Chang-Rae-Lee

I have spent most of my adult life in the book business, from a bookseller at university bookstores in the 1970s and for the past three decades as an author escort with Midwest Media, where I’ve been the “best friend for a day,” to thousands of authors, including Chang-Rae Lee. He’s one of my favorites and he’ll be the next guest for Writing Matters, a monthly virtual program held in collaboration with the Nineteenth Century Charitable Association of Oak Park.

Lee has published six novels including Native Speaker (1994), winner of the Pen Hemingway Award; A Gesture Life (1999); Aloft (2004); The Surrendered (2011), winner of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and On Such a Full Sea (2014), winner of the Chicago Tribune’s Heartland Literary Award for Fiction and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He has also published numerous stories and articles for The New Yorker, New York Times, Food & Wine, Conde Nast Traveler and Granta.

His latest novel, My Year Abroad, is a sprawling multi-continental story of business, innovation, science, ambition and hope as well as betrayal and deceit. It is told primarily through the eyes of Tiller, a 20-year-old college student from New Jersey, working in a summer a job as a dishwasher before leaving to study in Europe for a year abroad program, and Pong Lou, a brilliant chemist in his 50s, who survived the 1960s Cultural Revolution that traumatically altered his life in Mainland China during communism. 

The novel Includes a dizzying array of episodes. There is a search for a chemical elixir to attain eternal life to perfecting new frozen yogurt flavors. And, the attempt to design yoga routines that increase the human capacity of flexibility to locations from inside a surfer’s wave off the coast of Oahu, Hawaii, to the casinos of Macao, China. There’s overcoming inhibitions to sing Karaoke and the complexities of a Chinese billionaire reminiscent of the set of a James Bond movie. Also, in a parallel story, Tiller’s relationship with an older woman, Val, is explored, who is a precocious and competent chef that mirrors Pong’s curiosity and brilliance. It is an epic journey.

Lee was born in South Korea in 1965 and emigrated to the United States when he was three. He grew up in Westchester County, where his father was a successful psychiatrist. He read voraciously as a child and started writing poetry, through which he learned the rhythms and tonality of language. He attended Phillips Exeter Academy and graduated from Yale University with a BA in English and later earned an MFA in Writing from the University of Oregon. He taught creative writing at Princeton and since 2016 has been a professor of English at Stanford University.

I hope you can join us this Sunday, April 11 at 2 p.m. There is no charge and registration is at nineteenthcentury.org. Books are available at The Book Table (booktable.net)

Join Oak Parker Bill Young as he sits down in conversation with award-winning novelist Change-Rae Lee on Sunday, April 11, 2 p.m. Free; $15 suggested donation. Register/more: nineteenthcentury.org. Lee’s books are available at The Book Table, booktable.net, 1045 Lake St., Oak Park.

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