Book review: Back from failure

David Yoo’s new memoir offers witty and poignant insights about failure, success, standing out and f

David Yoo’s new memoir offers witty and poignant insights about failure, success, standing out and fitting in.

This is the fourth book by Yoo, who has written three young-adult novels. He graduated from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, which appears in this book and is where he began moving away from his underachieving, which began in middle school.

“The Choke Artist” is a collection of autobiographical essays, many of which were previously published elsewhere.

There is some repetition, and some events appear out of sequence. However, except for the essay about Yoo’s coming of age sexually, which feels too long, the format works well.

This book is full of cringe-worthy moments. Some are related in a humorous manner and some are related in a sad manner.

Some of the moments come from universal elements of the human condition, while others come from Yoo’s immediate experiences as a first-generation Korean-American.

‘The Choke Artist: Confessions of a Chronic Underachiever’

Author: David Yoo

Published by: Grand Central Publishing, 272 pages

How much: $13.99

Teenage concerns

For example, many teens are concerned about body image and getting by in school. Yoo was so thin in high school, he writes, “I was seventeen but looked like I was nine. Frankly I looked even worse than that.”

He was not just dealing with body image in terms of thinness but with his ancestry. He wanted to blend in and be popular. However, many people hurled slurs about his Asian appearance at him.

At one point, he reads “in a sorely outdated textbook” a reference to Asian people having yellow skin.” Whenever he thought about this, he “drew a line on my forearm with a yellow highlighter — the rationale being that if someday I couldn’t see the line, then the prophecy had come true.”

Yoo and Liz, his older sister, do not get along. Where Yoo becomes a deliberate failure in middle school, Liz is determined to succeed. In some conversations, she takes every chance she can to name-drop the two Ivy League universities she has attended, prodding Yoo for his academic shortcomings.

Yoo spends a significant amount of the book mocking his sister. But, as he grows up, he realizes that his sister’s attitude arises from more than sibling rivalry and feels more sympathetic to her. When he was in nursery school and his sister was in elementary school, the family moved back to Korea when their father took a job transfer. When they returned to Connecticut, “Liz had the misfortune of starting school in a new town in eighth grade, when everyone had already turned mean.” Since she could not overcome the meanness, she worked incredibly hard “to beat her new peers at everything.”

It appears Yoo had problems with failure for nearly 20 years. I was sad that he and his parents could not talk about his problems, and his parents could not help. In some places I was pleading with him on the page, “Would a counselor help you?”

However, even if he and his parents were closer or if he participated in counseling, it might not have helped.

Near the end, Yoo, with the help of Amanda, his girlfriend, starts moving away from failure. Late one night, he reviews his writing, more than 3,000 pages of fiction, and starts to see a way to make it better. In reflecting on his behavior, he realizes he fails to avoid engaging the world. He starts to be more in the world.

Yoo does not explain how he went from his beginning efforts to leave “the choke artist” behind and reached success as a young adult novelist. He does not share his recent experiences as husband and father. Let’s hope he shares these parts of his life in a sequel to “The Choke Artist.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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