Books for March: Korean inspired


First there was Korean barbecue. Then the Olympics in PyeongChang. And soon, a portentous meeting (maybe) between U.S. president Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, supreme leader of North Korea. We confess that we don’t know enough, or much, about the Korean peninsula, the culture, the history, that has brought us to this moment in time. These five books, three by Korean authors, the other two by journalists, offer an overview of current Korean literature, insight into life in North Korea, and the bestselling history of the Korean War. Food for thought as you snack on your bibimbap.

Please Look After Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin
4.8 stars on  16 customer reviews
Please look after mother book jacket

An enormous publishing success in South Korea, this is the story of So-nyo, a wife and mother, whose life has been one of sacrifice and compromise. Having suffered a stroke, she is now vulnerable and often confused. When travelling from the Korean countryside to her children in Seoul, the doors close on a crowded train, separating So-nyo from her husband. As her children and husband search for her, they remember her life and all they have left unsaid. Compassionate and beautifully written, Please Look After Mother makes us appreciate the unique nature of families and the sacrifices that bind them together.

… Partly a metaphor for Korea’s social shift from rural to urban, partly an elegy to the intensity of family bonds as constructed and maintained by self-denying women, this is tender writing. — Kirkus Reviews

Kyung-Sook Shin’s tale…has hit a nerve… it certainly taps the universal tendency to take one’s mother for granted.—The Guardian

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
4.7 stars on  1,637 customer reviews

Nothing to Envy book jacket

A National Book Award finalist and National Book Critics Circle finalist, Nothing to Envy is a remarkable view into North Korea, as seen through the lives of six ordinary citizens.

Award-winning journalist Barbara Demick follows the lives of six North Korean citizens over 15 years–a tumultuous period that encompassed the death of Kim Il-sung and son Kim Jong-il’s rise to power, and a devastating famine that decimated one-fifth of the population. The reader appreciates what it means to live in the world’s most repressive totalitarian regime—where there is no access to the Internet, displays of affection are punished, informants are rewarded, and a casual comment can condemn one to exile. Demick takes us deep inside the country, beyond the reach of the government, where we witness ordinary people falling in love, raising families, nurturing ambitions, and fighting to survive. We witness their profound disillusionment with the government when they realize that, rather than providing lives of abundance, their country has betrayed them.

The Guest, by Hwang Sok-Yong, author, and translators‎ Kyung-Ja Chun  and‎ Maya West
3.4 stars on  7 customer reviews

The Guest book jacket

The Guest is a profound portrait of a divided people haunted by a painful past and a generation’s search for reconciliation.

During the Korean War, a bloody 52-day massacre erupted in North Korea’s Hwanghae Province. Forty years later, Ryu Yosop, a minister living in America returns to his home village following the death of his brother, a man who had once played an infamous role in the killings. Overwhelmed by vivid memories and visited by the troubled spirits of the deceased, Yosop must face the survivors of the tragedy and lay his brother’s soul to rest.

Faulknerian in its intense interweaving narratives, The Guest is a daring and ambitious novel from a major figure in world literature.

Vivid snapshots from the Korean War and surreal encounters with ghosts intersect in this first major U.S. release by award-winning Korean novelist Sok-Yong… Sok-Yong eloquently chronicles Yosop’s odyssey through guilt, fear, faith and forgiveness.—Publishers Weekly

One of Korea’s foremost writers presents a moving family saga juxtaposed against the horrors of the Korean War… By combining lyrical prose with painful subject matter–atrocities committed in the name of ideological superiority–Hwang achieves stunning results. Deborah Donovan, Booklist

The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War by David Halberstam
4.5 stars on  563 customer reviews

The Coldest Winter book jacket

David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest was the defining book about the Vietnam conflict. More than three decades later, Halberstam used his unrivaled research and journalistic skills to examine the Korean War. He considered The Coldest Winter to be his most accomplished work, the culmination of 45 years of writing about America’s postwar foreign policy. It is contemporary history at its most literary, providing crucial perspective on every war America has been involved in since. The book took nearly ten years to complete. He would die soon after completing it, at the age of 73 in a car accident in California on April 23, 2007.

In The Coldest Winter Halberstam gives a masterful narrative of the political decisions and miscalculations on both sides. He provides vivid and nuanced portraits of all the key players–Eisenhower, Truman, Acheson, Kim, and Mao, and Generals MacArthur, Almond, and Ridgway. At the same time, he is ever concerned with the extraordinary courage and resolve of people asked to bear an extraordinary burden.

David Halberstam has produced a very revealing account of how that happened. He begins with a description of the world as it existed at the end of World War II and clearly describes the events that culminated with the North Korean invasion on 25 June, 1950. His writing, as always, is first rate and he tells a very engaging and informative tale. I could not stop reading.”

The Vegetarian: A Novel by Han Kang
3.5 stars on  533 customer reviews

The Vegetarian book jacketBefore the nightmares began, Yeong-hye and her husband lived an ordinary, controlled life. But the dreams—invasive images of blood and brutality—torture her, driving Yeong-hye to renounce eating meat altogether. It’s a small act of independence, but it interrupts her marriage and sets into motion an increasingly grotesque chain of events at home.

Celebrated by critics around the world, The Vegetarian is a darkly allegorical, Kafkaesque tale of power, obsession, and one woman’s struggle to break free from the violence both without and within her. – Amazon

Originally published in South Korea in 2007, The Vegetarian was translated into English in 2015 and went on to win the Man Booker International prize… The lyricism of the prose makes this unusual book come across as a poetic tale of one woman’s attempt to follow her heart in a society wholly unprepared to comprehend an act of individualism. – From The Guardian

Winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize

Featured in the New York Times selection of “15 remarkable books by women that are shaping the way we read and write fiction in the 21st century.”

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The New York Times Book Review • Publisher’s Weekly • Time • Wall Street Journal • The Economist • Slate • The Huffington Post

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You might also be interested in our January and February book recommendations.


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