If I had a magic lamp, I would first wish my genie was as cool and entertaining as Robin Williams’ version of the Genie in Aladdin.
But my first wish would be to have the power to travel and freeze time. I would run back to summer of 2011 and slap my 2011 self awake and stop myself from making stupid mistakes during my Los Angeles Times internship. I would go back to the 1970s so I can take a cell phone pic of my father in skin-tight leather and bell bottoms. I would also go back to when I was young and stop my child self from bullying my brother.
And then, with all wrongs undone, I would freeze time for a year and just read and read and read and read and read.
If I had the money and time, I would love to build my own library. I wish I had the luxury to cuddle up in a chair ergonomically designed for the most comfortable reading position. I also want a personal barista nearby to replenish my mug with coffee and I want a beautiful vase stuffed to the brim with peanut M&Ms and chocolate-covered almonds.
And I would be surrounded with sky-high shelves of books, books, and more books. How freaking glorious is that?
Alas, being a college student means I spend most of my reading slumped and drooling over dry academic texts, or speeding through Wikipedia. I have not been able to get sucked into a good book for a very long time. I blame Netflix and my sudden distaste for the chapping touch of dry paper as well.
This summer, I made it a personal mission to get back into reading again. It helped that I was practically living in a library during my time in Asheville. My hosts, the Olaskys, are avid readers with diverse taste for both intellectual and creative books. In fact, they authored some of the books lining their house; Susan penned eight historical fiction for children.
During my four weeks in Asheville, I made a rule for myself: No Netflix. No watching any kind of TV. Every night, for a couple hours, I shall read. If I don’t like a book I’m reading, I’ll still give it a chance, but I won’t waste much time on it if I decide I really, really don’t like it.
So. Below is a list of what I read this summer. I won’t write an essay about each book, except to briefly note down what I thought of each.
Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee
This book isn’t about food. It’s about an anti-heroine Casey Han and her struggles embracing both her Korean and American cultures. Casey, in many ways, models the “typical” Asian female: fresh graduate from Princeton, extremely slender, soon-to-be law student at Columbia Law School with immigrant parents who work in a Manhattan dry-cleaning shop. But like her name, Casey defies the stereotypes. She’s a willful, sassy, selfish, vain shopaholic who gasp!—dates a white guy. I devoured this book because I could identify with so many tiny details Ms. Lee included in her characters: the violent fights with her father, the burning sense of shame and disgrace of disobeying her parents, her struggles with faith, her stumbles in carving her independence, her need to protect and be protected. She’s not very likeable at all, but that’s the best thing about this novel: every character is deeply and realistically flawed, and as they crash and bumble and hurt each other, they gradually learn what it means to love, to live, and to be who they were born to be.
My recommendation: Must read, especially if you want to understand the Asian American culture.
I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe
I fell in love with Tom Wolfe’s writing while reading this book. He’s now one of my favorite authors. Wolfe, a silver-haired, dapper man, was a journalist like me. His journalistic skills certainly was useful during his research and observation on college campus culture. He was over 70-years-old when he wrote this book about college-age kids and their flamboyant lifestyle, yet he somehow precisely captured his characters’ speech, mannerisms and thoughts. It’s uncanny, and I couldn’t help wondering all throughout the book how the heck he managed that. Did he hide behind the beer tank of a fraternity bash and scribble notes about everything that was being said and done? Maybe his secret is that he tells the story mostly through the eyes of Charlotte Simmons, a country bumpkin from rural west North Carolina who is the first person in her town to attend the prestigious Dupont University (a fictional college, probably a mix of Princeton and Yale). She leaves a hero in her town, but arrives a nobody in Dupont. I actually found her character highly annoying—she can be rather self-righteous, and her naivety is grating. It seems like everywhere she turns, she is shocked. Shocked! To see a girl and a guy kissing in public. Shocked! At the shared bathrooms. Shocked! That girls in her school expose and pierce their navel. Shocked—and offended! That people use profanities like adjectives. But then the story gets sad…as Charlotte’s hunger for acceptance and envy slowly corrodes her innocence and intellects. Definitely not a very happy ending, though it’s a fitting one.
My recommendation: Read it, unless you have sensitive eyes or an impatience for super-thick books. You’ll at least learn all the fancy words for the human anatomy.
A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe
Yes, I liked Tom Wolfe so much I read his other book too. A Man in Full is Mr. Wolfe’s second novel, and apparently it took him 11 years to complete this. His effort and sweat doesn’t stain this work though—it reads smooth, inked with his characteristic dry, sarcastic humor, as though Wolfe had a mighty fun time writing it. He basically pokes fun at all his characters, and in doing so, all of contemporary Americans. The main character, Charlie Croker, is a Southern alpha male real estate developer in Atlanta who is deep to his knees in debts. Once a star quarterback, Croker is now aging with a bad knee (he blames it on football but really, he’s just old) but still struts around puffing his chest and flexing his back as though he’s White Beauty. He’s unconsciously racist, stubbornly old-school, ruthless and contemptuous yet unknowing that he himself is the object of contempt for many. But at the same time, you can’t help pitying this old fool and silently beg for Mr. Wolfe to stop torturing him. Mr. Wolfe, however, has a jolly time dragging Croker through all sorts of social humiliation and degradation. His entire novel reads like a satire—which is why it’s surprisingly sweet how gentle Mr. Wolfe is with the character Conrad Hensley, a young, misfortunate man who bravely bears all the injustice life hurls at him and makes a huge impact on Croker’s life.
My recommendation: Must read, but have a cool iced tea at hand. The human angst and anxiety that seeps through this book will soak your armpits.
The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
Holy crackers. One of my favorite books ever! This novel will forever hold a special place in my heart because it virtually grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me into an awakening to what’s going on in North Korea. Shame and fascination gripped me as I finished this book in one night (and dawn), allowing the author Adam Johnson to weave me through a head-spinning tale of “ordinary” life in North Korea. The work is categorized as fiction, but I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Johnson and he told me most of the details in the book are based on facts and research. The main character Jun Do (a Korean play on “John Doe”) is the titular orphan master’s son, but he might as well be an orphan given the mistrust and scorn people treat him. But somehow Jun Do rises as high as one can rise in North Korean social ladder, though of course with a heavy price. Because of his skills, Jun Do is assigned to do a lot of important (note: dirty) tasks such as kidnapping Japanese people (based on fact) and digging tunnels under the DMZ (also based on fact). One of the most poignant moments in the book is when he was sent to Texas to dupe a Texan governor. His interactions with the Texas governor’s wife and an FBI female agent are both comical and devastating as both sides are utterly ignorant towards each other’s culture and ideologies. Some of the scenes are pretty graphic, but inhumane tortures and prison camps are part of daily life for many North Koreans. It makes you mighty grateful to not be born a North Korean, yet at the same time, ask the same question Jun Do did: What is it to be free? Am I free now, weighed by social network, daily responsibilities and my own philosophies on happiness?
My recommendation: PLEASE read! Not everyone likes to read non-fiction and depressing statistics about a dictatorship regime, but everyone enjoys a good fiction. Be aware, however, that many of the horrible stuff in the book are actually happening…right now.
Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden
When I expressed interest in North Korea to my WORLD editor Dr. Olasky, he immediately assigned me stories about North Korea. Since I knew next to nothing about North Korea (shameful, I know!), he also gave me a couple books to read, and one of them was Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden. I remember reading this while walking the Olaskys’ treadmill. Chelsea was sitting next to me on the bike, and she looked at me several times because I was letting out cries and exclamations of disgust and horror. Blaine Harden (also a journalist) tells the true-life story of Shin Dong-hyuk, the only North Korean to ever escape the infamous, unimaginable Camp 14. Shin’s story is unique even to North Korean refugees. He was born to parents who are “enemies”—which means he grew up with a life sentence to a labor camp. Ever since young he’s had guards kick him and tell him he’s a worthless piece of dung, and a mother who beat him every day for stealing her gruel. In fact, he was treated worse than dung; part of his job was to chip of frozen human excrement to fertilize North Korea’s barren soils. At 14, he watched the public executions of his mother and his brother. That’s not the horrifying part though. The gut-chilling detail is that he was the one who tattled on his mother and brother’s plan to escape, knowing full well what will happen to them…just to curry a little favor from a guard who later took all credit. Can you imagine not being shown love, not being taught morals and ethics, but ingraining all the cruelties demonstrated on you? As much as the book is about escape from Camp 14, it’s also the tale of a man who will probably never escape the moral and emotional torments of what he experienced and did. I read it with eyes blurred with tears and a prayer that Shin will embrace the all-encompassing love of Christ.
My recommendation: Must read, with a wad of tissues. You won’t be the same person after reading it.
Escape from North Korea by Melanie Kirkpatrick
A little glimmer of hope after reading all these sad books about North Korea. I don’t think the author Melanie Kirkpatrick is a Christian, but the book puts heavy focus on pastors and churches, primarily because they are the main crusaders on leading North Korean refugees. I read the advance copy of this book and took several pages of notes. If you’ve taken U.S. history, you’ve learned about the pre-Civil War Underground Railroad operating to guide black slaves to the North. The same thing is happening now for North Korean refugees, except it leads to the South. Escape from North Korea traces the Underground Railroad linked by churches and organizations throughout China and down to Southeast Asia, where North Korean refugees stay in shelters that eventually help them gain refugee status in South Korea, the United States or Europe. It doesn’t glamorize the work, nor hail the workers (many who risk persecution and imprisonment) as great heroes. It portrays a grim, realistic view on the difficulties and challenges these Underground Railroad workers face, and even the mistakes they make. Yet there’s a sense of shift and change. Ms. Kirkpatrick is very detailed in her work; she has obviously interviewed hundreds of people and double-checked many, many statistics and facts. Even though it’s a non-fiction, the book is an easy read, with some narrative stories and plenty of human drama.
My recommendation: Must read, especially if you’re wondering how you can help the North Korean crisis. You don’t need to throw everything down and join the missionaries, but you’ll have an understanding of what’s going on and what kind of prayer/financial help is needed.
The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards
Okay, this must be the only book I didn’t like this summer. I read about 60 percent of it and then couldn’t go on. It seems promising, and there’s certainly plenty of human drama, but I just couldn’t get myself to enjoy it at all. It might be because I’m still inexperienced with motherhood and stuff, but I found the writing rather sappy, over-dramatic and unrealistically tragic. The characters felt lifted off a soap opera, and none were sympathetic or likeable. The story is meant to be touching, tear-wrenching, poignant—but I could feel the strain of author Kim Edwards’ pen trying way too hard to draw out tears and emotion. In short, it’s about a woman, Norah Henry, who gives birth to fraternal twins: a perfect baby boy, and a not-so-perfect baby girl with Down Syndrome. Norah’s husband delivered the babies—and seeing the tell-tale signs of Down Syndrome in his daughter, he fakes her death and gives her away, convinced that she will die anyway from heart complications. And then drags on and on the sob, sob, sobbing of Norah unable to forget her “dead” baby girl (who is actually well and alive, adopted by the nurse who helped deliver the baby), and Dr. Henry of course ridden with guilt, their neglected, rebellious son who obviously turns to pot or whatever. Adultery, divorce, rage, guilt, shame, the whole brouhaha. It’s a 400-page book of contrived storylines, clichés and forced drama.
My recommendation: Read if you’re a Danielle Steele and Nicholas Sparks fan. Otherwise, don’t waste your time.
Decision Points by George W. Bush
I’ve been wanting to read this autobiography ever since it was released. Think what you will about our 43rd President, George W. Bush, but he did have to live through some seriously hard decisions. And that’s how this book is organized: President Bush’s toughest decisions, starting from his decision to stop drinking all the way through 9/11 and stem cell research funding, and of course, the infamous Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina. Many “memoirs” by famous figures are actually penned by ghost writers—I’m pretty sure that didn’t happen with Decision Points. The writing is so characteristically George W. Bush: bold, witty, simple, straight-forward and to-the-point. You can also tell the former president is starting to think about his legacy in this book, but he’s actually pretty honest about his shortcomings and mistakes. It’s a huge-ass book—but because of his casual writing style, it was an easy, fast read. I didn’t read it because I’m a George Bush fan though; I read it because it’s truly a fascinating, invaluable record of the behind-the-scenes decision-making of a United States president. You start to get a feel—not just an intellectual feel—of what it means to be the president of the world’s superpower. God, all the decisions a president has to make that determines millions of lives and the image of a nation! I can’t believe I ever wanted to be a president, and I’m glad I no longer have that silly ambition. Leave the politics and power to thick-skinned individuals whose decisions will always face criticisms no matter what.
My recommendation: Read it, whether you like the president or not. It’ll give you pause the next time you bash the president, whether he is Republican or Democrat.
Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
This book was recommended to me by my friend Tracy, who read it during her vacation in Savannah, Georgia. I wish I could have done that too. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a novel breed of non-fiction; it’s what they call a creative non-fiction: creative prose and narrative style enveloping good ol’ journalism 101. The main plot of the story seems to surround the death of a man who was shot one night by his apparent lover. Was it murder? Was it self-defense? As you meet all the colorful characters in the book (all based on real people) though, you find that you really don’t care. This book isn’t about that murder case—it’s about the crazy, endearing, fascinating residents of the hauntingly beautiful and antiquated Savannah. You’ll meet a true Southern belle who purrs and winks in boas and silk as she bosses men around; a stunning, full-figured black drag queen who coos “Oh child!” while erupting you in laughter with her humor; a charismatic, musically-talented con artist who will sweet-talk his way out of all sorts of sticky situations; the high-and-mighty ladies of the Married Woman’s Card Club whose purpose in life is to stay married, play cards and gossip; even a voodoo priestess who chants her mumbo-jumbos in the middle of a graveyard at midnight. Underneath the charming hospitality of Savannah lies something not-so-pretty…
My recommendation: Read aloud with a Southern accent. A fun, delicious contrast to Tom Wolfe’s portrayal of Georgia, though Savannahians would argue they are a different breed from those city people in Atlanta.
A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
I got this first book to the All Souls Trilogy as an advance copy last year from The Daily Trojan, since the author, Deborah Harkness, is a history professor here at USC. I had already read it and loved it, but this summer, I read it again before I read her second book. And I realized I missed some shortcomings the first time. A Discovery of Witches is Ms. Harkness’ debut novel, but it’s already made best-seller and I’m pretty sure it’ll be corrupted into a movie some day. The world in this book teems with creatures, specifically four kinds of creatures: puny, overpopulating humans; superhumanly smart and talented daemons; beautiful, strong and immortal vampires; and magical, powerful witches. It’s truly fascinating, especially because Ms. Harkness pulls in her expertise in European history and science history to embroider in details about Darwin, DNA, alchemy, and all that yummy historical nuggets. I love history, so I lapped all that up. What I didn’t like, however, are the two main characters: witchy Diana who hates being witchy, and her brooding, over-possessive hunk of a boyfriend, the vampire Matthew de Clairmont. He’s French, by the way, and that’s apparently very important, considering how many times the book reminds you. Anyway, other than the fantastic plot and writing, these two main characters are freaking dimwits. Half the time I wanted to slap them—Diana for being such an irritating, tea-sipping wimp, and Matthew for being such an overbearing, chauvinistic prick. Other than that, it’s not a bad book at all.
My recommendation: If you liked Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, you’ll love this book. If you liked Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles, you’ll tolerate this book as an inferior but worthy reminiscent. If you’re a history buff, you might enjoy the second book, Shadow of Night. Not for children and ultra-conservative Christians.
Question: What have you read this summer? I have a full list of books I want to read, but I can always add more. I just got a Nexus 7 (Google’s reading tablet) so no more chafing fingers and uncomfortable book-propping! Hooray!!