© 2024 KALW 91.7 FM Bay Area
KALW Public Media / 91.7 FM Bay Area
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The stories in 'Green Frog' are wildly entertaining and wonderfully diverse


Gina Chung's Green Frog is a fantastic medley of short stories that dance between literary fiction, fable, Korean folklore, and science fiction.

Wildly entertaining, wonderfully diverse, and always delivered with a superb understanding of pacing and economy of language, the stories in this collection are full of emotional intelligence but also prove Chung isn't afraid to explore what genre mixing can do for short narratives.

Writing about collections is always tricky because not every story can fit into a review. In the case of Green Frog, where none of the 15 stories are mediocre, it's even more difficult. Thankfully, there are some tales that demand individual attention. "How to Eat Your Own Heart," which kicks off the collection, offers a set of instructions to cut your heart out of your chest, prepare it, and eat in a way that will lead to its regrowth. Strangely funny and a tad unsettling, this one establishes the tone for the stories that follow.

In "After the Party," a woman contemplates marriage and the universe, while feeling the weight of things that could happen, or that never did. "Rabbit Heart," which condenses a woman's long-distance relationship with her grandmother and their reunion right before the elderly woman's death, is the first of a few tales that explore otherness and dig deep into the experiences of the Korean diaspora.

"Presence," one of the crowning jewels of this book, is a unique science-fiction narrative about the power of memories that also contains elements of horror. A woman who helped developed a way of storing away bad memories — something she and her husband, who was also her boss, always thought of as helpful — is haunted by a dark presence. After visiting a retreat, she understands the way in which we are the sum of all our memories. Some of the same elements are present in "Attachment Processes," a story about a couple who acquire a robot with the personality and memories of the teenage daughter they lost in a car accident. The young girl isn't their daughter; she's a product they purchase from a company that aims "to reconstruct the deceased using the most sophisticated artificial-intelligence and consciousness-upload techniques." However, she looks exactly like their dead daughter when she was younger and eventually becomes a vessel that can hold the love they have to give as well as a constant reminder that death is the end of life but not the end of our feelings. These two stories, which seem to be in conversation with each other, are only two of many that do the same, which gives the collection a wonderful sense of cohesion.

Many stories in Green Frog feature Koreans or Korean Americans and talk about Korean food or how learning the language is important, and sometimes a challenge, for those not living in Korea. In "Human Hearts," Chung goes deep into Korean folktale territory to deliver a story about a kumiho — a shapeshifting creature also known as the nine-tailed fox — that's tasked with avenging her own sister and learns to step away from her mother's shadow in the process. Some of the same elements — growing up, finding your own way in life, and the effects of offspring being forced to scrutinize their relationship to their parents — are also present in "The Sound of Water," which follows a young man still living at home who has convinced himself that his life is the way it is because his parents need him, gets to the core of small-town life through a Korean lens and even touches on anti-Asian sentiment.

Mixed in with these longer, more multilayered stories are shorter ones that are also memorable because of their topic or main character. "Mantis," for example, is about the love life of the insect that gives the story its title. Another standout is "The Arrow," which explores the way we can learn to understand our parents only after life has put us in a bad place. Lastly, in "You'll Never Know How Much I Loved You," another story that focuses on a grandmother-granddaughter relationship, Chung looks at how it's easier to dish out advice than to apply it to ourselves.

Chung is a keen observer of the human condition who is unafraid to tackle difficult themes like growing up, abandoning our dreams and settling, grief, being an outsider, and the complexities of multiculturalism and its impact on those who are caught between two cultures and thus never feel like they fully belong to either. However, she's also a talented storyteller who can easily take her deep messages and wrap them in entertaining, emotionally resonant short fiction. The fabulist takes and great writing make Green Frog a great collection, but the way Chung works feminism and otherness, while almost always centering Korean or Korean American woman, is what makes this a must read.

Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on X, formerly Twitter, at @Gabino_Iglesias.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.