Summer Books

I like to read.  I really like to read on vacation.  I really, really like to read when I visit my dad in the wilds of Bellingham, Washington because he’s one of the few people left in the world who doesn’t have internet.

Anyhow, as usual I was able to get through some books, mostly novels these days, that have been sitting on my little bedroom shelf in lurvely Daegu.  Here goes:

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel

A book that I’m actively going around telling people to read, which I don’t often do, starts off as a typically morose post-apocalyptic tragedy brought on by a super-virus that wipes out 90% of humanity.  Where it goes after that is truly unexpected, with a group of survivors who decide to form a travelling Shakespeare troupe in spite of your bog-standard savages, lunatics, and Jim Jones wannabes.  My sister mentioned it’s got a lot of similarities to Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower — while demonstrating some truly appalling situations that confront the survivors, the book is more about starting over than giving up, and the enduring power of stories to hold us together.  An optimistic post-apocalyptic vision, if you will.  Highly recommended.

Seveneves, Neal Stephenson

I liked this but I’d never recommend it to anyone because you don’t really read a Stephenson novel as much as you resign yourself to a solid week of amazing ideas told through generally flat characters who happen to have some unnecessary, awkward, and poorly written sex.  But the ideas though — what to do when the moon explodes and everybody on earth dies?  (Or so you might think!)  I actually read about half of this on the beach in the Outer Banks, between beers and swims in the ocean, and that seemed just about the perfect way to contemplate another surprisingly optimistic take on the end of human existence as we know it.  I could even handle most of the ridiculously over-the-top Libertarian politics of it all (Rich geniuses will take the risks that politicians and bureaucrats never could and save us all!) but be warned, he lays it on pretty thick at times.  Don’t worry though because those guys die too, just like Ayn Rand did.

Without You, There Is No Us, Suki Kim

I’d recommended Kim’s debut novel, The Interpreter, to anybody interested in trying to learn more about the immigrant experience of Korean-Americans, or more generally the huge culture clashes that continue to go on between the U.S. and South Korea.  It’s a really dark, unrelenting look at a family that, against stereotype, fails to achieve the “American dream.”  Without You is totally different.  For starters, it’s a memoir of time spent at an elite high school in North Korea teaching English.  The first half of the book is genuinely engaging, as she’s left in shock at how little these future leaders of the DPRK actually know about the outside world.  A certain charm comes across though, as the boys begin to open up to her despite being monitored 24-7 for any signs of pro-Western agitation.  By far the most interesting part of the book though comes about as we learn that Kim basically lied to get the job, as the English teachers are part of a Christian missionary organization that sends a very limited number of Westerners in to teach.  That’s really the story I’d like to have gotten to hear more about, even as Kim starts to pad the second half with a nowhere plotline about her “lover” (eww) back in New York.  Read The Interpreter first and if you liked it, check this out as well but be ready for something very different.  For a more comprehensive look at the lives or North Koreans, I much preferred Barbara Demick’s Nothing To Envy.

Black Flower, Young-ha Kim (originally published in 2003)

One of Kim’s novels, I Have The Right To Destroy Myself, is about a guy who makes a living helping faint-hearted people go through with their own suicides.  To state the obvious, his books are always about the darkest impulses of human beings.  In Black Flower, he focuses on a group of Korean migrant workers who get shipped to Mexico in 1904 as indentured servants.  Obviously, pretty much everything goes wrong as a motley mix of peasants, thieves, and Korean nobility gone to seed try to make their way in a strange new land of heat, brutal working conditions, and a strange new religion known as “Catholicism.”  Not the easiest read, but for better or worse it will stay with you a long time.

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