Becoming Mrs. Lewis

Becoming Mrs. LewisBecoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

This is a fictional novel based on Joy Davidman, the woman C. S. Lewis called “my whole world.” When poet and writer Joy Davidman began writing letters to C. S. Lewis—known as Jack—she was looking for spiritual answers, not love. Love, after all, wasn’t holding together her crumbling marriage. Everything about New Yorker Joy seemed ill-matched for an Oxford don and the beloved writer of Narnia, yet their minds bonded over their letters. Embarking on the adventure of her life, Joy traveled from America to England and back again, facing heartbreak and poverty, discovering friendship and faith, and against all odds, finding a love that even the threat of death couldn’t destroy.

Becoming Mrs. Lewis is above all a love story—a love of literature and ideas and a love between a husband and wife that, in the end, was not impossible at all.

My Review

Didn’t finish this one. I just couldn’t get past the fact that this is a work of fiction. While the people in the book actually existed, the picture that the author paints of them is all her own creative work. Sure some of the events actually happened, but the responses and feelings of the people that you see in this book are completely the author’s ideas. And while the author’s writing is engaging and entertaining, it didn’t work for me when what I really wanted was to know the real people better. Even the letters between Joy and C.S. Lewis, which are such a huge part of their developing relationship, are completely faked by the author. I tried getting into a mindset where I could read the book as pure fiction, but I was reminded too frequently that these were real people; and I couldn’t help wondering if they would approve of their portrayal in this book? Which just made me want to pick up a biography rather than spending time on the fiction. And that’s what I plan to do.

Age Recommendation: 18 and older would be most interested in this book, I think.  I didn’t read the whole thing, but what I did read wasn’t necessarily “action packed.” It was more about personal discovery, character and relationship development.  I know the events that occurred later in Joy Davidman’s life, so I imagine the book gets more dramatic as it goes with some difficult facts of life to deal with, which would be another reason more mature readers would do better with this book.

Appropriateness: There was infidelity and drinking discussed in the portion of the book I read, but nothing explicit or glorified. However, deep down I think I do object to the author fictionalizing these real people so much. Though I know she did her research so if anyone has deep insight into who these people were it’s probably her. For me her interpretation came across too much like a soap opera; these great people in history felt minimized by becoming characters.  I would have preferred they stay more “real.”

Other Book Recommendations: I plan to read And God Came In by Lyle Wesley Dorsett, a biography of Joy Davidman. If you are interested in people like Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis I think you would also enjoy Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.  The writing style of this book reminded me some of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, Victoria by Daisy Goodwin, The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, and Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate.

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The Golem and the Jinni

The Golem and the Jinni (The Golem and the Jinni, #1)The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Summary from Goodreads

In The Golem and the Jinni, a chance meeting between mythical beings takes readers on a dazzling journey through cultures in turn-of-the-century New York.

Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic and dies at sea on the voyage from Poland. Chava is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York harbor in 1899.

Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire born in the ancient Syrian desert, trapped in an old copper flask, and released in New York City, though still not entirely free.

Ahmad and Chava become unlikely friends and soul mates with a mystical connection.  Helene Wecker’s debut novel weaves strands of Yiddish and Middle Eastern literature, historical fiction and magical fable, into a wondrously inventive and unforgettable tale.

My Review

I almost didn’t finish this one because it had a really slow start for me; there were a lot of characters to meet and some were interesting, others I wasn’t so sure about. There were multiple cultures, eras in time, and settings. At first it took some work to keep it all straight and I wasn’t sure if I cared enough to try. I was curious to see how it would all fit together which kept me reading, and I was eventually drawn in and finished the last 2/3 pretty quickly.

I enjoyed the history, philosophy, and theology woven into the fantasy. By the end I found all of the characters fascinating and intricate. Each gave unique insight into the book’s themes; I appreciated that each had weakness and strength and it was their choices that determined the total sum of each of their parts. When the sequel is available I will likely pick it up.

Age Recommendation: I wouldn’t give this book to my teens. Adult readers with more life experience will relate better to character’s individuals struggles and choices, and the book’s themes.

Appropriateness: Mention of and focus on sex was beyond my comfort level, but not so graphic that it kept me from finishing.  I didn’t find the language offensive.

There is plenty of material for book club discussion regarding faith, religion, cultural tradition, immigration, nature vs. nurture, and responsibility for and importance of agency.

Other Book Recommendations: If this book interests you I think you’d also enjoy The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, The Magician’s Elephant by Katie DiCamillo, The Time Key by Melanie Bateman, and The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson.

 

 

 

High Sierra


41x9jzpashl._sx321_bo1204203200_High Sierra
by Adrienne Quintana

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary (from Goodreads)

When Jasmine Fuentes finds herself thousands of miles from home, forced to hike around in the wilderness of California with a bunch of juvenile delinquents, she’s convinced she doesn’t belong.

Forage for food, build shelter, make fire—Jasmine sets out to learn what she needs to do to ace the program so she can go home and salvage her summer vacation. But the more she tries to prove she doesn’t need wilderness therapy, the more desperate her situation becomes. Confronted with life and death, she comes face to face with her past and her imperfections. Will Jasmine ask for help before it’s too late?

My Review

I wish more YA fiction was like High Sierra. It was so enjoyable and refreshing to read through the eyes of a teenage girl that didn’t drive me crazy with her whining. Jasmine Fuentes is still definitely a teenager with the sarcasm and struggles that come with that stage of life, but she has wit and intelligence that help her to continue to function despite the unfairness life left in her path.

There are other teenage characters in the book who turn to more destructive coping strategies, but I love the hopeful message that those choices (whether severely dysfunctional or only slightly less than functional) don’t define them (or us); change is possible, and these teens even at their lowest lows have a desire to change. They just need to see the way to get started, and patient and sincere guides to help them along the way. High Sierra portrays realistically that that kind of change requires hard work and time, but it can happen and is worth the effort when it does.

Wilderness is a great positive influence in my life. I have learned through experiences in nature about strength, confidence, hard work, peace, awe and wonder, and Divinity. So reading about teens starting their path to change through wilderness therapy was relatable and realistic. I appreciated that learning about our place in God’s plan helped Jasmine, as my relationship with God is the most defining aspect of my life. But I also appreciated that High Sierra is not preachy. No one religion or agenda is pushed.

And I have to be clear that while High Sierra surpasses other YA fiction in strength of characters and depth of theme, it also does not disappoint in humor, excitement, and of course romance that I think we all have to admit we are looking for when we pick up a book from this genre. I look forward to giving this one to my daughters to read. I know that like me they will be entertained and enthralled, but also made better for having read it.

Age Recommendation: I think readers 14 and older would enjoy this book most as they would relate best to the struggles the characters face in their lives.

Appropriateness: Characters’ struggles with drugs, eating disorders, and sex are mentioned in the book but without any inappropriate detail or glorifying. Language is clean. Nothing offensive for any age.

Other Book Recommendations: If High Sierra interests you I recommend Eruption and Reclamation also by Adrienne Quintana, The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson, Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate, Relic by Renee Collins, Out of my Mind by Sharon M. Draper, and Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath.

Before We Were Yours

Before We Were YoursBefore We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Summary from Goodreads

Memphis, 1939. Twelve-year-old Rill Foss and her four younger siblings live a magical life aboard their family’s Mississippi River shantyboat. But when their father must rush their mother to the hospital one stormy night, Rill is left in charge—until strangers arrive in force. Wrenched from all that is familiar and thrown into a Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, the Foss children are assured that they will soon be returned to their parents—but they quickly realize the dark truth. At the mercy of the facility’s cruel director, Rill fights to keep her sisters and brother together in a world of danger and uncertainty.

Aiken, South Carolina, present day. Born into wealth and privilege, Avery Stafford seems to have it all: a successful career as a federal prosecutor, a handsome fiancé, and a lavish wedding on the horizon. But when Avery returns home to help her father weather a health crisis, a chance encounter leaves her with uncomfortable questions and compels her to take a journey through her family’s long-hidden history, on a path that will ultimately lead either to devastation or to redemption.

Based on one of America’s most notorious real-life scandals—in which Georgia Tann, director of a Memphis-based adoption organization, kidnapped and sold poor children to wealthy families all over the country—Lisa Wingate’s riveting, wrenching, and ultimately uplifting tale reminds us how, even though the paths we take can lead to many places, the heart never forgets where we belong.

My Review

I had never heard of Georgia Tann or the terrible things she did before picking up this book. I was shocked that she was able to get away with kid napping and selling children for so long. It’s heartbreaking to read about, but it was interesting as well. Very well written story with characters I fell in love with and was really rooting for. I felt the author handled the telling of terrible wrongs very tastefully.

Age Recommendation: Harsh realities are presented though with taste. But I recommend this for adult readers.

Appropriateness: Good message, hard story. For some it might be too much and too emotional. But I found it disturbing without being traumatizing. And it is in the end a story of hope and happiness. Definitely full of book club discussion material.

Other Book Recommendations: If this book interests you then you might also want to read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, and The Help by Kathryn Stockett.

 

Arc of the Scythe Series (books 1 and 2)

Scythe (Arc of a Scythe, #1)Scythe by Neal Shusterman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary from Goodreads

A world with no hunger, no disease, no war, no misery. Humanity has conquered all those things, and has even conquered death. Now scythes are the only ones who can end life—and they are commanded to do so, in order to keep the size of the population under control.

Citra and Rowan are chosen to apprentice to a scythe—a role that neither wants. These teens must master the “art” of taking life, knowing that the consequence of failure could mean losing their own.

Thunderhead (Arc of a Scythe, #2)Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

Rowan has gone rogue, and has taken it upon himself to put the Scythedom through a trial by fire. Citra, now a junior scythe under Scythe Curie, sees the corruption and wants to help change it from the inside out, but is thwarted at every turn, and threatened by the “new order” scythes. Realizing she cannot do this alone—or even with the help of Scythe Curie and Faraday, she does the unthinkable, and takes great risk so she can communicate with the Thunderhead—the only being on earth wise enough to solve the dire problems of a perfect world. But will it help solve those problems, or simply watch as perfection goes into decline?

My Review

This is one of those series that enveloped me immediately and I didn’t want to put down until I’d read every last word. Having to wait for the third book is torturous. I found the portrayal of human nature in this fictional case study intriguing, disturbing, frustrating at times, and just a great read. The author suspended my disbelief well, creating a world and scenario that felt plausible and the character’s actions and reactions fit too. Despite the amount of death and killing I did not find the descriptions to be gory or gratuitous with violence. If you liked The Hunger Games definitely give these books a try.

Age Recommendation: Some pretty heavy philosophical ideas and situations centered around death, immortality, perfection, and murder that make this book for mature readers.  I would say 16 and older.

Appropriateness: The author is skilled at telling this story fraught with moral dilemma and murder in a way that evokes deep thoughts and emotions without just being gross or praising corruption.

Book Club or Classroom Use: It would be fascinating to see the discussion that these books would spur in a book club or high school English class setting. The story would be an interesting sociology read as well.

Other Book Recommendations: If The Arc of the Scythe series interests you then I think you would also enjoy The Hunger Games Series by Suzanne Collins, The Uglies Series by Scott Westerfield, Eruption and Reclamation by Adrienne Quintana, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, and The Winner Series by Marie Rutkoski.

The House with Chicken Legs

The House with Chicken LegsThe House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

All 12-year-old Marinka wants is a friend. A real friend. Not like her house with chicken legs. Sure, the house can play games like tag and hide-and-seek, but Marinka longs for a human companion. Someone she can talk to and share secrets with.
But that’s tough when your grandmother is a Yaga, a guardian who guides the dead into the afterlife. It’s even harder when you live in a house that wanders all over the world . . . carrying you with it. So when Marinka stumbles across the chance to make a real friend, she breaks all the rules . . . with devastating consequences.

My Review

If I hadn’t seen this book in a scholastic book order for only $3 I’m not sure it would have ever caught my attention. But I’m glad it did. The idea of guardians who guide the dead each night to the afterlife combined with aspects of Russian culture was very interesting. What I appreciated most was the look into the struggle it can be to feel like you fit in anywhere, especially in those early teen years. And the portrayal of the guilt that comes when we make choices we know deep down are wrong. Add to that having to deal with the consequences of those choices and take responsibility for them and I feel this is a great read for any middle grade to early teen reader (or for an adult who just enjoys children’s literature). The teaching points are effective without being preachy. The characters are likable and relatable in their imperfections, while also being “good.”

This is not an epic story or adventure, so the rules of the fantasy world are not overly explicit, but that didn’t interfere with the entertainment value for me. However, I think I would have given 4 stars if the ending had had a little more umph to it. It seemed to resolve rather neatly rather quickly, without fully explaining how exactly the change in “rules” was possible. The story has folktale/fairytale/fable feel, or like a or a tale that might have fit in the Russian version of Arabian Nights – cute, entertaining, quick to get into and quick to finish.

Age Recommendation: Perfect read for middle grades on up.

Appropriateness: Death is an integral part of the story which may be a sensitive topic for some, but it’s addressed with such warmth and care that there isn’t anything sensationalized.

Classroom Use: This would be an ideal read aloud from grades 3-6. So much discussion material about death, choices, consequences, destiny, family, friendship, loneliness, love, not to mention the Russian culture and the geographical locations of the various story settings.

Other Book Recommendations: If you are interested in The House with Chicken Legs I think you would also enjoy The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, The Little Prince by Antoine de St. Exupery, Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath,  Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins, and The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo.

 

My Lady Jane

My Lady Jane (The Lady Janies, #1)My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

Edward (long live the king) is the King of England. He’s also dying, which is inconvenient, as he’s only sixteen and he’d much rather be planning for his first kiss…

Jane (reads too many books) is Edward’s cousin, and far more interested in books than romance. Unfortunately for Jane, Edward has arranged to marry her off to secure the line of succession before he dies. And there’s something a little odd about her intended…

Gifford (call him G) is a horse. That is, he’s an Eðian (eth-y-un, for the uninitiated). Every day at dawn he becomes a noble chestnut steed—but then he wakes at dusk with a mouthful of hay. It’s all very undignified.

The plot thickens as Edward, Jane, and G are drawn into a dangerous conspiracy and the fate of the kingdom is at stake.

My Review

I was completely surprised by how “good” of a read this one was. I was expecting humor and silliness, but I wasn’t expecting to actually be caught up in a well structured, well told, exciting, and enthralling story. It reminded me of “The Princess Bride” with lovable characters, romance, good guys and bad guys and some in between, swashbuckling excitement, all while not taking itself too seriously and using cliche and one-liners to perfection.

I am impressed with the authors’ skills in balancing all of the aspects of good story and writing with laugh out loud silliness. The jokes are weaved into this alternate reality of historical events with both subtlety and transparent nonsense, and it works both ways. Yet the humor doesn’t become higher priority than the story-telling, so it’s satisfying entertainment. I was cheering for love and justice to win in the end and intrigued by how it would be done.

Ironically, this fantasy “spoof” of the Tudor time period inspired me to research and learn more about the actual events that inspired the book, so I now have a much greater understanding of the English monarchy from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I. I love the series “Victoria” on PBS so I even took my study a little further to see how the chain of the monarchy led to her reign as well.

This is a one of a kind young adult fiction and a thoroughly enjoyable one too.

Age Recommendation: Some understanding of history will add to the enjoyment of the genius and humor of this book so I would recommend it to 15 and older.

Appropriateness: The subject of “consummating marriage” comes up a bit, and  there are some other references to kissing and sex. Some of it may be bordering on crude for some readers, but in the spirit of the book I found it all hilarious, endearing, or relatable and accurate.  There is kissing and characters are often found naked due to the condition of sporadically changing into animals, but none of the description is sensationalized or gratuitous.

Other Book Recommendations: If My Lady Jane interests you then I think you would also enjoy The Princess Bride by William Goldman, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, Goblins in the Castle by Bruce Coville, Frogkisser by Garth Nix, The Great Good Thing by Roderick Townley, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman,  Holes by Louis Sachar,  My Super Sweet Sixteenth Century by Rachel Harris, The Kiss of a Stranger by Sarah M. Eden, and The Book with No Pictures by B.J. Novak.

 

The Nightingale

The NightingaleThe Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

An epic novel of love and war, spanning from the 1940s to the present day, and the secret lives of those who live in a small French town. The Nightingale tells the stories of two sisters, separated by years and experience, by ideals, passion and circumstance, each embarking on her own dangerous path toward survival, love, and freedom in German-occupied, war-torn France–a heartbreakingly beautiful novel that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the durability of women.

My Review

I read this book at the wrong time. I should have loved it. It’s historical fiction, set in France, with romance. But it’s also heavy World War II terrible stuff and in the few months before picking up this one I had only read other heavy subject matter books.

It didn’t start out too heavy though. I actually first listened to the audio book and then switched to ebook. I was completely caught up throughout part 1 in the French language and culture and description of the scenery, the family relationships, and romance. I enjoyed the poetic language that was so fitting for the time and place. Though I did find the detailed descriptions of clothing and food a little too frequent and over the top.

Then the Nazi’s invaded France in the book and turmoil and trauma invaded my La Vie en Rose experience. I just wasn’t prepared for it like I thought. After having recently read so many books about our current and real world tribulation I realized that I really wanted a little “fluff” to read.

I was interested in the characters though so I kept pushing through until I could see the writing on the wall that things were only going to get more “real” and I wasn’t even halfway through the book. I just couldn’t do it; I didn’t have the emotional stamina.

But I still wanted to find out what would happen to these characters, and I had to know who the elderly lady narrator really was. So I skipped to the end and skimmed backwards until I felt like I had a pretty good idea of the major events. What I found out made me glad I stopped where I did, but I feel sad that at another time, in a little different mood, I could have really enjoyed the depth of character and plot.

Age Recommendation: 18 and older. This is a war story and also a romance. Readers should be mature enough and knowledgeable enough about WWII to follow characters through horrible trauma and deprivation,  but also find purpose and joy in love.

Appropriateness: There is sexual content, both between married and unmarried characters as well consensual and not. There is war related violence and injustice. I didn’t read the whole book, but from what I did read some of it was more graphically described than what I was up for at the time, but it may not bother other readers. Had I been in more of a mood for something deep and epic it may not have bothered me either.

This book would provide plenty of discussion material for book club in regards to are historical and cultural factors, family relationships, communication, how best to stand up for truth and morality, what is most important in war or where their is injustice.

Other Book Recommendations: If The Nightingale is of interest to you then you should also try The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, The Zion Covenant series by Bodie Thoene, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, Armageddon Summer by Jane Yolen and Bruce Coville, The Winner’s Trilogy by Marie Rutkoski, Cash Valley by Ryan K. Nelson, or Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.

 

 

I am Malala

I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the TalibanI Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

I come from a country that was created at midnight. When I almost died it was just after midday.

When the Taliban took control of the Swat Valley in Pakistan, one girl spoke out. Malala Yousafzai refused to be silenced and fought for her right to an education. At 15 years old she almost paid the ultimate price. She was shot in the head at point-blank range while riding the bus home from school, and few expected her to survive.

Instead, Malala’s miraculous recovery has taken her on an extraordinary journey from a remote valley in northern Pakistan to the halls of the United Nations in New York. At sixteen, she has become a global symbol of peaceful protest and the youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

I Am Malala is the remarkable tale of a family uprooted by global terrorism, of the fight for girls’ education, of a father who championed and encouraged his daughter to write and attend school, and of brave parents who have a fierce love for their daughter in a society that prizes sons.

My Review

When I started listening to the audio book I think I was expecting a fairly short recap of a girls life leading up to how and why she got shot. I mean, she was just a teenager after all so how much of her life could there be to tell? I chose the book because it was readily available, and while I had heard about Malala I didn’t really know much about her, and she seems like the kind of person I should know about in order to be up on the current issues.

I was surprised when the book started right off with the day of the shooting. I realized this was not going to be the book I was expecting, but I was ok with that because I was only more intrigued by the “why” after hearing about the “how” of the shooting.

It was a pleasant surprise to learn about the history and culture of Pakistan and Islam. I’m not the most well-informed world citizen, but I ain’t totally ignorant either, so this was a great format for me to gain a broader perspective of the intricate and interconnected workings of our modern world. I was fascinated by the history of Malala’s family and how it connected to the broader national and religious history. The descriptions of the Swat Valley left me hoping I could someday visit Pakistan to see it for myself.

I watched “The Viceroy’s House” on Netflix after finishing the book; it is a movie about the time surrounding Pakistan’s birth. While it may not be the most accurate portrayal of history, it did teach me much more than I had known before about that time in history. It also furthered my interest in learning more about Pakistan and Afghanistan so I can better understand current events.

Malala’s teenage voice and perspective were fun and refreshing through a tale of hardship and danger. But she also has a maturity and wisdom beyond her years. It was joyful to hear that a girl who is willing to stand up to gangs and murderers for the right to go to school also was obsessed with Twilight and dreamed of being a vampire.

I respect Malala and her family not only for their work to provide educational opportunities for girls, even at the risk of their own lives, but also because they are good. They are devoted to their God and to each other. They show patience and understanding for differences in people. There is no self-righteousness nor self-deprecation when describing the wonders and problems in their country and religion. Malala’s voice keeps a neutrality even when describing the ways in which the Western world wronged or betrayed her country. There is acceptance of the good, the bad, and the ugly in all of us, but with a hope and striving for the best. More empathy in this world could make all the difference.

Age Recommendation: 16 and older. Malala is a teenager herself and is relatable as such, but the issues in the book and her experiences require some scope of world understanding.

Appropriateness: Some readers may be disturbed by the violent and unjust events in the book, but I didn’t find any of the description offensive.

I gained a lot of perspective of my place in the world and felt a bit humbled by it. This would be a perfect book club choice.

Other Book Recommendations: If you are interested in I Am Malala then you might also enjoy When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, Seven Daughters and Seven Sons by Barbara Cohen, and Without You there is No Us by Suki Kim.

 

Without You There is No Us

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

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 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.

Life at PUST is lonely and claustrophobic where letters are read by censors, every conversation is listened to, and a communist regime controls behavior, belief, and fairly successfully even thoughts. To the students, everything in North Korea is the best, the tallest, the most delicious, the envy of all nations. Suki is unnerved by their obedience to the regime and the ease with which they lie. Still, she cannot help but love them – their boyish enthusiasm, their eagerness to please, the flashes of curiosity that have not yet been extinguished.

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.”

My Review

Fascinating is the best the word I can think of to describe this book. I didn’t know much about North Korea before reading/listening, other than the basics such as it’s a communist country with a preoccupation with nuclear weapons, it and South Korea were separated at some point after some war in the past, Japan had invaded Korea at one point, and North Korea was very much closed to the rest of the world. I wouldn’t say that this book is a great textbook for learning the history or political movements of North Korea, but for someone with decent logic and reasoning skills, and a pretty good grasp of world history this was a very engaging way to get a glimpse into the role North Korea has played and currently plays on the international stage.

The book is categorized as a memoir which I would say is accurate, but it felt like a memoir ensconced in truth and important perspective. As a South Korean who immigrated to the United States the author has a very unique context from which to view the events and ideas she experienced in North Korea. Because the book is written from her experience and with her own reflection on that experience it does fit the memoir mold. However, as a reader I trusted her reflections because of her own past and culture. She could see things in a way that others without her kind of love for Korea would not. Which was kind of the point of her efforts. I appreciated not only her interpretation of reactions, ideas, and events based on her personal ties to the country and people, but also her sharing the insight and identity she gained and lost through her experience.

If the book were just Suki Kim’s musings about Korea, war, communism, religion, loyalty, truth, and education then it would be interesting but it may not be as important as it felt to me. Kim is a journalist, one who had followed stories in North Korea before her time as a teacher there. Her perspective from that role gives the book an element of reporting that left me feeling I did understand historical events and international relations better.

I loved how the combination of memoir and journalism gave me interesting facts but also affected me emotionally. There were times as I listened that I was caught up purely intellectually in the picture of North Korea that the author was painting for me. It’s a country so removed from me with so many secrets that it was just mesmerizing to hear what being there, living there would be like. But then I would slowly transport myself and start imagining what it would really feel like to be there. The author would share a scene where the restrictions, regulation, and control were no longer just interesting facts, but the realities of people’s lives, and I would feel such sorrow and hurt for the Korean people and any others living always as prisoners.

My emotions yo-yoed right along with the author’s as she described her love/hate relationship with her job, with her students and coworkers, and with the culture she was proud of, but had also rejected in some senses. In an effort to educate myself more about North Korea I read some newspaper articles after finishing the book. I hated how the articles painted all North Koreans as our enemies. Kim’s writing, on the other hand, reveals the humanity of the people, the ways in which we are all the same, while also clearly broadcasting the naivety and even the threat that the North Korean people’s beliefs and choices hold for anyone they deem their enemy (or that their leaders deem their enemy). However, I didn’t come away feeling endangered or afraid. I felt pity. How can I hate a people who have lived for generations under the brainwashing effect of propaganda and lies? I worry FOR them, just as Suki Kim does, but not ABOUT them; they are not my enemy.

Ironically, Kim is clearly not a Christian or a believer, but I found her approach of love, patience, and correction so Christ-like. She compares the belief and faith in God that her Christian coworkers have to the faith and belief that the North Koreans have in their “great leader” and their communist party. From her experience, I can’t deny the grains of truth in her comparison. But I also empathized with the emotion that one coworker expressed or almost expressed when Kim confronted her about the hypocrisy she saw in the coworker’s religious beliefs. It seemed to me that the coworker at that moment was blessed with a Christ-like love for Kim, despite the confrontation Kim had just initiated.
The coworker emoted mostly with her face, a desire to share some eternal truth that she knew, but that she wasn’t sure Kim was ready for yet. Interestingly, since Kim is the one narrating the experience, I think she must have seen her coworker’s emotion too, otherwise she could not have described it in a way that would allow me as the reader to pick up on it.

I think Kim believed her Christian coworker’s good intentions even if she didn’t completely agree with them. I read a blog post from the author where she talks about the backlash she has received since publishing the book from readers who don’t agree with her actions either. But I feel gratitude for Suki Kim and her good intentions. I think, despite her unbelief, her work and writing will open hearts and minds so that God can work with us all as our world gets smaller through technology and more dangerous if small-mindedness is encouraged. I hope, as the author does, that North Koreans will gain freedom and that the world will be ready to receive and help them when they do. I hope that the good that is ingrained in their culture will be appreciated and magnified, not suppressed or wiped out by our often egotistical and overbearing western culture. This is where history can be our best teacher if we will learn from our mistakes of the past to guide our future.

My husband is a geographer so maps are always an interesting source of information in our lives. He found this data image for me that shows light for areas where navigation data is used and shared. This image shows South and North Korea and China. The darkness of North Korea sums up the country fairly well. A picture is worth a thousand words, as they say.

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P.S. Listening to this book was a good choice for me. I loved hearing the reader pronounce the Korean names and words that I would have had no idea on had I been reading.

Age Recommendation: 18 and older. To appreciate the implications of and information in this book requires some understanding of history, culture, and politics that I think generally comes only with adulthood.

Appropriateness: Harsh realities of communism, tyranny, poverty, and prejudice are a constant presence in this book, but I didn’t find any of it to be sensational or gory. It can certainly be depressing at times, but mostly I was fascinated. The author does use the term “lover” to describe an old flame, but there is no description of romantic relationships.

I read this because it was selected for book club and I am looking forward to the discussion that will be possible.  This is a perfect book club read.

Other book recommendations: If Without You There is No Us is of interest to you then I think you would also enjoy So Far From the Bamboo Grove by Yoko Kawashima Watkins, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr,  Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.