion and officialdom, the degradation of traditional nomad life and its attendant social issues, the linguistic invasion of the Chinese language, and the threat to Tibet’s environment from industrial modernity.” I quote a lot from the translator Christopher Peacock here, as his introduction was excellently researched and written.

Those who know me know how devoted I am to the Tibetan cause (of which there are, in fact, many “causes” and entrances into), but what you may not know is that I gave away a majority of my books on Tibet before I left to teach English in Korea. I do not know how many books I donated to the DC-based organization Machik, but there were at least four printer-paper boxes full, of autobiographies and biographies, short story collections and fiction. I kept a handful of important books, but let most of it go, hoping that it would be useful to someone else.

I asked for a review copy of The Handsome Monk because I loved Old Demons, New Deities: Twenty-One Short Stories from Tibet. The short story format is close to my heart, and I believe that in such bite-sized pieces of fiction, truth prevails.

“The Disturbance in D-Camp” reads like an old wise tale from Tibet, and is an excellent beginning to the collection. “Ralo” is a must-read for anyone who wants to read Tibetan writing. “A Show to Delight the Masses” features long, poetic verses that are surely that much better in the original Tibetan. In these and other stories, monks find themselves living with prostitutes, people lose everything playing mahjong, and traditionally nomadic people find themselves forcibly removed from their lands and put up in shabby make-shift shelters while their lands are ravaged for “expensive black rock.” (The latter being my favorite story from the collection, entitled “Black Fox Valley”.)

These things–prostitutes, gambling, alcoholism, environmental destruction, and AIDS–are not things that jump to the forefront when discussing Tibet, but as Tsering Döndrup shows us, they are all too familiar in today’s Tibet.

Books I Read in 2021

My goal this year was to read at least 25 books. In the past, my goal has been 50 but I hardly ever reach that, so I thought that 25 would be a good goal–it averages two books a month.

This year, I beat my goal but definitely with some help from my kindergarten class. In fact, uh, most of the books I read were children’s books? Whatever, stop judging me.

Here are the books I read in 2021:

  1. If I Had Your Face, Frances Cha
  2. Witnessing Gwangju: A Memoir, Paul Courtright
  3. Brief, Horrible Moments: A collection of one sentence horror stories, Marko Pandza
  4. Almond, Won-pyung Sohn
  5. My Korean Deli: Risking It All for a Convenience Store, Ben Ryder Howe
  6. Severance, Ling Ma
  7. Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, Bill Martin Jr.
  8. Go Away, Big Green Monster!, Ed Emberley
  9. From Head to Toe, Eric Carle
  10. If the Dinosaurs Came Back, Bernard Most
  11. Highway with Green Apples, Suah Bae
  12. Bear’s Busy Family, Stella Blackstone
  13. My Mum and Dad Make Me Laugh, Nick Sharratt
  14. My Messy Room, Mary Packard
  15. Hippo Has a Hat, Julia Donaldson
  16. The Pop-Up Dear Zoo, Rod Campbell
  17. I Broke My Trunk!, Mo Willems
  18. Lemons Are Not Red, Laura Vaccaro Seeger
  19. Can You Keep a Secret, Pamela Allen
  20. We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, Michael Rosen
  21. Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale, Mo Willems
  22. Can I Play Too?, Mo Willems
  23. Jasper’s Beanstalk, Nick Butterworth
  24. I’m Waiting for You and Other Stories, Bo-Young Kim
  25. The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything, Linda Williams
  26. Don’t You Dare, Dragon, Annie Kubler
  27. The Odd Egg, Emily Gravett
  28. One Snowy Day, Jeffrey Scherer
  29. Amelia Bedelia’s Family Album, Peggy Parish
  30. The Lonesome Bodybuilder, Yukiko Motoya
  31. Bark, George, Jules Feiffer
  32. That’s Not Santa!, Leonard Kessler
  33. Wake Me in Spring, James Preller

Highlights of the year included Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale, which I thought was beautifully illustrated as it placed 2D characters in photographs of the actual world, and the “I’m Waiting for You” and “On My Way to You” stories that began and ended the I’m Waiting for You and Other Stories. (Interstellar romance! Science fiction, but with romance added!) My students loved We’re Going on a Bear Hunt thanks in part to the great reading of it done by the author himself that you can find here. Overall, I didn’t read anything mind-blowingly good or anything terrifically bad this year. I’ve set my goal for 25 books again, hoping that I can fit in more adult books this year.

What did you read in 2021? What are your goal for 2022? Any book recommendations?

Book Review: “King Sejong the Great,” Joe Menosky

I’m abandoning this book at page 100 because I have plenty more books I’d like to read and not only is this book not that interesting, the editing makes it unbearable to read.

Not only are there multiple spelling errors and missed periods, the sentences don’t flow at all, leaving the reader to be jerked back-and-forth trying to simply understand what they’re reading. This also leads to quite a number of sentences that are not even proper sentences.

“His joints ached from yesterday’s all-day and all-night event. Which he hid as best he could. Lest any hint of discomfort let alone infirmity prompt a nagging lecture from the eunuch.” (The sentences should have been combined.)

“The face was a mask of carved wood–staring eyes, gaping mouth, rosy cheeks–worn by a female shaman–a Mudang. As she gyrated in a small spiral across the dirt floor, reciting an off-kilter chant. As Sejong’s eyes…” (“As she gyrated” has no follow-up action.)

I worried that this would be a self-serving book, something hastily written and produced for an audience that would hopefully overlook the editing mistakes for the lackluster imagined story of King Sejong, and unfortunately, I seem to have been right.

Book Review: “If I Had Your Face,” Frances Cha

“I would live your life so much better than you, if I had your face.”

Nestled in the beginning of this debut novel is the line from which the title was drawn, and it asks some impossible questions from its characters.

The first time I started reading this, I couldn’t tell the characters apart, and every time I started to figure out just who was talking, the chapter (and perspective) would change. It took me living in Korea for almost a year for things to click. This book is doing very well on the market, so I’m not sure if this initial unfamiliarity with the culture was a hindrance to others, or just me.

There’s a lot, living here in Korea, that is accurately represented in the book. My facebook feed is filled with sponsored ads for discount tummy tucks and facial botox. The pressure to look a certain way, have a certain face, seems embedded in the younger culture to the point where a kindergarten student of mine had his mom ask us to remove his glasses and apply double eyelid tape before any yearbook pictures were taken. He’s 7.

So for these girls, going through what they’re going through in the book… Yeah, it’s definitely believable. You can feel it, even if you can’t fully understand their intentions. It can be a bit jarring, bouncing back and forth between perspectives, but Cha manages to pull it off rather effortlessly (or so the reader thinks; us writers know better).

One of my favorite lines in the novel is: “But she makes a lot of money and saves a lot of it too, unlike other room salon girls apparently—or anyone our age for that matter—and it’s hard not to respect her for that. Kyuri doesn’t drink Starbucks.” Ouch. I felt that.

All in all, Cha is an extremely promising writer who has managed to take the lives of several Korean women and paint them with all their imperfections and flaws. My only qualm about the novel is how it ended with loose threads–I wanted something more. One can say that’s almost part of the point: that these individual women are still in the midst of living their lives and we know no more than they do what the next day will hold, but I wonder what the stories could have been if it had, instead, been individual short stories that were interwoven, rather than a novel. (A la “Winesburg, Ohio.”) I look forward to seeing what else Cha has up her sleeve.

If I Had Your Face: Auditioning for My Own Novel’s Audiobook

Book Review: “Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982”, Cho Nam-Joo

“That’s what I am: gum someone spat out.”

In 2019, the film “Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982” swept Korean cinemas to mixed reviews. Not surprisingly, this tale of an ordinary woman in her 30s polarized audiences among gender lines: the women loved it, and the men hated it. But why?

I have yet to see the movie, but I did pick up the ebook as soon as it was released. One of my Korean co-teachers, when I told her that I was reading it, commented that “Jiyoung” was a popular name for those born in the early 80s, making it similar to calling a girl from my generation “Sarah” or “Brittany.”

Beyond the plot line, this book is interesting for the facts that it weaves into the story, such as “women working in Korea earn only 63 percent of what men earn; the OECD average percentage is 84.13.”

I find that this article from the BBC does a good job reviewing the book and its importance. I do wish that more had been explored concerning “molka,” or the practice of secretly filming women and posting the videos online, as it’s become a huge issue in the last few years as part of the Burning Sun scandal. Sadly, as time goes on, there will only be more and more issues that women in South Korea will have to endure.

“Jiyoung became different people from time to time. Some of them were living, others were dead, all of them women she knew. No matter how you looked at it, it wasn’t a joke or a prank. Truly, flawlessly, completely, she became that person.