Category Archives: Books

Book #26. The Giver


I was somewhat surprised to know that a significant portion of the English-written books I have read in the last 2 years are YA novels. Maybe it was related to what I have been trying to do–teaching. Many of them were compulsory due to the coursepacks I needed to follow in my classroom. The Giver has always been widely known for its significance in the field of education, which was a reason I grab this one.

I did not do enough research to verify my vague suspicion that the ‘Giver’ series officially set the path for those successful ‘dystopian’ YA series such as the Hunger Games and Divergent. Even though Lowry’s Quartet was written much earlier, I found its setting already too familiar because of those worldly franchises too much exposed in popular media.

Simply put, I did enjoy the book, but it was not that as memorable or amazing as its fame.

First of all, its futuristic, dystopian setting seems a bit rudimentary to be a basis of anything substantial in the characters and the plot.  I know it’s absurd to expect details as much as in Brand New World and 1982, but I just wanted to learn more about the Community, their life without colors and love, in order to more closely connect to Jonas’ confusion and delights in receiving the ‘memories’. But a few of the facts a reader gets to know about this unknown setting is the significance of the December Ceremony where every 12-year-old is assigned a permanent role, and the concept of Release to Elsewhere. Lowry does not give more than that–there was little description about this colorless, painless, loveless community as vivid as that of the December Ceremony fully described in Chapter 6-7. That sufficiently explains why I did not wholeheartedly follow Jonas’ confusion and struggles as he receives the ‘memories’ of colors, pain and love.

Secondly, I also felt that the central characters are rather two-dimensional. The Giver is presented as a sage, but he relatively lacks human qualities for a common reader to connect to… We only get a glimpse of his feelings and thoughts in his brief mention of his daughter which is not further explained at all. (I think this is why Lowry published sequels) For the reason explained above, I also couldn’t connect to Jonas as he struggles in his ‘Receiving’ memories. He seemed a perfectly normal kid in the beginning, living with loving parents and a sister, hanging out with buddies, having a crush on a girl and so forth but he turns into some kind of alien as he takes his position as the ‘Receiver’… To me, Jonas did not spring as a fully developed character but only as a mere carrier of the plot.

Despite these, it was a smooth read, definitely appropriate for teenagers. I think this is a good entry for young adults into this wide literature genre called ‘dystopian.’

I just pray I won’t have to plan a whole unit out of it. 😉


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Book #25. The Left Hand of Darkness

I bought this book for a Science Fiction course I took in the fourth undergraduate year. I purchased all the books for the entire course, unknowing to the prospect of dropping the course in only two weeks. I only returned an anthology and reserved several stand-alone titles.  I was glad to do so when I met a customer who was reading The Left Hand of Darkness, written by the godmother of SF (isn’t that what she is called or is it just me….) when I was serving my parents’ restaurant. We had a good chat that was way more worth than the two weeks of university lecture. I promised him that I would read the book and I fulfilled it several years later.

I have to admit that I struggled to get into this book, mostly because of the alien terms invented by Le Guin. I desperately searched for glossary on the internet but most of them were incomplete. In the end, as a novice to SF, I didn’t have to know all the scientific terms to complete my priority: to get through this unkind novel of an unfamiliar genre with any means possible.

The plot is as follows. The human race living on the planet Winter has only one sex: in 26 days, they enter a period called kemmer, in which they take form of either male and female in order to have sex with one another and get pregnant. The protagonist Genly Ai landed on this planet in order to convince this alien race to join the Ekumen, sort of UN in space. Naturally, these asexual aliens do not trust this young man who is essentially different from themselves, both physically and sexually. A course of events drives Genly Ai to prison, and one of the Gethenians rescues him and comes to an understanding with him.

The relationship between Genly Ai and Estraven is the most interesting part of this novel. It is much deeper than just friendship or alliance…  I was somewhat excited to read them sexually attracting to each other. Because they are fundamentally different with each other, their relationship was much more complex, ambiguous, and profound. And I liked that. They were bound together in no way two people of same nature can.

For it seemed to me, and I think to him, that it was from that sexual tension between us, admitted now and understood, but not assuaged, that the great and sudden assurance of friendship between us rose: a friendship so much needed by us both in our exile, and so well proved in the days and nights of our bitter journey, that it might as well be called, now as later, love. But it was from the differences between us, not from the affinities and likenesses, but from the differences, that that love came: and it was the bridge, the only bridge, across what divided us. For us to meet sexually would be for us to meet once more as aliens. We had touched, in the only way we could touch. (248-249 : emphasis mine)

In a world of constant clashes between beliefs, ethnics and politics, the concept of ‘bond’ built on ‘difference’ is quite striking. Maybe it was ‘difference’ that forms the basis of all types of union. For example, what could be more different than a man from a woman? Yet they attract to each other, love each other, and understand each other to form a basic social union. Understanding first comes from perceiving and  recognizing a ‘difference.’  All forms of dialogue, agreement, promise, and partnership that lie within the cornerstone of our society would not be needed had we been of all same opinion, same view and identity.

The novel’s depiction of ‘ambisexuality’ is way more than interesting. When I was young, I was somewhat repulsive to the pre-destined notions of masculinity and femininity, mostly promoted by the media. I was blindly, unconsciously searching for qualities that transcend the pre-decided notions of sexuality, because too often I felt constrained in my natural-born gender. It was affecting way more areas of life than necessary–daily appearance, social manners, public safety, occupation, etc.
In this respect, the Gethenian’s system of sexuality is much more genuine and more focused on its essential role–erotic love and reproduction. Their way of mating seemed much more beautiful and sacred to the eyes of an earthling that have seen all sorts of tyrannies and violence on ‘sexuality.’ I was once again surer with the vision of fading barrier between genders would make our world a better place.

‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ was a successful read, considering my relative indifference to its genre. As a result, I summoned a copy of another shelved text of that course–Snow Crash. With three other YA books I ordered, I sincerely doubt whether I could open that copy within this year…:)


Le Guin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Ace. 2010.


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Book #24. Night


This is the second book on the Holocaust I taught to the advanced fiction class this semester. I was somewhat reluctant to begin Elie Wiesel’s gruesome Night right after finishing the Boy in the Striped Pajamas that shares the same background. But the memoir turned out to be a right choice after all. I guess the book more touched my heart than theirs, as far as God is concerned.

Before I let myself being genuinely impressed by the events depicted in this book, I sensed a fundamental doubt on the ‘authenticity’ of Wiesel’s narrative and also of the entire genre itself. You relive your own memory in order to produce and publish a memoir, and on what basis could I, a reader, assess the accuracy of that memories which must be as old as several decades? There are many episodes that I felt too dramatic to be true (the part about violin-playing Juliek was a good one, and I almost mistook myself reading a novel).
In a memoir, you are telling a story of your own as if it is some kind of fable that delivers some kind of moral or life lesson. And that story should have all the structures of a good story, the same old craps like the rising actions, climax, denouement, so forth. Surely, there must be significant liberty for the authors to fabricate in a cell and trying to reproduce your memories into a impressive, moving story.

Nevertheless, Night was a great experience for me for its stark contemplation of God in one of the darkest moments in history. It was simply miraculous to see the Jews, including Elie himself, still holding onto their faith in the midst of the atrocities against them, and it was so clear to see what they truly lost during that difficult time. It wasn’t their language, country or lost king or queen they fought for–it was God, the mighty force that encompasses all positive elements of a human life. There was nothing eviler in the book than the most pious Jews losing their faith in God.

The question of whether God exists even in the times of unspeakable extremities must be one of the fundamentally unresolved riddles. Compared to the fictional narratives such as Life of PiNight offers much more convincing discussion on God on the background of reality, no matter how solidly depicted. One thing I ascertained from Wiesel’s account about God is that whether metaphorically or spiritually, He is inevitably indispensable from everything that keeps us living: hope, love, care, friendship, loyalty, family, and so forth. Once you let go of the last shred of faith in Him, you finally ungrasp the last string of life, and descend into the bottom of the darkest valley of despair and death.

“…Man is too insiginificant, too limited, to even try to comprehend God’s mysterious ways. But what can someone like myself do? I’m neither a sage nor a just man. I am not a saint. I’m a simple creature of flesh and bone… Where’s God? How can I believe, how can anyone believe in this God of Mercy?”

…Poor Akiba Drumer… as soon as he felt the first chinks in his faith, he lost all incentices to fight and opened the door to death. (p. 76-77)

What can be more sorrowful than the Jews who realized no God presides over such a hell like where they are–the Auschuwitz concentration camp–and let go of their lives? It was truly a night in which the light of God has vanished. I believe Wiesel’s Night offers powerful rationales for both the atheists and believers on why we deny or believe in God. The answer really rests on the reader.

I would be very careful not to present Night as a religious work if I have a chance to teach it again. How can I discuss ‘God’ in a non-religious setting? I should work on it now…


Wiesel, Elie. Night. New York: Hill and Wang. 2006

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Book #23. The Grapes of Wrath


A good way for a non-American to comprehend this essentially “American” novel was to juxtapose scenes from movies. The premise of the Grapes of Wrath reminded me a lot of the documentary film about the American food industry I saw years ago. There was simply nothing in my world that unveil the stark truth about Corporate America other than the scenes of the weary-looking farmers who have been completely stripped of their dignity and control over the fruits they produce. To see them reduced as mere ‘clerks’ to giant companies was striking for my childlike respect for the farmers as a dignified occupation.

My official disdain of Corporatism that help me appreciate John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath has been probably spawned right at that moment. My disillusionment of the positivism, heroism, individualism and materialism–what have been known as the traditional “American values”–that have been prolifically promoted in my favourite Hollywood cinema is not a strange thing, as I drifted into the middle of my twenties that coincided with the decline of neoliberalism. Ironically, the more I read the great American novels, the more I grow distant with the essential principles of that culture… That’s probably why I, along with the rest of the world, read American literature.
I was thankful for Steinbeck for representing unspoken contemplations of religion and justice I used to entertain in my head. Why would God matter if we fail to look after ourselves? How could I be completely happy if someone in this world is suffering for my happiness? Steinbeck’s version of ‘righteousness’ evident in many parts of the novel–especially in the character of Casy–was strikingly resembling my personal crises with God and the orthodox ideals of success in my generation. I couldn’t articulate my own criticism of such values in one of my political Science Tutorial or Bible Study sessions as well as Steinbeck did in this novel. The only difference between the author and me might be the ability to translate it into a literary masterpiece… Casy was literally speaking my doubtful mind when he confided why he gave up his ministry.
“I ain’t gonna preach… I ain’t gonna baptize. I’m gonna work in the fiel’s, in the green fiel’s, and I’m gonna be near to folks. I ain’t gonna try to teach ’em nothing. I’m gonna try to learn. Gonna learn why the folks walks in the grass, gonna hear ’em talking, gonna hear ’em sing. Gonna listen to kids eatin’ mush. Gonna hear husban’ an’ wife a-poundin’ the mattress in the night. Gonna eat with ’em an’ learn.” (128)
 Many people interpret the Grapes of Wrath as a call for socialism or collectivism. I cannot bring myself to relate it to any political discussions, as I don’t have to label my own morality with such a name. I don’t want to call it socialist when I pray for those in other parts of the world a little more than my own family. The Grapes of Wrath is an epic representation of Steinbeck’s own assertion of morality that has to stand firm even during the most difficult time in history.
Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Penguin Books. 1992.

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2013 Reading Challenge Completed: 20 books


I was not sure of my own reading capacity so I started this year with a humble number of 20 books. Well this modest number was decided mainly due to my eager for success. A lot went on since the beginning of this year, so I finally found time on my own since March.

Had I not have been in the teaching job, I’m not sure if I was able to accomplish this reading challenge, since 60% of the books read was compulsory for my teaching classes. I am going to increase it to 30 books next year.

I played with this list into several tangible subcategories:


The Old Man and The Sea (first read in the 11th grade)

Miguel Street (first read in undergraduate)

The Da Vinci Code (first read in Korean)


The Young Man and the Sea

The Ear, The Eye and The Arm

The Mysterious Benedict Society

Adam of the Road

Archer’s Quest

Ramona Forever

The Hunger Games

The Da Vinci Code

Maniac Magee

Ender’s Game

Where the Mountain Meets The Moon



The Pearl

Portrait of Artist as a Young Man

Miguel Street

The Old Man and the Sea



Tess of the D’Urbervilles

The Grapes of Wrath


The Pearl

The Young Man and the Sea

Miguel Street

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Helplessly Childish To Keep In My Bookshelf:

Ramona Forever

Archer’s Quest 

Matilda (but I read it for leisure)

Glad To Meet:

Ender’s Game

The Mysterious Benedict Society

Most Challenging But Glad To Finish:

Portrait of Artist as a Young Man

Took Longest Time But Glad To Finish:

The Grapes of Wrath (2.5 months)

Looking Forward To Seeing the Movie Versions of:

Ender’s Game

Messenger (its prequel, The Giver is being made into movie so why not?)

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Book #22. Stardust


While reading Stardust, I began to be question myself whether I’m taking escapist novels seriously. I was immediately enchanted by the irresistibly romantic premise of Gaiman’s Stardust as soon as I heard it–a fallen star  personified in a beautiful girl falls in love with a boy who has come to retrieve it. Well, such a perception of mine about the book turned out to have been superficial and misguided, for there was little significant romantic elements in the story other than for Tristran’s initial infatuation with Victoria Forester. The rest was purely escapist, typical fantasy perils featuring an unicorn, princes, pirates, witches that did not particularly touch my heart. One reason I grab this book is to read the further details of the romance between the naive human boy and the beautiful stellar girl, but Neil Gaiman is certainly no romance writer who could have made his hero and heroine intricate enough to make the reader fall in love with them. We get the minimal glimpses at the thoughts and feelings of these characters. The lovable, darling hero and heroine fading into the series of mischievous escapades centred around the fallen star–there is simply nothing in my motivation that would appreciate such nonlinear plotline.

Now I could see why the director of the  2007 movie was so struggling to incorporate the romance: it was not the director or the scriptor but Gaiman himself. It was a perfect book to be adapted, by the way, for its minimal interiority.

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Book #21. Adam of the Road

Adam of the Road is a typical YA novel about a mischievous journey of a young unmade minstrel in the enchanting setting of Medieval England. I read this book merely out of the necessity to teach it, but there was certainly something in the story I could take home.

Quick summary: Eleven-year-old Adam is waiting for his father, Roger the minstrel, to come back from the journey and takes him from the Abbey. Aside from his huge pride as an aspiring son of a minstrel, Adam has three things dear: his harp, his dog Nick and his best friend Perkin. The story basically traces his journey that has set in motion as a series of events takes away all of his treasures. Right in the beginning, Adam is forced to part from Perkin as Roger comes back and takes Adam with him. Then, Adam lost his beloved Nick to his father’s preposterous gambling.  During his breathless chase to the kidnapper, Adam soon finds himself that he has lost his father, too. Stripping of everything he holds dear, Adam is forced onto the road, beginning to learn to be a true minstrel who reveres it.

“A road’s a kind of a holy thing,” Roger went on. “That’s why it’s a good work to keep a road in repair, like giving alms to the poor or tending the sick. It’s open to the sun and wind and rain. It brings all kinds of people and all parts of England together. And it’s home to a minstrel, even though he may happen to be sleeping in a castle.” (52)

Adam takes the unwilling and unprepared journey in order to heartfeel the ‘holiness’ of the ‘road’ as the centre of a minstrel’s life he has always dreamed about. The road comes to his life once he has let go of everything that is dear to him, including his family and friends. An end marks a new beginning… For an aspiring minstrel like himself, the variety of the people he met on the road–the lovesick nobleman Simon, the horseriding page Hugh, the God-loving elders Walter and Prudence, the vulgar minstrels de Veseys–should give more to Adam than his Perkin, Nick and harp. Losing things behind should come as a prerequisite of meeting something new–a must-have attitude for any travelers.

Travelling is an unsaid dream of mine. When I had no vision of future, I thought about departing to some unvisited place for a hundred times in a day.  Yes I have been to places but I was pretty much sheltered by the financial support of my parents and physical guidance of my sturdy brother. I don’t feel I have ever been on a ‘true journey’, per se, in which I left everything behind in order to discover new things and “grow” into a new person. (My last trip to Ottawa was something closest to it but it was way too brief to be considered. But it certainly was a good start ;))

Somehow the story inspired me to imagine myself–or a character based on myself– being liberated from petty worries about jobs and marriage and take off to any place she has been longing to go–the Himalayas or the European continent. Gosh, it reminded me of another long-forgotten dream of being a writer. I should begin my story as soon as I get on the journey.

Gray, Elizabeth Janet. Adam of the Road. New York: Puffin Books. 2006.

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