Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A Book Report

As hard as it might be to believe, I’m even more of a book geek than a drama geek: I live for used bookstores and have a whole bookcase full of things waiting to be read. Of course my two great obsessions overlap, which means a lot my reading list is related to Korea in one way or another. In honor of Eleanor and Park, a sweet, swoony romance I tore through (twice) last week, I thought I’d share some titles that are on my radar.


Eleanor and Park, Rainbow Rowell. This novel geared toward young adults is only tangentially related to Korea, but it’s still the perfect read for drama fans who are into coming-of-age love stories. As the only (half-)Korean kid in his middle-American high school, Park never feels as if he really fits in. When he strikes up a friendship with the new girl at school—heavyset, crazy-haired Eleanor—Park realizes just how lucky he is. Eleanor is bullied by the other kids for being strange. Plus, her home life is a nightmare. She hates her abusive stepfather and her mother is too broken to care if Eleanor is happy, or even safe. Park and Eleanor fall in punk-rock misfit love over comics shared on the school bus, and the rest of the story deals with their attempts to be together. If you read this book I promise you will laugh and cry. You’ll almost certainly also perv over the delicious Park, who’s described as all honey-colored skin and sharp cheekbones.

Since You Asked, Maurene Goo. The heroine of Since You Asked, another YA novel during the dark days of high school, is torn between modern American life and the traditional Korean values of her parents. She writes a snarky article for her school newspaper that’s accidentally published, and the book explores the aftermath. This one is near the top of my wish list, but I haven’t gotten my hands on it yet.

Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan. I reviewed this book a while ago, but it’s worth mentioning again. Screen rights were just acquired by one of the producers of the Hunger Games movies, so maybe we’ll get to see this Boys over Flowers-flavored beach read on the big screen someday. (Then again, maybe not. Screen rights are acquired for lots of books that never get made into movies. I’m having a hard time imagining a movie about crazy rich Asians being a smash in the U.S., and fear its producers would do something untoward like turn Rachel into a white girl.)

The Surrendered, Chang-Rae Lee. An awful confession: I don’t really like literary fiction. I prefer my books sensational and just a bit trashy (see Crazy Rich Asians, above), which is exactly why this novel by a creative writing professor from Princeton has been lurking on my to-read list for so long. Its cover and first few pages are loaded with positive reviews from sources as diverse as the Oprah magazine and the New York Times, but everything about its packaging reeks of self-righteous pretension. Will I ever get around to reading it? Maybe, but I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you.

Peony in Love, Lisa See. Set in seventeenth-century China, this novel tells the story of a young girl who wastes away with longing for a man she thinks she can never have. It’s full of historical detail about the creative arts of women, and explains lots of the supernatural beliefs that come up in dramas, including the ghost wedding that almost took place in Master’s Sun. See doesn’t write about Korea specifically, but the Confucian practices explored in this book impacted Korea just as much as China. (If not more—“The ceremonious people to the east” and all that.) The most unforgettable things about this book are its twin descriptions of foot binding: When you read the first one, you’ll be horrified by how cruel it was for mothers to bind their daughters’ feet. By the time you get to the second one, you’ll understand why they did it anyway.

Butterfly Swords, Jeannie Lin. A smutty Tang-Dynasty bodice ripper? Yes, please! Like many American girls, I grew up reading lowbrow fiction published by Harlequin. Their books are hardly ever actually good, but they’re often fun, and this story of a sword-wielding princess promises hours of amusement. (Oh, all right. Thirty minutes of amusement—it‘s really short.)

Tales of a Korean Grandmother, Frances Carpenter. This book’s publisher positions it as an authentic collection of Korean folktales, but I would take that with a grain of salt: It was written in the 1960s by an American woman who traveled only briefly in Korea. Still, it’s an interesting collection of fables about traditional Korean themes and paints a vivid picture of life in a traditional Korean household.

The Korean TableDebra Samuels and Taekyung ChungGuess how many recipes I’ve made from this gorgeous, glossy cookbook? That’s right: None. I’m too lazy and inept for dishes that require more than three ingredients, but I still like looking at the pretty pictures, and I’ve read most of the recipes just out of curiosity. There are bigger, more authentic Korean cookbooks out there, but none of them are as lavishly photographed as this mouth-watering collection of recipes.

At Least We Can Apologize, Lee Ki Ho. There isn’t a lot of Korean literature available in English translation, especially when it comes to the sort of thing I’d like to read: mainstream books skewed toward a younger, female readership. This tantalizing title from Dalkey Archive Press sounds like a distant relative to Cyrano Dating Agency: “[At Least We Can Apologize] focuses on an agency whose only purpose is to offer apologies—for a fee—on behalf of its clients. This seemingly insignificant service leads us into an examination of sin, guilt, and the often irrational demands of society. A kaleidoscope of minor nuisances and major grievances, this novel heralds a new comic voice in Korean letters.” When it comes out in October I’ll probably order it, just to see what real Korean literature is like.

Candy. It’s oddly uncool to admit such a thing, but I’m no fan of graphic novels of any stripe. The right word is worth a thousand pictures as far as I’m concerned, which means this visual kind of storytelling isn’t of much interest to me. But Candy seems the patron saint of Kdrama girls. How can I understand our Kdrama leads if I don’t understand their heritage?

Any other suggestions for Korean reading?


  1. Oh thank you for this list! I was just wishing recently that I could get my hand on some good Korean themed reads but had no idea where to start. Also, when I'm mid-drama like I am now, I don't make much effort towards any other entertainment. Eleanor&Park sounds fun and I'll rec it to my sister as well. I'm especially interested in At Least We Can Apologize! Since You Asked sounds fun too. I'm going to looke for those asap. Thanks again, have a great day!

  2. You know, I have never really looked for literature related to Korea. My Amazon cart just got a little fuller. Thanks for the suggestions! I have read a lot of Korean folk tales and children's literature (library school is tough, let me tell you, ha), but never anything beyond that. Looking forward to it!

  3. Thanks for suggesting these novels. I would recommend this book, I Have the Right to Destroy Myself by Young-ha Kim. I'm keen on ordering it. Although the its short, the discription of the book seems very interesting.

    Here's another by Young-ha. Your Republic Is Calling You: http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/B004H8GMBW

  4. I LOVE READING BOOKS!! And I love Kdramas too! But, like you, books are still number 1! I haven't read any Korea-related books but I do have Eleanor and Park and really look forward to reading it. Thanks for sharing the awesome list! As always, love your post <3

    ~ Hira @ Views & Reviews

  5. Well, my to-read list on goodreads just expanded again. Thanks for posting this, Amanda! Books are still my great love, no matter how much fangirling I spend on dramas.

    Now you're making me feel bad about updating so slowly on my blog. I was halfway through The Cuckoo's Calling and then my library copy expired, so who knows when I'll finish that.

  6. I read Crazy Rich Asians after you reviewed. It was really out there, certainly not a world I'll ever get close to. They were so outlandish I would love to see it brought to the screen. Hopefully whoever does it would stay true to the book. It would be a hoot!

    I may have to order Eleanor and Park. Between this blog and your Tumblr site I am certainly intrigued!

  7. Great recommendations Amanda. When I'm in the middle of watching a currently airing k-drama that I'm obsessed with I just don't feel like starting a new drama, although I should to ease the wait until the next episode. I think your method of waiting until a drama has completed to do a marathon watch is very wise. I can't help myself though. Reading and having a book to read to ease the wait sounds like I great idea. I will be checking these books out.


  8. I'm also the biggest fan of novels. Though I'm crazy about Asian dramas ( a little longer than a year), a book is my best friend and my kindle is the most important thing to me... I enjoy in trashy chick-lit and bestsellers but never try something Asian. After this report I must do that... Thanks

  9. I would recommend "Happy Birthday or Whatever" by Annie Choi. It's a memoir about growing up Korean American in California and it's hilarious. I received it as a gift, long before my interest in things related to Korea, from a friend who thought it would be funny to anyone who was a first or second generation American. Because of this book and David Choe's appearance in the K-town episode of "Parts Unknown", I now know that Sizzler holds a special place in the hearts of many Korean Americans.

  10. I can't explain how beautiful I thought Eleanor and Park was. There's a sweetness to life that people tend to forget as they age. How innocence can be so bright in life with so much tragedy. Thank you for recommending these books. :)

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  12. Just realized you had listed The Korean Table. I have that cookbook and have made several recipes. It is good!

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