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: 10% Happier, Dan Harris

10% Happier.jpg

A year or so ago, everyone on the street was carrying this book, 10% Happier (the full title of this book is 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works – A True Story, what a mouthful!) Since starting this blog, I’ve been trying to be better about keeping up with contemporary literature: what’s coming out, what’s popular, etc. So when I saw both Ann Patchett and Gretchen Rubin writing about this book, I figured I should finally check this book out. After all, who doesn’t want to be 10% happier?

The premise of this part memoir part self-help book is that Dan Harris, the author previously best known as the ABC co-anchor of Good Morning America, has a panic attack on live television. This causes him to re-examine his lifestyle (which includes cocaine and a lot of anxiety in his stressful work environment) which sends him on a soul-searching mission to find inner peace while “maintaining his edge”. Dan Harris is many things, he’s a bro-y, cocky, ambitious, and smart man who seems like the kind of person who would dismiss meditation and mindfulness as hippy propaganda. During this time in his life, Harris also happens to be the skeptical and reluctant ABC faith/religion correspondent, and he is able to interview notable figures like Eckhart Tolle and the Dalai Lama.

It’s precisely the culmination of these circumstances that really makes Harris a reliable and trustworthy advocate for meditation. Harris is a skeptic, almost to a fault, and he mocks himself relentlessly through his journey. He was hesitant to approach meditation for fear that it would make him too complacent in the workplace – he needs to be aggressive enough to get the news pieces that he wants to cover, which is why “maintaining his edge” is so important to him. However, by the end of the memoir, Harris has found a way to balance meditation and professional success. I found this focus on professional success a bit annoying at times, because I never thought that these were mutually exclusive concerns. Maybe it’s because I’m a millennial, but I had never doubted for a moment that we can have it all. I think the target audience for this book, however, may be people a little less receptive of meditation, the people who really need to be convinced that it can help them. I won’t try to convince you on the merits of meditation, but if this is something that you’ve ever been even a little curious about, I think this book is a great place to start.

As for me, by the end of this book, I was itching to incorporate meditation into my own life.

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I would recommend this book to any person who has ever toyed with the idea of meditation, people like me who enjoy reading self help books and memoirs, and people who are looking for a great audiobook to listen to. Dan Harris narrates, and his news anchor voice is absolutely made for audiobooks!

Do you meditate? If so, I’m dying to hear about your mindfulness rituals!

 

I am Malala: Pashto Landays

When sisters sit together, they always praise their brothers.
When brothers sit together, they sell their sisters to others.
– attributed to Malalai, Malala’s warrior namesake

A lot has already written about Malala Yousafzai, the youngest person to have ever won the Nobel Peace Prize. Malala is one of the most prominent advocates for empowerment i am malalathrough education. I didn’t know a lot about Malala besides her basic platform and her Malala Fund, so I read her book, I am Malala, over the holidays. Malala was cowritten with Christina Lamb. The book is a combination of a political history of Pakistan and the story of Malala’s family. Malala’s parents are both such strong figures in the story, and it quickly became apparent how Malala’s upbringing shaped her views on the world. One thing that really stuck with me after reading this book, however, were the landays that were sprinkled through the book. A landay is a folk couplet, often passed down through oral traditions and sung aloud. Malala’s mother is illiterate (as are about 44% of the Pakistani population*). In the book, she would sing these landays while doing chores or drinking tea with her friends.

A landay has twenty-two syllables, nine in the first line and thirteen in the second. The poem ends with the sound of “ma” or “na” but doesn’t have to rhyme. The most common themes of landays are war, separation, homeland, grief, or love. In today’s war-torn Afghanistan and Pakistan, landays have become more politicized, critical, and have started some modern hip-hop trends.

How much simpler can love be?
Let’s get engaged now. Text me.
Eliza Griswold writes an amazing essay for The Poetry Foundation about landays and her attempt to translate and record some of them. She tracks the evolution of landays, from its origins at the river while women did laundry to a form of empowerment for women throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan. Griswold writes:
Many landays use sex and war to tease men about their cowardice in bed and in battle. This is one of the ways in which Pashtun women undermine the social code through these folk poems: simultaneously seducing men and mocking their weakness at the very skills with which they’re supposed to display the greatest strength.
The more I read about landays, the more fitting they seem to me, to be sprinkled throughout Malala’s memoir. For many women who do not have access to education, their main source of contact with the outside world is through the radio programs they’re permitted to listen to, including poetry programs. Because singing in public is not allowed in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a lot of these poems are sung in private among family and friends. I tried looking for some videos on YouTube, but (maybe unsurprisingly) I wasn’t able to find any that looked genuine to me – although I don’t speak the language so I may be a poor judge of authenticity. For now, I will have to settle for reading the translations online.

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I would recommend this book to anyone who is unfamiliar with Malala’s story, people with an interest in the conflicts in the Middle East, people who would to be informed global citizens.

Additional Resources:

 

Books I Read in December

Hi Friends, it’s been quiet here the past few weeks, because I was travelling in China for the holidays! I’ll be sharing some photos soon, but all of the time on planes, trains, and boats made for some quality reading time! I read 13 books in December, bringing the final 2015 number of books read to: 74. I’ll be posting soon with some reflections on 2015, but for now, in no particular order, the books I read in December were:

the-age-of-innocenceEdith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence – I read this as part of my quest to read all of the Pulitzer winners. This was my second attempt at reading Edith Wharton, and I found it much more enjoyable than Ethan Frome. Did you know this book was adapted into a film directed by Martin Scorsese, who said that this was the most violent film he’s ever made? Of course, he’s referring to an emotional-violence instead of physical brutality. I’m currently sick with a cold, so I will be watching this movie under a layer of blankets this weekend. Have you seen it?

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straightjamesJames Franco’s Straight James / Gay James – While I’ve already reviewed this book, I just want to add that it’s stuck with me a little more than I expected it to. I have never taken James Franco very seriously as a writer, but I think there is something very brave about putting your poetry out there, especially for people who wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves a poet. While I’d still rather see him in a movie than on paper, I will have to think twice before rolling my eyes at his next publication.

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missoula

Jon Krakauer’s Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town – this book was a well-written and provocative look into such a grim and violent subject – acquaintance rape, date rape, whatever you want to call it. Jon Krakauer follows the personal stories of a few rape cases that occurred within a few weeks of each other in Missoula, Montana. I think the most terrifying thing is that Missoula is not an anomaly, and these stories are happening much more frequently than we’d like to think. This should be required reading on every college campus.

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fox 8.jpgGeorge Saunders’ Fox 8 – This novella is exclusively available as an eBook (it’s only 99 cents! Go buy it!) and I borrowed it from the New York Public Library. In true Saunders’ form, this story is hilarious, violent, and depressing all at once. The story is told by a Fox who learns how to Yuman – “So came bak nite upon nite, seeted upon that window, trying to lern. And in time, so many werds came threw my ears and into my brane, that, if I thought upon them, cud understand Yuman pretty gud, if I heer it!”

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gap of timeJeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time – I don’t think my admittedly rushed-before-going-to-China review did this book justice, so I might revisit and rework my post later this year. This is Winterson’s “cover” of William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, of which Winterson says, “All of us have talismanic texts that we have carried around and that carry us around. I have worked with The Winter’s Tale in many disguises for many years.”  For some reason, this book reminded me of Station Eleven, maybe because of the post-crisis emphasis on Shakespeare?

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alice adamsBooth Tarkington’s Alice Adams – This was the 1922 Recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, notably Tarkington’s second Pulitzer (and in a span of four years!) I found it much more enjoyable than his previous winner, The Magnificent Ambersons. I’m not sure if I would have awarded this book any sort of award, but then again, maybe there were slimmer pickings in the 1920s, what do you think? This was made into a movie starring Katharine Hepburn in the 1930s, so we know the book was popular for quite a while! I’ll have to add this to the list of movie adaptations to watch (and write about!)

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one of oursWilla Cather’s One of Ours – This was the 1923 Recipient of the Pulitzer Prize. I was really on a Pulitzer roll this month! It is a sprawling epic story that follows Claude Wheeler from a child in Nebraska to a soldier in France during World War II. Claude is a shy dreamer with big ideas about what he wants from life and love. I found him sweetly relatable. I’ve read online that this was one of Willa Cather’s weaker works, but as I’ve never read anything else of hers, I can’t make that call (yet). I’ll be writing more about this later, and would definitely consider reading more by Willa.

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rashomon

Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s Rashomon – I picked this book up at the Strand’s Central Park location on  a whim, because I’ve seen Akira Kurasawa’s 1950 film Rashomon. This book is a collection of 6 short stories, between 8 – 15 pages long each. I really loved the writing style (but can never tell how much is attributable to the translator versus the writer) and the stories were all incredibly human, magical, and touching. Fun fact: the film was actually based on a combination of two of the short stories in this collection: In a Grove and Rashomon.

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the winter's taleWilliam Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale

My favorite passage:

Is whispering nothing?
Is leaning cheek to cheek? is meeting noses?
Kissing with inside lip? stopping the career
Of laughing with a sigh?–a note infallible
Of breaking honesty–horsing foot on foot?
Skulking in corners? wishing clocks more swift?
Hours, minutes? noon, midnight? and all eyes
Blind with the pin and web but theirs, theirs only,
That would unseen be wicked? is this nothing?

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the reason i jumpNaoki Higashida’s The Reason I Jump – This book is incredible – it was written by a thirteen year old Japanese autistic boy who often has trouble with verbal communication. I first heard about the book when I saw Jon Stewart interview Naoki on The Daily Show a few years ago. When I was in high school, I volunteered as an art teacher to autistic students, but I must admit that I still had no idea about their capacity for emotional depth and understanding. Reading this book really challenged a lot of my biases and made me feel ashamed (in the best possible positive way.)

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we should all be feministsChimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All be Feminists – This book is based on a Ted talk that Chimamanda gave (online here), which you will most likely recognize from Beyonce’s Flawless. While I didn’t need convincing from Chimamanda to be a feminist, it is always refreshing to hear the arguments from such an articulate and compassionate person. While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend buying the book, you should definitely watch the video if you haven’t yet.

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teen spiritFrancesca Lia Block’s Teen Spirit – I do not think I’ll ever be too old to read Francesca Lia Block. This book is perfect to read around Halloween! Spoiler Alert – this is the story of a girl who is trying to communicate with her dead grandmother and a boy who is possibly possessed by his angry dead twin. Although the ending is a little cliched, I don’t think anyone reads Block for the plot, but more for her rich language and imagery, the smell of the flowers leap off the page.

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the chronology of water.jpgLidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water – I read this book because Cheryl Strayed said it was her favorite book. This memoir is not for the faint-hearted. Lidia Yuknavitch has lived so many lives and tackles everything head-on, from losing a child to being molested by her father, struggling to write to S&M parties and her fascination with being whipped. Her writing style is self-described as “weird” and it’s no wonder that Chuck Palahniuk introduced her to his writing group. This book pushed me out of my comfort zone and was an emotional and gripping read from start to finish.

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I can’t believe that concludes 2015! Of these books, I would most highly recommend Fox 8 and Missoula. What did you read in December? What’s on your list for 2016? How many books did you read in 2015, and does that number even matter or mean anything to you? I’m a believer in quality over quantity, but it’s definitely satisfying to tackle a long to-read list.

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?

 

Books I Read in October

Is it just me or has this year flown by? October was a relatively quiet month for me – with the exception of my trip to California, I stayed in pajamas at home for the bulk of the month. I read six books this month, which is about average for me this year. I read a memoir, a nonfiction book, two books of fiction, and two books of poetry. In chronological order, here are the books I read in October.

yes pleaseAmy Poehler’s Yes Please – Before this book, I only had a vague idea of who Amy Poehler is. I knew her as a feminist, the best friend of Tina Fey, and one of the creators of Smart Girls. I chose to listen to Amy Poehler reading the book, because I’m a firm believer that anytime a comedian or actor writes a book, listening to them read it is 100x better. Since reading the book, I’ve become obsessed with Parks & Recreation, and I will probably read the book again in a year. I think this book is probably more enjoyable for true Poehler fans, because a lot of the book talks about the specifics of her career and journey. I enjoyed the book, but think I’ll enjoy it more in the future.

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the sound and the fury

William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury – This was probably the most difficult books I’ve read all year, but also one of the most beautiful and rewarding. I would highly recommend it to just about anyone. Faulkner’s stream-of-consciousness style is frustrating at first, but a friend recommended that I sit down and read a big chunk of it at a time, so that I can really get into the rhythm of the book. This was exactly what I needed to do, rather than reading 10 pages at a time on the bus, so that’s my advice to you as well!

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sixth extinctionElizabeth Kolbert’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning The Sixth Extinction has been on my to-read list ever since I watched a work-in-progress cut of Six (now Racing Extinction) two years ago at the Tribeca Film Festival. The book is cleverly organized into 13 chapters, each studying the extinction of a different species. The chapters build upon each other until we see the history of man’s understanding of and contribution to the concept of a mass extinction. I found the book enjoyable and fascinating, but also hopelessly depressing. I think Kolbert is an upbeat pessimist, who is able to write cheerily about things that she thinks will inevitably lead to our doom.

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telephone ringingAdrienne Rich’s Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth is the second book of Adrienne Rich’s that I’ve read this year. I found the themes hauntingly similar to the first book I read, even though they were written forty years apart. I wrote a short review of the book last week, so for today, I thought I’d share another quote.

If the word gets out if the word
escapes if the word
flies if it dies
it has its way of coming back
The handwritings on the walls
are vast and coded

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magiciansLev Grossman’s The Magicians – Okay, I have a confession. I almost never reread books. I have only read the Harry Potter books once, even though I thought I was a Potterhead. (I’ve come to accept that I am not really one.) This is the first book I’ve reread in years, and you know what? It was even better than I remembered! Dark, smart, and hilarious – this is absolutely everything that I want in a fantasy novel. I’m currently rereading The Magician’s King now in preparation of reading the third book of the trilogy as well as the television adaptation. Have you seen the preview? I’m nervous and excited!

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the gold cellSharon Old’s The Gold Cell – This is one of the more deeply personal and insightful books of poetry that I’ve read this year. Olds dissects her own life for us in search of what it means to be a human, a mother, a daughter, a wife. After reading the book, I really felt a connection with her, like I knew more about her life and how she thinks and processes things than I know about even some of my closest friends. The book is not for the squeamish or faint of heart, because parts of it can be quite explicit or uncomfortable, but I think it will actually make you a more compassionate person for having read it.

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I’m a lucky girl this month, because there wasn’t a single book that I didn’t like on this list. If you only read one of these books, I would have to say read Faulkner. Have you read any of these? What did you read in October? What should I read in November?

Books I Read in August

Here are the books I’ve read in August, in chronological order. I was pretty happy to have read such a diverse mix of genres this month, and I’ll try to keep it up going forward!


station elevenEmily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven:
 This has been on my to-read list for such a long time, and once I picked it up, I couldn’t put it back down. I read for an entire day on the couch until I finished the book. I’ve seen a lot of people describe this as a “slow burner” but I didn’t find the book slow at all. I found this to be a thoughtful exploration into the necessity of art, technology, and human connections. However, I didn’t connect with or even like any of the characters, but I think Mandel did such an excellent job creating this post-apocalyptic world that it doesn’t even matter.

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not that kind of girl
Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl: I will admit that for the longest time I didn’t “get” Lena Dunham’s appeal. This has been my summer of Dunham – I binge watched all the seasons of her show “Girls” and then read her book as soon as I could get my hands on it. I “get” it now. She’s funny, thoughtful, and self-deprecating. She is insightful and self-aware to the brink of an egomaniacal obsession. I related to her book much more than I did to her show, and I feel like I have a new found appreciation and respect for her.

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