The Girl With Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story by Hyeonseo Lee

The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector's StoryThe Girl With Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story by Hyeonseo Lee
Published by Harper Collins

This is an extraordinary story of one woman who decided to escape North Korea when she was seventeen years old. The interesting thing about Lee’s story is that when she left North Korea and crossed the border into China, she was hoping to take a day trip just to “see” what China was like. Once she got there, however, she learned that coming back to North Korea would likely result in her being imprisoned or killed, along with the rest of her family. So she decided to stay in China, and after ten harrowing years of having to hide her identity from the Chinese government to avoid being deported back to North Korea, made her way to the South Korean embassy and declared herself a refugee. Several years after that, she made the terrifying trek back through China to the North Korean border to help her mother and brother escape the regime. Her story is terrifying and inspirational all at once.

With all the rhetoric going back and forth right now between the US president and the North Korean dictator, I feel like few Americans really understand just how repressive life in North Korea is for the people who live there. I have read a lot of books about North Korea over the years and am somewhat familiar with the history, but every single time I read about this country I learn more things that shock me. It’s easy as an American citizen to think of North Korea as this backwards place with this crazy dictator at its helm who may or may not bomb us if our president does one more thing to piss him off, but the history of this country and the lives of its people are so much more than that. Lee’s story is one that not only delves into her own history, but explains why it is so difficult for North Korean citizens to escape and charts some of the dangerous paths that are available to them to do so – none of which are safe or legal. She also gets into some of the history of the relationship between North Korea and China and explains that China is a very unfriendly place for North Korean defectors, and shows how next to impossible it is for them to get to the one place where they can get refugee status, South Korea. And even when reaching South Korea, many of the people Lee spoke to along her journey either died upon arrival from months or years of little food and no medical care, or were questioned in such a harsh manner that they desperately regretted their decision and wanted to go back home to North Korea.

This was a really good book that I highly recommend. In fact, especially with tensions between North Korea and the rest of the world being so high these days, I HIGHLY recommend any and all books about North Korea, particularly those from defectors, as they shed some light on the sociology and psychology of living in that country. Imagine knowing that if you left your home country, even for ten minutes, you and your family would all be killed immediately upon your arrival back, and if you don’t come back, your whole family would likely be imprisoned or killed. That’s just the tip of the iceberg for what people in North Korea live with on a daily basis. Please read about this place and about the brave people who have left it and are telling the world their terrifying stories.

 

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Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Fates and FuriesFates and Furies by Lauren Groff
Published by Riverhead Books

This book has gotten a TON of attention over the past couple of years, so I’ll just do a quick summary and move on to my quick thoughts. It’s the story of a marriage, with the first half of the book being told from the man, Lotto’s, perspective and the second half being told from the woman, Mathilde’s, perspective. It was on a bunch of best-of lists when it was published a couple of years back, and has gotten tons of great reviews.

What did I think? I really liked it, and I definitely can respect Groff as a writer. What she accomplished with this story is something that seems like it should be a surface-level character study, a basic but good literary novel about two people and their lives together, but ended up being so much more than that. These characters are interesting, twisted, nuanced, incredibly unique, strange in many ways, and their flaws make for exciting and highly entertaining reading. The book changes a LOT when it moves from Lotto’s point of view to Mathilde’s, and while it was jarring for a minute there, I ended up really being wowed by this change in writing and execution of plot.

What’s interesting about the novel is that virtually none of the characters are likable, once you really get to know them, yet the book is compulsively readable and incredibly addicting. Even though I pretty much hated the characters, there was a point at which it kind of turned for me and I found myself rooting for people I essentially despised. What Groff did with these characters and their stories was pretty remarkable.

Overall I really liked this book and I can see why it has been raved about so much. Lauren Groff is an author I definitely plan to read more from.

Signal Boost by Alyssa Cole

Signal Boost (Off the Grid, #2)Signal Boost by Alyssa Cole
Published by Carina Press

After something happened to make all technology stop working, John and his family have survived the apocalypse in their safe cabin with plenty of food and water, at least for a while. When a random guy, Mikhail, is caught raiding their garden, John’s parents offer him food and shelter in their home, while John finds himself rapidly developing a crush on this mysterious stranger. Mikhail reveals he’s on his way to a nearby university to find a professor he knows who may have some answers about why the world seems to be ending, and John decides to take up the adventure and accompany him on his journey. As they walk, they get to know each other, and their secrets come out in ways that bring them closer but have the scary consequence of showing their true colors, amidst the terror that is the new world in which they are living.

Signal Boost is the second book in Cole’s Off the Grid series, the first being Radio Silence, which I REALLY liked. The series is post-apocalyptic romance, which each book focusing on a different character and his/her romantic life. The first book featured John’s best friend, Arden, as she falls in love with John’s older brother, Gabriel, as the world is ending all around them. Signal Boost was unfortunately less successful for me than the first book. It provided enough entertainment, but it wasn’t as fun or sexy as the first book and I didn’t even get all that excited or into the explanations the author began to provide for how and why the apocalypse was happening.

I think the issue for me was that the book felt very meandering and sort of boring, although I hate to say that. John and Mikhail’s relationship started off with a spark and developed from there, so that part I liked and it felt authentic to me. But it was kind of boring, to be honest. It took so long for them to really get to know each other and so much of the book just felt like a waiting game for that to happen. I also didn’t love John as a character and Mikhail was honestly kind of clueless – when they got to the university and they started dealing with Mikhail’s former professor, without getting into any spoilers, I have to say that the story really went off the rails for me at that point.

What did I like? The science stuff and the reasons for the apocalypse was a welcome addition to the book, even though by the time it got going I was sort of annoyed and wasn’t as excited about these explanations as I wanted to be. I loved the fact that within the same series, there is so far a hetero romance and a LGBT romance (not sure what the third book entails). I like Cole’s writing and the way that she writes sex scenes I think is fantastic. Overall, this was not a bad romance at all just not what I was expecting since I liked the first book so much. I may or may not read the third one at this point.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in CrisisHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
Published by Harper

Hillbilly Elegy is J.D. Vance’s memoir of growing up in a poor Appalachian town, a book which details his personal experiences growing up and how he escaped the poverty that was a fixture of his childhood. He also muses quite a bit about why he believes people from this area of the country have such a hard time turning their circumstances around and the ways in which politics and inherent beliefs of the area are a detriment to the people from this area.

I hold two separate opinions about this book and while they are at odds with each other, I think it makes sense to feel conflicted about Vance’s memoir. On the one hand, his story is an interesting one and should absolutely be seen as inspirational. He grew up in a poor, rural community with no support from his father, very little support from his sometimes drug-addicted mother, and all odds pointed to the probability that he would skip college, find a dead-end job, and end up in a similar situation for himself as an adult. This did not happen, and Vance credits his own perseverance as well as the emotional, physical, and monetary support he received from his maternal grandparents as the primary reasons he was able to go to college, move to a town with better opportunities, marry a person he truly loved and respected, and find a well-respected, well-paying job. So on the one hand, I liked hearing Vance’s story and it reminded me a bit of my own personal story – I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, not Appalachia, but I, too, grew up without much money and managed to work my own way through college, subsisting on grants and loans and three part-time jobs at the same time, earning a degree and finding a great career. So I related to his struggles in some ways and understood the determination he felt to get himself to a different situation than what his parents were able to provide for him growing up.

On the other hand, he makes a lot of sweeping generalizations about the people in Appalachia that I’m just not sure his personal story gives him the right to make. Yes, he experienced this culture first-hand, so of course he has a unique view and understanding of some elements of it that outsiders can’t possibly understand. However, his experiences are his own, and the links he creates from his own experiences to those of others living in the same part of the country are weak in some places. I’m not saying that he doesn’t have the right to make observations and even draw conclusions about the culture that he grew up in; just that I think some of his generalizations are a bit too general, if that makes sense. What’s true for his family and his life isn’t necessarily true for everyone else around him.

That being said, however, I did really enjoy this memoir and it gave me a lot of food for thought. I would resist drawing too many political or socioeconomic conclusions from its content; however, as I said, this is a book about one person’s experiences and may not translate to everyone who is from the same part of the country.

I listened to the audiobook of Hillbilly Elegy, which is narrated by the author. It was really well done and definitely gave a feel for the author’s thoughts and feelings – as though he was telling the reader his own story, with his own voice and inflections. I would definitely recommend the audio.

Overall, I liked this one a lot but found it had a few problems. Still I would recommend for those who like memoirs.

The Invasion of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

The Invasion of the Tearling (The Queen of the Tearling, #2)The Invasion of the Tearling by Erika Johansen
Published by Harper

As second books in trilogies go, this one was pretty good. It advanced the story while providing the reader some back story on events from the past which the first book omitted or only hinted at.

I don’t want to get into plot at all because that would necessitate spoilers for the first book, so this review will be short. What I will say is this – I loved how Kelsea grew into her role and into her power emotionally and mentally. I HATED how she “grew” into her role physically. The author essentially made her become more beautiful as she became more powerful – a terrible message that I absolutely hate was given in this book. Beauty does not equal power, nor should it, and this novel is perpetuating the myth that it is important to be beautiful. UGH. I did like Kelsea, though, and it is not her fault as a character that the author chose to make her become more beautiful. So whatever.

I absolutely loved that Kelsea began to learn about life pre-Crossing, because I had been desperate for that knowledge in the first book. The way that Johansen chose to tell the story, through “visions” Kelsea was getting through a woman’s eyes who lived at that time, was interesting and added an extra element to the story. There were some points in Kelsea’s story that were a little ho-hum to me where I was hoping to just finish the section to get back to Lily’s story. So I liked that.

Overall, this was a good middle trilogy book. While I didn’t love everything about it, I enjoyed most of it and continue to like and admire Kelsea as a character. I will definitely be reading the third book as soon as I can.

Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

Difficult WomenDifficult Women by Roxane Gay
Published by Grove Press

The short stories in this collection are about women that society may call “difficult” but that word, in this collection, translates more accurately to a variety of words that make up any woman’s experiences in life. The thing about this collection, though, is that most of the women Gay writes about have a much more difficult situation than your “average” woman.

There is no avoiding the fact that these stories are dark. They are emotional. They are, at times, very tough to get through. The women in this collection are experiencing some of the most tragic and emotionally wrecking things that can happen to women, or people in general, in life. There is abuse of all kinds. There is poverty. There is death of parents, friends, children. And much more. But despite their circumstances, the women in these stories are persevering, trying to get though the difficult things in life and come out on the other side better than before. Some of them succeed. Some of them, sadly, do not.

What I found so remarkable about this collection is Gay’s writing and her ability to bring these characters to life in such short amounts of time. In a matter of five to ten pages, she can bring the reader deeply into a character’s existence and truly make the reader know about and care about that character. It’s amazing. I absolutely loved her writing. And although the book was not the easiest to get through, I really loved this collection.

The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell

The Year of Living Danishly: My Twelve Months Unearthing the Secrets of the World's Happiest CountryThe Year of Living Danishly: My Twelve Months Unearthing the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country by Helen Russell
Published by Icon Books

Helen Russell and her husband decide to move from their home in London, England to Denmark for one year in order for Russell’s husband to take a temporary job at Lego. While there, Helen spends the year trying to figure out what exactly makes the Danish people rank consistently among the happiest people on earth. She makes friends with many Danish people, meets with experts on happiness and well-being, and experiences everything Denmark has to offer in order to get a clear understanding of what exactly makes the Danish so darn happy.

I thought this book was a fun read and found it enjoyable overall. Some of the major things I learned was that the Danish are happy primarily because they spend a lot of time with family, they have very close social ties, their government provides a huge safety net against poverty, food insecurity, etc., and the culture is one in which trust is a tenant of any relationship, business or personal. That’s a very quick summary of what Russell learned but it covers the basics.

There is a lot of discussion in the book about taxes and about the balance between paying more in taxes and being happier. Denmark has one of the highest tax rates in the world with some Danes paying over 50% of their gross income in taxes, yet the Danish people see real impacts on their lives in exchange for the money they pay the government. Here in the US we are not exactly used to trusting the government to do the “right thing” with our tax dollars and most Americans typically want to pay less money in taxes, but the Danish welcome the high tax bill as they expect a safety net and other social programs in exchange for their tax dollars. It is a different way of thinking than what I am personally used to, and I am not sure this model could work in a country as large as the US (Denmark has just over 5 million people, about two-thirds the size of the population of New York City), but it is certainly something to think about.

I listened to the audio of the book, narrated by Lucy Price-Lewis, a new voice to me. She did a nice job with the narration – her light British accent was pleasant to listen to and she had the right inflections in her voice to match the tone of Russell’s writing. I would recommend the audiobook.

The Year of Living Danishly was an enjoyable experience and I thought it was pretty good overall. I’m not sure that the Danish lifestyle is for me – the dark, freezing cold winters alone make me lose interst – but there were certainly a few things I took from the book and I think everyone can learn a little something from a culture that values family and social ties so highly. At the very least, the book made me put a visit to Denmark on my bucket list.