Sunday, October 31, 2021

Calling All 공부벌레 (Bookworms)! My Korean Book Recs

The word 공부벌레 (kongbu beolle) is a Korean expression that literally translates to "study nerd" but can generally refer to bookworms and nerds more generally. Of course, it was my nickname almost the entire time I've been in language training. (It's all my parents' fault, really. My mom took me to the library once a week when I was young, and throughout my whole life I watched my parents continue to read voraciously while raising us. Now my sister and I have become adults who devour books, too!) So anyway, as soon as my classmate at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) decided to start a book club for Korean language students I was excited to join.

Our book club was very low maintenance. Once a month, we would devote one lunch break to discussing the book we had all selected the previous month. (When the pandemic hit, we switched to virtual meetings on the weekends. And after we moved to Korea, we continued with weeknight dinners in person.) You didn't have to finish the book in order to attend, but one student would lead the meeting by asking questions, facilitating discussions, and providing snacks. The lead student would rotate each month depending on the book. I'm sure any long-term language class could easily do the same.

In case you're interested in what we read or you're thinking about picking one of these up for yourself, here are my brief thoughts on each book:

  • The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See: What a strong start to this book club! I had heard a few small references to Korea's famous Jeju Island and even the women divers known as the haenyeo (해녀) before, but I'll admit I didn't know much before reading this book. Set during Japanese occupation through the Korean War, this book wonderfully documents the intense realities of life for haenyeo women while exploring themes of loss, forgiveness, and suffering. To be honest, I had a hard time putting this book down. I laughed, I cried, and when I finished the book I sat and wondered what to do now that it was over. The author did an extraordinary amount of research to represent the historical and cultural context, but the beautifully written characters and heart-wrenching plot make this novel a true standout I would gladly recommend to anyone.
  • Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim: Given that this was an account of teaching North Korea's elite young men, it was a much fluffier read than I expected. The whole book club also agreed that it raised some serious ethical questions. I did learn some things about North Korea from reading the book, particularly about the education of youth and the differences in interactions with foreigners of different races. At the same time, the general consensus was that the book dwelt too much on what felt like superfluous details: the author's Brooklyn lover, detailed accounts of similar conversations, and so on. It wasn't my favorite book club read, but it's short enough you can breeze through pretty quickly if you don't have a lot of time to spare and want to peek through an often-shut window into North Korean society.
  • Seoul Man: A Memoir of Cars, Culture, Crisis, and Unexpected Hilarity Inside a Korean Corporate Titan by Frank Ahrens: What a title, right? This book was a fun read for so many reasons. I learned a lot about the car industry and Hyundai in particular despite having no baseline of knowledge (or too much interest) in cars generally. Also, the author was a spouse and EFM (Eligible Family Member) of someone working at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul who had never lived abroad before, so his observations about Korean culture and embassy life are interesting and full of humor.
  • The Vegetarian by Han Kang: I'm not going to sugar-coat it: I found this book quite disturbing. There's a surface-level story about one woman's choice to become vegetarian to the shock of everyone around her, but it's really an examination of the consequences of living life on one's own terms. That choice to be different causes everyone, even moreso in a collectivist environment, a lot of suffering and pain. But for the subject of the book, who is interestingly never the narrator, her rebellion also comes with a kind of freedom. I think folks who enjoyed the Academy Award-winning Parasite movie will also enjoy this thought-provoking and intense book, which also happens to be a very quick read.
  • In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park with Maryanne Vollers: Wow, this one was such an emotional read and I admit I shed a few tears by the time I finished. I was moved learning more about what this famous North Korean defector went through growing up under such extreme repression and horrifying circumstances that continued during her escape. This one definitely needs a content warning for sexual violence and suicide, but if those subjects aren't triggers for you then I would recommend this book. (Do note that Yeonmi Park has recently become very vocal in American politics, though, so be aware of that if you are interested in seeing what she's doing now.)
  • If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha: This was a quick read focusing on the lives of various fictional, modern Korean women told by a longtime CNN writer. I found the stories really powerful, with well-developed characters and a window into some of the more extreme characteristics of Korean women's experiences. This book tackles plastic surgery, room salons (i.e., escort parlors), demanding office culture, lookism, marriage, sex culture, and more through a narrative style that I personally enjoyed. I will add a content warning for suicide and miscarriage, but I found both to be portrayed respectfully, without too much detail.
  • Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-joo: This was the first (and only) time I read a full-length novel in Korean. It took me ages, but with plenty of time (and the help of a dictionary) I was able to do it and felt very accomplished afterward! This book is about an explicitly unremarkable woman who suddenly starts behaving strangely (similarly to the beginning of The Vegetarian). But over the course of this one regular everywoman's narrated life we can see all the normal yet insidious indignities that women in Korea and around the world experience and, frankly, are expected to put up with even in the modern age. There were so many passages where I just had to sit back and stew in my rage because I saw my own experiences even as an American woman reflected in Kim Ji-young over and over again. This book was cathartic for me and so many women and an important read for others who want to understand misogyny.
  • The Silence of Bones by June Hur: I absolutely loved this book! It was a YA (young adult) murder mystery but felt like a regular adult novel. This book is full of twists and turns and set in the Joseon period of Korea. The author did her historical research so well, and it shows: this is an immersive and delightful read that led to me reading a lot of Wikipedia articles about Korean history because I hungered for more information. The protagonist is also one of my favorite fiction leads of all time.
  • The Court Dancer by Shin Kyung-sook: It took me a while to get into this book because the main characters felt distant to me, but I really enjoyed the middle where the author expertly teases out the themes of Western colonialism and identity. The ending really shook me, but my heartbreak eventually deepened into appreciation for what I saw as the whole main character's story as an allegory for Korea. This book is heavy and at times distressing, but it adeptly uses a historical narrative to bring up questions and problems we're still grappling with today. And for that, I appreciated it.
  • Please Look After Mom by Shin Kyung-sook: I loved this book from the very beginning because of how complicated and messy the family dynamics were. Depending on the person, the understanding of the titular mom and the characters around her can vary widely. She can be saint or victim as well as a symbol of what is both good and bad in traditional society and family life in a changing world. This is definitely a good read for those who are into brooding literary fiction.
  • Almost American Girl by Robin Ha: This was the only graphic novel we read. It's a fantastic memoir for adults or older children that touches on the challenges faced by diaspora members, the relationships between parents and children, the pain of learning a new language and culture, bullying, body image, and so much more. Several of us cried at various moments while reading this story because it was so sweet and poignant and personal. I rooted so hard for the author and her mom and just felt so grateful that she was willing to share so much of her personal story. I'm sure plenty of people, especially young immigrants or third-culture kids, can relate. As unique as her specific experiences were, they resonated with common human emotions like rejection, shame, determination, joy, peace, and hope. I highly recommend this one!
  • The Nine-cloud Dream by Kim Man-jung: We read this book because it's considered one of the great classics of Korean literature. The novel weaves together political satire, Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism, Chinese culture and history, and so much more. The most difficult part for me was the poor treatment of women throughout the book (i.e., they were primarily portrayed as sexual objects). The references were also a bit inaccessible for those of us without a background in Chinese literature, but I learned a lot about Korean and Chinese culture reading it.
  • Familiar Things by Hwang Sok-yoon: I adored this book. It had a dash of magical realism (including goblins of Korean folktale lore), incisive social, political, economic, and environmental commentary, and really well written and complex characters. This is the first book I've read in a very long time written from the perspective of a young boy that I found completely believable and enjoyable. I highly recommend this one, which I think will resonate for both people with and without knowledge of Korean society.
  • The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture by Euny Hong: I thought I would enjoy this book a lot more than I did. There are a few things that now seem outdated, such as the skepticism that kpop could succeed in the West, but that's to be expected given that the book was published in 2014. I was bothered by some of the inaccuracies (such as the dismissive synopsis of Korean classic movie Seopyeonje). This book might be a useful introduction to the Korean wave for someone without much prior knowledge of it, and it's written in a humorous voice that makes for a quick read. It compellingly describes the deep web of cooperation between government and industry that makes the Korean wave successful. At the same time, I would not recommend relying on this as one's sole source of information on the subject of Korean culture.
  • Fox Girl by Nora Okja Keller: I'm not sure there are two books on this list more different than The Birth of Korean Cool and Fox Girl, and I'm glad we didn't have another heavy one before this because this was one of the darkest novels I've ever read. This book needs all the trigger warnings: child abuse, violence, sexual assault, racism, abortion, and so much more. The characters have really stayed with me long after I put the book down, and I think their haunting stories push the reader to reflect on the impact of the historical U.S. military presence in South Korea, sex work, racial identity, poverty, and so much more. If you're looking for an emotionally powerful read that will force you to confront one of the darker sides of the U.S.-Republic of Korea alliance and its legacy, this is the book for you.
  • Tower by Bae Myung-hoon: This was a fun and quirky science fiction read that kept me thinking long after I finished the book. It's a series of short stories set in a fictional skyscraper nation-state. The author has a degree in political science from the top university in Korea, and it shows in the creative ways he explores complex sociopolitical questions through his speculative fiction work. I recommend this one to folks who want to dip their toes in Korean science fiction and the more common short story collection style found in Korean literature.
  • Drifting House by Krys Lee: Y'all, this book was heavy and had very adult themes. I really liked a couple of the stories and one in particular that I found to be a very moving reflection on those left behind by Korea's drastic economic and social change. There were other stories and one in particular that were harrowing and haunting. We had a hard time even talking about that one in book club. I would recommend this short story collection to someone who wants to try contemporary, more highbrow literary fiction about Korea and Koreans.
  • The Hole: A Novel by Hye-young Pyun: I struggled with this book for a number of reasons. It's a thriller with several creative and disturbing elements, but it includes a lot of medical patient abuse that I found very difficult to read. I liked the complexity of the characters, especially the main character and how he develops over time. It was difficult to read about what happens to him - even when you can see the ending coming from a mile away.
  • My Brilliant Life by Ae-ran Kim: This was hands-down one of my favorite books I read in the whole book club. The voice of the main character is so tender and sensitive that it really moved me. The protagonist is a child who has a terminal illness but still retains so much agency and doesn't read like a victim. There were moments in this book where I gasped, laughed out loud, and cried - it was that powerful. I highly recommend this book to anyone with a soul.
  • Crying in H-Mart by Michelle Zauner: I'd heard so much about this book before reading it, from the flurry of media coverage to the recommendations from friends to the fawning praise in various mixed-race social media spaces I'm in (as the author is mixed white and Korean). I found some of the relationships in the book far more relatable than others, but I think the author really captured the feeling of young, sudden grief and the challenges of navigating the world with a complicated racial, social, and cultural identity. Zauner is a musician who performs under the name Japanese Breakfast, and despite the fact that I'd never heard her music before I enjoyed listening to her song "In Heaven" from Psychopomp, the album she wrote right after her mom died. They won't be to everyone's taste, but I suggest giving her book and her music a try!
  • The Plotters by Un-su Kim: It took me a while to get into this book but I was totally immersed after the first half. It contains a lot of philosophical observation and reflection on the individual and society and morality for a book that is nominally a thriller about an assassin. Although not all of my book club mates agreed, I thought the ending was absolutely masterful. This one is a great fit for anyone who loves the combination of suspenseful action and dramatic scenes with cerebral commentary and questions. I thought this was a wonderful book to end on, personally.

This Korean book club was a fantastic, low-pressure opportunity to learn more about Korean culture, history, and literature. As you can see, we had a diverse range of books to read, and I got so much more out of the book thanks to the insights and opinions of my friends than I would've ever discovered on my own. If you've never read a book by a Korean author, make sure you give one of these books a try!


  1. Thanks for sharing the list- sounds like a great way to prepare for a tour! If you haven't read Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, it's one of my favorites! Would highly recommend it.

    1. I also read Pachinko with some church friends before I came to Korea, and I agree that it is wonderful! I learned so much from that book and am so impressed with the sheer multi-generational scale of the story.