A haunting memoir of teaching English to the sons of North Korea's ruling class during the last six months of Kim Jong-il's reign
Every day, three times a day, the students march in two straight lines, singing praises to Kim Jong-il and North Korea: Without you, there is no motherland. Without you, there is no us. It is a chilling scene, but gradually Suki Kim, too, learns the tune and, without noticing, begins to hum it. It is 2011, and all universities in North Korea have been shut down for an entire year, the students sent to construction fields - except for the 270 students at the all-male Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), a walled compound where portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il look on impassively from the walls of every room, and where Suki has accepted a job teaching English. Over the next six months, she will eat three meals a day with her young charges and struggle to teach them to write, all under the watchful eye of the regime.
Life at PUST is lonely and claustrophobic, especially for Suki, whose letters are read by censors and who must hide her notes and photographs not only from her minders but from her colleagues - evangelical Christian missionaries who don't know or choose to ignore that Suki doesn't share their faith. As the weeks pass, she is mystified by how easily her students lie, unnerved by their obedience to the regime. At the same time, they offer Suki tantalizing glimpses of their private selves - their boyish enthusiasm, their eagerness to please, the flashes of curiosity that have not yet been extinguished. She in turn begins to hint at the existence of a world beyond their own - at such exotic activities as surfing the Internet or traveling freely and, more dangerously, at electoral democracy and other ideas forbidden in a country where defectors risk torture and execution. But when Kim Jong-il dies, and the boys she has come to love appear devastated, she wonders whether the gulf between her world and theirs can ever be bridged.
©2014 Suki Kim (P)2014 Random House Audio
"[An] extraordinary and troubling portrait of life under severe repression…[Kim's] account is both perplexing and deeply stirring." (Publishers Weekly)
"A rare and nuanced look at North Korean culture, and an uncommon addition to the 'inspirational-teacher' genre." (Booklist)
I strongly recommend this book. As someone who knows very little about the country, I found this such an interesting read, and admire the author's bravery for living in (and writing about) Pyongyang. It's both touching to hear the stories of the author's interactions with the students, and chilling to hear how almost every detail of their lives is regimented.
"A revealing look into North Korea"
I heard about the author when she was interviewed on NPR. The book sounded interesting and the circumstances allowing Suki Kim's access to teach English in North Korea intrigued me. The book is a fascinating, sometimes heartwarming but mostly sad and shocking look into the isolated and bizarre place. I would highly recommend it.
Probably. I enjoyed Janet Song's performance in this book. I am not familiar with many of her performances, but as a biography she narrated it terrifically!
When Suki left the school to go back the the United States, the bittersweet non-farewell amongst the hope that her students would see her and her other teachers off.
Both, in places. Since such a culture as North Korea involves duplicity on many levels, and Suki's position in particular adds another layer, it made me angry that one's life or livelihood or family is at stake for even one slip-up... It was difficult to read.
I read Barbara Demick's "Nothing to Envy" several years ago, and have been captivated by North Korea ever since. Both of these books capture different aspects of North Korean life, almost acting as continuations of each other. Both are worthwhile reads in their own right; Demick's journalistic eye and Kim's autobiography, before or after deaths of leaders, lives of peasants and schooling of the elite. You almost can't read one without the other, but they both stand on their own.
"The King and I meets Mary Poppins"
This is a nice memoir by an American journalist with South Korean parents who poses as a Cristian missionary affiliated English teacher for the sons of the North Korean elite both to tell their story to the world and to plant the tiniest seeds freedom within their minds. There is virtually no action, and very little unexpected, nevertheless I enjoyed the ideas and the message.
The aspect I found most interesting was the glimpse into the enigmatic ideas and desires of the North Korean young men; Passionate patriotism alongside unspoken envy of the west, bravado and shame, strength and weakness, intelligence and naiveté, pride and selflessness, bravery and fear, hate and love. The book itself is a study in conflicts being at once heavy and light, pessimistic and uplifting. I left feeling more connected to the North Korean people, and (slightly) more optimistic about the glacial progress of freedom in that country.
The narration is flawless, with tones of voice expressing the narrator’s inner state along with excellent characterizations, accents, and Korean language.
I think few will love this book, and I am unlikely to listen to it again, yet I am quite pleased I listened to it and think most sensitive readers will appreciate what is revealed.
"should be required reading!"
This is not a story that you will "enjoy". Love doesn't conquer all, the good guys don't win, there is no happy ending. But it is something you will appreciate having read. North Korea is a force to be reckoned with, yet most of us know very little about the country or its people. This book gives us a tiny glimpse behind the curtain.
I loved the author's tenacity, her willingness to put herself at risk to reach out to the people of North Korea and tell them that there is a lot more outside of their limited visibility, and to bring back to all of us a written description of what life in North Korea is like.
The book started a little slow for me but before long I found myself pulled in. I can't imagine how frightening it would have been to teach in that school, especially knowing she would be writing about it. I'm very curious about what consequences there were for the school, teachers and students. Provides unique insight into a slice of North Korean life.
"Transporting and with Real heart."
The story takes you on a journey of self and search. You feel a real heart strumming for the writer to find her voice and tell her story.
I listen to many audiobooks because I cannot see letters. So, audiobooks take words off the page and I hear them as pictures. "Without You, There's No Us" I heard my life's story put more elegantly then I could put into words.
I have shared this audiobook with my mom ,who knows me. And My mom said, "this book is beautiful."
I cried when listening. You can hear the conflict of the writer's heart that you empathize with. If you travel and feel somewhere and nowhere all at once. Then wonder if you are lost. This book is for you.
note: to get this work out of North Korea is a work of a journalistic spy.
Through the whole book I felt like I was a tiny listening device secretly smuggled in and hidden somewhere on Ms. Kim's person. Right next to her tightly kept, secret flash drives. Each day listening to and absorbing every word. Leaving my imagination hungry for more examples of life on what seemed to be a distant planet people actually lived on. Her bravery alone is something to be commended. Loved this book! Eye opening for sure.
I really enjoyed this book.
Peak into North Korea and enjoy this quirky daring look at a hidden state.
Loved it! An unbelievable and unnerving story. A glimpse at another world, and a scary world.
"Interesting, to say the least."
This is an interesting view into a side of North Korea I knew nothing about. I've read The Aquariums of Pyonyang, and other such books of tragedy, but had never heard of a story about the people at the top of the food chain in North Korea.
I was amazed at how such a bleak, monotonous, robotic, lifeless existence could backdrop such a chilling and absorbing account.
Superb well written book and a great insight into life inside the DPRK. The narration is also well done too.
"Should also be listed under Comedy at the UK site!"
A was very pleasantly surprised. And when reviews mentioned it being sad, it wasn't anything you wouldn't want to hear. I enjoyed the way it was so informative and interesting. In fact it was quite enlightening, just not the R.W. Emerson sense of enlightenment... more like revealing!
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