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Book Review: The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story by Hyeonseo Lee

January 22, 2017 3 comments

Book Review: The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector's Story by Hyeonseo LeeSummary:
An extraordinary insight into life under one of the world’s most ruthless and secretive dictatorships – and the story of one woman’s terrifying struggle to avoid capture/repatriation and guide her family to freedom.

As a child growing up in North Korea, Hyeonseo Lee was one of millions trapped by a secretive and brutal totalitarian regime. Her home on the border with China gave her some exposure to the world beyond the confines of the Hermit Kingdom and, as the famine of the 1990s struck, she began to wonder, question and to realize that she had been brainwashed her entire life. Given the repression, poverty and starvation she witnessed surely her country could not be, as she had been told “the best on the planet”?

Aged seventeen, she decided to escape North Korea. She could not have imagined that it would be twelve years before she was reunited with her family.

She could not return, since rumors of her escape were spreading, and she and her family could incur the punishments of the government authorities – involving imprisonment, torture, and possible public execution. Hyeonseo instead remained in China and rapidly learned Chinese in an effort to adapt and survive. Twelve years and two lifetimes later, she would return to the North Korean border in a daring mission to spirit her mother and brother to South Korea, on one of the most arduous, costly and dangerous journeys imaginable.

Review:
I’ll never forget the first time I learned about North Korea’s terrifying dictatorship. I was discussing the horror of the concentration camps with someone as a young teen, and a person nearby said, “You know those still exist. North Korea calls them gulags.” I looked it up, and one of the first things I found was a child’s drawings of life inside. I later found out that we only have stories from the least bad of the gulags. The worst tier no one has escaped from to tell us what happens inside them. It’s really horrifying. Last fall, I decided it was time I learned more about North Korea, so I went looking and this book spoke to me as a place to start. I like first-hand accounts, it’s from the perspective of an ordinary citizen, and I liked the title. I got more than I had bargained for. While this memoir would be good regardless of the writing style because Hyeonseo’s life is just that interesting, her writing is articulate and insightful.

Hyeonseo does a wonderful job writing realistically and yet with empathy about herself as a child who had been fully fooled by the North Korean government. It can sometimes be difficult to understand how people can believe x, y, z but this book makes it easy to understand how it can happen and amazing that anyone manages to start doubting such an all-encompassing worldview.

One of the more surprising parts of the book to me was that at first Hyeonseo just wanted to see China. She had no intention of leaving North Korea forever. It’s just once she got out and visiting relatives in China she dragged her feet about going back until it was too dangerous for her to go back. (She would have been captured upon return and put in a prison camp for daring to leave at all). She now was in China with a totally different life path than she’d initially imagined. What was originally a vacation was now most likely a lifetime of being a fugitive. I think this part of the book is where Hyeonseo’s practicality and iron will first shine through:

Now that I was to stay indefinitely in China, I had to learn Mandarin. And I had the best teacher – necessity. You can study a language for years at school, but nothing helps you succeed like need, and mine was clear, and urgent. (location 1781)

I learned so much in this book beyond the horrors of what happens in North Korea. Like that China has an extradition agreement with North Korea which means that if any refugees are caught in China they are brought back to North Korea to face certain imprisonment and possibly death. I can’t imagine what it would be like to escape a dictatorship into the neighboring country and know at any moment you could be seized and sent back.

I also learned that South Korea has declared any North Koreans who make it to their land to be South Koreans and actually provide a lot of repatriation assistance but that the divide is growing between North and South Korean cultures the longer the divide is up, and some are concerned about how the two can ever be reunified once the North Koreans are freed from the dictatorship.

Hyeonseo provides a lot of insightful commentary about living under a dictatorship, human nature, brainwashing, and more. My favorite though was this:

There is no dividing line between cruel leaders and oppressed citizens. The Kims rule by making everyone complicit in a brutal system, implicating all, from the highest to the lowest, blurring morals so that no one is blameless. (location 2368)

The only other thing I wish to say is that everyone should read this book.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Book Review: A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts by Ying Chang Compestine (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

September 16, 2014 11 comments

A bone hand holds chopsticks.Summary:
According to Chinese tradition, those who die hungry or wrongfully come back to haunt the living.  Compestine presents here eight different ghost stories, each correlated along with a course in a banquet and richly steeped in Chinese culture and history.

Review:
I picked this up because I had previously read Compestine’s book Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party (review) and when I looked up what else she had written, I was deeply intrigued by the premise.  This is a strong short story collection, featuring diverse yet related short stories, each beautifully written.

The eight short stories are organized into appetizers, main courses, and desserts.  The titles are for the food being served that course, such as “Tea Eggs” or “Long-life Noodles.”  The food mentioned in the title also appears somewhere in the story as a key part of the plot.  It’s a gorgeous way to organize the short stories and makes them also feel like diverse parts of a whole.

The short stories are mostly set in 20th century China, but a couple feature 20th century characters investigating something from the more distant past or being haunted by more ancient ghosts.  One story is set in New York City and features a Chinese-American family.

The stories, universally, quickly establish the setting and characters.  They all subtly teach some aspect of Chinese culture or history.  For instance, one story looks at medicine under Communism in China, while another features preying mantis fights.  At the end of each story, a brief blurb gives further details about two to three aspects of Chinese culture or history featured in the story.  Most surprising, and incredibly welcome, at the end of each short story, Compestine gives a recipe for the featured food!  It reminded me of how cozy mysteries often feature patterns or recipes at the end of the book, only this time the recipes are found in a shorty story horror collection.  Brilliant!

What about the horror aspect of the short stories?  I found them simultaneously plausible and sufficiently scary.  I was a bit on the edge of my seat without being scared out of my wits, which is exactly what I was looking for.

Overall, I immensely enjoyed each of these short stories, from the touch of horror to the settings to the amount I learned about Chinese culture and history to the wonderful recipes.  Highly recommended to anyone with even a moderate interest in China, Chinese culture, or Chinese food.  Even if horror isn’t usually your genre, give these ghosts a chance.  You’ll be glad you did.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Better World Books

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Banner for the RIP IX challenge.

Book Review: Nexus by Ramez Naam (Series, #1)

Gray book cover.Summary:
Science is moving forward to and through transhumanism to posthumanism, and no society seems to quite know how to handle it.  China is using the tech in their armies, Thailand is interested in its use to enhance meditation and zen, and the US government banned many of the different treatments and drugs after they were used by cults to make cloned children into killing machines.  Kaden Lane knows about the potential dangers, but he and his lab partners are still invested in making their brain nanotechnology drug, Nexus, work.  It makes minds meld together, able to feel others’ suffering, and they think it will lead to world peace.  Samantha Cataranes was a victim of a transhumanist mind control cult as a child, now she fights on the side of the FBI putting a stop to any science deemed too dangerous.  When Samantha and Kaden meet, their worlds and worldviews start colliding.

Review:
I had honestly kind of forgotten what this book was about, beyond it being scifi, by the time I picked it up to read it.  I thus was able to experience most of it as a surprise.  It’s a book that’s a modern twist on cyberpunk with plenty of action to boot.

Jumping far enough ahead that some transhumanist elements already exist is a smart move.  It lets the book think forward further than the initial transhumanist elements that it’s generally easy to see the advantages of, like fully functional robotic hands, into the grayer areas with things like cloning and mind control and making soldiers who are super-soldiers.  This is a more interesting ethical dilemma, and the book doesn’t take very long to set up the world and get into it.

Nexus itself is a fascinating drug that combines nanotech and drugs.  It’s easy to see that the author knows his science and has extrapolated into a possible future with a lot of logic based on current science.  That’s part of what makes reading the book so fascinating and slightly frightening.  It feels like an actual possibility.

The world building is done smoothly, incorporating both in-plot mentions and newspaper clippings and internal briefings to establish what is going on in the greater world around Kaden and Samantha.

The characterizations are fairly strong.  Even if some of the secondary characters can seem two-dimensional, the primary characters definitely are not.  Seeing a woman as the world-wise, transhuman strong fighter, and the man as the physically weaker brains was a nice change of pace.  Additionally, the book embraces the existence of gray areas. “Bad guy” characters aren’t necessarily bad, and “good guys” aren’t necessarily good.  This characterization helps tell the nuanced gray area story of the overarching plot.

The beginning of the book was weaker than the middle and the end.  The first chapter that has a character testing out Nexus by using it to land sex with a hot woman almost made me stop reading the book entirely.  It felt like some pick-up artist douchebro was imagining a future where tech would make him irresistible to women.  Frankly, that whole first chapter still feels extremely out of place to me now.  It doesn’t fit into the rest of the presentation of the character throughout the book.  It feels like an entirely separate story altogether.  I would encourage potential readers to skim it, since it barely belongs, then get to the rest of the book.

After the first chapter, the next few chapters feel a bit overly rose-colored lenses at first.  Almost as if the author sees no gray areas and only the potential good in humans.  Thankfully, this is mostly the rose-colored lenses of a main character that quickly fall away for the more nuanced storytelling of the rest of the book.  But it did induce a few eye-rolls before I got further along.

The middle and end of the book look at human potential for both good and evil within the context of both science and Buddhism.  It’s fascinating stuff, and makes a lot of sense since quite a bit of modern psychiatry is working hand-in-hand with ideas from Buddhism, particularly about meditation.  This is where the more interesting insights occurred, and also where I felt I could embrace the book a bit more.

Each of us must walk our own ethical path. And together, men and women of ethics can curb the damage of those without. But for you…if you keep vital knowledge from others, then you are robbing them of their freedom, of their potential. If you keep knowledge to yourself, then the fault is not theirs, but yours. (loc 5597)

Overall, this cyberpunk scifi that mixes transhumanism and posthumanism with nanotechnology, fighting big governments, and Buddhism tells a fascinating tale full of gray areas that will appeal to scifi fans.  Some may be turned off by the first few chapters that lack the nuance and likeable and strong characterization of the rest of the book, but it’s worth it to skim through the first few chapters to get to the juicier middle and end.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Book Review: Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China by Paul French

January 17, 2013 2 comments

Black adn white photo of a young woman above the skyline of Peking.Summary:
In 1937 the entire world is on the brink of war.  In Peking, China, the Japanese invaders are encroaching.  In the midst of this chaos the adopted daughter of British consulman is brutally murdered, her body found in the shadow of the Fox Tower, universally viewed with suspicion by the Pekingers as haunted by spirits.  Due to the special circumstances, the murder investigation requires the presence of both a Chinese and a British investigator.  They must race to find Pamela’s murderer before the Japanese engulf the city.

Review:
This true crime novel takes a bit to get things set up, but once they are, oh my how it sucks you in.

My fellow librarians will appreciate the backstory of how this true tale was discovered by French.  In the Afterword he states that he was digging around in some archives and stumbled upon a box of evidence that Pamela’s father sent off to the government, which was never really looked at and just put away in storage and then into archives.  It was through libraries that he even discovered this fascinating, intersectional true crime.  I think that’s encouraging to any librarian who has ever spent hours making a finding aid for archives.

So just what makes this true crime more fascinating than others?  Pamela was the adopted daughter of Werner, and her adoptive mother died at a young age.  She had been away at boarding school in Tientsin and was home for the holidays.  Because she was born in China but was also adopted by British consulman, there is an interesting assimilation into Chinese culture going on in her life that we don’t often see in Western novels.  Peking itself featured the legations and white districts for multiple different white Western countries.  This means that because Pamela was technically a British citizen murdered on Chinese ground both the Chinese and the British police force had to be involved and work together in the investigation.  Officer Han and DCI Dennis certainly make for a unique investigation team.  In addition, Pamela’s body was discovered in the shadow of the Fox Tower, and this led to speculation about fox spirits, which in Chinese tradition show up as wily women.  Of course quickly the seedy underbelly of Peking is implicated, featuring a multicultural bunch of addicts, dope dealers, brothels, and more, and naturally some of the classy elite start to be implicated into that underworld as well.  Add in the fact that the Japanese invasion was encroaching and toss in the first rumblings of Communism, and it makes for a story that is impossible to not find fascinating.

French unfurls the story well.  He quotes only when it is fairly certain what was said, but summarizes scenes well.  A clear picture of both Pamela and Peking are rendered fairly early in the novel.  I also appreciate that he spent time at the end talking about what happened to all of the key players and discussing how all-encompassing the Japanese invasion were.  I think what he handled best though was presenting people as individuals and not representative of their race or nation or even class.  In a true crime as multicultural as this one, that is important.  It’s also nice that in a story that could have easily turned into victim blaming, which happens so often when the victim is a young woman, he eloquently avoids any hint of that:

Pamela wasn’t perfect; she was making the same mistakes many girls do when experimenting with their independence, their newfound power on men. Her tragedy was to encounter the wrong men, at just the wrong moment. (location 2834)

I did, however, feel that the beginning was a bit lacking.  It took a bit to truly get into the story.  A faster pace or a more clear this is where we are going set-up would have been nice.  At first it felt like the rather dull story of some poor little imperialist rich girl.  But that’s not the story at all.  The story is that of an adopted girl in a country where she just so happens to be the color of worldwide colonizers, but it is instead the story of a diverse group of people horrified by the brutal murder of a young woman by a diverse group of sick, twisted people.  It would be nice if that was more clear from the beginning.

Overall, this is a well-told, historic true crime novel that manages to avoid victim blaming and also embrace multiculturalism.  It will be of particular interest to anyone with a fascination for Chinese or WWII history.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Book Review: The Far Side of the Sky by Daniel Kalla

Back side of woman in Chinese dress holdng an umbrella.Summary:
After Kristallnacht, Franz Adler, a secular Austrian Jew, is desperate to save the remaining members of his family–his daughter Hannah and sister-in-law Esther.  The only place they’re able to find letting in refugees is the relatively border-lax Shanghai.

Meanwhile, Mah Soon Yi, aka Sunny, the daughter of a Chinese doctor and American missionary, is trying to deal with the partial Japanese occupation of her home city of Shanghai while working as a nurse in one of the large hospitals and volunteering in the Jewish Refugee Hospital.

Review:
It’s difficult to review a book that the author obviously put a lot of research effort into, as well as passion for social justice, but that I just personally didn’t end up liking.  The story itself isn’t bad, if a bit far-fetched.  Clearly based in fact and solid research.  I believe the problem lies a bit in the writing.

When I read historic fiction, I like seeing history through the eyes of one person (possibly two).  It brings the huge picture you get otherwise down to a personable level.  The problem with this book is that it kind of fails to keep things at that personal level.  There’s far too much contact with actual big movers and shakers from the historic events.  How the heck is this Dr. Adler in so much contact with the Japanese and Nazi elite?  One scene like that can be quite powerful in a book, but not multiple ones.  It takes it from the realm of historic fiction to that of fantasy.

Additionally, I feel that a bit too often Kalla tells instead of shows.  Two characters will be talking about something the reader doesn’t yet know about, such as how the city of Shanghai is set up politically, and instead of putting it into the dialogue, the book just says “And then he told him about thus and such.”  That makes for dull reading.

So, really, to me, the plot itself is unique in choosing a population and area of WWII that is not written about that much.  The author clearly did his research and has a passion for the time period and issues faced by the people, but the story would be better served if it was made more about the everyman and dialogue and action were used more effectively.

Overall, this is a unique piece of historic fiction that will mainly appeal to fans of the genre looking for a new area of WWII to read about.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Book Review: The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted And the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss, And Long-term Health by T. Colin Campbell, PhD and Thomas M. Campbell II

April 15, 2012 3 comments

Blue and green text on white background.Summary:
Dr. Campbell spent the early part of his scientific career researching diseases of affluence such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.  When a study in rat livers demonstrated that a greater percentage of protein in the diet led to greater disease, Campbell became intrigued.  He designed the China Study to compare Chinese citizens with American citizens, since the Chinese have low rates of these diseases until they immigrate to the United States.  Through this and other studies, he believes he has the proof that most diseases of affluence are caused by the Standard American Diet.  In his book he presents these findings, as well as an insider’s look at the scientific, health, and government trifecta that vastly affects what Americans learn about health.

Review:
Clearly the most valuable part of this book is the chapter that explains Campbell’s China Study.  Since it’s generally not considered ethical to study humans and disease by injecting them with various substances, one of the better methods available is population studies.  You compare and contrast over a long period of time the differences between different populations and attempt to determine what aspects may cause bad health.  It is undeniable that the traditional Chinese rural population compared to Americans eat less animal products and move more.  Additionally they have less disease, particularly cancers, heart disease, and diabetes.  Campbell’s study establishes this easily observed fact into something that has been scientifically proven.  It is also interesting to note that those who emigrate to the US and adopt the Standard American Diet (SAD) change to the American rate of these diseases.  This is ground-breaking information, of course, but it is easy to gather this all from one chapter.  Campbell finds it necessary, for some reason, to devote a chapter to each illness, which frankly gets repetitive and tedious to read.

Beyond the study itself, which is interesting and good for people who aren’t already convinced of the health problems caused by animal products, I felt the rest of the presentation of these facts to be dull in comparison to Diet for a New America.  Where Campbell’s strength lies is in discussing his experiences as an insider in the American health and scientific industry, which frankly we all know is royally fucked up.  He addresses at length how these have become intertwined with the government and animal product lobbyists to the extent that for the sake of profit of animal product producers and those working in medicine, Americans are getting a severely watered down version of what scientists and health care workers know to be the facts.  Anytime anyone tries to tell Americans to eat less animal products, the lobbyists get all up in the way.  This is why people talk about how capitalism should not be involved in health.  It’s only natural that people who have spent decades learning cardiology might not want to suddenly have half the surgeries to perform because heart disease can be reversed by diet.  Or that people who own a dairy farm might not want American women to know that dairy consumption leads to osteoporosis.  But it does.  And Campbell illustrates why and how these facts are kept from the American public.

He also eloquently shows why we have constantly conflicting news stories on health.  Everyone knows the joke about how eggs were bad for you then good for you then bad for you (but only the yolks) all over again.  Campbell shows how this is the direct result of the conflict within the science and health industry.

I have come to the conclusion that when it comes to health, government is not for the people; it is for the food industry and the pharmaceutical industry at the expense of the people. It is a systemic problem where industry, academia and government combine to determine the health of this country. (page 318)

I have worked in the health field myself for years now, and I can tell you, the vast majority of the people who do genuinely care about you and your health.  But traditions are hard to break and even those within the system don’t know everything that goes on among the lobbyists and the top echelons.  I mean, they are still teaching medical students to utilize BMI to determine health in their patients, when multiple studies have shown it is not a reliable tool.  Why is this?  People want to believe what they’ve first learned, and especially in medicine, if a new idea comes along many many many studies must be done and obstinate people push for it before the method utilized will be changed.  This is meant to protect you from quacks, but unfortunately it can lead to the burying of ground-breaking information.

Plus, how would Americans react if tomorrow Mrs. Obama and her obesity prevention program came out and said everyone needs to go vegetarian or vegan?  Hell, the woman is taking flak for daring to suggest children play outside.  I think you can see my point.

Overall, this book definitely could have been shorter.  I believe it would have worked better if Campbell had presented his study and his insider’s knowledge as to why the health care and science industries seem so confused and conflicting half the time.  I hope this knowledge will convince more Americans to take direct control of their own health and conduct their own research to come to their own conclusions.  It’s worth a read for this knowledge, but if you are not interested in the politics of science and health and simply want the information, then I suggest you go with the more reader-friendly Diet for a New America.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Public Library

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Friday Fun! (Wild Swans at the ART)

February 17, 2012 3 comments

Hello my lovely readers!

So, you may recall that one of my 5 star reads of 2011 was Wild Swans by Jung Chang (review).  Imagine my shock when I saw a poster for a play at the American Repertory Theater by the same name!  I immediately googled and found out that the very same book had indeed been made into a play with the cooperation and assistance of Jung Chang.  Holy shizzit!!  I bought a ticket then and there.

The show was last night, and I was skeptical.  How could a 90 minute play possibly encompass such a large book?  We’re talking the lives of three women and covering decades of China’s history!  But I was encouraged by the involvement of Jung Chang herself so went in with positive thoughts.

You guys.  I was blown away.

We entered the theater to see a Chinese market scene, complete with the actors talking in Mandarin (I think) while we were finding our places and waiting for the show to actually start.

Shortly the show started with De-hong (Chang’s mother) talking with her mother about her engagement to a Nationalist.  I was surprised that they were starting with De-hong.  What about grandma?  Clearly, I don’t know what I’m doing when it comes to play adaptations, because how they told grandma’s story wound up being my favorite scene in the play.  De-hong’s refusal to marry the Nationalist quickly won the audience over, most of whom had not read the book.  It quickly established De-hong’s strong personality.

The next scene featured De-hong in full communist party uniform coming to a field of workers to explain communism.  In order to win the workers over to the cause, they explained their own family history of suffering at the hands of the elite.  It is here we got grandma’s story.  One of the comrades pulled out a traditional Chinese stringed instrument and a gong.  The others pulled out these GORGEOUS puppets!  I mean their faces were beautifully painted and so expressive.  The evil elites’ faces were grotesquely disproportionate and painted, whereas De-hong’s mother was simple and beautiful.  In a few short minutes, using the puppets to demonstrate, De-hong told the workers the story of her mother’s life suffering as a concubine and how she stole her away from the house.  I was shocked at how perfectly it worked and completely loved how smoothly it fit into the play.

The show then progressed to De-hong and Shou-yu’s courtship while working as comrades in the fields.  So far everything had pretty much taken place against the same scenery.  I was wondering how they were going to transition what I knew was coming–hospitals, apartments, schools, etc…  I was impressed when they rolled back the matting on the back wall while the action was happening.  Gradually transitioning from field to hospital.  This background scenery of people was used for most of the rest of the play with set pieces being moved around in front of it to depict the main settings of apartments, classrooms, hospitals, and meeting rooms.

The other thing that really impressed me in the play was how they managed to show the problems Comrade Ting caused without totally demonizing her.  They made it clear that Comrade Ting used to be with Shou-yu, and Shou-yu kind of rubbed his courtship of De-hong in her face.  Not that this excused Comrade Ting for going after De-hong, but it prevented her character from being too easily demonized by the audience.

I was also impressed with how, although the play makes it clear that Shou-yu’s commitment to Communism above all else hurt his family badly, it is also evident that his family still loved him and he them.  Another powerful scene depicts the young reds coming after Shou-yu and forcing Er-hong (Jung Chang) to choose whether to “draw a line” between herself and him or not.  Drawing a line is essentially disowning a family member.  Er-hong tearfully refuses and chooses to stand beside her father.  It was a great scene that eloquently depicted so much of the feeling of the book.

The play then subtly shows the passage of time to more modern ones by using a video of people working in a rice field as the backdrop for a scene where Shou-yu is working in a prison camp and Er-hong visits him.  This is when we start truly seeing Er-hong’s story.

The final couple of scenes were set against a background of cubes with more video on them.  This showed both the crowded hustle and bustle of the city and also the relative modernity of Er-hong’s young adulthood.  In just a few short scenes, the play managed to demonstrate the family being reunited, as well as Shou-yu’s persistent refusal, in spite of everything, to help his daughter by pulling strings.  He to the very end was committed to pure equality, even though Er-hong points out to him that nothing they do will change the system.  The father and daughter’s very different opinions are eloquently presented in a few short lines.  Er-hong then leaves her father and steps to the very front of the stage on a mat to demonstrate her eventual emigration from China.

Overall, the play ultimately focuses in on De-hong’s life, but it works.  We see how her viewpoint of her mother’s life influenced her choice to back up Communism.  We then also see how De-hong’s choices influenced Er-hong to ultimately leave China.  It’s an eloquent play that really does the book justice.  I encourage any of my local readers to go see it, as it is still playing.

Happy weekends!

PS I had pictures, but the production scolded me so I had to take them down.  Alas!