Review: Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Title: Without You, There Is No Us
Subtitle: My Time With the Sons of North Korea's Elite
Author: Suki Kim
Pages: 385
Genre: Non-fiction; memoir; sociological
Publisher: Crown (Penguin Random House)
Pub. Date: October 14, 2014

This memoir is written about the days that author, Suki Kim, taught English to boys at a university in North Korea where she posed as a Christian missionary. (These missionaries were allowed to teach there because the funding for the school itself had been largely from Christian organizations). In doing so, and in being a teacher, Kim was able to provide a look into the minds of the young people who live there.

We already know, (at least if you've done any reading on the topic at all), the ways in which people there are "brainwashed" to believe the things they do and about the ways in which they are cut off from the rest of the world in an almost alternate reality. Interacting with these kids absolutely depicted this exact thing. Kim's goals were to learn and report about this but to also instill in the boys some concept of thinking for themselves and the realization that things weren't as they were raised to believe.

The boys Kim taught were of the "elite" so had better lives and opportunities than the average North Korean which is crazy considering how they were still treated and controlled. Reading this gave me that same tense and anxious feeling I had when reading Orwell's 1984... nightmarish. The things these boys (men, really) believed about their country were ridiculous... basically believing they are the best in so many different ways and how the rest of the world envies them. But the ways they were controlled also was nightmarish. For instance, when construction needed to be done, the government took the kids from the school and forced them to do labor... But even scarier is that the kids would respond with the attitude that they didn't at all mind, as it was for their Dear Leader. 

This was a fascinating look at the ways the environment can shape a person. They were all human and had curiosities (to the degree they were permitted, of course) and reading about everything they wanted to know, were learning, and the concepts their life experiences prevented them from grasping was disheartening and heartwarming at the same time. Ugh, there were frustrating feelings while reading this. Sometimes I just wanted to scream or shake people in the book! 

I could see some people having issue with the deception that took place as part of Kim doing research for the book. In a way, I did feel for the boys who I did feel were exploited to a degree, as they may never know the truth of their interactions with Kim. Though I do feel Kim's reporting was well done and that she genuinely cared for these kids. It was interesting to see the ways she creatively responded to their questions both to keep herself out of trouble but also to try to enlighten them a little.

I wish there had been more to the ending. But I guess there isn't really more to tell considering the memoir goes through 2011 and nothing has changed in the way things are there. I would be interested, though maybe not possible, to see where these boys are years later. 

I do highly recommend this book, especially along with Nothing To Envy by Barbara Demick if you haven't read that. Both will teach you a lot about life in North Korea and both are fascinating reads.

Mini-mini reviews! #1

Friday, January 9, 2015

I decided to go back and do a bunch of mini reviews for all the books I read but failed to review over the past two years. This will make me feel sort of caught up and refreshed and maybe will help me be motivated to keep up with reviewing what I've read this year! Some of these will be very mini since I can't remember them that well. This is batch #1.

Title: And The Mountains Echoed
Author: Khaled Hosseini
Genre: Fiction
Page: 402
Publisher: Riverhead Books (Penguin)
Pub. Date: May 21, 2013

This was definitely not on par with either of Hosseini's previous books which were both wonderful. He's still a good storyteller, but this one left me wanting more. It felt more like a book of connected short stories than a full novel, and I may have liked it better if it had been advertised that way because the way it was I kept waiting for everything to come together more.

Title: Wonder
Author: R. J. Palacio
Pages: 315
Genre: Fiction; middle grade
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (Random House)
Pub. Date: February 14, 2012

This is the first book I read last year. It is a middle grade book. It was cute and had a good message. I don't remember it being as "omgz" fabulous as everyone thought. A book about being different. Honestly, I'd have to read it again to remember if I'd recommend it or not. Sorry! I do remember thinking that although it was one kids could relate to, it was a little too "easy" in terms of how things became better for the character.

Title: The Book Thief
Author: Markus Zusak
Page: 550
Genre: Historical fiction; young adult
Publisher: Knopf (Random House)
Pub. Date: March 14, 2006

This was on last year's book bucket list. It was good. But again, with the immense praise it has received I actually expected more.

Title: Sharp Objects
Author: Gillian Flynn
Pages: 252
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Broadway (Crown Publishing Group)
Pub. Date: September 26, 2006

Gillian Flynn's first published novel. It was very good. I don't know if the plot was necessarily supposed to be a twist, since I saw where it was going pretty fast. Although I like to think that's just my special acumen! It wasn't as twisted as Gone Girl, for sure, but it was still a great story with some messed up characters!

Review: The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs

Monday, January 5, 2015

Title: The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace
Subtitle: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League
Pages: 402
Genre: Non-fiction, biography
Publisher: Scribner (Simon & Schuster)
Pub. Date: September 23, 2014

Synopsis from Barnes & Noble:

A heartfelt, and riveting biography of the short life of a talented young African-American man who escapes the slums of Newark for Yale University only to succumb to the dangers of the streets—and of one’s own nature—when he returns home.

When author Jeff Hobbs arrived at Yale University, he became fast friends with the man who would be his college roommate for four years, Robert Peace. Robert’s life was rough from the beginning in the crime-ridden streets of Newark in the 1980s, with his father in jail and his mother earning less than $15,000 a year. But Robert was a brilliant student, and it was supposed to get easier when he was accepted to Yale, where he studied molecular biochemistry and biophysics. But it didn’t get easier. Robert carried with him the difficult dual nature of his existence, “fronting” in Yale, and at home.

Through an honest rendering of Robert’s relationships—with his struggling mother, with his incarcerated father, with his teachers and friends and fellow drug dealers—The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace encompasses the most enduring conflicts in America: race, class, drugs, community, imprisonment, education, family, friendship, and love. It’s about the collision of two fiercely insular worlds—the ivy-covered campus of Yale University and Newark, New Jersey, and the difficulty of going from one to the other and then back again. It’s about poverty, the challenges of single motherhood, and the struggle to find male role models in a community where a man is more likely to go to prison than to college. It’s about reaching one’s greatest potential and taking responsibility for your family no matter the cost. It’s about trying to live a decent life in America. But most all the story is about the tragic life of one singular brilliant young man. His end, a violent one, is heartbreaking and powerful and unforgettable.

One of the things I liked best about this book was how it was a eulogy of sorts to the author's friend (and former college roommate). Before reading this, I had wondered if there was any possibility that maybe the writing of this book was exploitative at all. But what I found instead was that the author seems to have genuinely cared for and regarded this man and wanted to tell his story.

Growing up in a neighborhood of low socioeconomic status where "hustling" was often a way of life, Robert Peace, seemed to overcome this and eventually made it to Yale, where he earned a degree in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry. But going back home after college brought Peace back into the dangerous lifestyle that many at home lived. 

What I found interesting, for one, was how post college life turned out differently than expected for a lot of people. This surprised me I guess, because you would assume that someone who goes to an Ivy League school will have it All. Figured.Out afterwards. And I was surprised and frustrated, as I'm sure most readers would be, at how Peace's life choices did not reflect nearly what he was capable of. This book, in addition to being a thoughtful biography, was also an interesting look at the societal dynamics of growing up in the "hood" and the impact this continues to have on the kids who grow up there, even when they are provided with great resources. The thought is that the concept of "choices" may still be different, to a certain degree, based on the environment that shapes you during your childhood. Peace's decision making was influenced greatly by his father, who was in jail for double murder (and for whom Peace worked steadily by researching law books to try to fight for him legally), and in his desire to provide for his mother who worked tirelessly to provide the best for him. But despite how smart he was, he often made decisions that were not in his best interest. 

This book is sad because of the tragedy and how Peace's life ends (and knowing throughout the reading that this is coming up), but I was comforted by knowing that Peace really did a lot during the short life he led (both for himself and for others). He definitely led a full life. 

I thought everything was well researched and well written. The author could have easily just focused on writing what he knew and added in a couple interviews. But he was very thorough, providing history about the town, the schools, Peace's mom and the way she parented her son, etc.

Highly recommended!