The Inkwell: Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim

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Review: Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim

 

withoutyouthereisnousOfficial Synopsis:

A haunting memoir of teaching English to the sons of North Korea’s ruling class during the last six months of Kim Jong-il’s reign.

Every day, three times a day, the students march in two straight lines, singing praises to Kim Jong-il and North Korea: Without you, there is no motherland. Without you, there is no us. It is a chilling scene, but gradually Suki Kim, too, learns the tune and, without noticing, begins to hum it. It is 2011, and all universities in North Korea have been shut down for an entire year, the students sent to construction fields—except for the 270 students at the all-male Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), a walled compound where portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il look on impassively from the walls of every room, and where Suki has accepted a job teaching English. Over the next six months, she will eat three meals a day with her young charges and struggle to teach them to write, all under the watchful eye of the regime.

Life at PUST is lonely and claustrophobic, especially for Suki, whose letters are read by censors and who must hide her notes and photographs not only from her minders but from her colleagues—evangelical Christian missionaries who don’t know or choose to ignore that Suki doesn’t share their faith. As the weeks pass, she is mystified by how easily her students lie, unnerved by their obedience to the regime. At the same time, they offer Suki tantalizing glimpses of their private selves—their boyish enthusiasm, their eagerness to please, the flashes of curiosity that have not yet been extinguished. She in turn begins to hint at the existence of a world beyond their own—at such exotic activities as surfing the Internet or traveling freely and, more dangerously, at electoral democracy and other ideas forbidden in a country where defectors risk torture and execution. But when Kim Jong-il dies, and the boys she has come to love appear devastated, she wonders whether the gulf between her world and theirs can ever be bridged.

Without You, There Is No Us offers a moving and incalculably rare glimpse of life in the world’s most unknowable country, and at the privileged young men she calls “soldiers and slaves.”

 


“Sometimes the longer you are inside a prison, the harder it is to fathom what is possible beyond its walls.”
Suki Kim, Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite

I immediately sought this book out after reading this excerpt of it on Ideas.TED. It was gripping to me because it was both so unfathomable and so eerily familiar. As an English teacher myself, I recognized so many of the small moments, which makes it even more heartbreaking to consider the plight of the North Korean people.

To Suki Kim’s credit, she clearly and deliberately notes that her book is not a definitive or all-encompassing account of life in North Korea. I do think that it is an important account though, because so many other Western representations of North Korea are so dehumanizing. To be frank, I’m often disgusted by how Western media portrays North Korea as laughable. An entire nation of people are being horribly oppressed by their government, and the focus is on how “wacky” their oppressive leader’s antics are.

The best parts of the book were: 1) The details of Korean immigration stories. Kim shares her own family’s story, as well as many other family’s stories, during the Korean War. Knowing the historical facts is one thing—understanding on a human level about how arbitrary political lines and destructive wars can tear families apart is a whole other thing. 2) The complicated relationship Kim had with her students. Sometimes startlingly lovely, mostly erratic and heartbreaking. The genuine fondness she feels for them is constantly marred by the context of their lives.

After finishing Without You, There Is No Us, I want to read more accounts of North Korea. I’m particularly looking for accounts by North Korean people themselves. I don’t think it’s helpful to read through another foreign lens (Kim is American and South Korean). If you’ve read any memoirs/articles by North Korean defectors, I’m definitely open to recommendations.

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The Inkwell: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

The Inkwell is a series of book reviews, or just rambling thoughts on specific books. For more, amble here


Review: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

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Official Synopsis:

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.

So begins this exquisite novel about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee, and her parents are determined that she will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue. But when Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, tumbling them into chaos.

A profoundly moving story of family, secrets, and longing, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive family portrait, uncovering the ways in which mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives struggle, all their lives, to understand one another.


“What made something precious? Losing it and finding it.”
Celeste Ng, Everything I Never Told You

Intricate, intimate, and incredible. This stunning family portrait is rendered so exquisitely that at times I felt as if I were gasping for air. The lake of Ng’s words engulfed me so wholly, I could almost feel the silt and water in my lungs.

The family’s backstory unfolds with manifold strings. In the 1960s, Marilyn, an aspiring doctor raised by a homemaker mother, meets James Lee, a graduate teaching assistant. Marilyn is white. James is Chinese American. In their hearts, they have very different longings. They fall in love. And like the set up of a row of dominoes, they have three children: Nathan, Lydia, and Hannah. How does it happen, that by May of 1977, the Lees’ favored middle child is found drowned at the bottom of a lake?

While reading this novel, I was reminded powerfully of how writing is a craft. Of course that’s something I know, but Ng’s craftsmanship is so sublime and taut that I felt that fact over and and over again. As she weaves in and out of the consciousness of each member of the Lee family, Ng remains deftly dynamic.

One important note of review: I expected the ending, the core truth of what happened to Lydia, to be ambiguous. That would have been the easy way out. But it was not. It was stark and bare. You will not expect it, but it will feel more true than anything you might have imagined from the first page, the first sentence that does not hide: Lydia is dead.

This book starts with a dead teenage girl and a mystery, but it is not a thriller. It doesn’t have loud-gasp plot twists, but it is breathtaking in a slow and quiet way.

Everything I Never Told You is about how we orbit in and out of each others’ gravitational fields in ellipses rather than perfect circles—sometimes closer, sometimes farther. About relationships, but also about the distance between. It’s about the weight of expectation. It’s about fitting in and standing out. It’s about marginalization. It’s about grief. My goodness, I’m still feeling the ache of the prose.

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The Inkwell: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Inkwell is a series of book reviews, or just rambling thoughts on specific books. For more, amble here


Review: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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Official Synopsis:

“This is your country, this is your world, this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.”


In a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?

Between the World and Me is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s attempt to answer these questions in a letter to his adolescent son. Coates shares with his son—and readers—the story of his awakening to the truth about his place in the world through a series of revelatory experiences, from Howard University to Civil War battlefields, from the South Side of Chicago to Paris, from his childhood home to the living rooms of mothers whose children’s lives were taken as American plunder. Beautifully woven from personal narrative, reimagined history, and fresh, emotionally charged reportage, Between the World and Me clearly illuminates the past, bracingly confronts our present, and offers a transcendent vision for a way forward.


“But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

I want to quote every single line in Coates’s book. I can’t say anything as well as he does.

Coates write this book as a letter to his fifteen-year-old son—and that audience is absolutely vital to the power of his words. This book was not written for the “general” “public.” This book was not written for me, a non-Black person. And so it is unfiltered, direct, and honest. It is full of the ache of conscious citizens of the world.

Between the World and Me weaves together history, politics, and memoir into an anvil of an essay. Coates spins such gorgeous prose about such horrifying violence that every word feels like a gut punch. A gasp. An alarm. A wake up call.

I cannot understate the importance of this book to our time. Pertinent is an understatement. Eloquent is an understatement. Necessary is an understatement. It will inevitably become a classic.

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The Inkwell: To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han

The Inkwell is a series of book reviews, or just rambling thoughts on specific books. For more, amble here


Review: To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han

toalltheboys

Official Synopsis:

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is the story of Lara Jean, who has never openly admitted her crushes, but instead wrote each boy a letter about how she felt, sealed it, and hid it in a box under her bed. But one day Lara Jean discovers that somehow her secret box of letters has been mailed, causing all her crushes from her past to confront her about the letters: her first kiss, the boy from summer camp, even her sister’s ex-boyfriend, Josh. As she learns to deal with her past loves face to face, Lara Jean discovers that something good may come out of these letters after all.


“Do you think there’s a difference? Between belonging with and belonging to?”
― from To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

Jenny Han’s To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is charming and full of character in the same way that a vintage dress is. This book is a drop of sunshine. This book is a chunky knit oversize sweater. This book is a grilled cheese sandwich. It made me feel so warm and comfy—but also gave me butterflies.

It’s lighthearted and adorable, but also unexpected. I thought the focus would be more on the mystery of the love letters, but it wasn’t that pivotal to the story. At the core of the novel is not Lara Jean’s love life, but her family life. And it’s a great strength of the book. The relationship between Lara Jean and her sisters—older, serious Margot and younger, feisty Kitty—is central to the story.

Too many contemporary YA books rely on the trope of families-who-just-don’t-get-it, and many more simply have “throwaway” families (when parents/siblings are just plot devices or ghostly background figures). The family dynamics are incredibly fun, but also encompass the real bittersweetness that happens when children grow up, siblings move away, and change happens.

The narrative voice is so bright and delightful. I adored Lara Jean even though I’m definitely a Margot. This book is chock-full of witty banter and too-real sibling snipping. 

I read this book in between some serious tomes (Suki Kim’s Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite & Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me), so it was like a lemontart treat between heavy fare.

I was reminded of the beauty of books. Yes, books are meant to make us think deeper and wider. But sometimes, they’re also meant to make us feel happy when we need it. This book came into my life right when I needed it the most. For a little bit, it melted away my stress and anxiety and trauma. If you need a sweet burst, read To All The Boys I’ve loved Before!

Also, the aesthetic of the cover is to die for! It perfectly captures the whimsy and cuteness of the book. And I’m seriously so happy they didn’t whitewash the cover model.

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The Inkwell: Tiny Pretty Things by Sona Charaipotra & Dhonielle Clayton

The Inkwell is a series of book reviews, or just rambling thoughts on specific books. For more, amble here


 

Review: Tiny Pretty Things by Sona Charaipotra & Dhonielle Clayton

tinyprettythings

Official Synopsis:

Black Swan meets Pretty Little Liars in this soapy, drama-packed novel featuring diverse characters who will do anything to be the prima at their elite ballet school.

Gigi, Bette, and June, three top students at an exclusive Manhattan ballet school, have seen their fair share of drama. Free-spirited new girl Gigi just wants to dance—but the very act might kill her. Privileged New Yorker Bette’s desire to escape the shadow of her ballet star sister brings out a dangerous edge in her. And perfectionist June needs to land a lead role this year or her controlling mother will put an end to her dancing dreams forever. When every dancer is both friend and foe, the girls will sacrifice, manipulate, and backstab to be the best of the best.


“The moment you think you’re on top is the moment you’ve lost your passion.”
― from Tiny Pretty Things

I only picked up Tiny Pretty Things because I’ve been following the two authors professionally through #WeNeedDiverseBooks and their book boutique development company, Cake Literary. The reviews I’d read were positive, but focused on things I don’t have much interest in. I’m not into ballet or dance in the slightest bit, and I usually can’t stand soapy drama. The synopsis compares it to Black Swan and Pretty Little Liars, both of which I don’t like. However. HOWEVER.

This book was wonderful. And I’m eagerly anticipating the sequel in Summer 2016!

So, quick detour… Remember that storm of controversy around the patronizing dismissal of Young Adult books by a certain blustering author? It ignited the ironic conversation around #MorallyComplicatedYA. Unambiguously, I love YA. Not just because my career is in youth development and I think youth are the crux of every society, but also because people love shaming youth for youth-things (see: language trends, selfies, social media) and I will ALWAYS fight for the vitality of these things. A millionfold more if we’re talking about young girl things.

And Tiny Pretty Things is all about the moral complexities of teenage girlhood. It’s about secrets, and why we keep them. It’s about how our deep wounds cause us to relate to one another. It’s about a beautiful arena broken with racism, sexism, and other systematic forms of oppression (which, alas, could describe ballet or literature or any number of things). It’s about ambition and passion.

It galls me, but I know that the moral complexities of June and Bette will cause many “ugh-I-don’t-like-her” reviews, because that’s how people react to morally complex teenage girls. (Men get to be interesting; girls have to be “unlikable.”) For me, their likability was not an important factor. Maybe it says something about me, but I read about their thoughts and actions—the envy, the cruelty, the yearning—and thought it to be uncomfortably human. I squirmed in my seat. On the other hand, Gigi is an extraordinarily likable character who is still imbued with complexities. (Confession: I wanted so badly to shout at June “DEAR GOD JUST BE FRIENDS WITH GIGI OKAY” several times.)

What else? The dance descriptions are exquisite. The romance is pretty cute, though I admit I wasn’t fully invested. And significantly, the book’s treatment of serious issues like eating disorders and bullying is commendable.

I don’t think that the storyline of June’s mystery (though not that big of a mystery) father had enough resolution, but I didn’t mind because there’s a second book coming out! I really hope that the forthcoming book, Shiny Broken Things, will tie up many of the open threads.

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The Inkwell: Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

The Inkwell is a series of book reviews, or just rambling thoughts on specific books. For more, amble here


Review: Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

everythingeverything

Official Synopsis:

My disease is as rare as it is famous. Basically, I’m allergic to the world. I don’t leave my house, have not left my house in seventeen years. The only people I ever see are my mom and my nurse, Carla.

But then one day, a moving truck arrives next door. I look out my window, and I see him. He’s tall, lean and wearing all black—black T-shirt, black jeans, black sneakers, and a black knit cap that covers his hair completely. He catches me looking and stares at me. I stare right back. His name is Olly.

Maybe we can’t predict the future, but we can predict some things. For example, I am certainly going to fall in love with Olly. It’s almost certainly going to be a disaster.


 

“Just because you can’t experience everything doesn’t mean you shouldn’t experience anything.”
Nicola Yoon, Everything, Everything

Snuggled on a couch with a fuzzy cozy blanket, I devoured Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything in one sitting. There were other people in the room beckoning me to join in the social gathering. I tried to put the book down several times and kept failing.

Diagnosed with SCID, the famous “bubble baby disease,” Madeline Whittier is essentially trapped inside her house. Until a burgeoning friendship—and more—with the cute boy next door changes everything.

I wasn’t very drawn by the premise—I’m not usually into contemporary romance-centered YA. Especially when they involve “boys that change everything.” Still, I thought I would like the book because it has elements I root for: diverse characters and a unique format (vignettes, messages, emails, post-its, etc). But I had no idea that I would fall into it and not emerge until I reached the last page, when I dazedly looked up and wondered where the last few hours had gone.

There were heartbreaking parts and heartsoaring parts. All written deftly and lyrically. The author is so talented that the meh-premise (in my opinion) becomes extraordinary and unique. The adorableness was compounded by the extra adorable fact that the author’s husband did the illustrations.

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The author, Nicola Yoon, and her husband David. (via NicolaYoon.com)

When the “twist” at the end happens, I was caught off guard. And at first, I thought it might be a cop-out deux ex machina move. But with the resolution, I revised that thought.

Read this book if you want simple things spun into complex metaphors and emotions. Read this book if you want complex depths written about in a simple, unadorned way. Read this book if you want to feel. It’s been a couple of weeks since I flipped to the last page of Everything, Everything. And I’m still simmering in post-book blues.

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The Inkwell: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

The Inkwell is a series of book reviews, or just rambling thoughts on specific books. For more, amble here


 

Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

uprooted

Official Synopsis: 

Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.

Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood.

The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows—everyone knows—that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia, all the things Agnieszka isn’t, and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her.

But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose.


 

“We’re meant to go. We’re not meant to stay forever.”
Naomi Novik, Uprooted

Novik’s novel drew me in like a spider pulling in a fly—spinning thread, weaving words. I was utterly enchanted. But this was not an enchantment of sparkles and shimmer. Uprooted is made of a darker magic. Deep lore, creeping vines, widening gyre.

Rooted in Slavic folklore, it contains many fairytale elements. Perhaps because of this, the book is imbued with a strange familiarity. Everything is twisted, yet it feels bedtime-story nostalgic. Gleaming towers, kidnapped maidens, square-jawed princes, epic quests, lost queens, royal courts, roaring dragons. All present and accounted for. But nothing is like the fairytales you know. No, not even like the darker original Grimm tales.

Before I began the book, only knowing the synopsis, I thought that Agnieszka might be a Belle-type. Plucky and book-smart and good-hearted. An archetype who is so easy for girls like me to relate to that it seems almost like a literary cheat. But I was wrong in the best way. Agnieszka’s journey is a genuinely human one, despite the un-human twists of her life. Her consciousness sets in slow and searing. Her unrooting comes through her development as a wizard’s apprentice, and then as a powerful conjurer of her own right. And the Dragon himself… my god! As with the “Beauty,” I was prepared for the Dragon to be an archetypal “Beast”—a brooding prince with a secret soft spot. What I wasn’t prepared for, even halfway through the book, was the aching humanness of him. His crankiness is more hilarious than Brooding Romantic Hero, and all for the better. And in a way (I add cheekily), his horror when Agnieszka organizes his books by color (BY COLOR!) is way sexier than any romantic-hero-gazing-moodily-over-the-moors.

The Wood is not only a gorgeously woven metaphor, but an incredible antagonist. The friendship between Agnieszka and Kasia is allowed room for flowering and wilting and and regrowth. And the other characters, particularly Alosha the Sword, are wonderful counterparts as well. You might not understand what this means until you’ve read Uprooted, but let me tell you that this book is a masterpiece because every character, EVERY CHARACTER, is allowed a journey and a humanity.

I devoured this book feverishly. I took in every page with a half-swallow in my throat. From the beginning, the pace is lush and harrowing. This book is terrifying. And shockingly funny. And absolutely gorgeous.

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