If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim

109E7C7A-C34F-4CBA-AD1C-86315A297A24If You Leave Me was The Stacks Book Club pick this week on the podcast. We discussed the book in detail with author of The Ensemble, Aja Gabel. If you want to hear that full episode, click here, but be warned there are plenty of spoilers throughout our conversation. If you’ve not read the book, but want to hear more about it, check out our first ever episode of The Short Stacks (mini episodes focused on authors and their writing processes) featuring the author of If You Leave Me, Crystal Hana Kim. Listen here, and no spoilers.

Here is more about If You Leave Me

An emotionally riveting novel about war, family, and forbidden love—the unforgettable saga of two ill-fated lovers in Korea and the heartbreaking choices they’re forced to make in the years surrounding the civil war.

When the communist-backed army from the north invades her home, sixteen-year-old Haemi Lee, along with her widowed mother and ailing brother, is forced to flee to a refugee camp along the coast. For a few hours each night, she escapes her family’s makeshift home and tragic circumstances with her childhood friend, Kyunghwan.

Focused on finishing school, Kyunghwan doesn’t realize his older and wealthier cousin, Jisoo, has his sights set on the beautiful and spirited Haemi—and is determined to marry her before joining the fight. But as Haemi becomes a wife, then a mother, her decision to forsake the boy she always loved for the security of her family sets off a dramatic saga that will have profound effects for generations to come.


What I appreciated most about If You Leave Me is how patient Crystal Hana Kim is with her reader. She allows us the space and time to luxuriate and unpack her novel. The book layers issues, one on top of the other. Kim gives us realistic struggles that are intertwined and complex, subtle and subdued, instead of hammering us over the head with “themes” and “imagery”. In reading this book, you feel the respect Kim gives her characters, and you the reader. She  is entrusting us with her stories. The book is bleak, almost relentlessly so. It doesn’t feel so sad in the reading, but after, you’re hit with the heaviness of what you’ve just read, and what it all means.

If You Leave Me is a story of war and so much more than war, and If You Leave Me illustrates the depth of human struggle and triumph that surrounds war. These little moments that are both monumental and common. Mental illness and distress is a major thread in this book, and Kim isn’t heavy handed. She methodically illustrates grief and depression, allowing the pain to unfold. Kim is barely there. You understand, but she never says it, he characters do not have the words. The same goes for feminism, survivors guilt, and so much more. Kim shows us, but never tells.

The book is told through the eyes of five narrators, and this too is expertly done. Our guides through this narrow landscape age and grow. They change before our eyes, the events her hear about shape them. People I once rooted for were , become reprehensible. You are shown glimpses of these people. This format works to give us a more complete picture of the world without explanation.

While I quiet enjoyed If You Leave Me, it did slow down at points for me. There were moments of  extreme pain, or pleasure, or revelation, and then moments where I felt the momentum stalled out. They never lasted long, but I could sense the absence of movement. The words remained beautiful, but the story dimmed.

This is a book you read in a few days; in front of a fire, on a vacation, uninterrupted. The premise is unlike anything I’ve read, but the story itself feels familiar and accessible. I loved the writing and the simplicity, but also the depth of topics that were woven throughout this book. If you love a rich story with developed characters and plenty of emotion, this is your book. This is the first novel by Crystal Hana Kim, and I look forward to whatever is next from her.

Don’t forget to listen to the The Stacks with Aja Gabel discussing If You Leave Me

Hear The Short Stacks conversation with author, Crystal Hana Kim

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • PublisherWilliam Morrow (August 7, 2018)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy on If You Leave Me Amazon

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page. We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of this show. If you prefer to do a one time contribution go to paypal.me/thestackspod.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs. We receive a small commission when products are purchased through links on this website, and this comes at no cost to you. Shopping through these links helps support the show, but does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

Ep. 36 If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim — The Stacks Book Club (Aja Gabel)

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Author Aja Gabel is back for The Stacks Book Club conversation this week. We’re discussing If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim. The book follows one woman, Haemi Lee, her life and relationships during and in the years following the Korean War. Our conversation covers what it means to survive, feminism, war stories, and more. There are spoilers this week, but if you want to get to know If You Leave Me better without spoilers, listen to our first episode of The Short Stacks feature Crystal Hana Kim.

LISTEN NOW

Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Podcasts | Overcast | Stitcher

Everything we talk about on today’s episode can be found below in the show notes and on Bookshop.org and Amazon.

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Connect with Aja: Website | Instagram | Twitter
Connect with The Stacks: Instagram | Twitter | Shop | Patreon | Goodreads | Subscribe

To support The Stacks and find out more from this week’s sponsors, click here.

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page. We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of this show. If you prefer to do a one time contribution go to paypal.me/thestackspod.


The Stacks participates in affiliate programs. We receive a small commission when products are purchased through links on this website, and this comes at no cost to you. Shopping through these links helps support the show, but does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

Ep. 35 Prodigies, Time Machines, and Beautiful Writing with Aja Gabel

This week on The Stacks our guest is author Aja Gabel. Aja’s debut novel, The Ensemble, came out in 2018, and she talks with us about writing her book, cover design, which writers inspire her, and why she got a PhD in creative writing. We also talk music prodigies and time machines, which is to say, we talk about a little of everything.

LISTEN NOW

Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Podcasts | Overcast | Stitcher

Everything we talk about on today’s episode can be found below in the show notes and on Bookshop.org and Amazon.

BOOKS

EVERYTHING ELSE

Connect with Aja: Website | Instagram | Twitter
Connect with The Stacks: Instagram | Twitter | Shop | Patreon | Goodreads | Subscribe

To support The Stacks and find out more from this week’s sponsors, click here.

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page. We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of this show. If you prefer to do a one time contribution go to paypal.me/thestackspod.


The Stacks participates in affiliate programs. We receive a small commission when products are purchased through links on this website, and this comes at no cost to you. Shopping through these links helps support the show, but does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights by Kenji Yoshino

A0C03263-3AE9-4F0F-8046-13CEA93858A3I am lucky to have really smart and interesting friends, and they often share smart and interesting books with me. Thats how Covering found its way into my life. Here is a little more about this book:

Everyone covers. To cover is to downplay a disfavored trait so as to blend into the mainstream. Because all of us possess stigmatized attributes, we all encounter pressure to cover in our daily lives. Racial minorities are pressed to “act white” by changing their names, languages, or cultural practices. Women are told to “play like men” at work. Gays are asked not to engage in public displays of same-sex affection. The devout are instructed to minimize expressions of faith, and individuals with disabilities are urged to conceal the paraphernalia that permit them to function. Given its pervasiveness, we may experience this pressure to be a simple fact of social life.

Against conventional understanding, Kenji Yoshino argues that the work of American civil rights law will not be complete until it attends to the harms of coerced conformity. Though we have come to some consensus against penalizing people for differences based on race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, and disability, we still routinely deny equal treatment to people who refuse to downplay differences along these lines. 

At the same time, Yoshino is responsive to the American exasperation with identity politics, which often seems like an endless parade of groups asking for state and social solicitude. He observes that the ubiquity of covering provides an opportunity to lift civil rights into a higher, more universal register. Since we all experience the covering demand, we can all make common cause around a new civil rights paradigm based on our desire for authenticity—a desire that brings us together rather than driving us apart.

There are books that come into your life and change the way you understand your own identity and place in society. For me, this is one of those books. I have always been familiar with the concepts of passing, code switching, and assimilation, but had never heard of covering until starting this book. Yoshino does a masterful job of articulating the subtleties and nuances of covering. He clearly explains and gives examples to illustrate what it is, how it functions, and why it can be harmful (and at times helpful).

Something that makes this book unique is that Yoshino mixes his own personal stories of covering, both with his identtity as a homosexual and a Japanese American, with case law from his life as a law professor at Yale. We see covering as both something specific to the author and a much bigger part of the national conversation. While this book is focused on American law and experiences, it is easy to see that covering can be universal. While I generally dislike when an author of nonfiction tries to incorporate memoir, I think for the purposes of this book, it really works. The writing is so smart and nuanced, the parallels to his private life and the world of the courts seem well matched.

It is refreshing to watch as someone work through complicated issues of sexuality, race, gender, ableness etc., with a sense of compassion and a rigorous commitment to critical thinking. One particularly wonderful moment comes up during his discussion on the demands of covering as it pertains to women. Yoshino checks his own privilege and lens of maleness, pulling back to note how he may miss covering demands that women face. This self-awareness gave me as a reader an even deeper confidence in his point of view.

The book does lose some of it’s clarity toward the end as Yoshino looks toward the future of civil rights. He gets caught up a little in that vision, and I could have done without a lot of the ending. I understand why he speculated, but I’m not sure it was needed. This book was published in 2006, and so with 12 years of knowledge that Yoshino didn’t have at the time about the United States, some of his predictions felt wildly and naively optimistic (but I again have the luxury of hindsight).

Covering  is not a definitive text on assimilation or discrimination, it is more of a starter kit for anyone interested in understanding the more subtle world of marginalized people and the behaviors they exhibit to get by. While there are times that Yoshino seems to be flexing his massive vocabulary muscle, for the most part this is a straightforward and accessible read. There is a lot to learn from this book. I would suggest it to folks who are interested in human behavior as it pertains to discrimination and civil rights. This is great option, for teenagers going off to college or starting work after high school.

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; First Edition edition (January 17, 2006)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy Covering on Amazon

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/thestacks). We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of The Stacks.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.