Saturday, July 16, 2016

Good reads

Hey guys!

Something I've always loved ever since I can remember has been books, and reading them. I was inspired to share some of my favorites with you all after my good friend Paula, a NSLI-Y alumna who went to Korea the same summer I was in Turkey and is one of the most awesome and like-minded people to me I've come into contact with, shared her favorite books in a post much like this one. (Hit up her blog, it's rad. :3)
I hope that this is enjoyable for you guys. If even one person reads a single one of these books and enjoys it, then I will be immensely happy. :)
  1. The Girl With Seven Names, by Hyenseo Lee. This book I read back at the beginning of the summer. It's an autobiography written by Hyenseo Lee, a North Korean refugee, who tells the story of her childhood in North Korea, her escape to China and the several years she spent there before finally ending up in South Korea, and then the harrowing and highly suspenseful tale of venturing all the way back to the North Korean border and back down through China to get her mother and brother to safety in the South as well. The book does a great job of telling these stories in hugely compelling ways along with providing ample context in terms of history and culture through Lee's memories, and also represents an interesting prospective of the author as a child of a fairly privileged and well-off North Korean family, as well as the Korean-Chinese community in China, which she did her best to blend into for safety reasons in her time in China (the Chinese authorities officially view North Korean refugees as "economic migrants" due to their alliance with the North Korean regime, and repatriate them if they are discovered in China without authorization, which results in their execution). It may seem a bit dauntingly long, but trust me, you won't be able to put it down. I finished it in three days. 
  2. Nothing to Envy, by Barbara Demick. This incredible book tells of the lives and times of six ordinary North Korean citizens over a fifteen-year period. Though it does a great job of giving historical context of the founding of the country, the Korean War, the rise of the Kim regime, and all that stuff, it really is a book that's focused on the everyday lives, the trials and tribulations, the love affairs and familial drama of ordinary North Korean citizens. The best example I can think of is this story about two teenagers who were secretly dating that took advantage of the lack of power at night to go for long walks hidden in the darkness together (they were from different social groups and had to conceal their love as a result). That sort of stuff is the true core of the book - simple yet profound elements of everyday existence. All of these citizens are now defectors living in the South, so the book also goes into detail of their intense and harrowing escape stories, and how some of them eventually reconnect in their new country. This was easily one of the best books I've read in a long time. 
  3. Escape from Camp 14, by Blaine Harden. This book focuses primarily on the story of North Korean defector Shin Dong-Hyuk, who is the only person known to have been born in one of his country's many concentration camps for political dissidents to have escaped to the outside world. Aside from telling the intense tales of Shin's life inside the camp, his escape, and the process of adapting to life in the South, it goes into ample detail in explaining how these camps operate, and the psychology of life within them. On top of entire extended families being imprisoned in these camps where they are essentially worked to death and/or executed arbitrarily, they are forced to enter arranged marriages and produce children by the guards, to prolong the suffering of human life even further, creating entire generations that have known no reality but that of the camp, as Shin did. It tells of how the lack of the regime indoctrination in the camp which is the life and breath of mainstream North Korean society made it easier for Shin to escape and adapt to life on the outside, which I found very interesting. Naturally this book is quite intense in many aspects, but it's fantastic and informative. Bluebird NK, a club I was a part of at my high school, which works to raise money and awareness to save North Korean refugees, particularly children, actually reached out to Shin Dong-Hyuk, and in the spring of 2014 he flew out to Michigan all the way from Seoul to speak at our annual Korean Dinner about his life and experiences. It was incredibly surreal to meet him - here was this man who had survived all these unbelievable hardships I had read about, standing right next to me. I did a double take. On top of having survived all said hardships, he was a wonderfully pleasant, kind, and humble human being. He actually signed the dedication page of my copy of Escape from Camp 14 on my request, and as such, it remains, on top of being one of my favorite books, one of my most treasured and valued possessions. 
  4. The Invitation-Only Zone, by Robert S. Boynton. Last North Korea book, I promise (I've read a lot of good ones haha). This one focuses on an abduction project in which the North Korean government kidnapped several dozen people of diverse nationalities, though the majority of them Japanese, during the 60s and 70s. Stories of many are told, but the two most prominently featured are two Japanese citizens named Kaoru Hasuike and Yukiko Okudo, whose stories are told from the day of their abduction in Japan as young twenty-somethings, to their arranged marriage (luckily they were a couple and in love to begin with), hiding their Japanese nationality from the kids they eventually have, to the governmental negotiations which resulted in their return to Japan twenty-four years later. The book also goes into great detail explaining the historical relationship between Japan and Korea going back hundreds and thousands of years which ultimately influence the lives and standing of these Japanese abductees in North Korea. Might seem like intense material, but it's a really great and informative book with a (pretty) happy ending. 
  5. The Bastard of Istanbul, by Elif Shafak. One of the most recognized Turkish authors, Shafak writes in a way that embodies her diverse and international upbringing, while still paying ample homage to her beloved hometown, Istanbul. She writes in a really beautiful way, always pausing for a moment to paint a clear picture of a scene or image in her reader's mind through intricate and beautiful metaphors. This particular novel is, at its core, a story about a friendship between two girls, one Turkish and one Armenian American, whose family histories are interconnected. Though much of the story seems like things that could well happen in the real world, there's also some really mystical elements of magical realism thrown in. One particular aspect of the book is quite disturbing. But fortunately, it's not revealed until the very end. Still an incredible book nonetheless.
  6. Istanbul, by Orhan Pamuk. This book is a memoir by Orhan Pamuk, another prominent Turkish authors on an international scale, in which he goes into great detail describing the city and his relationship to it through memories of his childhood and adolescence, and growth into adulthood. It's not exactly a page-turner, more the kind of book that you enjoy and savor slowly. But still a worthwhile read nonetheless. An interesting and beautiful literary love letter to what I ardently believe is the loveliest city on Earth. 
  7. Turkish Awakening, by Alev Scott. Scott, who is half English and half Turkish Cypriot, moved to Turkey to learn the language, reconnect with her mother's culture, and do the research to write this book. The result is an outstanding overview of pretty much every facet of Turkish society and life, divided into chapters that tackle different issues and elements of life in the country. These range from technology and economic reform to the struggles of queer Turks, from the position of minorities in the society like Kurds, Armenians, and Greeks to the intense and contentious political rivalries that divide Turkish politics, including a chapter on the 2013 Gezi Park protests. It's hugely informative and well-written, a must read for anyone traveling to or seeking to better understand Turkey.
  8. The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho. This is a book I happened across while browsing in a bookstore about a month before I left for my exchange in Egypt, and as soon as I read the back cover, I knew I was walking out the store with it in toe. I wrote a whole post about this book as well during my first few weeks in Egypt, so I'll try not to repeat myself too much. But it's about an medieval Andalusian shepherd named Santiago who embarks on a "personal journey" of exploration and self-discovery that eventually brings him all the way to the Pyramids of Giza (one can easily see how an exchange student headed to Egypt could connect with this book, no?) to find a treasure. The book talks a lot about the importance of realizing one's personal journey, listening to one's heart, paying attention to the omens around us, etc. I also loved the idea of "beginner's luck," that when someone earnestly seeks to fulfill their personal journey, all the universe will conspire in their favor. That, and the idea of there being a universal "language of the world" that everyone can use to communicate, regardless of what barriers there may be (as someone who has had great times in the company of people whose languages I couldn't speak too well, this one resonates with me in particular). The book is compelling, interesting, written in very beautiful, ethereal, and timeless language, and leaves the spirit feeling refreshed, so to speak. 
  9. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera. An ideal introduction to the works of Czech-French author Milan Kundera, this book is told from the perspectives of two different couples who live in a Czechoslovakia on the brink of Communist collapse and separation. This book is another with an interestingly ethereal feel. I can't really think of much else to say about it, other than that I recommend it very much. 
  10. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is a great book to follow up The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It's quite similar to the former in many ways, but whereas the former takes place in a Czechoslovakia on the precipice of dissolution, this one takes place chronologically earlier to tell the tale of madness of the typical existence in the country under the full swing of its communist heyday. Also differently to The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which is told from the perspective of a comparatively much more limited number of characters, this one has a great number of them that operate in unrelated storylines. It has the similarly ethereal feel to it, and it's a great book as well.  
  11. The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini. Definitely Hosseini's most widely known novel, and for good reason. If you've never read any of his books, I would say that The Kite Runner is a good place to start. It does a marvelous job of telling a story of a friendship between Amir and Hasan, two boys of different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds that are often at odds with each other, against a backdrop of years and generations of Afghani history. Although there are some rough, intense, and gut-wrenching parts of this book, it's definitely worth it. I find a lot of similarity between Khaled Hosseini and Elif Shafak's writing styles. They both have a similar eye for detail, never hesitating to take a moment to step back and weave in some detail with lovely and flowery figurative language. So overall, A+. There's also a great movie based on the novel to boot, which is in Hosseini's native Dari (Afghanistan's Persian dialect), with which he also occasionally embellishes the text of the book to give it a truly authentic feel. 
  12. A Thousand Splendid Suns is the only other book of Hosseini's I've read thus far. And I'm glad for it, because it's a good on to follow up The Kite Runner. It is similar to the former in many ways - the elements are essentially the same; a personal story spanning generations, told against the backdrop of the same monumental Afghani history and transformation of the country. The big difference is that this book is told from the perspective of two female characters, a young woman named Laila and an older one named Mariam, in contrast to The Kite Runner being a book heavily dominated by male characters. I won't say too much about the relationship between Mariam and Laila, because in order to say anything meaningful about it I'd have to spoil a good deal of the book. But suffice it to say that the relationship between them is strong, heartwarming, and empowering. Similarly to The Kite Runner, it has intense and disturbing elements to it. But the book is worth them all.  
  13. I Am Malala, by Malala Youssafzai. A memoir detailing all the many things that she has achieved and lived through in her young life, it lives up to the words of a The Guardian reviewer who stated that "the haters and conspiracy theorists ought to read the book." In this book Malala tells of her happy childhood existence, her love for school and education as long as she can remember, the BBC Urdu blog that she through which she fearlessly spoke out about her life under the Taliban occupation and desire for education of girls in her native Swat Valley, the attempt against her life in 2012, and her subsequent escape to and recovery in England. This book is a joy to read, and left me feeling an even greater respect, admiration, and love for this heroine of mine. I took my copy to the event I attended with Gianna and Salma at San Jose State University in California where we saw Malala speak, interviewed by none other than Khaled Hosseini, in hopes of getting it signed (along with my copy of The Kite Runner). Although there was unfortunately no meet and greet or anything where this could take place, and my copies remained unsigned, the event was no less incredible. Her never-ending bravery, warm aura, and friendly spirit were even more wondrous to behold in person. 
  14. Letters from Rifka, by Karen Hesse. This book is based on the life of the author's grandmother, with the main character being a young Russian Jewish girl named Rifka who emigrates to the United States via Ellis Island in the 1920s. The book is told through "letters" Rifka writes to her cousin in the margins of the pages of her treasured book of Pushkin poetry that she carries with her the whole journey. She faces many difficulties along the way, being separated from her family, having to make stops in both Poland and Belgium, where she explores the local culture and customs with great interest, and finally being held for weeks on Ellis Island itself before rejoining her family, where she befriends a little Russian peasant boy named Ilya. It's an easy and light read, but no less impactful for it. It's a "kid's book" for sure, though I was fifteen when I first read it. But it remains very special to me, and I would heartily recommend it unto anyone regardless of their age.
  15. Postcards from France, by Megan McNeill Libby. I actually wrote a whole post about this book during my first month back in Egypt, so I'll try not to repeat myself too much in case anyone cares to check that one out. But essentially, this is a book written by an American from Connecticut about her year as an exchange student in France - language learning, discovery of cultural quirks, struggles, victories, and all. It's divided into different chapters that deal with different issues, elements, or parts of the experience, from the language to observing the apparently great behavior of French dogs to the triumphant glory of being mistaken for a local. It's a great book, one that I heartily recommend to anyone who is, has been, or is thinking of becoming an exchange student, particularly if your country of interest is France.
  16. Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer. This book inspired me to become a vegetarian. Though it was something that I'd been considering for a while prior, this definitely clinched it. The book is about agriculture, factory farming, and the meat industry in the United States, and how they've evolved over time in horrifying ways. The information is put forth in clear and plain terms, and was very obviously researched in thorough and exhaustive detail. Foer is primarily known for his fiction novels, and although I haven't read any of them, I now truly want to, because though one might think a book about this sort of thing to be quite cumbersome and dense a read, it's really not. It reads easily, like a story book, peppered with familial memories and visits to various farming institutions. I'm not out here to convert anyone, but I would say this book makes for a fantastic and thought-provoking informative experience.
  17. Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell. This book is a teenage love story, and knows that, and loses itself in it wonderfully. It's not so intense as to be disturbing, but definitely with plentiful grit so as to make it not frothy or cheesy. The titular characters, Eleanor and Park, are students at the same school who, by chance, end up sitting next to each other on the bus one day, and their relationship builds from there to them eventually being each other's first love. The book goes to great lengths to establish them both as unique and well rounded characters with lives and issues of their own, from Eleanor having troubles at home to Park's relationship with his Korean immigrant mother and butting heads with his hardline, war veteran father when he takes an interest in eyeliner. It's compelling, it's cute, it's easy to lose yourself in. A great book for sure. 
  18. The His Dark Materials trilogy, by Philip Pullman. Most recognizable by the first book in the trilogy, The Golden Compass, on which a movie was based, though the book's original title was Northern Lights. The two subsequent books in the trilogy are called The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. I first read this trilogy when I was ten, and it became my favorite series I've ever read to this day. In these books, characters from thousands of parallel universes come together, with the climax ultimately being a conflict that threatens to destroy them all, but instead saves them. The universes are incredible, intricately imagined works of genius in my opinion, and the whole series is hugely compelling and intriguing. I have a lot of feelings about the movie version of The Golden Compass, as I don't believe it did the book any justice (as movie adaptations of books rarely do). Several main events in the storyline were either combined or needlessly reordered; defining elements of the book were greatly diluted, and the lackluster reviews coupled with the 2008 financial crash months after the movies release denied the production of any sequels (which I'm still highkey salty about). Nonetheless, I cannot deny the movie is aesthetically and visually very well done and does the book great justice in those elements for sure. In any case, the books are amazing and I truly look to them as examples of beautiful classics in fantasy. 

That's all I could think of for now, but it's definitely plenty, I would think.
Hope someone found this at least remotely interesting. May you all find good books to read and enjoy, whether they're on this list or not. :) 

Take care and look after yourselves, people.

A good song. 

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