Recent Reads

Listed here are the last books I’ve read, not necessarily in chronological order. I’ll try to keep this list as up-to-date as possible:

  1. The Soul of Man Under Socialism, A House of Pomegranates, & Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime by Oscar Wilde. A quick review of some of Oscar Wilde’s early fiction and prose.
  2. City of Brotherly Love by Ned Bachus (2012). A set of short stories by my old rugby coach, most of which feature the scenes of my Philadelphia youth. Reads like a high-level student in a university creative writing class, but is often involving. Philadelphians should enjoy all the local references.
  3. The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria (2008). It’s easy to get lulled into Zakaria’s vision while reading. He states everything so matter-of-factly that my critical radar was down for long stretches at a time. However, in the one country I know better than him (S. Korea), you can sense that his generalities ring less true. On a side note, as my reading has been so Korea-centric of late, it was both refreshing and strange to read a narrative in which Korea was so much a minor, peripheral figure (though still important enough to be a figure all the same). From an information perspective, the book’s probably best on India, Zakaria’s homeland. If you want to see the book in abridged version, you can just watch Zakaria’s commencement address at Harvard – enjoyable viewing. Unfortunately however, subsequent interviews with Zakaria reveal that his views in the book quickly became dated based on the dramatic events of the global recession. If the world was post-American in 2008, who knows what it is as 2013 approaches?
  4. The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies by Michael Breen (published 1998, updated 2004). Definitely a good read, far-reaching in its topics, time span, and concerns. Like Zielenziger, it’s clearly written from the foreigner’s perspective, with somewhat too little reflection on how the author’s own culture (England this time) might fare beneath such a telescope. And likewise interesting, Breen seems to see virtue in Japan in places he sees failings in Korea, often in direct contradiction to Zielenziger. Perhaps everything appears rosier at a distance? For a recent resident of Korea, Breen’s 1980s/1990s account of the ROK is sufficiently fascinating to make this more than worthwhile.
  5. Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created its own Lost Generation by Michael Zielenziger (2006). This book was a little ridiculous in that it was basically an indictment of Japanese society from top to bottom. If a foreigner took it upon themselves to write this type of book about the US, Americans would be offended beyond words. It’s also interesting how well S. Korea comes out in this book; as critical Zielenziger is of Japan, he’s equally profuse in his praise of Seoul. Regardless, for someone who was unfamiliar with Japan, this does work as a fairly good intro.
  6. Tales of a Korean Grandmother by Frances Carpenter (1947). The author acknowledges her own outsider status from the start, but attempts to reconstruct the Korea of the late 19th Century. Having lived in Korea for several years and visited many old folk villages and what not, she seems to be fairly accurate in her depiction. The tales are interesting, easy to read, and from what I can tell most of the well-known ones that your average Korean knows today.  Particularly interesting is the last chapter that fast-forwards to the present day (1947) in the wake of WWII (and just before the Korean War, though the author couldn’t know that). The Americans emerge as the saviors and the small men of Japan cruel tyrants. As always for me, the retrospective is fascinating.
  7. The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo (1831). This is chronologically inaccurate, but so what. It’d been a long time since I’d read a real “classic” and I was beginning to feel guilty. Anyway, this is deserving of the title. The story is sort of awkward, inorganic, and inconclusive at the end, but I don’t think that the plot is ever really the point. The book is more akin to James Joyce’s Ulysses in that the character of Paris is the real character. The individuals in the book are noteworthy and intriguing in a variety of ways, but what the novel captures is a place and time which are framed in relation both to past and future. The Paris of that time is lost and unrecoverable, and while there was much in it both praiseworthy and objectionable, it is nothing else if not wholly remarkable. Anyway, a good read.
  8. North Korea: Another Country by Bruce Cumings (2003). First heard of Bruce Cumings when he was being lambasted by B.R. Myers (see below). His book is almost embarrassing in its constant effort to show N. Korea in as positive a light as possible and America in an equally poor way. A quick YouTube search will reveal more of the same. That aside, lots of good info, an interesting read to be sure, and a further affirmation of what seems to me self-evident at this point: talk of regime change or mass insurrection in the DPRK is a reflection of the speaker’s utter ignorance more than anything else.
  9. Wicked by Gregory Maguire (1995). A book I happened to see on a bookshelf, had heard alot about, and figured would be an easy read on the subway and bus. Great first half, and then whimpers awkwardly to the end.
  10. My Korean Deli by Ben Ryder Howe (2011). If you’re looking for insight into Korea, don’t read this. Nothing more than a few stereotypes in that vein. It is, however, an interesting peak at NY life, and good portrait of George Plimpton’s dying years. If you already have a must-read list, you can pass on this.
  11. Perfume by Patrick Suskind (1985). I really liked this film several years ago and at that time really wanted to read the book. I’d forgotten about it until suddenly I saw it on a book exchange random shelf. The film and the movie are actually fairly similar, with a few major exceptions. On the whole, I think the film did an excellent job adapting the book, cutting the scenes that were probably superfluous from the  get-go. On the other hand, the film (for obvious reasons) can never get as deep into the philosophy of scent that Suskind builds throughout the book. If I were to marry the two, I’d say the book should be read as a primer, while the film is the more artistically realized of the two.
  12. Korea’s Fight for Freedom by F.A. McKenzie (1920). I was led to this primarily because it was free on Kindle, but I’m certainly glad I read it. McKenzie goes on for too long to document the crimes of the Japanese in colonial Korea, but it certainly gives a very interesting background to the drastic change that came over the country from the late 19th Century to the mid 20th.
  13. The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves & Why It Matters by B.R. Myers (2010 – definitely worth a read. Totally changed how I looked at media coverage of North Korea.)
  14. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (2004 – I thought this book was fantastic. It does wander here and there and characters are left unexplained, but overall a well-written, imaginative and captivating read.)
  15. Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley (1921 – 1st novel by author of Brave New World. Nothing like that, but a very good read if you’re intrigued by English aristocratic society).
  16. The Magician by Somerset Maugham (1907 – a grotesque, though interesting novel. Sort of halfway between The Island of Dr. Moreau & Rosemary’s Baby.)
  17. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (1900 – I’m glad I read this, but I wouldn’t recommend it. The movie’s better, though it’s interesting to compare the two.)
  18. His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman (1995, 1997, 2000). I had a definite love/hate relationship with these books. There were alot of really imaginative ideas and themes in this book, but the plot was moved along by a series of extremely unlikely coincidences and plot twists that were never quite explained.
  19. The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne (1922 – my first Kindle read)
  20. Marx by Peter Singer (1980 – part of Sterling’s Brief Insight series)
  21. All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy (1992)
  22. Korea: An Introduction by James Hoare & Susan Pares (1988 – read retrospectively on Korea seen from foreigners’ eyes 23 years ago)
  23. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (1908)
  24. Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (1995)
  25. America: The Book by Jon Stewart and co. (2004)
  26. Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller (2002 – on growing up as a white during the independence period in southern Africa)
  27. Half the Sky : Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof & Sheryl WuDunn (2009)

Currently reading: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo


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