Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea – Barbara Demick

nothing to envyThe Democratic People’s Republic of Korea remains one of the most secluded nations on earth.  To some, it is the best example of the society George Orwell described in his masterpiece, 1984. Documentaries, photographs and videos taken in North Korea have given the rest of the world glimpses into a nation ruled by an iron fist, where individuality and personal expression are as forbidden as foreign literature and films.  Every living moment of North Korean life is in service to the State under the tutelage and patronage of the “Dear Leader”.   The ideology of the North Korean Republic known as “Juche” was made famous by the late Kim il Sung (1912-1994) and has been carried forward by his son Kim Jong il (1941-2011) and currently his grandson, Kim Jong Un.  Portraits of the leaders can be found on the walls of nearly ever building in the country, reinforcing the demand for subservience by the government of its citizens.  The threat of American Invasion and moral corruption of young Koreans by foreigner influence are used by the State as justification for its seclusion from most of the world.  But for some citizens, the smoke and mirrors become clear as nothing more than propaganda used to keep society in line. and curiosity of the outside world creeps steadily in.   Their awakening results in a mix of emotions, one of which is defection to South Korea typically by way of China.

Barbara Demick is the former Beijing bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times and spent five years in Seoul interviewing defectors from North Korea. This book tells the story of several individuals who made the difficult decision to leave the only place they have called home.  I think it is fair to say that anyone outside of North Korea is aware of the totalitarian regime imposed upon the people of that nation.  Journalists have lifted the carefully guarded veil constructed by Pyongyang. But what is contained in the pages of this book might surprise even the most knowledgeable readers. In fact, descriptions of their daily lives will stun some but in order to understand their desire to learn about the outside world, escape a suppressive regime and find peace and happiness, we must learn their stories and the challenging lives they were born into.  Their names are Kim Hyuck, Mi-Ran, Jun-Sang, Oak Hee, her mother Song Hee Suk and Dr. Kim Ji-eun.  Their stories are different but they are all united in the defection to South Korea, leaving behind family members and friends.  But what they witnessed will remain with them for the rest of their days.   Those events which we learn about in this book are more than any of us would want to endure.  I guarantee that for American readers, after you have finished this book, you will have a greater appreciation for the privilege of living in the country that is perhaps the most powerful nation on earth.

 

For those readers new to literature about North Korea and/or its defectors, the author provides a good history about the Japanese occupation of North Korea and its liberation following World War II.  Kim il-Sung would rise as the leader of the new Soviet backed North Korea while Syngman Rhee (1875-1965) established him as the leader of the U.S. backed South Korea.  The establishment of the 38th Parallel also known as the DMZ, as the dividing line between the two countries, remains firmly in place as the line that separates two very different countries and different worlds. Sung’s goal to create a new version of Communism, resulted in a regime that ranks among the most brutal anywhere in the world and seemingly stuck several decades behind the rest of the modern world.  And as the nation endured periods of famine and near economic collapse, increasing numbers of North Koreans, including those in this book, made their way south by any means necessary.

When we first meet our characters, their lives are typical of North Korea, far removed from any knowledge of or influence by the western world.  Allegiance to the “Dear Leader” is mandatory and all seem to stay in line willingly.   But over time the facade wears away and the death of Kim il-Sung on July 8, 1994, would provide the catalyst for many to open their eyes to the truth about life in North Korea.   Radio programs and even television from South Korea began to infiltrate the nation as growing numbers of citizens began to question all that they had been taught from a young age.  For figures in the story at hand, the moment of revelation of a life outside of North Korea proved to be too seductive to ignore and once the decision was made, the next step was to act which they did under the most intuitive of ways.  And in stark contrast to the idea of communist citizens all falling in line without thought, each of the characters prove to be as sharp and clever as anyone determined to seek asylum in the hope of a better life.  Their successful defections to the South are not without complications and their adjustment to life in Seoul, also shows the complicated efforts that exist to undo many years of indoctrination and seclusion.

Throughout the book, a constant theme is the possible collapse of North Korea and even the author remarks that it has been predicted for many years.  In spite of conditions that should cause the downfall of any government, North Korea continues to maintain its position as the rogue nation that issues threats to neighboring countries while preparing for a believed conflict with the United States.  The government operates on a system of dysfunction and in some cases hypocrisy.  While those at the top enjoy American cars, films and imported goods, millions of North Korea endure malnutrition and destitution.  Time will tell if the regime will collapse but what we do know, not just from news reports but also from the stories in this book, is that outside of Pyongyang, life for millions of North Koreans is marked by famine, poverty and fear of the State.  Defectors have survived the roughest of ordeals and no longer live in the fear that grips North Korea.  However, their hearts are still with those left behind and they do believe in the dream that one day Korea may once again be unified.  Until then, the number of defectors may continue to rise and people seek to move away from scavenging for food and praising the Dear Leader to having a full meal, talking freely and being able to watch any show they prefer on television.   Their stories may give others inspiration that there is a life outside of North Korea and for some, it is worth dying for.  But it is hoped that they are able to escape and enjoy the many privileges that so many of us take for granted.

This book has caused me to really think about the concept of freedom and how precious is truly is. I have seen and accomplished things that most North Koreans either have no knowledge of or ability to do. I am grateful for the life that I have and the author is correct when she says that life in North Korea is nothing to envy.

ISBN-10: 9780385523912
ISBN-13: 978-0385523912

Bolivar: American Liberator – Marie Arana

simonIn the annals of Latin American history, perhaps no other figure is as studied as Simón Bolívar (1783-1830), the liberator of South America.   Former Venezuelan President Hugh Chavez (1954-2013) famously spoke with images of Bolívar behind him as he sought to transform the country into a contender on the world stage. The life of Bolívar lasted less than fifty years but within two decades he became the leading figure in the Latin American movement for independence from the Spanish Empire. The nations of Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, Panama and Bolivia (his namesake) are the products of his vision, a united South America free from the influence of its northern neighbor.   And prophetically, many of his beliefs about the future of South America have come to pass, cementing his legacy as one of the continent’s greatest heroes.  Marie Arana, a native of Bolívar’s beloved Peru, has composed a stunning biography of the late figure that shows a complex character, driven by ideology but crippled by his own generosity and disregard for personal well-being.

On July 24, 1783, Don Juan Vicente and Doña María de la Concepción Palacios y Blanco welcomed their fourth child into their growing family but neither of them could have imagined then that their son would one day become the liberator of South America.  To understand the mind of the future leader, it is necessary to understand his past and Arana presents his story in a format that is guaranteed to pull the reader in.  The story takes us back in time where the Spanish Empire controls nearly all of the continent and a young Bolívar is learning about colonialism first hand.  Tragedy became a part of his life from an early age as the deadly disease known as tuberculosis wreaks havoc across the continent.  What is clear however, is that from a young age, the rebel the world would come to know was being crafted through life experiences and the ugly hierarchy of exploitation and racism used to subjugate those considered to be unworthy by the Spanish monarchy in Madrid. The young revolutionary proved to be a fast learner and before long, he became part of the growing movement for freedom.

The book continues to heat up as Arana brings the past alive allowing us to follow Bolívar as he traverses Latin America, covering more ground than any of the greatest warriors in history. But the campaign was far from easy and behind the scenes, back door deals, treachery and in some cases luck, combined to push forward the independence movement.  And as Bolívar rises through the ranks, a cast of characters develops, increasing the suspense in the story as the final showdown with Spain looms in the horizon.   The author increases the suspense as the book moves forward, making it impossible for the reader to stop.   I found myself captivated as I followed the events that culminated in the legendary battles that chartered a new path for Bolívar and millions of South Americans.

The battle of Ayacucho in the Peruvian War of Independence proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back with the Spanish Empire withdrawing the majority of its forces from South America. For Bolívar this was just the beginning of a long struggle that would see the continent nearly tear itself apart and result in his exodus from the place he called home.  Assassins, opportunist, traitors and cowards became major players in a deadly game of treachery that ensued following the continent’s liberation from Spain.  Arana puts all of the players and pieces together in a narrative that is both shocking and disheartening.  And through the story, we can clearly see the development of the Spanish Empire’s system of racial hierarchy  that has remained with Latin American society to this very day.  Fully aware of this, Bolívar made it a point to include everyone in his campaigns with the belief in his heart of a truly united and free Latin America.

Before he died, he recorded a statement regarding the lessons he learned after two decades of service in the revolution.  Hauntingly, his words proved to be correct and to this day, Latin America has never been able to eradicate the very issues proclaimed by  Bolívar in 1830.  And if he were alive today, he would be discouraged to see that he was correct.  Nevertheless, he did succeed in liberating Latin America before greed and deception caused infighting among the new republics that has never fully subsided.  But perhaps one day, we may finally see a truly united continent, free of demons from Spanish and British rule and the dreadful effects of the systems of class division and slavery.  And in that moment, the spirit of Bolívar will truly live on.

The story at hand is one of courage, love, triumph, betrayal and vindication.  Bolívar is long gone but his name and legacy continue to live on.  Marie Arana has done a great service to a legendary historical figure who changed the course of world history and paved the way for the birth of a new South America.

ISBN-10: 1439110204
ISBN-13: 978-1439110201
ASIN: B008J4PNX8

Becoming – Michelle Obama

Books-Michelle ObamaAny former First Lady of the United States will tell you that there is nothing “easy” about that lifestyle.  As the wife of the most powerful man on the planet, there is a high demand on appearance, initiatives and unwavering support for the policies that originate from the White House. Michelle Obama is an alumnus of this world, serving as the nation’s First Lady from January, 2009 to January, 2017.  Her style, look and presence is unmistakable and she will be remembered in time as one of the most dynamic to have lived in the White House. Almost two years have passed since Donald J. Trump took office and the where the United States is headed seems at times uncertain.  There exist a political climate built on division and hate, which will require many years ahead for healing and understanding. As the first Black-American woman to be a First Lady, she has unique perspective on Washington, D.C., and the country she calls home.  Her views and life story are presented here in this phenomenal autobiography of the life of Michelle Robinson who went on to become Mrs. Barack Obama.

As I purchased this book, I satisfied a growing curiosity about the story the former First Lady.  As an American citizen at times dismayed, but I believed that the book could take me back to time in which a sense of normalcy was found at the highest levels of government.  Not only was I completely engulfed in the book, having read it in three days, but it reminded me that it was less than two years ago that the Obamas were in the White House and America seemed to be moving forward in the right direction.  Today it seems like an eternity has passed and only time will tell who will occupy the oval office next.  But this is Michelle’s story and to understand the former First Lady, it is necessary to hear her story as a young girl from the South Side of Chicago who commits to hard work, dedication and supporting the presidential campaign of one of America’s most popular political figures.  In many ways, her story is the epitome of the American Dream supplemented by the added variable of her being a Black-American.

On January 17, 1964, Fraser and Marian Robinson welcomed Michelle LaVaughn Robinson into the world, but I do not believe anyone could have imagined then, the heights she would reach in less than fifty years on earth.  As the product of a hard-working blue-collar home, her story reminded me of my own upbringing.  My father worked for General Electric and my mother for what is now J.P. Morgan Chase.  Both are retired now and I am fortunate to have both of them present each day.   In my neighborhood of East New York, diversity was lacking after New York City endured its own “white flight” to the suburbs.  Over time East New York became one of the worst ghettos in the country with a murder rate that was astronomical.  But our parents and extended family members refused to let my brother and I slack on anything.  And just like Michelle’s grandfather, affectionately called “Southside”,  we had my grandparents and great-parents there to remind us the importance of an education in life.

From the start, the story is seductive as the reader becomes eager to learn about the life of the former First Lady.   Her teen and college years are pretty typical for most young ladies and after graduation from Princeton, she earns a position at the law firm of Sidley Austin, LLP, where fate intervened and she met the man who would change her life forever. It is at this part of the book that the story kicks into high gear and the ride never lets up.  To say that her story is incredible is an understatement.  But what makes it even more special is her humbleness and firm grip on reality.  While I read the book, I never detected any sense of arrogance or entitlement nor was it her chance to brag about herself.   She never loses touch with the fact that at the core, she is still the same Michelle Robinson from the South Side of Chicago., only now older and wiser. Her time as the First Lady has left her with a veteran’s seasoned view of Washington, politics and life.

Some readers might be wondering where Barack Obama fits in to the story.   After their initial courtship, he is as integral to the story as one could imagine.  In fact, it would have been virtually impossible to separate their stories for obvious reasons.  His decision to enter politics was the point at which their lives forever changed in ways they could have never imagined.  And as he ascends to higher office before winning the 2008 Presidential Election, we are given a rare inside view of what was transpiring behind the scenes in his campaign and the changes that took place in the lives of the Obamas.  Following his inauguration in January, 2009, the young couple were placed into an entirely new world in which learning is always constant and surprise around the corner.   And although the focus is always on “Mr. President’ ,  her story is equally interesting even as she settles in to the role of the First Lady while trying to be a good mother, friend, daughter and sister.

There are many highs in the book and also some lows,  but throughout, her story remains inspiring and I recommend that every woman and young woman read this book.  Her story is yet another example that women that achieve great things in this world regardless of what any misogynist may think.  This is a former First Lady of the United States, who personifies class, intelligence and many other things that young women all over the world can aspire to achieve.

ASIN: B079ZYWJJ8
ISBN-10: 0525633758
ISBN-13: 978-0525633754

 

Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now – Jaron Lainer

lanierSocial media is literally a modern marvel that has engulfed in its clutches, billions of people around the world.  Facebook, Twitter and Instagram remain the top three platforms for those wishing to step inside the world of “social networking”.   Additionally, other platforms such as LinkedIn cater to specific audiences who do not belong to the mainstream sites.   Even this blog is considered a form of social media. Regardless of what we use, social media has changed the way the world works and that trend will only continue.  But what if we all decided to delete our accounts?  What would happen and how would our lives change?  Jaron Lanier is a silicon valley insider who once helped engineer the very social media platforms billions of people use daily.  In this direct to the point book, he makes it clear that he believes we should all delete our social media accounts right now.

At first glance, it will seem to many that the author has clearly lost his mind and there is no way they would give up any of their social media accounts.  But Lanier is no fool and has come prepared to do psychological battle.  And has he moves through his argument, based on what he calls the Behavior of Users Modified and Made into and Empire, known simply as the BUMMER model.   The acronym is undoubtedly unique to the subject at hand but as Lanier takes us through each part of the model, we are able to see how it relates to our use of social media and the players that control the platforms that we cannot stop using.

The Bummer model is the core of his argument but what is paramount is how social media is changing us and why we are not changing social media.  I firmly believe that all of us are either guilty of or know someone who displays the very things Lanier points out in the book.  For many of us it is hard to imagine life without social media and today’s generation of young adults have grown up with it since birth. For many of them, it will be an unfathomable thought to have no social media existence at all. But if Lanier is correct and I think there is much truth to his words, social media will continue to change us unless we take the power back from the social media companies and place it our hands.  Only then, as Lanier says, will companies be forced to become competitive and offer diversity in platforms that accommodates what the users want and not what tech giants want.  But the first step is to delete our accounts.

Some of us have no social media and see no reason to start now.  And while it is part of the world we live in, there is no requirement that anyone has to use it.  It is truly up to our discretion.  But with anything else that develops habit and sometimes addiction, we must ask ourselves what value does it truly bring to our lives and is it necessary to begin with?  Once we answer these questions, we can then control the influence social media has on us and where we would like to see it go in the future.  Until then, the BUMMER model continues to thrive, claiming new loyal subscribers everyday.   Lanier may seem like a lone wolf but he’s a wolf that fears nothing and wants you to have the same fearlessness and rethink your usage of social media platforms.

ISBN-10: 125019668X
ISBN-13: 978-1250196682