“No one in this world comes from nothing,” My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Lucy Barton says:
But there are times, too – unexpected – when walking down a sunny sidewalk, or watching the top of a tree bend in the wind, or seeing a November sky close down over the East River, I am suddenly filled with the knowledge of darkness so deep that a sound might escape from my mouth, and I will step into the nearest clothing store and talk with a stranger about the shape of sweaters newly arrived. This must be the way most of us maneuver through the world, half knowing, half not, visited by memories that can’t possibly be true. But when I see others walking with confidence down the sidewalk, as though they are free completely from terror, I realize I don’t know how others are. So much of life seems speculation (14).

I liked that Lucy said this. It feels like such an intimate confession. How many times have I walked down the sidewalk, believing that other people seemed to be very confident with themselves and their lives, while I was feeling like a lonely sinking ship out in the open sea? But the truth is, I think many people feel this sense of loneliness that Lucy describes. It’s just hard to tell because it’s not something that people advertise about themselves. When Lucy talked about being “filled with the knowledge of darkness so deep” that she feels the urge to strike up a conversation with a stranger just to tamper down that sense of loneliness, I felt multiple emotions. First, I immediately felt pity. Then, I realized that the person walking into a clothing store in November – escaping from the cold, and warming herself up with a light conversation with a stranger – could easily have been me. It’s possible to be surrounded by many people and still feel desperately lonely. From what Lucy said, I felt both pity and empathy.

My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout is one of the strangest books I have read, mostly because the story doesn’t seem to flow from the beginning to the end of the book. The story is told in snippets that feel (to me, at least) as though they were arranged randomly. And honestly, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it even by the end of the story. What I do know is that in the beginning of the novel, Lucy Barton is ill, and for most of the book, she is staying at the hospital to recover. Her mother comes to visit her, and while I know this now, when I was reading the book, I wondered if Lucy was imagining her mother. I had to pick up on textual cues, such as “the doctors looked at both my mother and me” (this is not an actual quote) to make sure that Lucy was speaking to her actual mother, and not the ghost of her mother. At times, I went back to these cues a few times, just to make sure.

While I understand that this book is about the complicated relationship between Lucy Barton and her mother, what I liked was when Lucy mentioned things about herself and her own life, especially things like this:

Looking back, I imagine that I was very odd, that I spoke too loudly, or that I said nothing when things of popular culture were mentioned; I think I responded strangely to ordinary types of humor that were unknown to me. I think I didn’t understand the concept of irony at all, and that confused people. (28)

From listening to the story of her life, I got to know the “internal” side of Lucy Barton. But for someone who doesn’t know this side of her, they may only see what is on the “outside,” which may be simple facts such as that Lucy Barton is a mother of two daughters. Oh, and that she has divorced her first husband (the father of her two daughters) and is now married to her second husband. Once, her mother-in-law (from her first husband) told someone that Lucy came from “nothing,” which could refer to the fact that when Lucy was growing up, her family didn’t own a house of their own. But this is no longer the case by the time Lucy tells her story. I think it’s even possible that if one were to pass Lucy Barton on the street, she may seem to be just another person walking down the sidewalk with confidence, even though this couldn’t be further from the truth.

This book reminded me that there are things we will never know about those around us unless they choose to share with us. I guess the same works for what we ourselves choose to disclose to others. In either case, Lucy Barton tells the reader:

“…this one is my story. This one. And my name is Lucy Barton.”


<Works Cited>
Strout, Elizabeth. My Name Is Lucy Barton: a Novel. Random House, 2016.



“I guess we can’t just pick the good things to remember, can we?”: The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Saenz

“I guess we can’t just pick the good things to remember, can we?”: The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Saenz

“The thing is, I didn’t want to stop. I wanted to know what it felt like to be drunk. You want me to explain this with logic? Well, where was the logic to loving? Where was the logic to dying in accidents? Where was the logic to cancer? Where was the logic to living? I was starting to believe that the human heart had an inexplicable logic. But I was also starting to get drunk, so I wasn’t trusting anything I was thinking.”
-Salvador from The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Saenz

Do you know about the Sewol ferry disaster in South Korea? If you don’t, then check this link out: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinking_of_MV_Sewol

Just when I was finishing this book, my co-workers and I were talking about this incident. Something about the idea of “inexplicableness” of life that Benjamin Alire Saenz portrays in his novel seemed to click with the “inexplicableness” of the incident of the Sewol ferry disaster. That day, as my co-workers and I remembered the tragedy, and I was finishing Saenz’ novel, rain poured down all day from the sky, and I thought that the sky, too, must have been crying over the loss of many innocent lives.

This is something that always puzzles me. There are people in the world who commit horrendous crimes who get to live luxurious lives, while there are people who spend their lives working hard and trying to do good who never get what they truly deserve. We grow up, learning from our teachers that we need to work hard and do what is right. Why bother teaching kids this when the world doesn’t work this way? And, really, what kind of world do we live in? How can our world be explained “logically” and “sensibly”?

Salvador’s father, Vicente, is a gay man. He and Salvador’s mother had both been students at Columbia, and when Salvador’s mother realized she was going to die without anyone to look after her baby, she asked Vicente to look after him, and he agreed. That was how Vicente and Salvador’s mother were married. Even though Vicente is not Salvador’s biological father, Vicente loves Salvador and cares for him as if he were the biological father, and Salvador also loves Vicente as if he were his biological son. “Logically,” this situation is a teensy bit complicated to make sense, but that’s how it works in Salvador’s world.

Salvador shares a memory:
The sky had cleared after a summer storm. I’d been crying, and he (Vicente) tried to get me to smile. “Your eyes are the color of sky. Did you know that?” I don’t know why I remembered this. Maybe it was because I knew he was telling me he loved me.

There are many things in Salvador’s life that don’t make sense – his grandmother’s cancer, his best friend Samantha’s mother’s death, and his warm-hearted friend Fito and his cold-hearted family – but with the guidance of his father, he is able to take things one step at a time. Saenz’s novel made me wonder about the illogical, unfair, and inexplicable things that happen to people, and how, most of the time, people miraculously make it through. Who can possibly provide a logical explanation as to why Salvador’s grandmother had to die from cancer, or why Samantha’s mother had to die from a car crash? That day, before Samantha’s mother had died, she had written on the bathroom mirror with lipstick, “Just because my love isn’t perfect doesn’t mean I don’t love you,” a memory Samantha will carry with her always. Where is the logic to these things? And, what does it matter that Salvador’s dad isn’t his biological father? Who decides these things anyway? The more I think about the logic of things, the “certain things have to be done in these particular – a, b, c – ways,” the more unsure I become. The most hardworking, honest person can get killed in an unexpected accident. At the same time, the person who causes that accident can live a long and prosperous life, maybe not even remembering that he/she had caused a person’s death. There is no logic to many things that happen in our world.

Vicente had been there when Salvador’s mother gave birth to him, and so, really, from the very beginning, Vicente had loved Salvador with all of his heart. Vicente had always been there for Salvador, and when Vicente’s mother suffered from cancer and eventually passed away, Salvador had the chance to be there for his father. In one scene, the narrator describes the conversation between father and son:
I (Salvador) sat on his bed. “Dad?”
“I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”
“It’s hard,” he said. “Grief is a terrible and beautiful thing.”
“I don’t think it’s so beautiful.”
“The hurt means you loved someone. That you really loved someone.”
“Dad.” I reached for his hand. “I’m here, Dad. I mean, I’m really here.”
My dad took my hand. “This is a good hand,” he said. “A very good hand.”

Work Cited: Sáenz Benjamin Alire. The Inexplicable Logic of My Life. Clarion Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.

Even In This Ajumma’s Life: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Even In This Ajumma’s Life: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

“The big secret that he kept from his mother, aunt, and even his beloved uncle was that Noa did not believe in God anymore. God had allowed his gentle, kindhearted father to go to jail even though he had done nothing wrong. For two years, God had not answered Noa’s prayers, though his father had promised him that God listens very carefully to the prayers of children. Above all the other secrets that Noa could not speak of, the boy wanted to be Japanese; it was his dream to leave Ikaino and never to return.”
– Min Jin Lee

Korea and Japan have a complicated history. Growing up, I have heard many Korean people express their strong feelings against the Japanese, and I have also heard many Korean people say that history is history, and that there is no point in carrying the resentment for so long. For me, I do agree that what is past is past, but what angered me was hearing that the Japanese had changed history books so that the Japanese were learning false history rather than facing the truth of what actually happened. How interesting that, even though I have never known one single Japanese person in my life, I still am able to hold this sense of resentment.

My own complicated sentiments on this issue – which I haven’t thought of for such a long time – came up as I read Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. It was interesting to see the Korea-Japan relationship from multiple generations’ points of view. Just as an example, in the beginning, the narrator starts the story by saying, “History has failed us, but no matter” (63). What a powerful way to start a story. If your country is under the control of other, more powerful countries, and your identity becomes your own curse, then I think you have the right to believe that history has failed your people. To provide an example of the effect the Japanese control had on Koreans, Yoseb says:
…to every Korean he knew, Japan’s expanding war in Asia seemed senseless. China was not Korea; China was not Taiwan; China could lose a million people and still keep on. Pockets of it may fall, but it was an unfathomably vast nation; it would endure by sheer number and resolve. Did Koreans want Japan to win? Hell no, but what would happen to them if Japan’s enemies won? Could the Koreans save themselves? Apparently not. So save your own ass — this was what Koreans believed privately. Save your family. Feed your belly. Pay attention, and be skeptical of the people in charge. If the Korean nationalists couldn’t get their country back, then let your kids learn Japanese and try to get ahead. Adapt. Wasn’t it as simple as that? For every patriot fighting for a free Korea, or for any unlucky Korean bastard fighting on behalf of Japan, there were ten thousand compatriots on the ground and elsewhere who were just trying to eat. In the end, your belly was your emperor. (2609-2617)

For Noa, being Korean didn’t give him any advantages. None of these facts – that he was the top of his class, that he was a great athlete, and that he always kept himself clean – mattered much to others because he was a Korean living in Japan. When he finds out that his father, Isak Baek – whom he loved and admired, and who was a pastor – is not his real father, the truth makes him hate himself and his mother. He finds out that Isak Baek is not his real father when he realizes that Hansu Koh, the Korean yakuza, is his real father. That’s why Hansu had been paying for Noa’s tuition as well as room and board for Waseda University. When Noa confronts his mother, Sunja, about this, their relationship is destroyed. The fact is, Sunja had had to make tough choices, and she had done the best she could in an unfavorable situation. But in Noa’s point of view, his mother had made the worst choice possible. This is how their conversation goes:
“Noa,” Sunja said, “forgive me. Umma is sorry. I just wanted you to go to school. I know how much you wanted that. I know how hard you —” “You. You took my life away. I am no longer myself,” [Noa] said, pointing his finger at her. He turned around and walked back to the train. (4693-4695).

Sunja loses her son as a result of this discovery. Actually, she loses him twice. After he finds out the truth about his birth father, Noa quits university and manages to hide from his family, even though he sends them money regularly. He even becomes Japanese and raises a family, until the day his mother finds out where he works with the help of Hansu Koh. When he sees his mother, with Hansu Koh’s car nearby, he sends his mother away by making empty promises that he will call and visit. Then, he kills himself.

Amidst the Korean-Japanese tension that permeates the book, Lee brings into light the topic of what it means to be a woman dealing with these struggles. Through Sunja, a woman who is neither beautiful, nor particularly skilled, the narrator says:
All her life, Sunja had heard this sentiment from other women, that they must suffer — suffer as a girl, suffer as a wife, suffer as a mother — die suffering. Go-saeng (Korean word for “suffering”) — the word made her sick. What else was there besides this? (6167 – 6169).

When she had first started meeting Hansu, and they made love, Sunja had been too naive to suspect that Hansu was already married with a wife and three daughters in Japan. Instead, she waited for the next time Hansu would come. When she became pregnant and told Hansu, that was when he revealed to her that he already had a family. Sunja was lucky to have found Isak Baek, who, knowing her situation, was willing to marry her and to take care of the baby. In a complicated situation, Sunja did what she could, and she and Isak had Mozasu, Noa’s half-brother.

In the end, Lee closes this story of the generations of a family who miraculously survived through one of the toughest times in the history of their country by coming back to Sunja, the one who started this story as quietly as she ended it. After she buries the picture of her two sons next to the grave of Isak Baek, who had been more of a father-figure to them than Hansu Koh, she returns home, to where her sister-in-law, Kyunghee is waiting for her.  The narrator states:
“Beyond the dailiness, there had been moments of shimmering beauty and some glory, too, even in this ajumma’s life. Even if no one knew, it was true” (7092-7093).

Work Cited: Lee, Min Jin. Pachinko (National Book Award Finalist). Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.

“Everything breaks if you hit it hard enough”: The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti

“Everything breaks if you hit it hard enough”:
The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti

Do you believe in destiny, or fate that controls people’s lives? Why is it that some people can live “normal” “happy” lives, while others have to endure unfortunate circumstances and accidents that change their lives upside-down?

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti tells a story of Samuel Hawley, and his daughter, Loo. Their story does not start on a good note, and only gets worse as it goes on. Hawley and Loo have been constantly on the run, and Loo does not know why. There are many things Loo does not know about her past, including who her mother was, what she was like, and how she died. She does know that there are twelve scars on her father’s body from bullet wounds, and that he does not want to talk about them with her.

At one point, Hawley is by himself at a motel while his daughter is staying at her grandmother’s house. The narrator says:

The room was splattered with red. What a mess he’d made, Hawley thought. He wished he could erase his entire life, starting with his father’s death and then every step that had led him here to this crap motel room, every bullet, every twisted turn of the road he’d followed — even meeting Lily, even having Loo. Hawley wanted it all gone. (321)

It was painful to read this scene, including what followed before and after. As a reader, I completely understand why Hawley wishes he could erase his entire life. By erasing his life, Hawley wants to erase all of his faults. But I wonder how valid it would be to blame Hawley for everything that happened. For me, Hawley seems more of a victim of the events that happened, rather than the perpetrator. There must have been moments in the beginning when Hawley could have stopped, but who is to say that things would have been different for Hawley afterward? I wonder if things happened to Hawley because (maybe) that was his fate. While my life is so painfully normal, Hawley’s life has never been normal. By the time Loo grows up to be a young woman, the life that she and her father lead is filled with so many secrets and history that they seem to live in a world completely of their own.   

Later in the book, Loo says to Hawley, “This isn’t your fault, Dad” (338). To which Hawley responds, “It is…Everything that’s happened and is happening and is going to happen” (338).
Loo wants her father to know that she doesn’t blame him, but Hawley already blames himself for everything, as he has been doing so for many years. That is exactly why Hawley is now trying to fix things. I wonder who is more right in this conversation. I think Loo is right in that, sometimes, things just happen in life that we do not and cannot anticipate. But as Hawley says, we do hold responsibility over the choices we make in life, and these choices in turn cause consequences. But could Hawley’s life – and Loo’s life as a result – have been different?

Earlier in the book, when Loo realizes that she and her father have to move once again, she goes to pick up her last paycheck at the Sawtooth. There she meets Gunderson, who, back when he was young, had been in love with Loo’s mother. As the narrator describes:

The paper was heavy and thick beneath her fingers, like an announcement or an invitation.
(Loo) “I didn’t mean to screw everything up.”
(Gunderson) “Nobody ever does.” (337)

Gunderson also gives Loo an extra $100, almost as though he is giving her a blessing before she and her father set off once more on the road.

And Gunderson is right. Nobody ever means to screw up. Including Hawley, and including us.


Work Cited:
Tinti, Hannah. The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley: A Novel. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.