Books about South Korea
August 31, 2022 1:22 PM   Subscribe

Looking for travel writing, readable history or sociology books about South Korea, or novels set there and available in English.

This is for an elderly friend who has made a friend who is from South Korea and become interested in the country and the cultural differences (we are in the UK). I mention age because she would not be able to access resources online. I have looked at the previous questions tagged Korea and South Korea and see that what looks like the standard history text in English by Bruce Cumings is dense and academic-y, which I don't think is something she would like. I'm wondering about Sketches from Korea, though she might struggle with the illustrated aspect. Any recommendations welcome, thank you.
posted by paduasoy to Writing & Language (2 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I just finished historical fiction White Chrysanthemum about a small island in South Korea, and "comfort women" from World War 2, and it was fascinating although sad, but I learned a lot about the history of the country. Pachinko is another excellent historical fiction book set in Korea over several generations. (It's also a series on Apple tv).
posted by j810c at 3:07 PM on August 31, 2022 [1 favorite]

Krys Lee, How I Became North Korean (novel) and Drifting House (short story collection). Here's a recommendation/summary
This is one of my favorite collections of short stories, and “The Salaryman” is my favorite in this collection. Clear-eyed and unsentimental, Krys Lee takes us into the life of one of the many faceless white-collar workers one sees packed into South Korea’s subway trains, one of many not thriving in Korea’s golden economic boom. After losing his job, Mr. Seo lives on the street with other jobless men like himself, so ashamed they can’t go home to their families. Instead they spend their time waiting in line for free food, dreaming of driving trucks or working as laborers in America, contemplating selling their kidneys for cash, and lying to their families. One such man “will call his parents and his wife, as he does every week, pretending to be in America. He will tell his parents that he, the oldest son, is their guarantee. He will promise to bring his wife over after he gets settled.”
It's been a long time since I read Ten Thousand Sorrows, but it is a thorough overview of 20th century Korean history as memoiresque novel. I recall having some criticisms but think it would be an accessible and useful book for your friend. (I am an author's worst reader, assuming they wrote a book set in early to mid 20th century Korea, because I have both academic and emotional attachments to navigate!)

Recommended contemporary Korean novels in translation (do note that some of these thematically and stylistically may not be that enjoyable/accessible for your friend).

And an old novel but still worth reading is Younghill Kang's The Grass Roof.

So full disclosure I know and am friends with some of these authors/translators (whom I met while studying Korean history in Seoul!)
posted by spamandkimchi at 7:17 PM on August 31, 2022

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