My Holiday in North Korea

My Holiday in North Korea is a strange and fascinating glimpse at one of the most closed-off countries in the world. | A book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Several days being chaperoned to and from deserted factories and propaganda museums? A determined (but inaccurate) hatred toward Americans and the United States–except for you, of course? Paranoia that no one around you is telling you the truth? Welcome to My Holiday in North Korea.

“In My Holiday in North Korea: The Funniest/Worst Place on Earth, Wendy shares a glimpse of North Korea as it’s never been seen before. Even though it’s the scariest place on Earth, somehow Wendy forgot to check her sense of humor at the border.

But Wendy’s initial amusement and bewilderment soon turned to frustration and growing paranoia. Before long, she learned the essential conundrum of “tourism” in North Korea: Travel is truly a love affair. But, just like love, it’s a two-way street. And North Korea deprives you of all this. They want you to fall in love with the singular vision of the country they’re willing to show you and nothing more.

Through poignant, laugh-out-loud essays and 92 color photographs of North Korea rarely published, Wendy chronicles one of the strangest vacations ever. Along the way, she bares all while undergoing an inner journey as convoluted as the country itself.” (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I found this book hilarious, depressing, and all around fascinating. The world of North Korea, the country’s attempts at propaganda, and the people themselves are so interesting.

Wendy does a great job of cataloging her mixed feelings about the country. At some points, the “perfect” world that North Korea tries to present is so outdated it’s laughable, and everything Wendy’s handlers say and do seems so scripted that Wendy starts keeping a list of things she thinks were real moments. But at other times, the incredible power that the government wields over all its citizens (and, to a lesser extent, its tourists) hits home in a horrifying way.

Wendy is an entertaining, humorous writer (although, fair warning, there is some salty language), but her photos are what really drew me in. On almost every page, there are photos of the things Wendy saw on her “propaganda tour”–empty factories, stoic guards, and large statues of Korean rulers–mixed in with a few rare unposed pictures. They are absolutely fascinating. The glimpses they provide into this extremely closed-off country are eye-opening.

If you want to get your travel fix without having to actually travel to North Korea, My Holiday in North Korea is probably your best bet.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

P.S. Have you (or someone you know) been a tourist in North Korea? I would love to hear about your experiences in the comments!

Review Copy: Pretty Good Number One

Food writer Matthew Amster-Burton's trip to Japan and descriptions of the foods he ate there will make you want to go there, too. #spon | NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: I received a free digital copy of this book from the author. All opinions are my own.

Everyone knows how to live the good life in Paris, Provence, or Tuscany. Now, Matthew Amster-Burton makes you fall in love with Tokyo. Experience this exciting and misunderstood city through the eyes of three Americans vacationing in a tiny Tokyo apartment. Follow 8-year-old Iris on a solo errand to the world’s greatest supermarket, picnic on the bullet train, and eat a staggering array of great, inexpensive foods, from eel to udon. A humorous travel memoir in the tradition of Peter Mayle and Bill Bryson, Pretty Good Number One is the next best thing to a ticket to Tokyo. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I’ve never before had the urge to use that book blurb cliche of describing something as a “love letter,” but there’s no way around it: Pretty Good Number One is a love letter to Japan. I didn’t have much of a special interest in Japan before, but after reading this book, which details the incredible foods and experiences Matthew and his family enjoyed there, I definitely want to go.

Matthew Amster-Burton (co-host of the Spilled Milk Podcast, for which I’ve expressed my love several times before) takes his family on a month-long vacation to Tokyo, and Pretty Good Number One chronicles their exploits while in Japan. Of course, the book focuses mostly on the foods they ate, from the spectacular to the ridiculous. If the only Japanese food you know is sushi, this book will open up a whole new world to you. Matthew describes the foods he and his family try–and the adventures they have along the way–in a way that is often hilarious and almost always mouthwatering (there were only a few foods described that I think I would have a hard time choking down).

In addition to the book itself, there’s an epilogue about Matthew’s more recent trip back to Tokyo which you can read online, complete with photos of the trip. I’m totally in favor of this. It’s like illustrations for adults.

Although I’ve never been to Japan, this book reminded me of my love for my own country crush, Hungary. I feel a deep connection to Budapest, the language and the people and (of course) the food, and it’s clear that Matthew feels the same connection with Tokyo. Whether or not you know anything at all about Japan, this book will make you fall in love with the country. Definitely worth a read if you’re interested in travel, food, humor, or (like me) all three.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Best of Budapest, Part I

Almost exactly three years ago, I went on a trip that changed my life. As part of my student teaching, I spent eight weeks at an international school in Budapest, Hungary, and I loved every second of it. Right now, I’m back there again, which is almost unbelievable. This country certainly has its flaws (the recent handling of the influx of refugees is a notable instance), but it was my first ever trip abroad, and Hungary still holds a special place in my heart. Enjoy these memories, and when I get back, I’ll post part two!

And because this month is all about books, here’s the main book story I remember from my time overseas: Because I was in eastern Europe, I decided this would be the perfect time to finally read Dracula (Hungary gets at least a few passing mentions in the book). I started it and promptly abandoned it 15% of the way in, it freaked me out so badly. I quickly moved on to a re-read of Jane Eyre–not really related to my geographical location, but a lot better suited to my frame of mind!

The Best of Budapest, Part I | 31 Days of All Things Books by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Review Copy: 5 Weeks in the Amazon

#sponsored review from NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: I received a digital copy of this book from the author for review consideration.

This travel memoir was definitely an interesting ride.  In it, the author, Sean, travels to the Amazon to shed his persona and find his true self with the help of a shaman and a jungle drug/hallucinogen called Ayahuasca.  He goes on a special diet, abstaining from everything that isn’t pure, and purges himself physically and emotionally, in the hopes of discovering truth and healing himself.

The book is introspective and philosophical–the author tackles many of the basic questions of life during his time in the jungle and reminisces over past pains (both physical and emotional) and what he has learned from them.  He spends most of his time soaking up all the wisdom he can, despite not speaking any Spanish.  The book is occasionally disjointed because it’s written in journal form, with most sections written (as far as I can tell) during the author’s trip.  Still, the stories are fascinating, by turns humorous and philosophical.

Five Weeks in the Amazon is full of swearing, drugs, alcohol, and sex, so please be aware if these things make you squeamish.  Also, I must say that the author seemed a bit judgmental of those who choose to travel or live in a different way than he does, and that those who say he’s crazy for going into the jungle and partaking in these ceremonies with Ayahuasca simply haven’t had their eyes opened.  I found some of the more judgmental passages hard to swallow.  The book strays into New Age-y territory on occasion, with spiritual awakening and finding answers inside oneself as the main goal–not necessarily a bad thing, depending on what you’re looking for in your travel memoirs, but something that has never really interested me or fit with my worldview.

Check this book out if natural living, philosophical discussions, and off-the-beaten-path travel are your things–or if interesting stories can carry a book for you.  Otherwise, give it a pass.

Rating: Not My Cup of Tea

Book Review: Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day

Doug travels Europe by using an outdated travel guide and muses on the changing nature of tourism. | A book review from Newbery and Beyond
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I really enjoyed this book.  Part travel memoir, part history of tourism, it covers Doug’s journey through eight European countries using the (obviously outdated) Europe on Five Dollars a Day by Arthur Frommer.  Inspired by his mother’s Tour in the 1960s using this book, Doug visits several of the cities in the book and attempts to follow Frommer’s recommendations for places to stay, visit, and eat at, a process Doug calls “Frommering.”  Of course, this leads to much confusion, as many of the places in the book have closed down or been replaced by something else.  Doug explores the dilemma of every modern traveler–is it better to be a tourist, seeing all the great sights and visiting tourist traps, or should a traveler pursue a more “authentic” experience in some tiny village in the country?  As you might expect, the answer is a qualified yes to both.  Doug finds the charm in following the beaten path, despite issues of “authenticity,” and he also discusses how it might even be more responsible to follow the crowd rather than beat down a new path to a smaller area, less capable of handling visitors.

I’ve only visited one of the cities he went to (Vienna), and I found that he really captured my own feelings about the city.  He muses on how overexposed we can become, researching every hotel, every sight, every restaurant, until there is no real purpose in visiting–there’s nothing new to see there; we’ve already seen it all online.  Doug learns to let go, to enjoy the tourist experience, to meet people of many different cultures and accept the changing nature of the “historical” cities of Europe, and most of all, to enjoy getting lost.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Do any of you have good/bad/hilarious experiences with using travel guides?  I’d love to read your stories in the comments!

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