Books, Life

What I Read in July 2021

Happy August 1st, friends! I was hoping to squeeze in another book before the end of July but I am still working on it haha. Here’s everything I read in July.

The Book of Lost Names by Kristin Harmel – 4 stars

Set in France during WWII, The Book of Lost Names follows Eva, a France-born Polish Jew, who finds herself part of the Resistance. While trying to escape for Switzerland, she learns her artistic talents make her a great forger and decides to stay for a while to help the Resistance. As she creates fake documents for people to escape from Nazis, she records their names in “The Book of Lost Names” to preserve their identities.

I almost always enjoy historical fiction, and this was no exception! The turns and twists of the story felt a little bit predictable but I still teared up at the end. After reading this, I looked up videos of WWII forgers on Youtube because I found the history so fascinating, and I had never known about it. If you gravitate towards historical fiction or enjoy reading about WWII histories, this would be a good and quick read.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou – 4.5 stars

Can you believe this is my very first book by Maya Angelou? This has been on my TBR list since I was a little kid back in Korea! I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is Maya Angelou’s first memoir and chronicles her life through the birth of her son when she was sixteen. While I was familiar with so many of her iconic quotes, this was my first time reading a long work by Angelou and I kept noticing how intentional Angelou was with choosing every word and structuring every sentence in telling her story. The way this memoir is written is not by chapters but by events and memories; it almost feels like a collection of short stories with each story having a beginning, middle, and end. It felt special and impactful.

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue – 4 stars

Sometimes I go into reading books completely blind, and that was the case for The Pull of the Stars. Set in 1918 Dublin, The Pull of the Stars shows a glimpse of what was going on at a Maternity/Fever Ward during the 1918 Flu Pandemic. It was a weird experience to read about the last big pandemic while living through the current COVID-19 Pandemic. There are other things going on that are mentioned in passing such as WWI (mostly in context of how the war has affected hospital supplies) and the political turmoil in Ireland (which has affected staffing as people are arrested and persecuted). Another usual thing about The Pull of the Stars is that despite the book not being shorter than a typical book length (295 pages), the timeline of the book is only three days; while the story doesn’t seem to progress as much, a lot happens—the arrival and arrest of a new doctor; what may be friendship or romance between the nurse and her helper; facing the harsh reality both at the hospital and the orphanage, and more. There is a lot in this book.

In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom by Yeonmi Park – 4.5 stars

As someone born in South Korea, I knew very little about life in North Korea (though I guess that is the case for anyone who wasn’t born in North Korea). I had vague ideas about the difficulties people in North Korea face both in surviving the life everyday and in leaving the country. In Order to Live shows you all of it: the daily struggles of feeding yourself; what a comfortable life in North Korea could look like and the risks that come with it; the almost impossibility of leaving North Korea and staying out of it.

What was the most shocking to me is that there are different class systems in North Korea that dictate the rest of your life, and this is not just the top ranked officials having more connections and money; depending on your family history, for example if your great grandmother was suspected of having ties with the South Korean capitalist before the Korean War, you are literally limited in terms of what you can study in school and what kind of job you can potentially have.

While this book is heavy and can be difficult to read, I don’t think I have read anything this candid about life in and leaving North Korea. TW: rape, child rape, human trafficking

The Maidens by Alex Michaelides – 3.25 stars

I read The Silent Patient by Michaelides last year, and it was a solid four star read for me. Sadly, his sophomore thriller The Maidens just didn’t do it for me. The premise is interesting: Mariana, a group therapist who is still grieving the death of her husband Sebastian, learns that her niece Zoe’s best friend was murdered at Cambridge University. While she is at Cambridge to console Zoe, she finds herself investigating the murder and suspecting a young, American Greek Tragedy professor Edward Fosca. As investigation continues, another murder takes place that looks similar to the first theatrically and methodically.

The Silent Patient really picked up for me in the last quarter so I was patient with The Maidens. I feel like it took even longer to get interesting, and when things finally begin to unfold in the last couple of chapters, everything felt just forced and very BS. Yes, I get good thrillers can keep you on your toes and keep you guessing who the real murderer is. In The Maidens though, it reads almost as if they keep changing the actual murderer if that makes sense? Perhaps, that can be attributed to Mariana’s paranoia but it just doesn’t deliver like The Silent Patient did–like I didn’t see the ending of The Silent Patient coming because the way it’s written/organized but I was fully on board once it was presented to me. The ending of The Maidens is simply not worth the buildup.

When My Name Was Keoko by Linda Sue Park – 4.25 stars

Sometimes we forget how recent some history actually is. Japanese colonization of Korea is something I have to remind myself my grandparents actually lived through. If you are not familiar with the history, Japan annexed Korea from 1910 to 1945. Japan took everything from Korea, including the language and names of our people. When My Last Name Was Keoko is a historical fiction narrated by Korean siblings Sun-hee (younger sister) and Tae-yul (older brother). While their father is the vice principal of the school, their uncle is secretly fighting for Korean independence. As the war continues and Japan is running out of resources, Koreans are forced to struggle and give up more and are left with little to nothing.

At times, the book reads a bit childish due to Sun-hee being a young girl but seeing some events (young school girls being tricked/forced into becoming sex slaves for the Japanese military; Sun-hee feeling responsible for her uncle’s safety) through the lens of childhood innocence added another layer of devastation and heartbreak.

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner – 4.5 stars

This is one of the most talked-about books of 2021, and I can see why. Crying in H Mart is a memoir about having grown up as (half) Korean American, losing and grieving her mother, and refiguring out her identity. The book begins at H Mart—how seeing families at H Mart Food Court remind her of her mother. It might not always be an H Mart (like Super G Mart in Greensboro 😉) but H Mart is undoubtedly one of the places that feel like a home away from home for many Asian Americans, both due to the familiarity of what to expect and from all the trips you’ve taken with your family.

Food is a vessel through which many people build relationships and show love (I feel like especially for immigrant mothers!). It’s also a way for people to hold onto their family and cultural identities. Much of Zauner’s memories with her mother is intertwined with Korean Food, and she learns new Korean recipes as part of her grieving process. Though I haven’t experienced a loss of this magnitude, I felt for the pain Zauner experienced with her mom’s passing.

My short review doesn’t quite cover it, but Zauner’s writing does justice portraying the intense and intimate relationship with her mother. As one of four childuren, I’m not sure if I can quite understand the bond to be honest. A beautiful, beautiful memoir.

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