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review 2018-02-18 02:35
A Thousand Miles to Freedom: My Escape from North Korea
A Thousand Miles to Freedom: My Escape from North Korea - David Tian,Sébastien Falletti,Eunsun Kim

I learned a lot from this book. My cartoonish visions of North Korea become less of a caricature with every good new information source, but I'm seeking these things out. It's way too easy in the US to see the DPRK in a two-dimensional way -- much like we saw the USSR during the Cold War, but with even less information. So I'm glad for anything that can give me more information about the North Korean people and the country. For instance, the fish is apparently excellent!


This is an incredibly interesting memoir told in the most bland way possible. I really wanted to love it, and I'm quite impressed with this woman and her family. I don't know whether it was the translation or the writing itself, but the writing could not have been more dull. It's a real shame, since the story could have been thrilling. Perhaps with a helpful co-writer, this would have made a bigger impression.


It feels a bit like the author wanted to please everyone. She works hard not to offend, so every negative comment is offset by a positive partner. "America seems X, but I love Y about America." The only thing that doesn't get this overly level-headed treatment is Kim Jong-un and family. I wondered from time to time if even that was done to please her readers. (I doubt they're handing out copies in the DPRK.) It was clear she tried not to make this book political, but how can you write about an "escape" from your home country without it being somewhat political. 


One thing that caught my interest is how many successful escapes there are from North Korea. This isn't expanded on in any way, and it's hard to get an actual "count" since many people stay in China illegally (and dangerously, as Eunsun Kim's story portrays.) I did some interweb searching afterward and apparently the defectors who make it to South Korea (the most common place to head) are usually young women much like Eunsun Kim, so reading her story is a good example of the dangers and perils involved in getting out of the DPRK and eventually safety in another country.

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review 2018-02-10 03:04
How to Stop Time: Ohh, I just LOVED this book!
How to Stop Time - Matt Haig

“History was, is, a one-way street. You have to keep walking forwards, but you don't always need to look ahead. Sometimes you can just look around and be happy right where you are.”                     ― Matt Haig, How to Stop Time


This was just released this week in the US, and I snagged myself a copy after seeing that the library waitlist would take up one of my hold spots for ages. I made a big mistake whilst waiting in the line to pay for it: I started reading. (You see, I have library books out and ARCs to review...) I have never been so impatient on a ride home. I really wanted to read this book. I got home, kicked off my shoes and hopped absurdly around until I got into PJs -- all the while reading, or at least trying to read. Once I'd wrangled myself into comfy clothes, I read straight through the night.

Why? I wish I knew. It's not that the story is a crazed page turner. It's more that the protagonist, Tom Hazard, is the most lovely and poignant man I've read in a while. I fell in love with this guy. Tom has a condition that makes him grow old veeeerrrrrry slowly. He is broken-hearted after losing his wife and child and has decided never to get close to anyone again, lest he hurt them or get hurt himself again. All he wants is his child, wife and to be a teacher. He needs to keep moving at least once every eight years, not lay down roots, not allow his picture to be taken, make connections to nobody and certainly not tell his secret. Because of this, he -- not unreasonably -- feels exceedingly unique and alone. He's miserable and self-protective all while he just keeps living. It's a lot like a deep depression that goes on for more than 400 years. 

Matt Haig describes the human experience so beautifully, I couldn't wait see what philosophical "pow" was on the next page. I stopped and read many parts aloud simply because they felt so terrible and wonderful and true all at the same time. The whole book is basically about how to navigate the pain of human existence. Along the way we meet Shakespeare, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, other luminaries; we see historical events and watch the map get larger and more detailed, the industrial revolution, the jazz and internet ages; we watch the "New World" come to life, go from Tombstone to Trump.

All of this comes via Tom with his aching pain, isolation, the absurdity of his own existence, intense love, fear of loving or hurting those he loves, and his withdrawal from other people...all while he keeps trudging through century after century (with extremely modern viewpoints.) Tom's a music lover and a reader. So we get insight on those things, nature, some very quotable bits on everything from plastic surgery to toilets, facebook, the theory of relativity... "Change is just what life is. It is the only constant I know."

Lest that all sound boring, which it does to me (good thing I don't write books!) there's also a mysterious "helper" who doesn't seem so great, a dark and shadowy organization of "albas," daring rescues and hit jobs along the way, danger and romance. 

But the real story here is how, even when someone is completely extraordinary in some ways, we're all still human, complete with all the foibles that come with that situation. So while this is a sweeping historical novel in some ways, a romance in some ways, a mystery, a comedic tour-de-force, it's perhaps the most existential book I've read in a very long time, and it's worth a read with a notebook nearby so you can write down all the quotes I haven't added yet.

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review 2018-02-09 17:43
I'm sure I would prefer the movie
Wuthering Heights - Richard J. Dunn,Emily Brontë

A tale of revenge, envy, pride, love denied, family strife, with an orphan in it? This should be my jam! Alas, it was not.


This was a weird read for me. I kept trying to figure out why it was such a slog. I usually love to read about people I love to hate, and almost every character qualifies. Instead I hoped Lockwood and Nelly would just have sex already so they'd shut up. (Also, I'm sure I cheated in high school. I definitely did not read this on the dates I've scribbled in the front cover. Bad Ella!)


I do admire the twisted way Emily Brontë told this tale. It's a complex way to get a story out and very smart. While this is clearly brilliant writing, I just didn't fancy it. It's a bit like some Bach -- I can appreciate the technical skill and accomplishment, but I just don't enjoy listening to it.


I never know how to award stars in this situation? It's not really a matter of I liked it versus I didn't. There's an added dimension that demands a few stars... Anyway, I'm glad I finally forced myself to finish the last 18 pages. At least it's over, and I can now say I've read it. I do wonder why I had the idea that this was a romantic story, and I'm sure I would have liked it less if it was. I can't honestly figure out why I disliked it, but I did.


(This is one where I'm almost positive I would prefer the movie.)

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review 2018-02-09 06:25
If we had all of these lessons years ago, how can we still be so stupid?
Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury

The catch-up book club has got me hopping on books I should have read years ago or did read years ago and never really thought about. This seems to be one of two books my high school self just flat-out LIED about reading. I'm horrified. I have no idea why I didn't read this one, though I now completely understand why I didn't read Wuthering Heights.


"-- for how many people did you know who refracted your own light to you? People were more often – he searched for a simile, found one in his work – torches, blazing away until they whiffed out."  –  Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

There's no point in reviewing this for the most book savvy crowd on earth, so I'll point out that my edition looks different (even though I used the ISBN to look up) and is the 60th anniversary edition. 


It's twice the pages of my other copy because every note ever made regarding Fahrenheit 451 is added to the afterward. There are some great bits to be found here, including a truly whiny screed from Bradbury. He had a right to be upset because at the moment he wrote it, the book was being re-published (again) **to add in all the parts that had progressively been censored out through the years** and which he'd been getting letters from high school students about. The students appreciated the irony of his own publishing house censoring a book about censorship. He appreciated it less, I think it's safe to say.


The best part of this edition is Neil Gaiman's introduction. It helped me understand the treatment and roles of the women in this book, which I was far less sympathetic to before I read and reread Gaiman's words.


Sci-fi first turned me off as a kid in the 1970s. I think this was because most of it contained idiotic women and heroic, if also idiotic, men who always "won." The women over at GR are very angry at Bradbury, but I am not completely sold on the idea that he was just a complete misogynist. I reacted at first to the treatment of women by asking "what am I missing? clearly this had to be purposeful. This is nearly slapstick." I was told, "no, he's just a chauvinist pig." I don't buy that, but it took me a while to find the nuances and temper my own reactions.


I may have gotten overly generous at one point when I wondered how to give it more than 5 stars. Overall this is yet another book that feels before its time in some ways, enormously prescient in others and makes me worry for the US in particular at this moment, but the world more broadly too. If we had all of these lessons years ago, how can we still be so stupid?


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review 2018-02-08 05:24
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston: Re/Reading the Classics Project
Their Eyes Were Watching God - Zora Neale Hurston


“She had an inside and an outside now
and suddenly she knew how not to mix them.”

― Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God


There's a reason this is on virtually every "classic" list you can find. I could fill a hundred pages with nothing but gloriously human quotes and still not convey the beauty or truth found between the covers of this book.


I've set a goal to both read more "classics" and reread the classics I encountered when I was far too young to appreciate them as I enter my older years. I first read Their Eyes Were Watching God when I was ten (I think. I didn't keep a reading journal in those days, but my old copy seems to indicate something like ten.) I read it then because my neighborhood friend, Becky, who was a few years older than me, told me it was "great." I don't know if she really thought that or just was parroting someone older than her, but I wanted to be Becky, so I read it and readily agreed. I didn't let on, but I didn't really get why it was so great.


Luckily my own plan to reread classics coincided nicely with one of my book clubs. So I reread this in January. Coming back forty years later, I can now agree wholeheartedly with Becky. But it's so much more than great.


The most special part of Zora Neale Hurston's writing is that she takes subjects our society wants to segment into "good" or "bad" and shows us how they are simply human ― thereby complicated. Subjects like infidelity, domestic abuse, killing for self-protection, killing as an act of mercy, colorism, white savior complex, poverty, female pride, female submission, moral relativism... You name a tough topic, and Hurston handles it in this book with a deft touch rarely found in today's world. Luckily we find it in more literature than regular life.


She handles all of these topics and more with a grace and kindness in her writing that comes off the page. Reading this book has, I think, made me a more generous person. (Perhaps I should schedule it in regularly.)


I can't go through all of the situations portrayed in the book. I'm not as good a writer as Zora Neale Hurston, so it would just be ugly. All I can do is implore everyone to read this book, probably more than once. You may find it hard to get past the phonetic dialect. I got past it quickly by reading aloud to start. Within a few passages, I could hear the words without needing to read aloud, and I had no problem with the phonetic spellings. (This is a trick I learned years ago when I read Trainspotting.)


One sad note about this novel and all of Ms. Hurston's writing is because it didn't fall within the political standards of the time, her works all went quickly out of print and stayed that way until the 1970s when thanks to the concerted efforts of Alice Walker and others, including her biographer Robert Hemenway, her books came back into circulation. Zora Neale Hurston died in poverty and was buried in an unmarked grave, despite two Guggenheim awards and a prize-winning autobiography among her many other literary and artistic feats. Alice Walker found her grave and marked it.


Recently, upon another reread of another classic, Wuthering Heights, I commented to someone one a GR group that while I don't have to like every character to enjoy a book, I do reserve the right to judge them. What's so amazing about this story and nearly every character in it is no matter what they do, they are so fully realized that I could empathize with and understand nearly everything they did and said. So while I may not respect the choices of every woman who walks away from marriage into another, I felt no animosity or judgement when Janie walked out on one man to marry another. I felt no moral outrage at anything anyone did, and this includes some very touchy subjects.


I hurt for the characters and felt the angst that must have accompanied their actions or choices, but I never found myself truly upset with any of them for long. Zora Neale Hurston must have been a remarkable woman to be able to write these very real, very strong, very fallible and very sympathetic characters.


This one is definitely worth a read or ten.

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