Among the many lessons to be learned from acclaimed novelist Gong Ji- Young’s Our Happy Time, a book that has sold over a million copies in South Korea and was adapted into the 2006 Korean film Maundy Thursday, one is that money can’t buy you happiness. At least that’s the case for protagonist Yujeong, whose abundance of wealth, beauty and fame does little to prevent yet another suicide attempt, landing her in the hospital.
Yujeong begins the story by remembering her deceased love, Yunsu. Gong wastes no time in telling us the reason behind his death: Yunsu was a convicted murderer on death row. This unexpected relationship begins when the suicidal Yujeong joins her aunt on a charitable visit to inmates on death row. There, she meets Yunsu and the two begin having weekly meetings. Needless to say, these meetings eventually progress into a bond much deeper than expected.
We soon discover that there is more to Yunsu than his horrifying crime. The story alternates between Yujeong’s perspective and Yunsu’s prison diary. Through the diary, we learn about Yunsu’s difficult childhood, broken family and ultimately, the reason for his actions. We begin to sympathize with him and see him as a whole person rather than a criminal. In this way, we parallel Yujeong’s journey as she slowly falls in love with Yunsu. Although Yujeong and Yunsu’s time together is tragically brief, they are both left with something unforgettable: They learn to love themselves and life once more.
Details Paper, $16, simonandschuster.com.
This story was originally published in our Winter 2014-15 issue. Get your copy here.
Through a strange turn of events, Korean American journalist Suki Kim finds herself invited to join 30 other Westerners to teach English at North Korea’s Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, an exclusive school for 270 sons of North Korea’s elite. During the six months she is there in 2011, Kim takes meticulous notes, saving the documents only on a USB stick and keeping it on her person at all times. The result is the memoir Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite, chronicling her interactions with her students, the iron grip of her “minders,” and the constant fear of being watched, of being reported, of saying or doing something wrong.
At times, Kim feels love and compassion for the young men in her charge; at other times, she’s terrified that they are spying on her. She can’t decide if they really believe the things they do (that the Korean language is so superior it is spoken in every country, that their Juche Tower is the tallest in the world) or if they just say they do for fear of retribution. They know of Bill Gates, but they don’t know about the Internet. They play basketball and are familiar with the NBA, but they’ve never heard of skiing. It’s a fascinating — and sad — glimpse into the most isolated country in the world.
Details: Hardcover, available October 14, $24, crownpublishing.com.
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There was a time when my American classmates would ask where I was from — Japan? China? When I answered “Korea,” they’d get a blank look on their face and say, “Crayon? Where’s that?” Today, from K-pop and Korean barbecue to Samsung and Hyundai, you can’t not know about Korea. And in Euny Hong’s new book, The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation Is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture, I’m getting a crystallized version of my life as a Korean in America — from absolute obscurity to hailing from just about the trendiest place on the planet.
After spending her childhood in Chicago’s suburbs, Hong, at the age of 12, moved with her family back to Seoul’s tony Gangnam neighborhood (yes, that Gangnam; in fact, Hong’s parents went to the same school as Psy’s). In 1985, Korea was still a developing country with regular brownouts, reused vaccination needles and squat toilets. (I remember when I visited Korea in the mid-’80s, I had to bring used clothing and loads of Sanka for my relatives because coffee was difficult to get there; today, Seoul has the most number of Starbucks in the world.) Through an interesting and often funny analysis of corporal punishment in Korean schools, Confucian ideals, that very Korean concept of han and the birth of irony (epitomized by Psy’s hit song), Hong makes the case for a perfect storm of circumstances — along with not an insignificant boost from the government — that eventually led to Korea’s rise as a worldwide “soft power.”
Details: Paper, $16, picadorusa.com, eunyhong.com.
This story was originally published in our Fall 2014 issue. Get your copy here.
Taipei-born entrepreneur, investor and author ShaoLan Hsueh has written a language book called Chineasy to simplify learning basic Chinese words and phrases.
The book, which will be released next month, aims to help people read Chinese easily by recognizing specific characters through illustrations. After taking a sabbatical from capital investment in London, Hsueh began teaching her British-born children how to read and write in Chinese and realized how difficult it was for them. She created a visual method to help them understand, and has since adopted it into a social project.
“Call me optimistic, but I see the melding of these two cultures, East and West, as being instrumental in creating a more culturally literate world,” Hsueh wrote on her website, describing her goal for the creation of Chineasy. “I also think that the East and West must understand each other in order for global economic growth to be a sustainable future.”
Learning Chinese through Chineasy starts on a building block principle: learning the basic key characters allows the reader to begin combining them to form more complex words. Incorporating the illustrations does more than just serve as a visual kind of mnemonic device –– it allows the reader to become familiar with Chinese culture and art.
Chineasy is currently available for pre-order on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.