Thursday, May 12, 2016


Shelter, Jung Yun, Picador, 2016, 326 pp
Installment #4 in the tale of my April reading slump, in which I start digging out with some difficulty.
Summary from Goodreads: Kyung Cho is a young father burdened by a house he can’t afford. For years, he and his wife, Gillian, have lived beyond their means. Now their debts and bad decisions are catching up with them, and Kyung is anxious for his family’s future.

A few miles away, his parents, Jin and Mae, live in the town’s most exclusive neighborhood, surrounded by the material comforts that Kyung desires for his wife and son. Growing up, they gave him every possible advantage—private tutors, expensive hobbies—but they never showed him kindness. Kyung can hardly bear to see them now, much less ask for their help. Yet when an act of violence leaves Jin and Mae unable to live on their own, the dynamic suddenly changes, and he’s compelled to take them in. For the first time in years, the Chos find themselves living under the same roof. Tensions quickly mount as Kyung’s proximity to his parents forces old feelings of guilt and anger to the surface, along with a terrible and persistent question: how can he ever be a good husband, father, and son when he never knew affection as a child?
My Review:
I reached the rock bottom of my reading slump with Gutshot. April was going into the third week and I had only finished four short books. Shelter was next on the reading plan but I had some time before I had to start it in order to meet my review deadline at Litbreak. Most of all, I was desperate to read something I wanted to read instead of a book for a reading group, a review, or with an upcoming due date at the library.
I walked to my bookshelves and looked at a stack called (in my imagination) Books I Really Want To Read Soon and saw Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin, a 688 page paperback with minuscule type that had been in that stack for months. I threw all caution and discipline away and started reading. It was wonderful, amazing, just what I had been longing for! Alas, it turned out to be a book to savor, to read slowly, taking in each delicious sentence.
Several days and less than 200 pages later, I had to face reality and pick up Shelter, so more about Winter's Tale when it gets its own review.
Fortunately Jung Yun's debut novel reads like one of the vodka and Orangina cocktails I love to drink at Happy Hour. Before you know it, you are done. I finished the book in two days. Unfortunately I am nearly the only person on the planet who didn't love it.
All of the elements are there: son of Korean immigrants in Boston, abusive childhood, unbelievably violent event, failing marriages, economic stress, and that terrible disaster-in-the-making when your parents have to move in with your grown-up self.
I could see why it was such a 4 or 5 star book for many readers. My trouble was that the story felt too much like a cliche to me. One of those novels like Jodi Picoult writes, full of issues and people who are trying to appear normal and successful but are actually broken and dysfunctional. One of those books full of contemporary family angst that could easily be a hip TV serial on a cool cable channel.
I know I am being a snob, but immigrant lit in the 21st century has gotten to be a predictable genre for me. For example, Celeste Ng's Everything I Never Told You; well-written with emotional heft but somehow just too carefully told.
The bar was set for me by Chang-rae Lee's Native Speaker and Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Novels where life is beyond all control and the characters and plot are larger than life and the authors force you to see how really awful life can be.
I didn't review Shelter for Litbreak. I have a thing when I review for someone else's publication, presumably seen by more people than the ones who follow this blog or my Goodreads page. If I write about a novel in that context, I want to feel exuberant about it and tell the world I do.
I moved on, picked another book, made my deadline, then finished Winter's Tale. You will read all about that in my next few posts. 
(Shelter is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 


  1. Wow! I've read glowing reviews about Shelter. Could it be that you are not inclined towards that genre? I know I am not.

    1. Actually I usually love immigrant stories. Like the other two I mentioned in my review. Just not this one so much.

  2. As you tell it, the plot does seem a bit formulaic and cliched and a typical tale of immigrant struggles. Been there, read that already. I strongly agree that after reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao immigrant lit has to have something special to make the grade with me.

    1. I am always thrilled to find another reader who appreciated Oscar Wao!

  3. My dear Judy... I am willing to read reviews on books you truly love. Not what you are "forced" to read in a book club. Well that said, I'm not familiar with the book clubs, as you know, I don't attend any. For me, the choice of a book is personal and reading go hand in hand... I'm positive that in your bookshelf you have great treasures waiting to be explored. :-)))
    Anyway, this is once more a fabulous review even though it is not my cup of tea. :-(
    I wish you a nice weekend. Me, I'm sick with the flu. Thanks God it's bank holiday this Monday. And will continue reading your book suggestion "Sister Carrie" LOVE IT

    1. Get well soon and enjoy your reading time!

  4. Your Jodi Picoult paragraph is pretty priceless. I have avoided her for those reasons! But I might eventually get to Shelter as a quick thing. I'm actually liking TC Boyle's Tortilla Curtain right now which is an immigrant story -- slightly like a cross between Bonfire of the Vanities and House of Sand and Fog. But I'm nowhere near done with it ... so I read on

    1. Oh I am glad at least one person isn't upset with me for dissing Picoult. I saw on your BEA post that T C Boyle has a new book coming out this year. Yay!