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The Magical Language of Others

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3.88  ·  Rating details ·  1,752 ratings  ·  329 reviews
The Magical Language of Others is a powerful and aching love story in letters, from mother to daughter. After living in America for over a decade, Eun Ji Koh’s parents return to South Korea for work, leaving fifteen-year-old Eun Ji and her brother behind in California. Overnight, Eun Ji finds herself abandoned and adrift in a world made strange by her mother’s absence. Her ...more
Hardcover, 209 pages
Published January 7th 2020 by Tin House Books (first published January 6th 2020)
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Jenifer Greenwell I agree - I can read the back of a book as well as anyone. I can also read the Goodreads / Publisher's blurbs about the book. I try and post why I lik…moreI agree - I can read the back of a book as well as anyone. I can also read the Goodreads / Publisher's blurbs about the book. I try and post why I like a book - short and sweet.(less)
Richard No, it relies on a written narrative.

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Jesse (JesseTheReader)
Wow this ended up being heavier than I expected to be when it comes to the content explored. (Triggers for eating disorders & suicide) I can't say that I loved the way in which this book was written as at times I found it to be a little disjointed. Despite that though the story still packed a punch as we see how Eun Ji overcame all the difficulties she was confronted with. I love the fact that she ended up finding a safety net through writing poetry. Eun Ji's story is built up on a very complica ...more
Olive Fellows (abookolive)
Jan 09, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: olr-reviews, memoir
The below review originally appeared on Open Letters Review.

Nearly every teen girl has probably had their own Home Alone fantasy at least once. As one’s age ticks upward, so does the restlessness for independence, particularly from one’s mother. She’s embarrassing. She’s restrictive. She seems out to make you unhappy. But like Kevin McCallister’s startling realization, it’s only when that figure is truly absent that a child begins to understand the power of a parent’s presence.

E.J. Koh didn’t ha
...more
Nenia ✨️ Socially Awkward Trash Panda ✨️ Campbell

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THE MAGICAL LANGUAGE OF OTHERS is a very short book that packs a punch. In it, E.J. Koh describes her parents taking a fantastic job opportunity in Korea that meant her and her brother (both teenagers) living alone in Davis, CA for three years. She also writes about her grandmother's life, and how she flouted the conventions of her time while also being oppressed by them. In addition, Koh writes about her own coming of age as an adult, a
...more
David
Mar 31, 2020 rated it really liked it
At 15 EJ suddenly finds herself moving in with her older 19 year old brother in California. Her father has accepted a lucrative position back in South Korea and EJ's mother and father have planned a return without them. This return means they will be "well paid, confident with tall backs from splendored living." Meanwhile what was to be a brief contract and separation goes from 2 years to 9 years away. In that time, abandoned by her parents, EJ skips school, develops an eating disorder and consi ...more
Kate
Nov 04, 2020 rated it really liked it
4/5stars

A uniquely told and beautiful memoir
Christy
The Magical Language of Others is a story of memories. Much of this memoir is translated letters that Eun Ji received from her mother after her parents moved off to South Korea. Eun Ji and her brother were left completely alone in California. The mother's letters are littered with guilt about the abandonment, yet she never comes back for her daughter who isn't even an adult yet. They promised two years and then her father continues to sign renewal contracts for many more years. Her mother is als ...more
steph | 李子敏
"You don't have to forgive your mother. I'm not telling you to forgive her. But the poem must forgive her, or the poem must forgive you for not. Otherwise, it's not a poem."


Magnanimity, a willingness to forgive. Memoirs are supposed to be personal. But reading The Magical Language of Others was like looking through a window into another person's life, and seeing my own reflection smudged against the glass. I never thought I'd read a book where I felt so clearly seen. I cherished and will continu
...more
Lisa (Remarkablylisa)
Sep 27, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: september-2020
Something different from what I imagined. Raw and real. Trigger warning: anorexia, depression, death.
Renata
Feb 21, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: stand-alone
2’5

“The world is a fun place. We are not born to win or lose against others. I am here to be happy for myself.

– An elephant does not think its trunk is heavy. If that is one’s (destiny, fate) and (responsibility), there is no weight, but rather, importance.

– What we see changes according to what we look for.
– God (disciplines, trains) humans by using time, not by cracking (a switch).

– In any suffering, happiness is crouched inside. We just don’t know where good and bad reside.

– If you love you
...more
Kinga
Feb 29, 2020 rated it it was ok
“My parents didn’t give me happiness,” I said. “But they set me free. They gave me freedom.”


Again, the pretty cover tricked me. I wanted to like this so much!

But sadly, I just couldn’t get used to this style. It wasn’t poorly written but still, something was amiss. The storyline itself, too, was all over the place and only the letters kept it all together; although they, too, were unrelevant at times.

Despite these, though, the story itself very much resonated with me. My father also wanted t
...more
Bina Bhakta
Jan 25, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2020-tbr
Beautifully written. Definitely will need a few years to process this book 😭
Greg Barbee
Jan 09, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Magnanimity. It has been several years since a book compelled me to stay awake into the wee hours of the morning finishing it, and yet E.J. Koh’s extraordinary, magnanimous memoir, The Magical Language of Others, did just that. Eun Ji’s recounting of her relationship with her mother and family over the last 20 or so years exhibits power and grace in poetic (not surprising, given her experience and success as a poet) prose.

I particularly enjoyed the description of Eun Ji’s recounting of her exper
...more
Sha
Jul 10, 2020 added it
No rating because its a memoir

TW: harassment, depression, self harm, suicide attempts, suicidal thoughts, eating disorders, spouse abuse, child negligence, child abandonment, horrible parents, like really horrible, parents guilt tripping their children, violence, mentions of war, mentions of murder, hallucinations (?), Trauma, cheating, etc....

I think these trigger warnings are good enough proof that reading this made me uncomfortable and extremely angry.....

This felt like exposing generational
...more
Anna
Jan 26, 2020 rated it it was ok
I was drawn to this book by the premise but also by the beautiful cover art.

It was hard to engage with in the beginning and after realizing that the author has a background in poetry, it started to make sense.

The strengths of this book are any section where the author talks about the past -- particularly when she describes the history of her grandparents.

The weaknesses of the book are that the timeline was wonky and disorienting. Also, any section with dialog (especially dialog with the author'
...more
Janet
Dec 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: arc, love-the-cover
This remarkable little book stirred up such heavy emotion within me. You'd quickly realize Koh is a poet, even without reading so in her bio. The way she frames her story, the words she picks, that intimate connection she makes with you in less than 200 pages, the honest biting beauty in all of it, ahhh, I'm still gushing over this book. 5 brilliant stars. ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ ...more
Natalie (CuriousReader)
Sep 18, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-to-get
While memoirs are published in the hundreds each year, there’s always a few sticking out from the genre-forms’ confinements. Eun Ji Koh’s The Magical Language of Others is one such book, rather reading like poetry along the lines of Han Kang’s White Book blending with autobiography and unsung voices, inherited memories, and stories.

Full Review: https://curiousreaderr.wordpress.com/...
...more
Lynda
Dec 01, 2019 rated it really liked it
Many thanks to the publisher (Tin House) for the advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

This book is amazing, and walks a fine line between prose and poetry, telling the stories of women, abandonment, war, death, family relationships and all from the eyes of different generations in different countries. This author has a great future.

Cons: there were times in reading this book where I couldn't tell which person/generation we were hearing from, but another reading or two should clarify m
...more
madandelion [hiatus 160420]
Feb 29, 2020 marked it as to-read
Shelves: covergasm
I'm such a big sucker for muted colours and pastel covers. ...more
J
I spent some time trying to think of what to write in my review for this memoir. As it turns out, I don’t think there is a way to succinctly get those points across. There were many points that hit a little too close to home, particularly the relationship between mother and child, which is an especially distinct one in the Korean diaspora. Koh managed to strike the balance of explaining this bittersweet emptiness that she felt, yet also leaving it unexplained. The openness might frustrate some, ...more
Jaclyn (sixminutesforme)
Feb 16, 2020 rated it really liked it
A few weeks ago @tin_house surprised me with the most beautiful parcel, and I was overjoyed to see this gem inside. I’d heard glowing. Endorsements from two friends - Anna @never_withouta_book devoured this book the day it arrived (if I’m remembering correctly!) and likewise Matthew @matthewsciarappa listened to the audiobook and raved about it, so I knew I was in for a great read.
.

What worked particularly well for me in this memoir was how it utilized a number of translated letters from the aut
...more
Tyrinne (booked__and_busy)
Jan 09, 2020 rated it it was amazing
“Neither (happiness) nor sadness are ever done with us. They are always passing by.”



This was my first nonfiction read of the year and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I finished it. Koh’s story is heartbreaking, but it ultimately left me feeling hopeful. Although my experience growing up was vastly different from hers it deeply resonated with me, especially when she recounts her time in college. I loved so many things about this book, but I’m a sucker for any book that honestly explores
...more
Andrew
Oct 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
This autobiography is adjacent to a memory box-- mixed in with Eun Ji's tenderly translated letters from her mother, we see bits and pieces of her life, the mundane and the extraordinary, as she navigates high school and college life a continent away from her parents. E.J. becomes many things-- a driven student, a dancer, a poet. Koh also delves into the history of both her maternal and paternal grandmothers; they too have fascinating stories. Heartfelt and sweet, this beautiful memoir will imme ...more
Tamara
Feb 23, 2020 rated it liked it
3.5 ⭐️

I’m not sure how I feel about this book. In one way it read of a flattened affect—detached. In another, it was so close to pain, like the millisecond before the burn hurts. It was an interesting and somewhat poetic take on generational trauma, and I yearned for a feeling of investment, or any feeling really, to come alive.
Noelia Alonso
(8.5/10)

This was such a great read! I loved the writing.
Monica Kim: Reader in Emerald City
Jul 16, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2020
Nobody loves you like your mother and father. Not your husband, and not your children. While your parents are alive, eat as much of their love as you can, so it can sustain you for the rest of your life. — E.J. Koh, The Magical Language of Others
.
.
First and foremost, this may sound cliche as some authors don’t like their books called as such, but I still want to applaud Koh for her bravery for writing such a raw, fearless, and emotionally charged memoir. Complex, haunting, and profound, part com
...more
Katie
Feb 02, 2020 rated it liked it
I’m not totally sure what to make of this memoir. It’s about loneliness and forgiveness, but it’s also about generational suffering and abandonment.

When Eun Ji’s parents leave her and her brother alone in California to return to South Korea for work, it’s under the guise that they’re “doing it for their children.” Eun Ji’s mother calls her and writes letters about how much she misses her, yet the statements always feel a bit hollow, maybe because we see that Eun Ji is learning to raise herself.
...more
Min
Jan 13, 2021 rated it really liked it
3.5 but still important
Leah
Mar 10, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: read-women-2020
"Languages, as they open you, can also allow you to close."

I don't think I've ever read a memoir so fast (one sitting), yet I didn't want it to end. And I don't think that I've ever read a memoir I know I'll read again, but I will with this one.

Koh's story reads like a novel but is full to bursting with facts and truths and history. Including her mother's letters really added depth and perspective to Koh's individual experiences, both as a teenager and adult, and also demonstrated letting go and
...more
Kriti Samidi
Apr 21, 2020 rated it liked it
3.5 stars
Perhaps I had very high expectations from the memoir because of how much I like her poems but some parts of the book felt a little too static? It's a great read definitely and I am blown away by her writing style, specifically the parts where she talks about the Massacre, about her grandmothers and her relationship with her own parents, her relationship to her body - parts of it were quite heart-rending and distressing . I just can't put my finger on it but some parts of the book were j
...more
Audrey
Oct 05, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: first-reads
Beautifully written with unflinching honesty. This memoir encompasses mothers’ love and guilt for their child while that child also learns about her family’s history. E.J.’s pain is so raw it’s sometimes difficult to process. It the memoir is really about the women of this family as they survive their respective hardships and reconcile it with love and forgiveness.

I received an arc from the publisher but all opinions are my own.
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Author of poetry collection A LESSER LOVE, winner of the Pleiades Editors Prize (Louisiana State University Press, 2017), and memoir THE MAGICAL LANGUAGE OF OTHERS (Tin House, 2020). Koh's poems, translations, and stories have appeared in Academy of American Poets, Prairie Schooner, Boston Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Slate, and World Literature Today.

Koh accepted fellowships from the Ame
...more

Articles featuring this book

Someday, this year will end! And with the ringing in of 2021, we will come to the end of this year's Goodreads Reading Challenge. Of course,...
207 likes · 105 comments
“Nobody loves you like your mother and father. Not your husband, and not your children. While your parents are alive, eat as much of their love as you can, so it can sustain you for the rest of your life.” 7 likes
“Neither happiness nor sadness are ever done with us. They are always passing by.” 6 likes
More quotes…