03 June 2014

I really wanted to like this. Turns out, I am extremely upset by the fact that I just did not. I'm harsh, but I can't sugarcoat. Usually, if I don't like something, I'll keep my comments honest but brief. In this case, I'm more comfortable bluntly expressing my dissatisfaction. 

Lately, I have been drawn to more diverse authors and story lines, and that's probably as a result of recent BEA sloppiness in selections for author panels. Forgotten Country, for all its promise in synopsis, just didn't meet the mark for me, and for several reasons. I tried to isolate if it was the story itself, the narrator, or both, and I'm confident it came down to both, but primarily the narrator. Reader be warned: Keep in mind that this is MY opinion only. Another listener/reader may connect with this much better than I did. I encourage you to Google the book and you'll find that most reviews are highly flattering, but I would cautiously recommend that it's likely a book better read than listened to. Always do your research to get a more well-rounded overview. For me, I just feel let down.

The promise in the story lies in the description which immediately pulled me in. "On the night Janie waits for her sister Hannah to be born, her grandmother tells her a story: Since the Japanese occupation of Korea, their family has lost a daughter in every generation, so Janie is charged with keeping Hannah safe." Curiously intriguing, especially when you know that Hannah does eventually disappear from the family.

There are two levels to this story. At its surface, two first generation Korean-American sisters come to America at a young age and later on, the older sister must find the younger sister who has disappeared. Both are now in college, but the younger sister's disappearance occurs at the most crucial time for the family, as the father has developed cancer and the prognosis is devastating. Traveling back to Korea to get treatment that isn't being done in the States is the only solution, so Janie and her parents leave without Hannah. It becomes Janie's responsibility to find Hannah and bring her to her father.

At the core of it is a complex and rather naive battle of ignorance, nonchalance, mostly laziness, particularly on the main character, Janie's, part. I must admit I was the most frustrated with her complete lack of common sense, not to mention her inability to just do what was right, instead of always layering ridiculous rationalizations, one after another. If I had to create a metaphor for this: Was she in a car, strapped in and always idling in neutral? When she would make a decision, it was always in the wrong direction, but again and again, she piled on excuses that even she knew were false, but it didn't matter. She still did it. Or didn't do it. In fact, the story felt like it came down to a series of moments in which Janie questions herself: Should I, shouldn't I; would I, could I; the end. That's the crux of it and I can't be plainer about it. There was so much more that I wanted. And for those who have read it, what was that random thing with her adviser? Huh?

But I wonder if the story itself, which most reviewers enjoyed, was lost in the audio experience. Would I have read it differently, applying a voice that didn't always sound so jumbled and confused? The narrator just didn't live up to initial expectations. The biggest annoyance was that she chose a voice for the father, a man with a courageous backstory, at a pitch so much higher than even his own daughters had when they were younger. He sounded perplexed, confused, pathetically hopeful, and ultimately weak. Honestly, with what he had to deal with throughout life, I expected a much stronger and thoughtful voice, who only becomes weakened by cancer, but still maintains his fortitude. I don't know why he was voiced in such a high, feminine tone. Come to think of it, I would have been annoyed even if a woman was voiced in this same pitch.

All in all, it could have been an interesting tale. Reflecting back on it now, I think I would have been much more interested in the story told from the perspective of the parents, instead of the annoying older daughter. I was fascinated with the history in Korea when her parents were younger and found them to be the most important characters. However, the father's voice would chime in and it was so high-pitched, I had to steel myself to continue to listen.

FTC Disclosure: I purchased and downloaded this from Audible.com

Publisher: AudioGO
Release Date: 3/1/12
Audio Time: 9 hours
Narrator: Emily Woo Zeller

About the Author (from her website)
Catherine Chung is the recipient of a 2014 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Creative Writing, a Granta New Voice, and a fiction editor at Guernica Magazine. She is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Adelphi University, and currently lives in New York City.

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About the Narrator (from her website)
Emily Woo Zeller is an award-winning audiobook narrator, voiceover artist, actor, singer, dancer, and choreographer. Audiofile Magazine named Emily as one of the “Best Voices of 2013″ for her work Nonfiction and Culture. Awards include Audiofile’s August 2013 Earphones Award for narration of TIES THAT BIND, TIES THAT BREAK by Leslie Namioka, April 2013 Earphones Award for narration of GULP by Mary Roach, the 2009 Tristen Award for Best Actress as Sally Bowles in CABARET, and the 2006 Roselyn E. Schneider Prize for Creative Achievement.

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  1. Ah, that's too bad. A narrator can make or break a story for me.

  2. I'll admit it. I've stopped listening to an audio book if the narrator's voice isn't pleasing to my ear. It sounds, though, like this book has other issues ...

  3. One of my pet hates is when the voice does not match the character, or when it is so irritating that you can't stand to listen!!


  4. Not sure how I missed this review earlier but I just wanted to say, that if you didn't like it, then I would certainly hope you'd let us know! I hate it when bloggers gloss over a real stink bomb by being too nice. Thanks for being genuine ;) Kiss the baby for me!

  5. The book itself sounds frustrating, but the audio definitely sounds a bad choice in the acting stakes. It's a pity that that is 'able' to be a reason to put you off a book - you'd think they'd work hard at making it not be so.