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Book Review: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick

January 29, 2017 2 comments

Book Review: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara DemickSummary:
Award-winning journalist Barbara Demick follows the lives of six North Korean citizens over fifteen years–a chaotic period that saw the death of Kim Il-sung, the rise to power of his son Kim Jong-il, and a devastating famine that killed one-fifth of the population. Demick brings to life what it means to be living under the most repressive totalitarian regime today–an Orwellian world that is by choice not connected to the Internet, where displays of affection are punished, informants are rewarded, and an offhand remark can send a person to the gulag for life. Demick takes us deep inside the country, beyond the reach of government censors, and through meticulous and sensitive reporting, we see her subjects fall in love, raise families, nurture ambitions, and struggle for survival. One by one, we witness their profound, life-altering disillusionment with the government and their realization that, rather than providing them with lives of abundance, their country has betrayed them.

Review:
One thing the official blurb doesn’t mention is that all 6 of the North Korean escapees Demick interviewed were from the same town of Chongjin. This allowed for her to get multiple perspectives of life in the same town over the course of the 1980s and 1990s. I think this is key because it allowed her to, through their eyes, get a well-rounded sense of what life in Chongjin was like in those decades.

Since I had just read The Girl with Seven Names (review), the extent of the brainwashing North Korean citizens go through their entire lives and how difficult it is to escape (physically and mentally) were not revelatory to me. However, I do think this information is presented quite well by Demick, and there is added value in getting it from 6 different voices, instead of the one in the memoir I started out with.

What struck me the most as new information in this book was actually the famine in North Korea. I hadn’t heard of it, and every single person interviewed by Demick was touched by it. Some more than others. One of the people interviewed was a homeless child during the famine whose growth was permanently stunted by his starvation. For those wondering, the famine was the result of North Korea’s various trade agreements falling through after the fall of the USSR. Humanitarian agencies did send aid, but the North Korean officials intercepted it and either took it or sold it on the black market. Demick speaks at length how this incredibly long-lasting famine impacted not just people’s bodies but their psyche and can lead them to do things they normally wouldn’t for survival.

Her indifference was an acquired survival skill. In order to get through the 1990s alive, one had to suppress any impulse to share food. To avoid going insane, one had to learn to stop caring.  (location 2109)

I already knew of the horrible gulags (prison camps) in North Korea but some of the people Demick interviewed had actually been in some of the less severe ones. They spoke of familial bribery and overcrowding as ways they got out. The crimes they commited to be sent to these concentration camp style prison camps, by the way, were things like smuggling goods and escaping to China. One new fact I learned about these prison camps that will haunt me for a while is this:

North Koreans have multiple words for prison in much the same way the Inuit do for snow. (location 2740)

Demick goes more in-depth into what happens to the North Koreans who do manage to escape to South Korea. How well do they acclimate? What are their lives like? She speaks about how many of them are struggling to save money to pay to have human smugglers help sneak their remaining family members out of North Korea. The most heartbreaking of these stories is the mother who escaped to China and had to leave her two children behind with their father who was still loyal to North Korea. Her children are grown now, and she’s still trying to get in contact with them to help them escape. In addition to the difficulties of trying to save remaining family members there’s the fact that capitalism is new to the North Korean escapees, and that South Korea really has a different culture at this point. There’s a lot of struggles to adapt to both that Demick does a good job demonstrating by letting her interviewees speak for themselves.

Demick did a wonderful job interviewing and assembling the stories of these 6 refugees. She both lets their stories speak for themselves and interjects at appropriate times with astute analysis. Recommended to those with an interest in North Korea who want some narrative story with critical analysis.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Book Review: Try Not to Breathe by Holly Sedon

Book Review: Try Not to Breathe by Holly SeddonSummary:
Amy Stevenson was the biggest news story of 1995. Only fifteen years old, Amy disappeared walking home from school one day and was found in a coma three days later. Her attacker was never identified and her angelic face was plastered across every paper and nightly news segment.

Fifteen years later, Amy lies in the hospital, surrounded by 90’s Britpop posters, forgotten by the world until reporter Alex Dale stumbles across her while researching a routine story on vegetative patients.

Remembering Amy’s story like it was yesterday, she feels compelled to solve the long-cold case.

The only problem is, Alex is just as lost as Amy—her alcoholism has cost her everything including her marriage and her professional reputation.

In the hopes that finding Amy’s attacker will be her own salvation as well, Alex embarks on a dangerous investigation, suspecting someone close to Amy

Review:
I devoured this book so quickly that I forgot to mark it read in GoodReads for a few weeks. It’s a thrilling read on a lot of levels. Amy’s questionably vegetative state would give anyone chills, as would how she wound up there. Even before full details of the attack are known, everyone knows it was pretty gruesome. Alex’s “functional” alcoholism also sends chills down the spine. She’s lost almost everything,  but she still drinks enormous amounts of alcohol every day. The juxtaposition of the two women is what makes the psychological thriller so thrilling. They’re both being held paralyzed in a state by an illness and any one of us could fall to either of those states.

I know the average reader is probably most interested in the mystery aspect of the thriller–the whodunit. I will say in short that it’s a well-done mystery. I had my suspicions but exactly how things ultimately went down was still enough of a surprise that I was delighted, and I thought the resolution was well-done. What I was much more fascinated by though was Alex.

A “trouble-making journalist” or a detective who drinks too much is the norm of thrillers and noir but usually that is played up as something slightly dangerous but also sexy. Here there is nothing sexy about Alex’s alcoholism. She wets the bed every night. It at first seems this is because she drinks at least one glass of water per glass of alcohol to stave off hangovers but later it’s clear it’s from her body shutting down from her alcoholism. Alex is a great example of a “functional” alcoholic. She’s holding down a job (sort of, her alcoholism stole her dream career from her), she runs every day, she’s capable of looking into this mystery of Amy. But slowly other things are revealed that makes it ever clearer that no, she’s not homeless, but she is far from functional, unless by functional you simply mean she can sort of exist in human society. She is nowhere near what she could be because of the alcohol, and she’s lost almost everything (career, husband, and more). I really liked that the reader is both compelled to respect Alex’s smarts and tenacity as a reporter but also to feel empathy and horror at how much alcoholism is stealing from her. Even if the reader doesn’t have an interest in addictions, it still makes Alex a well-rounded character. She is more than just that smart journalist. There are whole worlds going on in her own life outside of her investigation.

Overall, if you’re looking for a thriller with a twisting plot that also turns some thriller/noir conventions on their head (not least of which the fact that both leads are women), then you should pick this book up.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Counts For:
Mental Illness Advocacy (MIA) Reading Challenge
Specific illness –> Addictive Disorders

Trigger Warning/Content Note:
Contains discussions of rape and sexual assault.

Book Review: Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman

Old photographs of two women in suits against a background of a steamer ship.Summary:
In 1889, the world was obsessed with Jules Verne’s fictional work Around the World in 80 Days.  So when Nellie Bly, a human rights crusading female reporter in New York City, suggested taking a shp to Europe in first class then coming back in steerage, she was surprised to get a counter-offer: try to beat the fictional Fogg’s record for traveling around the world.  When The Cosmopolitan magazine heard about it, they sent their own female reporter, Elizabeth Bisland, on a trip trying to beat her.  Only she left a day later and would go the opposite direction.  Bly would travel east to west (Europe first), Bisland would travel west to east (continental US first).  The women weren’t just taking different routes around the world, they had quite different backgrounds and personalities.  Bly overcame a northern, working-class background to break into newspapers and crusaded for the less-fortunate whenever the paper would allow her to.  Bisland was the daughter of a plantation owner.  Raised in southern gentility and with an intense interest in everything British.  She wrote a literary column for The Cosmopolitan.  One of these women would win the race, but would either beat the fictional Phineas Fogg?

Review:
With my interest in women’s history, I was surprised when I saw this title on Netgalley that I had never heard of this race around the world, although I had heard of Nellie Bly, due to her investigative report into Bellevue Hospital (a mental institution).  I knew I had to request it, and I’m quite glad I got a review copy.  Goodman tells not just the story of these two women but also immerses the reader into the newly global world of the late 1890s, both the good and the bad.

Goodman starts the book by introducing us to the two women who will race around the world.  He does an excellent job using primary source materials to give us both how others saw these women and how they saw themselves.  For instance, in describing Elizabeth Bisland, Goodman writes:

One of her admirers, the writer Lafcadio Hearn, whom she had befriended in New Orleans, called her “a sort of goddess” and likened her conversation to hashish, leaving him disoriented for hours afterward. Another said, about talking with her, that he felt as if he were playing with “a beautiful dangerous leopard,” which he loved for not biting him. (loc 241)

While introducing the women, Goodman also talks at length about the role of women in journalism in the late 1800s and how hard it was for them to break into real reporting.  Jumping off from Bisland and Bly, describes how women were blocked from many journalism positions with excuses such as that the newsroom needed to be free to swear and not worry about a lady’s sensibilities.  Women were often barred to what was deemed the ladylike journalism of the society pages.  The hardest part of being a hardhitting female journalist at the time wasn’t the actual reporting but instead the reception of women in the newsroom.

The successful female journalist, McDonald suggested, should be composed of “one part nerve and two parts India rubber.” (loc 465)

Bisland and Bly and their race came at the beginning of having women journalists do some form of stunt journalism, which is how they started to break into hardhitting journalism.  Editors and owners discovered that readers enjoyed reading about women in stunt situations, such as learning how to stunt ride a horse, so this was their way in.  Thus, even if the reader dislikes the personalities of either or both of the racers, they come away with some level of respect for them both breaking into the business.

From here, Goodman starts following the women on their race around the world.  He takes the different legs of their journeys as a jumping-off point to discuss something historically relevant to that portion of the journey.  For instance, during Bly’s trip on the ocean liner to Europe, he discusses how the steamships worked, from the technical aspects of the steam to the class aspects of first class down to steerage.  During Bisland’s railroad trip across the United States, he discusses the railroad barons and the building of the transcontinental railroad.  Thus, the reader is getting both the story of the race and historical context.  It’s a wonderful way to learn, as the historical explanations flesh out the settings around and expectations of the women, and the women lend a sense of realness to the historical situations and settings being described.

After the completion of the trip (and, no, I won’t tell you who won), Goodman explores the impact of the trip on the women’s lives and follows the rest of their lives to their deaths.  This part may feel a bit long and irrelevant to some readers, however often when people become famous for doing something, no one talks about the long-lasting impact of that fame or what the rest of their lives are like.  Seeing how both women reacted to the trip, their careers, and others puts them in a more complete light, giving the reader a complete picture of what the race did in their lives.  This complete picture of both of their lives is something I really appreciated and that also demonstrated that one shouldn’t judge people too fast.  They and their lives may turn out differently than you expect at first.

What would have made me love the book is if I had come away feeling like I could respect or look up to either woman.  Unfortunately, by the time I heard the full story of both of their lives, I found them both to be so deeply flawed that I couldn’t do that.  I respect them for breaking into the newspaper business, and perhaps if I was a journalist myself that would be enough to make me look up to them.  But each had a fatal flaw that made this not be a book about two role models but instead a book about two women.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but it does keep it from being a book I would return to over and over again.

Overall, Goodman does an excellent job using the true story of two female journalists’ race around the world in 1889 to 1890 to build a solid picture of the increasingly global world of that time.  The reader will come away both with having learned an incredible true story and details about the 1800s they might not have known before, told in a delightfully compelling manner.  Some readers might be a bit bothered by how flawed the two women journalists are or by the fact that the book goes on past the race to tell about the end of their lives in detail.  However, these are minor things that do not distract too much from the literary qualities of this historical nonfiction.  Recommended to those interested in an easy-to-read, engaging historical nonfiction book focusing in on women’s history.  Particularly recommended to modern, women journalists.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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The Power of Communication to Influence Health (MLA13 Boston: Plenary 2: McGovern Award Lecture by Dr. Richard Besser)

A tanned, white man standing in front of a blue background with a white moon-shape that says "One Health" on it behind him.

Dr. Richard Besser speaking at MLA13 One Health

After the first plenary and a short break came the second plenary, the McGovern Lecture.  I was surprised to see on twitter (the hashtag for the conference was #mlanet13 if anyone is interested) that many librarians didn’t see the value of having a plenary lecture by a non-librarian talking about non-library things.  I responded to this criticism in one of my official MLA13 blog posts The Value of the Non-Librarian Perspective: Thoughts on Plenary 2.  Please do take a moment to check that out.

And now back to the plenary.  Dr. Richard Besser is the medical correspondent for ABC, but more interestingly to me, he also was the acting director of the CDC during the H1N1 epidemic.  Epidemics ultimately were a theme of the conference, which makes sense since the overarching theme was One Health.  One health meaning the global health of all living creatures and how we are all interconnected.  Below are my notes from Dr. Besser’s lecture.

Introduction

  • Describes himself as an accidental journalist
  • If you change your life, then the terrorists win.
  • The reason Israelis are so well-prepared is because they face it every day.

Starting at the CDC and Advice on Being the New Person

  • Recommends the leadership book Good to Great
  • 1st ask your new boss what they think of their organization and ask them if they think it needs: big change, small change, or stabilization

How to Respond to a Pandemic

  • If you can spread out a pandemic so hospitals aren’t flooded, you’ll save lives.
  • You use different words to get different responses.
  • With a new emerging infection, you only get one shot to get ahead of it.
  • Be transparent with the public.
  • Base actions on fact.
  • Apply rapid learning –> guide will change based on new knowledge
  • If you lose the trust of the public, you’ve failed.
  • Three key aspects of communication:
    • Be first
    • Be right
    • Be credible
  • Homeland Security is in charge during a declared national emergency
  • Dr. Besser was featured on The Daily Show during the H1N1 epidemic
  • When he met with the cabinet, Obama said, “I want our responses based on science.”  An excellent support of evidence-based medicine.
  • Don’t use jargon with a non-science expert.  (For that matter, don’t use your specialty’s jargon with someone who is not also a specialist).  Just because someone is intelligent doesn’t mean they know the jargon.
  • Translate science into clear, spoken English.
  • Flu can spread for 12 days after infection.
  • How do you tell a good study from a bad one?  Which are reportable?

Q and A

  • Once someone is obese, it’s very very hard to lose that weight. Prevention is much easier.
  • So many diseases emerge from eating meat.
  • up-to-date is “an aggregator site” be sure to check primary sources
  • “A lot of people practice based on what they learned in residency.”
  • Check out his weekly twitter chat which he has complete control over at handle @abcdrbchat on Tuesdays at 1pm EST.

Check out Dr. Besser’s biography at ABC news, his twitter, and his book Tell Me the Truth, Doctor: Easy-to-Understand Answers to Your Most Confusing and Critical Health Questions.

Up next will be the third plenary, the Janet Doe lecture by Joanne Gard Marshall.