Showing posts with label asia. Show all posts
Showing posts with label asia. Show all posts

Monday, April 28, 2014

Love and espionage in North Korea

The Orphan Master's Son
Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son is a novel set in North Korea.  After reading several non-fiction books about life in North Korea, I have become completely fascinated with the country and how people make their lives there.  Johnson's novel brings a new take on that country to life - it is about the people there who know that their Dear Leader is a corrupt liar, but do their best to improve their lives and those of their loved ones.

Jun Do grew up in labor camps and then became a kidnapper, stealing people from their lives in Japan to become teachers, singers or other workers in Korea.  He's good at his job and rises through the ranks quickly, shedding previous versions of himself so that no one ever really knows who he is.  As he gets closer and closer to the Dear Leader's inner circle, he wants more and more desperately to get out and to get his family out, but struggles to find a way to do so without endangering everyone.

The narrative of this story was difficult for me to follow sometimes, probably because I was reading it on audiobook.  The perspective would shift from one character to another, and the timeline would move back and forth and characters would change facts to tell a story that was far more likely to get them off lightly than to tell the truth.  Usually, this would involve triple rainbows in celebration of North Korea, or about starving Americans being helped by beneficent Koreans.  While I enjoyed the audiobook version, I think I would recommend this one to be read in written form to decrease the amount of confusion (though it seems like people who read it in print also struggled with the shifts).

There was a lot of brutality and propaganda and unhappiness in this book.  It was tough to read.  But I really appreciated Johnson's humanization of all his characters.  Jun Do does horrible things, but he also inspires trust and loyalty in the people who are closest to him.  He tries his best to stick to a moral code in a country where there really is no moral ground, just whatever the state decrees.  It's easy to think about North Koreans always turning each other in and reporting each other's activities to authorities and living completely paranoid lives.  But within that system, friendship and love and loyalty do still exist, and Johnson brought that very much to life.

I also liked how Johnson brought some humor into this book, though it was a bit of bleak humor.  The second half of the book has three narrators:  Jun Do, his interrogator, and the North Korean radio broadcast.  All three of them are ostensibly telling the same story, but they tell it in completely different ways.  It's fascinating to see how the interrogator draws conclusions based on what he has been told and what he's found out, and how that stacks up against what Jun Do really did, and how all of this is warped into a story by North Korean radio to either laud or revile the parties included, depending on how the government wants to sway things.

I think sometimes my confusion over the timeline and narrators kept me from loving this book as some others did.  While I liked Jun Do, I didn't really care for any of the other characters.  And the narrators in the book are quite unemotional.  Which I think is the point - I get the impression that North Korea is not a country known for excessive emotion - but it made the book a little monotone.

However, there are only so many books on North Korea out there!  And this one definitely brings nuance and breaks new ground.

Monday, August 5, 2013

And I thought life was hard as a MIDDLE child...

The Third Son
The Third Son, by Julie Wu, is populated by characters who are completely extreme. The main character, Saburo, is an extremely neglected child.  His lady love, Yoshiko, is an extremely ambitious person.  His parents are extremely strict and harsh.  His older brother is extremely cruel.  His cousin is extremely kind.  The Americans are extremely wishy-washy.

The cover is extremely pretty.

I really did not enjoy this book.  I don't know too much about Taiwanese culture, but if Julie Wu is correct, then third sons are so little loved that their parents can pretty much starve them so that they need to get injections due to severe malnutrition.  Even when the family is wealthy.  First sons get everything, and everyone else must fend for themselves.  Poor Saburo never even got an egg.  They all went to his extremely cruel older brother.

The Third Son begins in Taiwan during World War II.  Saburo is a young boy trying to escape an air raid, and he runs into a beautiful girl while trying to escape and hide.  The two of them have a moment.  Then the beautiful girl, Yoshiko, walks away, and Saburo goes back to his miserable existence.  But he never forgets Yoshiko.  He thinks about her as he gets expelled from school, thinks about going to but then never applies to college in the US, and pretty much any other time.  Then he meets her again, but his extremely cruel older brother is interested in her, too.  So Saburo has to find a way to win her back.

I think there were many reasons this book just fell flat for me.  First, I didn't really care much about Saburo or Yoshiko.  I guess they were nice people, but Saburo was just really whiny and Yoshiko wasn't even in the book for most of the time.  So I didn't really believe in this huge, epic love story between them because - well - I couldn't really see what there was to like in each other.  And everyone else in the book, too, was just so exhausting to read about.  I mean, seriously, Saburo's parents were just SO MEAN.  And I didn't understand why, if they were so wealthy, they wouldn't just buy enough food to feed their whole family instead of only getting enough for themselves and their eldest son and not giving enough to everyone else.  I don't think I fully understand just how the cultural norms worked.  And even if a culture generally favors an eldest son, I don't think that means that they despised their other children, but that's what this book made it seem like, and it was hard to read.

To me, the most valuable aspect of this book was the insight it provided into life in Taiwan in the mid-20th century.  I didn't really know anything about the Japanese occupation and then the transfer of power to China, and then the crazy political machinations between different Chinese parties, becoming more and more paranoid.  It was good to learn more about it, and I appreciate Wu for shedding light on a topic that we in the West don't hear much about.

Note:  I received a complimentary copy of this book to review.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Murphy's Law Applied to the Life of a NYC Busboy

Johnny Hiro:  Half-Asian, All Hero
Poor Johnny Hiro.  He's just trying to make ends meet, living with his gorgeous girlfriend in a tiny Brooklyn apartment, working as a busboy at a sushi restaurant, and genuinely trying to stay out of trouble.  But trouble just seems to find Johnny.  First a giant lizard snatches his girlfriend up from their apartment (causing extensive property damage while doing so).  Then he's chased by crazed fishmongers.  And barely escapes from angry warriors that are after an acquaintance.  Really, anything that can go wrong does go wrong for Johnny HIro.  Luckily, his girlfriend seems to have an uncanny ability to get Mayor Bloomberg to show up and save the day whenever things seem at their bleakest.

Johnny Hiro:  Half-Asian, All Hero, by Fred Chao, is a really fun book.  It's just what I needed, really, to help me realize that my reading rut was possibly due more to my choice of reading material than to any serious lack of concentration on my part.  I just needed something a little more upbeat to read than the epic fantasy novel that I have been attempting to slog through for the past few weeks.

Johnny Hiro does not, on the surface, appear to be a book that will change your life.  It's not about a moment of epiphany in which Johnny realizes that with great power comes great responsibility.  It's about the mundane activities that make up your world (except, of course, for the giant lizard) and how you just have to keep plugging and get through the hard parts.  The narrator more than once detaches himself from the action to explain someone's motivations or to show how some small action can have unforeseen consequences or how someone who really does do his best in life can still fail so spectacularly.  The third party, indifferent observer opposes very nicely with the quick action terror that Hiro faces:

Thursday, May 2, 2013

It's like stealing rice from your mother

 Escape from Camp 14 is the story of Shin Dong-Hyuk, a man born and raised ("raised" is a generous term) in a notorious prison camp in North Korea.  He is one of very few people to ever have escaped from a prison camp and his life story - one of constant threats, severe hunger, and terrible punishment - is a harrowing account of life under a totalitarian regime.

Escape from Camp 14 is a pretty short book.  The audio version was only about 5 hours long.  There's a lot of information packed in there, though, and to be perfectly honest - there's only so much of this sort of book a person can take.  It's not heart-warming and there aren't many moments that make you believe that people are generally good at heart.  And what's most disturbing is that this is not horror that occurred in the past, that we can hear about, shudder, and then snuggle more comfortably under our warm blankets and think, "Thank goodness that sort of thing could never happen these days."  Because that sort of thing is happening these days.  And when the people doing it have access to an arsenal of nuclear weapons that they could set off at any time.... well, that makes it even more horrifying.

So many things about North Korea are disturbing.  An entire population of people that suffers from malnutrition and starvation just so that a few people can live a luxurious life that they denounce so strongly to all their followers.  A massive cult with no real access to the outside world and the widely-held belief that their leader (and the leaders before him) is descended from heaven.  People who feel no affection, love, or loyalty for one another.  There is so much here that is hard to believe, that seems straight out of a dystopia novel.  But it is real.  And even now, when it seems as though everyone has instant access to all information, it still happens.  And you keep thinking, "There's just no way this regime can last."  But it does.  And it makes people do horrible things.  For example, when growing up, Shin would eat his mother's meals and not care that it meant she would starve for the day.  And when he found out that she and his brother were trying to escape, he turned them in and felt no remorse.  Shin had no sense of familial feeling until he left North Korea and realized that, as a general rule, most people would feel some sense of guilt at betraying their own mother.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Chinese Teenagers Make Shoes and Change the World

Factory Girls by Leslie Chang
As a person of Indian descent living in America, I often hear wariness and worry about China and the Chinese economy.  It is growing too aggressively, it's a strange mix of communism and capitalism, it's becoming an unchallenged power in Asia, and India needs to step it up if it wants to serve as a counterbalance.

But, as usual, knowing the macro-level information isn't nearly as interesting as learning the micro-level stuff - fine, China is a huge economic power, but what does that mean to the Chinese?  Leslie Chang's book Factory Girls makes it personal - and not just personal, but feminist.  AWESOME combination, if I do say so myself.

Chang is an American expat living in China.  Her family emigrated to Taiwan and then to America during and after the Cultural Revolution, and Chang moved there as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.  Interested to see how life was changing for the Chinese, she moved to Dongguan, a huge city no one has ever heard of where there are factories galore and a massive migrant worker population, mostly female.  There, she met two women, Wu Chunming and Lu Qingmin, both who had moved to Dongguan from rural farming villages to make a new life for themselves.  Her interactions with them and their social circles over three years form the crux of this book and bring to life just how completely life has changed in China in just a short while.  Chang also shares her own family history, a fascinating tale of patriotism, rebellion and migration that made the Cultural Revolution much more real for me.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Musings: Two Years in the Forbidden City

Two Years in the Forbidden City
In my quest to find more books in the public domain written by people of color, I found these memoirs by Princess (this title is controversial) Der Ling about her stint as a lady-in-waiting to the Empress Cixi at the turn of the 20th century.

Two Years in the Forbidden City is actually about one year in the Forbidden City, and the last chapter basically says "the second year was much the same as the first so I won't get into it."  Der Ling spent most of her life abroad.  Her parents were very progressive and she received an education in Europe.  Thus, when she came back to Europe, she was one of very few people who could serve as an interpreter in the imperial household.

The empress took a liking to her and Der Ling became a chief lady-in-waiting, spending most of her time with the imperial household.  Her memoirs present an intimate portrait of a complex woman who seized power for herself, refused to hand it over to her son the emperor, and ruled a massive country for nearly 50 years.  Most people believe she was a despot - she certainly was anti-reform and, like most royals, very against ceding power to the masses.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Musings: Kwaidan - Stories and Studies of Strange Things

Kwaidan:  Stories and Studies of Strange ThingsI'm over at the Project Gutenberg Project blog again today, reviewing a collection of Japanese folk tales that I really enjoyed!  Come visit and see my thoughts - and of course, if you're reading books that are in the public domain, please know that we are always looking for guest posters!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Musings: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Behind the Beautiful Forevers
Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers chronicles life in Annawadi, one of Mumbai's slums situated close to the airport and all the five-star hotels that surround it.  She follows men and women of different ages, religions, beliefs, and goals to present a very nuanced and complicated story.

I said in my review of A Suitable Boy that I loved the book because it showed both the beauty and the corruption that co-exist in India.  Boo's book does the same, but focuses on a much lower class of society.  While Seth focused on the slow sunset of the Raj's ruling class, Boo tells her story (non-fiction, by the way) by focusing on people that are on the cusp of living in the middle class.  They are so close to stability, if only.  If only luck goes their way, the government officials don't ask for too much money, the police don't take away their livelihoods, and their neighbors don't turn them in on trumped-up charges born of jealousy and spite.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Musings: The Book of a Thousand Days

The Book of a Thousand Days
After reading three intense books at once - A Suitable Boy, The Worst Hard Time, and Nothing to Envy - I really just wanted something happy and sweet and fun that I could finish quickly.  Whew, thank you, Shannon Hale!  The Book of a Thousand Days was just what I needed.

The story starts with the narrator, Dashti, lady's maid to Saren, being locked up in a tower with Saren.  Lady Saren refuses to marry the man chosen for her by her father, and so he locks her up in a windowless tower with enough food and candles for seven years.  But Saren eats a lot and the rats eat even more and the food runs out much more quickly than Dashti would like.  The girls are visited a few times by Saren's chosen betrothed, Khan Tegus, who is kind and funny and thoughtful.  And then they are visited once by Lord Khasar, the man she refuses to marry, and everything goes wrong after that.  The book chronicles the girls' time in the tower, their escape, and their subsequent time in Khan Tegus' home.

I was surprised by how much I liked Dashti in this book.  While she is kind and courageous and wonderfully loyal, she also does whatever Saren tells her to do and has far too much patience with the brat, and that got tiring.  But as the story continued, I realized just how ingrained the idea of the gentry being descended from god and the commoners being created solely to serve them was.  I also understood that there were real consequences to Dashti disagreeing with or refusing Saren, and so her behavior made much more sense as I continued reading the novel.  Dashti is really awesome.  In many ways, she reminds me of Mulan because she's willing to take on roles that are very dangerous for her and could get her in a lot of trouble, but because she's that great, she just does it and deals with the consequences as they come.

Saren, on the other hand, is an exhaustingly whiny person and I got tired of her real quick.  She's like the Laura to Dashti's Marian, if you've read The Woman in White, except luckily for us and our modern age, Dashti is very clearly the heroine in this book.

Hale sets this story in a fantastical version of Mongolia, and props to her for doing so!  I recently visited the Field Museum's exhibit on Genghis Khan (which was lame, and I do not recommend going) and was so excited to see that setting brought to life here.  What I most appreciated was that Hale created very strict rules for her society and then had all the characters and situations stick to them.  Just because two people fall in love, it doesn't mean they can be together, for example - they need to convince the world around them that they are legally entitled to do so.  I loved that she did this; it made the story much more realistic and made me tumble into love with the hero for working so hard to keep Dashti by his side.

I read this book in one day, and it totally refreshed me!  Highly recommended for those times when you're emotionally exhausted from a big, intense read and just want to settle down with something happy.


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