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May 22, 2009

Book Notes - Sung J. Woo ("Everything Asian")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Like many readers today I am drawn to immigrant fiction, but too often the books rely on tired cliches and/or uninspired storytelling. Thankfully, that is not the case with Sung J. Woo's exceptional debut novel, Everything Asian. Woo's interconnected stories capture the reality of the immigrant experience while also exploring the Kims' dysfunctional family, often through the honest eyes of young son David. Woo's portrait of 80's suburban New Jersey strip mall culture (told from South Korean immigrants' perspective) is one of the year's most surprising novels, the rare book that left me yearning for a sequel.

The Christian Science Monitor wrote of the book:

"While Woo is writing an immigrant coming-of-age tale, the emotions and sheer messiness of the Kims’ home life will resonate with anyone in possession of a relative. And while bad ‘80s fashion (and was there any other kind?) is always a reliable target, Woo’s novel has a tenderness underlying the humor and his characters are complicatedly human."

In his own words, here is Sung J. Woo's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, Everything Asian:

My debut novel Everything Asian takes place in the early 80’s, which is familiar territory for me as I spent my teenage years listening to the likes of Dexys Midnight Runners and Naked Eyes. But I’m getting ahead of myself. In the beginning, when I arrived in the States in 1981 from South Korea, I couldn’t speak the language at all, so music wasn’t yet a part of my life.

The situation is similar in my somewhat autobiographical novel: twelve-year-old David Kim, fresh off the plane, has to learn to adjust to life in the United States before he can lose himself between a pair of headphones. So the first two songs on this playlist may be a bit...different.

"Diff'rent Strokes" – written and sung by Alan Thicke

Now, the world don't move to the beat of just one drum
What might be right for you, may not be right for some

This was one of two comedy shows I enjoyed as a kid, and back then, most sitcoms not only had songs, they had lyrics, too. Interesting that one of the writers, Alan Thicke, became a sitcom star himself (playing the father in “Growing Pains”).

Anyway, there’s a scene in my novel where David fantasizes about this show:

If only I could jump into television and join the Drummonds – I could fit right in as the Korean orphan boy who saves Arnold’s life when he’s surrounded by a gang of nogoodniks in the heart of Koreatown. There I would be, named Chu or Ping, karate-chopping the hell out of the thugs and having Arnold say his catchphrase: “Whatchoo talkin’ about, Chu?”

I can almost hear the canned laughter.

"Three's Company" – written by Joe Raposo, sung by Ray Charles and Julia Rinker

Come and knock on our door
We've been waiting for you

This was the other show that was a must-watch for me, and what I say about it in the book is pretty much from the heart:

We were both fond of the sitcom Three’s Company, mainly due to John Ritter’s physical comedy. It reminded us of the variety shows we used to watch in Korea, where the humor of the body dominated over the humor of the word. Actors were always falling down, slipping on something, though never on banana peels because bananas were very expensive and slipping on one would hardly be funny.

Whenever I hear the theme song, I can instantly recall the matching video, of John Ritter riding his bicycle and tripping as his eyes chase after a scantily-clad bombshell walking by. It still saddens me that Ritter died so young. I guess he wasn’t James Dean or Grace Kelly young, but he wasn’t exactly George Burns old, either.

That’s not the Ray Charles, by the way – he’s just another musician who shares the same name.

"Blue Monday" - New Order

How does it feel
To treat me like you do

My book begins with an attempted suicide by David’s sister Sue, or, as the narrator puts it, “merely a stunt to gain attention,” so a song like “Blue Monday,” which refers to Ian Curtis’s death, seems appropriate. Even though it’s probably New Order’s most famous song, I don’t love it (though I am a huge fan of New Order, bar none my most favorite band). For me, “Love Less” on Technique is as perfect as a song can get. But that’s enough about New Order...back to the book.

"Blue in Green" - Miles Davis and Bill Evans

In an earlier draft, I flash forward to David Kim in college, where he hears this piece for the first time. It’s not a pleasant memory for David, as it’s the song he remembers hearing when his parents were arguing in the car, their marriage teetering on the brink of the ledge on the tip of the precipice of the iceberg, if you get my mixed-metaphor drift. I was advised to cut this bit out of the novel, and it turned out to be the right move, because I gained very little from pushing the timeframe forward. (Unlike, say, the last two seasons of Lost.)

The other reason why I wanted to put “Blue and Green” on this playlist is because I listened to it a lot while I wrote the novel (all of Kind of Blue, for that matter). I’m one of these people who either has to work in total silence or with instrumentals; lyrics have always distracted me. A trio of other songs that kept me sane:

"My Foolish Heart" - Bill Evans
"Stadium" - Seth Kaufman
“Sundrops” – Transformer 2

I can listen to Bill Evans all day long. Seth Kaufman wrote “Stadium” and many more on The Blue Light while he was still an undergrad. And Transformer 2 has nothing to do with Autobots or Decepticons but rather classic Belgian techno, circa 1994, but that’s a whole different story, for another time.

Sung J. Woo and Everything Asian links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book (PDF link)

asianamlitfans review
BookDragon review
Christian Science Monitor review
Emerging Writers Network review
Publishers Weekly review

Backstory guest post by the author
New York Times essay by the author
New York Times Magazine essay by the author
The Page 69 test for the book

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks

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