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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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