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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Books I Read in November

Right on par with the rest of the year, I read six books in November: two nonfiction, one memoir, and three fiction books. In chronological order, the books I read in November were:

the new jim crow

Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow – This book should be recommended reading for everyone in the United States. I bought the book after a friend mentioned that she was reading it for her book club. I put off reading it for a good half year because I was scared that it would be too depressing for me to read. While it was extremely disheartening and made me furious at times, I think I am a better citizen and human being having read the book. I have recommended it to everyone in my law school classes, and I would sincerely urge you to read this too.

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the magnificent ambersons

Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons – I already wrote about this pretty extensively because it is one of the Pulitzer winners on my list. As I’ve started reading the next winner on the list (Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence) I have noticed a similar obsession with automobiles and the changing urban social hierarchy. I’m really enjoying reading the Pulitzer winners in chronological order, because I think it’s helped me see similar trends and concerns during the 1920s. I’m interested to see if Booth Tarkington has new concerns in his next Pulitzer winner, Alice Adams.

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4:50 from Paddington

Agatha Christie’s 4:50 from Paddington – is part of her famous Miss Marple’s series. Miss Marple is an elderly spinster and amateur detective. In this book, Miss Marple’s friend witnesses a murder on a train that happens to pass the train that she is on. Miss Marple uses some deductive reasoning and tries to solve a crime based on very few facts. I was surprised to see that while she is the brains behind the operations, she isn’t really one of the main characters of the book. Is this how all Miss Marple books are? I may have to read another one to find out for myself!

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musicophilia

Oliver Sack’s Musicophilia – This is the book for our next book club meeting in December. While it’s not something that I may have picked to read myself, isn’t that the whole point of a book club? Oliver Sacks is a world renowned neurologist and in this book he examines how the brain and music are connected. The opening chapter is about a man who, after being struck by lightning, finds himself obsessed with Chopin and composing music, even though he had never showed an interest in or talent for music before his accident. Some chapters were absolutely brilliant, and I’ll be writing about them separately soon!

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right ho jeeves

P.G. Wodehouse’s Right Ho, Jeeves – I will admit I was supposed to read this book in high school, but I never got around to it. If Agatha Christie is the queen of mystery cozies, then I’d argue that P.G. Wodehouse is the king of comedy cozies. The book is like a 230 page sitcom with witty banter and ridiculous situations and miscommunications. This was the first book by P.G. Wodehouse, and while I may not agree with Hugh Laurie that Wodehouse is the funniest writer in the world, I did enjoy the book and found it a lighthearted break in a month where I read some very serious things.

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h is for hawkHelen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk – I’ve seen this book all over the news and Internet this year. The NYTimes recently named it one of the 100 Notable books in 2015. After Helen’s father unexpectedly dies, Helen turns to raising a goshawk as a coping mechanism. She also examines famed writer T. H. White and his experiences in raising a goshawk. Despite all the hype around the book, this is one of the few books I’ve read that absolutely exceeded all of the hype. Words can’t describe how incredible the books is – her writing is clear, lyrical, and an absolute kick in the teeth. I devoured the book and plan on rereading it in the near future.

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Of the books I read this month, I am begging you to read The New Jim Crow and H is for Hawk. These are books that will absolutely change your life.

I can’t believe it’s almost December – there are still so many books that I want to read! I’m currently reading The Age of Innocence, and I hope to get through I am Malala and Alice Adams. What about you? What did you read in November? What are the books you’re trying to read before the end of the year?

 

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:

This Week in Review – 10/23/2015

This Week in Review

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flannery

“When I first uncrated these birds, in my frenzy I said ‘I want so many of them that every time I go out the door, I’ll run into one,’” O’Connor wrote in her essay “The King of Birds.” It was not long before she got her wish. Andalusia, then a working dairy farm crowded by cattle and farmhands, was soon dotted by dozens of peacocks.

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This week, we posted:

This weekend, I’ll be re-reading The Magicians, watching a lot of television and working on a paper for class. Wherever you are, I hope you have lots of candy, warm socks, and a comfortable couch!

Book Review: Modern Romance, Aziz Ansari

Aziz Ansari's Modern Romance

Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance was the book club pick for our October meeting. In it, Aziz teams up with a sociologist named Eric Klinenberg to research how people today navigate the “minefield called dating.” In case you didn’t know (are you living under a rock?), Aziz Ansari is a comedian best known for his Netflix comedy specials and his role in Parks & Recreation (see below):

treat yo self

I have loved Aziz for quite some time now, because he is a Southern minority in New York City, just like me. However, I had a long standing bone to pick with him. A lot of his previous stand up revolved around how hard it was to get a date in New York, which is fine, except I would see him walking around the East Village on dates with beautiful women all the time. It was hard for me to reconcile the celebrity-comedian with the awkward-lonely man he wanted us to think he is through his stand up.

Modern Romance seemed like a nice answer to this. Aziz is now in a loving relationship and is giving the rest of us advice on how to get what he has. He talks about the trials and tribulations of online-dating while admitting he’s never tried it because of his fame. While the book is definitely written in his voice, it doesn’t offer many new insights nor does it serve as a self-help book. The highlights are when Aziz offers personal anecdotes and the lowlights are when he turns to Reddit and study groups to prove that Argentinian men are aggressive and always on the prowl. There are some nice moments though, and I found Aziz to be a thoughtful and insightful writer.

“With so many romantic options, instead of trying to explore them all, make sure you properly invest in people and give them a fair chance before moving on to the next one.”

However I still expected more from you, Aziz. I didn’t really need to read your book to learn that having too many options on Tinder can lead to a fear of commitment. I wanted more humor and less statistics from you!

If you are curious, I would recommend the audiobook over the book. Aziz reads for the audiobook, and I think it’s a nice treat to hear his voice reading his own words. Otherwise, I would suggest just watching the two-hour Netflix special or the below video from their book release at the Strand instead of reading the book. You’ll get all the same facts and jokes in half the time.

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I would recommend this book to hardcore fans of Aziz & people who can borrow the audiobook from the library or have never read anything about dating in today’s society.

Additional Resources:

Have you read this book? What did you think?

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!

the buried giant

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