Book Review & Discussion Guide: Without You There Is No Us, Suki Kim

If you didn’t know better, you’d think that Without You, There Is No Us is the title of a romantic drama in the same vein as Me Before You. However, the reality is a little more without-yousinister. In fact, “without you, there is no us” is a lyric in a patriotic song about Kim Jong-Il. Suki Kim is a journalist who goes undercover as an Evangelical Christian undercover as a teacher at Pyong-Yang University of Science & Technology (“PUST”). She teaches English to the children of (we assume) North Korea’s elite for half a year and writes a book about it. The book is fascinating because there simply aren’t that many memoirs about North Korea.

Most of the things that frustrated me about the book are more indicative of the North Korean political climate rather than Kim’s writing or experience. There just simply aren’t that many facts, statistics, or events in the book. Not a lot happens to Kim, because North Korea is controlling all of her experiences within Pyong-Yang: from group field trips to go hiking in the mountains to grocery shopping at approved markets for foreigners. However, I think Kim could have filled in some of the gaps with the political history of Korea or the history of the Korean War. I understand that to protect some of the people she met in North Korea, she had to change names and facts, but with so little facts already in the book, this rescrambling of information made the book less substantive than its alleged tell-all on the elite of North Korea.

A small thing that drove me (and my book club) crazy was Kim’s insertion of her “Brooklyn lover” into her memoir. While I understand that she felt isolated and cut off from her friends and family while in North Korea, I didn’t buy this connection to an ex-boyfriend. I was much more interested in Kim’s family’s reaction to and estrangement from her time in North Korea. Kim’s stories about her family’s time in Korea during the Korean War was so interesting and powerful, that I felt a much stronger investment in those relationships than in this arbitrary one that flutters in and out of her mind throughout the book. Our book club thought perhaps this was just a symptom of her solitude in North Korea — nostalgia for old flames. While it may have been true, I think she (or her editor) should have pushed through this a little more to get to the truth behind her experience.

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Book Review + Discussion Guide: Daughters Who Walk This Path

Our little book club is turning one year old! The sixth book we read was Daughters Who Walk This Path by Yejide Kilanko. Courtney picked this book due to her interest in Africa as well as a way to bring more diversity to our reading. Unconsciously, we only read books written by men in the first year of our book club. I’m a little embarrassed that this happened, and it is a humbling reminder to be make more active efforts to diversify our reading.

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A bit about the author: Yejide Kilanko was born in Ibadan, Nigeria (where the book takes place). She moved to Maryland when she was 25. She currently lives in Chatham, Ontario, where she is a social worker as well as a writer. I found this interesting because Courtney picked this book as a way to read more “African writers,” but I wonder if Yejide would consider herself a Canadian (or an American) writer first (or additionally). But, I digress.

About the Book (from the back of the book): Spirited, intelligent Morayo grows up surrounded by school friends and a busy family in modern-day Ibadan, Nigeria. An adoring little sister, her traditional parents, and a host of aunties and cousins make Morayo’s home their own. So there’s nothing unusual about Morayo’s charming but troubled cousin, Bros T, moving in with the family. At first Morayo and her sister are delighted, but in her innocence, nothing prepares Morayo for the shameful secret Bros T forces upon her.

My Thoughts: This book was an incredibly fast read. Once I started, all I wanted to do was to continue reading. Kilanko writes very strong, incredible women who are also vulnerable at times. It’s interesting to me that Kilanko is a social worker, because she writes about rape and trauma survivors incredibly well. Some terrible things happen to Morayo and her aunt (and foil) Morenike, who react in different but both realistic ways. I was rooting for Morayo the entire way, and I found her path to recovery and learning to love herself so  However, at times I felt a little overwhelmed and thought that Kilanko’s book was a little too ambitious. She tries to cover and critique Nigerian politics, superstitions, religion, social mores, sexuality, infrastructure, Westernization, and more, in the span of about 350 pages. I wanted her to edit more, to only focus on a few things and save the rest for a different book (or just write a longer book!) There are also a few moments that I found unrealistic. A chance encounter with a long-lost love is fun, but two or three chance encounters with long-lost loves? Is that realistic? Our book club meets tomorrow, and I am looking forward to discussing all of this with my fellow readers. I’ll keep you posted on our discussions, but for now, I thought I’d share some discussion questions that I’ll be bringing to our meeting tomorrow.

Discussion Questions (There will be spoilers if you haven’t read the book!):

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Honey Pot Book Club: Half a Year Already!

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If you have been following me since the beginning (hi friends!), maybe you’ll remember that I started a book club with some friends about half a year ago.
I posted about it here shortly after our first meeting. Since then, we have gained a member, a friend’s coworker, and we just had our third book club meeting this month. Next time, we’ll be discussing Musicophilia, in honor of the late Oliver Sacks. musicophilia

It’s been a lot of fun to meet regularly with my friends to discuss books. As we approach our final meeting of the year this December, I have been reminiscing on some things that I’ve learned this year, and what I’m excited about for 2016 (can you believe we are talking about 2016 already?)

1. Venue – finding a venue in New York City can prove tricky. We had one meeting in my apartment, one at a Mexican restaurant, and one at a coffee shop in Brooklyn. I think the key is to find something low-key with multiple public transportation options. I’ve loved hosting in my apartment – everyone brought something to eat or drink, but it’s nice having it at a restaurant, because I don’t have to clean or do dishes!

2. Book Choices – we have been mixing it up between fiction and nonfiction, which has been refreshing and has exposed me to some things that I wouldn’t ordinarily pick on my own. One issue that came up though is that new books are harder to find at the library. In fact, two of us settled for the audiobook of Modern Romance because of this. We have all become more mindful of the availability of books as we discuss what to read next.

3. Ideas for 2016 – next year, we want to do a movie night, where we read a book and watch the movie adaptation together. Other ideas include reading a play and reenacting parts of it together or going to see the play on Broadway and reading a food book and having a potluck inspired by foods or recipes from the book.

4. Using Discussion Guides has been particularly helpful for the fiction books that we’ve been reading. When we discussed Modern Romance, we didn’t need a discussion guide – instead, news articles and personal experiences were more than enough to keep the discussion lively. I think this is because fiction is much more subjective to interpretation. Has anyone else had a similar experience?

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Are you in a book club? I’ve been so interested and asking all my friends to share their experiences with me. I would love to hear about yours as well! What kinds of books do you read? How often do you meet? Where do you meet?

Additional Reading:

Book Review + Discussion Guide: The Buried Giant

Our book club pick for this month is The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro. In preparation for our meeting next week, I’ve been combing through discussion guides, book reviews, and blog posts. Since you can’t be at our actual meeting, I thought I’d share some of my favorite discussion questions below and see what you think! Please comment with a link to your review, to tackle a discussion question or to disagree with my review!

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The description on the back of the book: The Buried Giant begins as a couple, Axl and Beatrice, set off across a troubled land of mist and rain in the hope of finding a son they have not seen for years. They expect to face many hazards—some strange and other-worldly—but they cannot yet foresee how their journey will reveal to them dark and forgotten corners of their love for one another. Sometimes savage, often intensely moving, Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel in a decade is about lost memories, love, revenge and war.

Peter Sis

Peter Sis

My Thoughts: I’ve always thought that Ishiguro tells the same story again and again in slightly different contexts. Usually, a character is older and looking back on his/her life trying to piece things together that happened in the past. Upon reading The Buried Giant, two things really stood out to me immediately: 1.) the book is told mostly in the third person and from multiple characters’ points of view, and 2.) the book mostly occurs in the present. By this I mean that although there is a lot of reminiscing and piecing together of the past, the action occurs mostly to the older character, instead of in his/her memories. Ultimately, I thought that this was a refreshing permutation of the same story that Ishiguro loves to tell. I wouldn’t call this story a fantasy novel or compare it to Tolkien, because I don’t think Ishiguro really is trying to inhabit the fantasy world. Instead, he is using these mythical creatures as tools to push the story further in the direction of allegories and fables. The same story could be set on a different planet, a dystopian future, or in the modern day, and it would still work. I really loved this book, I think it’s the best that he’s ever written.

I’d recommend this book to people who like to read Aesop’s fables, fans of Ishiguro, and anyone who likes to contemplate life’s larger questions, such as the nature of time, love, and memory.

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Onto the discussion questions! I’ve pulled these from a variety of sources, which I’ve provided in the links below.  Continue reading

Honey Pot Book Club: Starting a Book Club

One of my New Year’s Resolutions this year was to join a book club, but I wasn’t sure where to start. A lot of googling later, I sent out an email proposing a book club to twenty girlfriends and waited to see if anyone would bite. Half a year later, we just had our very first book club meeting! I’m still getting the hang of it, but I wanted to document and share the journey with y’all. I’ll be posting little tips and ideas, stories and anecdotes along the away.

First up, here are few things that I think are worth discussing at your very first book club meeting.

  • How often will you meet? We decided on once every two months.
    • Pros – people in New York City are so busy, and it’s always hard to try to find dates that work for everyone.
    • Cons – if you read the book earlier, it may be hard to remember all the details two months later! There may be a bit of strategic planning and timing involved.
  • What kinds of books will you read? We decided on mostly new fiction, with a mix of other things thrown in!
    • Pros – reading new fiction makes it easier to guarantee that no one’s read the book yet
    • Cons – new fiction means hardcover books and that can get so expensive! Our solution was to try to do a combination of new fiction and old plays and nonfiction – afterall, we are a group of girls that don’t read a ton of plays and nonfiction. How much fun is it going to be to read plays out loud with your best girlfriends?
  • Who’s going to lead the discussion? Who’s picking the next book?
    • I think these go together – the person who picked the book can lead the discussion! We decided on the next book at the end of our first meeting as well as determined an order of who will be picking next. (Next up is Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant.)

And a few tidbits I’ve been thinking about:

  • One of the girls mentioned that she loves trivia and so we may try to find some fun trivia questions and facts to kick off our next meeting.
  • Is it just me or are so many people bad at following through? Of the ten girls that seemed excited and committed, it was ultimately only four of us. I’m trying not to let things like that bother me, because we ended up having a great discussion and time regardless. At our next meeting, we probably won’t even bother to invite the people who didn’t show up the first time. After all, you can lead a horse to water… right?

Our next meeting will be in two months – do you want to read along with us? I might try to start an online read-along book club to go with our in-person club. I’m going to call it the Honey Pot Book Club! Are you in a book club? Do you have any tips for me?

Photo Credit: WeeWonderfuls