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Amira

Read the World book group: River of Darkness

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Let’s start discussing this book.  I hope many of you had a chance to read it. Here are a few questions to get things going.  Feel free to post your own questions or topics for discussion.

What did you think of the book - literary style, content, emotional impact, whatever? Did you like it?

if you’ve read other books about North Korea, how does this one compare?

What do you think of the author and his choices?

(Also, let’s avoid politics on the chat board.  Current events are fine, of course, but use a social group if you want to talk about politics.)

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I did not like the man (sorry it's been a couple weeks and I don't recall his name) by the end of the book. At the same time, obviously it's clear that the reader liking him or not is beside  the point he's trying to convey. 

His dad was a bizarre case. Beating the crap out of his mother and being generally terrible in addition. But then cleaning up his act on the urging of the NK evangelizers. But it's like he was GOING to drag the whole family down some deep, dark, terrible hole, one way or the other. 

What I hated more than anything else is his (the narrator's) treatment of his first wife. He went out of his way to tell us how ugly she was, but then *of course* he has sex with her. So I'm sure he was just a peachy huz. Then he and his dad TAKE THE BABY away from her!!! And encourage her to leave and no one knows where she is?! Then he's talking about how he has to go around begging women to breastfeed his baby. Hey dummy! You know who is probably out in the world with painful, leaking breasts, with the primal urge to feed that baby and would thus need zero convincing?! HIS MOTHER! 

That episode was completely unsat, oppressive regime or no. 

 

 

 

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I just finished it yesterday and had not read any books on North Korea before. 

I was hoping for a happy ending. I mean the premise of the book is that he escapes but there was no good to be had anywhere in the story. By the end, I wondered as he did if he would have been better off dying with his family.

 I thought the way marriage was done was bizarre but it seemed to me he tried to make the most of it. I did not read the account of his first marriage as Okbud did, perhaps I missed it in my speed reading.

I wonder how many there even now can see through the brainwashing? Not that it matters I guess, they're still stuck in that hell hole but I still wonder. 

People are complicated and flawed. We all are. Sometimes there are no good choices. 

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I listened to Nothing to Envy a couple of months ago. It's a much more detailed account of life in NK both before and during the starvation of the early 90s. If you want to know more about NK it's definitely the book to read.

One of the people interviewed in Nothing to Envy is a divorced mother. In NK, children absolutely must stay with their father (unless he kicks them out like Masako's husband did to her stepchildren and I'm sure there's a story there that the narrator doesn't know or doesn't share). This pains the woman in Nothing to Envy but she doesn't ever try to get custody of her son  even though her ex was abusive to her. It's a different world but this seems to be an absolute rule. OTOH, parents did start kicking children out when they couldn't feed them. They'd hang around railway stations scrounging, begging and stealing what they could.

The worst part of A River in Darkness was the narrator's return to Japan. Nothing to Envy deals with North Koreans who live in South Korea now. Unsurprisingly, SK does a much better job of integrating NK refugees into society. If nothing else, there are more of them and they don't feel so alone. But, they're also more accepted. They're given stipends and they can pursue a career. They don't have to deal with the structural racism that Koreans in Japan face (Pachinko is an excellent fictional account of this aspect of the story).

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2 hours ago, soror said:

I was hoping for a happy ending. I mean the premise of the book is that he escapes but there was no good to be had anywhere in the story. By the end, I wondered as he did if he would have been better off dying with his family.

This was my thought, too. I wanted so much for him to be reunited with his family, but I sort of knew that once he crossed into China, there would be no reunion ever with his family. He had so much hope, but as his story unfolded, I began to see how impossible it was going to be for him to do anything to save his family. Are people ever allowed to leave North Korea? (I'm showing my naivete about this here.)

I was struck with how difficult his life was once he returned to Japan. He was a citizen of nowhere, with no family to give him support of any kind. I just couldn't believe that he lived such a sad life, risked so much escaping, and then went on to continue to live a sad life. He suffered so much. I honestly don't know how he found the mental strength to go on.

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This was my first book about North Korea, I found it so depressing. I love to read biographies and memoirs and usually even if the author suffers through hardship they have some hope, I never had that feeling from this book. I found the writing pretty dry, but I’m chalking that up to the translation.  I had difficulty connecting with the author, even after he escaped he seemed hopeless. I don’t fully understand why he was rescued and then abandoned by the Japanese.

I would like to read more about North Korea. 

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10 hours ago, Amira said:

 

What did you think of the book - literary style, content, emotional impact, whatever? Did you like it?

if you’ve read other books about North Korea, how does this one compare?

 

I found it very depressing but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Not every defector story has a happily ever after and it's good for us in the west to understand that. I didn't like the author but I kept reminding myself what his life was like. Not everyone has the disposition to make lemonade out of lemons and he's certainly one who doesn't seem to be able to focus on the good, however little that good might be. I hope he doesn't stay bitter for the rest of his life but at this point I don't see him changing. The way he was treated in Japan, even by his own family didn't help either. I did feel sorry for him. I feel sorry for anyone living under the conditions he had to endure, and the choices we might make when faced with the unbearable are very often different from the hypothetical choices we think we'll make. 

I only read one other book about a defector, The Girl With Seven Names. I bought it late last year when the Kindle version was $1.99. It's currently only $2.99 and even if you don't have a Kindle you can read it on the app. It's very different from A River in Darkness. In this woman's case, she grew up in N. Korea and thought she was living in paradise. She bought into the brainwashing until some events occurred and her eyes were opened. Her escape story is different too. Before she wrote her memoir she did a short TED talk

I also heard another defector on The Takeaway earlier this year. I don't think this veers into politics, it's more current events. I haven't read her book, hadn't heard of her before hearing her on NPR, but I might read it at some point. It's a short piece, just over 13 minutes long. Although I haven't read her book it sounds like her story is somewhere between the other two. And that's the thing, I think. These people all have different stories, and some were luckier than others.

 

3 hours ago, soror said:

 

I was hoping for a happy ending. I mean the premise of the book is that he escapes but there was no good to be had anywhere in the story. By the end, I wondered as he did if he would have been better off dying with his family.

 

I wonder how many there even now can see through the brainwashing? Not that it matters I guess, they're still stuck in that hell hole but I still wonder. 

People are complicated and flawed. We all are. Sometimes there are no good choices. 

A happy ending might be a bit much but I was hoping for at least a less depressing ending. I wondered the same thing you did but then I think that by leaving he at least was thinking he might be able to save them. No matter how much of a long shot it was, it was a tiny sliver of hope. Maybe that's why he ended up so bitter. He had one little thread of hope and that was broken. 

From what I read in The Girl With Seven Names, some do see through the brainwashing but those people get shut down pretty quickly. Sometimes they're made an example of, sometimes they simply disappear. 

The bolded is so very true. 

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21 minutes ago, Lady Florida. said:

I found it very depressing but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Not every defector story has a happily ever after and it's good for us in the west to understand that. 

————

A happy ending might be a bit much but I was hoping for at least a less depressing ending. I wondered the same thing you did but then I think that by leaving he at least was thinking he might be able to save them. No matter how much of a long shot it was, it was a tiny sliver of hope. Maybe that's why he ended up so bitter. He had one little thread of hope and that was broken. 

I agree, happy endings don’t always occur and those stories are important to remember as well. 

 

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It was my first book on N. Korea.His telling of events felt truncated and unsatisfying a lot of the time their was just not enough details to be satisfying.  Like the issues with his first wife I wanted to know more about why they separated.   I found the arc of his father being horribly abusive in Japan to ok and than even loving N. Korea interesting and wanted more but I'm sure he didn't know more about why his father changed. 

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Tragic seems like too small of a word to use to describe this man's life.

I didn't mind him or his narrative style. He had education when in Japan & a bit in North Korea after moving there, but it stopped. It's not like he ever had leisure time after that to continue reading or having intellectual conversations or other things to further his mind. So, the straightforward style seemed right for his life. He didn't seem like the nicest person, yet he didn't seem that bad either, imo. In similar circumstances, I might be a much worse person.

Considering the level of abuse his mother suffered at the hands of his father, it seems (though he may have omitted info) that he at least stopped the cycle of violence toward women in his family. Sure, he might not have liked or loved or considered his first wife pretty, but it's not like he really even had say in the first marriage. The fact that he at least seemed to care about his children is big, imo, considering the traumas he witnessed growing up & then the trauma he existed in as a daily state of being as an adult.

As far as him omitting or leaving out details... I'm amazed he has remembered as much as he did. With days so monotonous of just surviving, living on the edge of starvation for years, the fact that his mind works well enough to remember events in some kind of sequential order & some detail seems amazing to me.

Ironically, perhaps being half-Japanese &, therefore, an outcast may have made his life better. At least he & his family flew under the radar to a certain extent & didn't end up in a work/concentration camp (which surely would have happened had they been more "worthy" people).

I have to wonder what he (& others who have escaped) think of the current state of affairs with North Korea. Are they hopeful? Cynical? Burned? Supposedly human rights are not on the table for these talks, so how long will the despair last (for those still within the borders & for those who have escaped)?

I am not surprised about his reception in Japan. He was an outcast as a child because he was only half-Japanese. And, I think people coming from North Korea are, to a certain extent, viewed with wariness & apprehension. Are they spies? What kinds of thoughts & brainwashing do they harbor? Are they on a mission from North Korea? I don't think most local communities are going to welcome people with open arms in those situations. To be realistic, it may not be prudent even if it seems heartless. I mean, Kim Jong-un had no qualms about using people to administer a VX nerve agent to kill his brother at a busy airport in Malaysia.

I was thinking that I had not read any other escape from North Korea books, but I read one that was sort-of in that vein: A Kim Jong-Il Production. However, it's quite different in that it mainly centers on two famous South Koreans who were kidnapped by North Korea & it was years before they managed to escape. Even once they made their way back to South Korea many, many years later & even though they had been famous, beloved members of society prior to their kidnappings, it seems as if they too were somewhat shunned upon return. There was always a question mark as to whether they had chosen to go (rather than being kidnapped) & there was suspicion about their activities (just in case they were spies for North Korea by then).

I hope that continued publishing & sharing of stories like his will raise world awareness & compassion. But I think help for the masses of North Korea is still a very long way off unfortunately.

What a heartbreaking book.

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1 hour ago, Stacia said:

I have to wonder what he (& others who have escaped) think of the current state of affairs with North Korea. Are they hopeful? Cynical? Burned? Supposedly human rights are not on the table for these talks, so how long will the despair last (for those still within the borders & for those who have escaped)?

I was wondering about this, too. And I also wondered if things have changed at all for those who are living at the bottom of the social structure like the author. Have things changed at all in North Korea with the advancements in technology or are things still the same for most people? And what about the work camps. Weren't the three detainees who were just released from North Korea in work camps? It seems to me the author wouldn't have much hope about talks because they seem so irrelevant to bringing an end to any of the suffering of regular people.

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1 hour ago, Homebody2 said:

I was wondering about this, too. And I also wondered if things have changed at all for those who are living at the bottom of the social structure like the author. 

The family status (especially in the male line) certainly makes a big difference. In the other book I read her family was not high up in the party but at least well respected. She didn't have any idea of what life was like for people like the author of this book. They were even mostly insulated from the famine in the 90s. It was only when something happened and her family status was lost that she saw reality. It took several wake up calls for her to realize they had been brainwashed. 

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I first read Pachinko, a novel about N Koreans living in Japan before, during and after WWII. Then I read The Orphan Master's Son, a novel set in N Korea. Some of the scenes depicted in that book were so over the top, it lead me to seek out some NF defector's stories as sort of a fact check on the novel. Turns out, it was all quite plausible. I read The Accusation, a book of short stories written by  N Korean, and smuggled out, and then I read River of Darkness and The Girl With Seven Names. They were such different defector's stories, reflecting the different social status of the families within N Korea. It seems kind of ironic that a socialist worker's paradise has such a strong hereditary caste system (the songbun system) but it does explain how people inside the country can have such very different experiences (and attitudes toward their country's government) - no different from here or anywhere else, really.

I thought it was quite interesting that the woman of The GIrl with Seven Names was critical of S Korea's social structure there that is based so strongly on educational attainment. In some sense it's a caste system as well, although clearly one that is more accessible and able to be moved through. Her experience living as a high-caste N Korean and an immigrant in both China and S Korea provided some very interesting contrasts. She was more of an accidental defector, not an ideological defector or someone who left because of persecution, starvation, etc. She was extremely privileged, and at first I have to say I found her a little annoying, but as her story unfolded, it won my respect. It's hard to imagine living through all that these people have.

 

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I don't want to derail this thread but have we decided on the next book?  I have limited time to read so want to get started in time to finish before the next discussion .

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48 minutes ago, Ottakee said:

I don't want to derail this thread but have we decided on the next book?  I have limited time to read so want to get started in time to finish before the next discussion .

My vote is Light of the Fireflies, because I just finished it ?

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I really liked the book, although I feel weird using ‘like’ since it’s so heart-wrenching. I found myself googling the author’s name just to see if maybe there was a good update about him and his family.  I didn’t find anything.   It took me a bit to accept his dad as a changed man.  It’s still hard to believe.   His poor mother was a saint.  I was surprised that he was able to fly under the radar.  I guess I need to do more reading on NK because I didn’t think that was possible, at least to that extent.    

I wonder if he’s stuck in Japan now and can’t leave?  I’m thinking South Korea may be a better fit even if he is 1/2 Japanese. 

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4 hours ago, SJ. said:

My vote is Light of the Fireflies, because I just finished it ?

I’m happy with whatever book we read next.  Are there other suggestions, or shall we go with this one? 

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The only other book I’ve read about North Korea is Nothing to Envy, although I’ve read shorter accounts of various people connected with North Korea.  

I am loving all of these comments.

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On 5/15/2018 at 12:58 AM, Amira said:

Let’s start discussing this book.  I hope many of you had a chance to read it. Here are a few questions to get things going.  Feel free to post your own questions or topics for discussion.

What did you think of the book - literary style, content, emotional impact, whatever? Did you like it?

if you’ve read other books about North Korea, how does this one compare?

What do you think of the author and his choices?

(Also, let’s avoid politics on the chat board.  Current events are fine, of course, but use a social group if you want to talk about politics.)

Harsh. Painful. This book affected my overall mood for days.

At first, I didn't even like the writing style - very blunt and unadorned, the kind of writing my son would do in middle school. Maybe that was a function of Ishikawa's educational level or the translation, but eventually it became symbolic of his life as a whole - there was virtually nothing to soften it, no little moments of joy to take the edge off a dismal existence.

I keep coming back to one of the quotes from the book: "You don’t choose to be born. You just are. And your birth is your destiny..." Throughout the book, the author's choices are so circumscribed - do this horrible job, live in this horrible place, eat this barely edible plant, or choose that one, which is worse. He tries to choose family, but even that choice is severely limited.

I really, really wanted some small good to be revealed at the end - he finds, even rescues one of his children, something. But nothing. Everyone dies or disappears into the darkness, and he is effectively shunned in Japan.

It's ironic, really - his father took the family from Japan to North Korea thinking to find "paradise on earth." Ishikawa flees North Korea hoping to rediscover a kind of paradise back in Japan from which he can help his family. Neither place lives up to the hopes.

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4 hours ago, linders said:

At first, I didn't even like the writing style - very blunt and unadorned, the kind of writing my son would do in middle school. Maybe that was a function of Ishikawa's educational level or the translation, but eventually it became symbolic of his life as a whole - there was virtually nothing to soften it, no little moments of joy to take the edge off a dismal existence.

Yes, this exactly. The writing style was just as his life. It's like the words were simply tools to tell his story, just like he was a tool of the society in which he lived. He had no free will; he wasn't allowed to make his own choices. He was just a cog in the system, a tool whose sole purpose was to perform a function intended to benefit the whole. 

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4 hours ago, linders said:

 

I keep coming back to one of the quotes from the book: "You don’t choose to be born. You just are. And your birth is your destiny..." Throughout the book, the author's choices are so circumscribed - do this horrible job, live in this horrible place, eat this barely edible plant, or choose that one, which is worse. He tries to choose family, but even that choice is severely limited.

This quote spoke to me as well. He truly had no power to change anything for himself or his family. And the desperation to just survive was ever-present in his life. He tried so hard to provide for his family when there just was little to nothing to provide. 

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17 minutes ago, Amira said:

What do you think the title refers to?

At first I just thought it was the obvious river he crossed in the dark to get to China, but I guess it could be more. Maybe his life is like a meandering river trying to make its way to the sea where something less oppressive and bigger might exist. He wants so much to break free of the confining "banks" surrounding his life, but he cannot. His life was shrouded in darkness, despair and hunger. And even after he escaped, his life still continued to be shrouded in darkness and meander like a river. He never made out to the sea. 

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27 minutes ago, Amira said:

What do you think the title refers to?

If life is like a river, his has been filled with/existed in darkness for all of his living days. If it refers to his internal emotional and mental states, again his entire life has been filled with darkness. Perhaps it is reference to the larger world or nations as a whole, which yet again have led him on various paths, all dark, for him and his family.

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Stacia thoughts echoed my own,  I should have waited until she posted then said I agree ? 

I'd like to think I would be a saint in that kind of situation but I don't think I would. I think I would steal before starving. I can see me lashing out in violence when I hit my tipping point, to take the injustice year after year, day after day. 

The whole situation with the wife and children I can't even untangle due to the cultural differences. 

re: happy endings and stories. I didn't expect some feel-good book but I expected a triumph at least at the end but it is hard to label his escape as a triumph, it was hard to feel happy for him at all.

My vote for next book is one that is perhaps a bit less depressing. 

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43 minutes ago, soror said:

My vote for next book is one that is perhaps a bit less depressing. 

 

Yes!

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8 hours ago, linders said:

Harsh. Painful. This book affected my overall mood for days.

At first, I didn't even like the writing style - very blunt and unadorned, the kind of writing my son would do in middle school. Maybe that was a function of Ishikawa's educational level or the translation, but eventually it became symbolic of his life as a whole - there was virtually nothing to soften it, no little moments of joy to take the edge off a dismal existence.

I keep coming back to one of the quotes from the book: "You don’t choose to be born. You just are. And your birth is your destiny..." Throughout the book, the author's choices are so circumscribed - do this horrible job, live in this horrible place, eat this barely edible plant, or choose that one, which is worse. He tries to choose family, but even that choice is severely limited.

I really, really wanted some small good to be revealed at the end - he finds, even rescues one of his children, something. But nothing. Everyone dies or disappears into the darkness, and he is effectively shunned in Japan.

It's ironic, really - his father took the family from Japan to North Korea thinking to find "paradise on earth." Ishikawa flees North Korea hoping to rediscover a kind of paradise back in Japan from which he can help his family. Neither place lives up to the hopes.

 

The author's father really didn't have a choice about leaving Japan.  He was an embarrassment and liability to the Korean socialists in Japan.  The party not only forced him to go, but pursuaded his wife to return to him and accompany the family to Korea.  Her life was truly miserable.  

I'm still not clear why the author didn't attempt to take any of his family with him when he fled.  

 

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1 hour ago, linders said:

 

Yes!

I was thinking that too when I looked at Light of the Fireflies.  It looks like it is rather depressing too.

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3 hours ago, Sherry in OH said:

 

The author's father really didn't have a choice about leaving Japan.  He was an embarrassment and liability to the Korean socialists in Japan.  The party not only forced him to go, but pursuaded his wife to return to him and accompany the family to Korea.  Her life was truly miserable.  

I'm still not clear why the author didn't attempt to take any of his family with him when he fled.  

 

 

Oh I think he most definitely had the choice to not leave open to him. And if it was going to be so amazing, he could have gone ahead of his wife and kids and seen for himself, then sent a postcard from paradise beckoning them to come. 

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I loved the clear, direct, unadorned writing style. When I tutor incoming college freshman in composition, I generally counsel them to forego the flowery language and get to the point.  Perhaps I'm a little jaded in that regard.

I think the entire book was a big River of Darkness.  The poor author swam and swam, but only ended up in virtually the exact same place as he started.  I have never read a book on North Korea before.  This one was terrifying.  It left me feeling extremely empty and unsatisfied that there wasn't some sort of "conclusion."  I wasn't expecting a happy ending, just not so much unknown.  I think, as a reader, I am spoiled to memoirs by people who have "overcome great odds" and this is really about an average marginalized individual who did the best he could with the hand he was dealt.  It was a very stark look at reality, not reality TV, but REAL reality. 

I'm glad I read it.

 

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I will read whatever the group chooses, but in mental and emotional preparation...

I just got the latest "#1 Ladies Detective Agency" book for a quick read. It has been years since I have read one, but as expected, I'm finding gentleness, humor, and kindness. And since it is set in Botswana, I am still in "Read the world" mode.

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47 minutes ago, linders said:

I will read whatever the group chooses, but in mental and emotional preparation...

I just got the latest "#1 Ladies Detective Agency" book for a quick read. It has been years since I have read one, but as expected, I'm finding gentleness, humor, and kindness. And since it is set in Botswana, I am still in "Read the world" mode.

 

!! I have been devouring the series! And I'm reading the kid's one with my kids. We are, like, all Botswana, all the time right meow ? 

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I'd say to put the remaining titles in a hat and draw one out to determine the next read.

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2 hours ago, linders said:

I will read whatever the group chooses, but in mental and emotional preparation...

I just got the latest "#1 Ladies Detective Agency" book for a quick read. It has been years since I have read one, but as expected, I'm finding gentleness, humor, and kindness. And since it is set in Botswana, I am still in "Read the world" mode.

 

The original idea was to read through the nine books that amazon had available for free a few weeks ago, so hopefully people would already have the books.  Here’s a list:

The books include:

The House by the River by Lena Manta

Still Waters by Viveca Sten

The Great Passage by Shion Miura

Last Train to Istanbul by Ayşe Kulin

The Gray House by Mariam Petrosyan

The Question of Red by Laksmi Pamuntjak

The Light of the Fireflies by Paul Pen

Ten Women by Marcela Serrano

Maybe we could read through this list and continue on with others if people wanted to? 

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1 minute ago, Stacia said:

I'd say to put the remaining titles in a hat and draw one out to determine the next read.

That’s a good idea.  I randomly chose a book and got The Great Passage.  If there are no objections, let’s do that one.

It’s a little over 200 pages and looks like a quick read.  Could we start discussing on June 4th, or do we need more time?  The 15th?

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16 minutes ago, Amira said:

That’s a good idea.  I randomly chose a book and got The Great Passage.  If there are no objections, let’s do that one.

It’s a little over 200 pages and looks like a quick read.  Could we start discussing on June 4th, or do we need more time?  The 15th?

6/4 works for me! 

 

 

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Hello everyone! Sorry I'm late to the discussion, I was traveling.

I appreciated the author's writing style - I thought it suited his story very well. He has lead a bleak life and the writing style is bleak as well. I wasn't as affected by the story as some of you were - I think it's because I found his style to also be unemotional. He states feelings he had, but again, in a rather bleak manner, so he didn't really bring me to live that part of his life. This is the first book I've read about North Korea, and I wish I could read more. I didn't have any idea what life in the country is like. It seems it would be beneficial if "everyone" could read this book to get an idea of the import of world events. I'm looking forward to reading our other books for that very reason. Literature is such an important introduction to life and the world, I think this is a great way to learn more about how others live, which will in turn, give me greater perspective when reading the news and discussing world events with people, on the rare chance that I am able to do so.

The Great Passage on 6/4 sounds great to me!

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Let’s plan on The Great Passage on June 4th.  I’ll post a reminder a few days before.  Thanks!

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I'm almost finished reading The Great Passage. It's such a sweet story but I learned a good deal as well. I look forward  our discussion. 

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Somehow I missed the new title pick, so thanks for the reminder. I think I’ll have time to get it read. 

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On 5/18/2018 at 11:38 AM, Amira said:

Let’s plan on The Great Passage on June 4th.  I’ll post a reminder a few days before.  Thanks!

 

I'm in for this one - I bought River of Darkness and started it, but couldn't get myself to read it. I'm not in a mental place to read depressing right now, unfortunately. I can do The Great Passage though. ?

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14 hours ago, Amanda Pugliese said:

 

I'm in for this one - I bought River of Darkness and started it, but couldn't get myself to read it. I'm not in a mental place to read depressing right now, unfortunately. I can do The Great Passage though. ?

Yes, this book was definitely a good choice to follow that depressing one. 

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I’m starting the Great Passage today, hopefully I’ll get it read quickly. At the very least it will give me a reason to sot down and read uninterrupted tomorrow when I get off of work. 

 

 

ll

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