Tag Archives: literature

Book review: ‘Nothing to Envy | Ordinary Lives in North Korea’

nothingtoenvy

Photo courtesy of Spiegel & Grau

Mi-ran and Jun-sang had known each other for 13 years and dated for nine. After three years, they began to cautiously hold hands under the cover of darkness once they’d walked a safe enough distance out of town. After six years, Jun-sang mustered up the courage to give Mi-ran an awkward kiss on the cheek, which she quickly rebuffed out of fear and shock.

When Mi-ran escaped with her family to South Korea, she couldn’t risk saying goodbye to Jun-sang. When he showed up one morning to find her family missing, he realized he’d been too late — too late to share with her the capitalist books he’d secretly been reading at university, the South Korean television signals he could faintly pick up at home and his hidden dream of running away with her to Seoul. She was already gone.

The two young lovers are the heart of Barbara Demick’s book, ‘Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea,’ which profiles six North Korean defectors hailing from an industrial town in the northeastern part of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

‘Nothing to Envy’ is an enthralling read — a kind of novelization that follows its subjects through a fifteen-year period. From the death of Kim Il-sung to the horrific famine of the 1990s, ‘Nothing to Envy’ shows North Korea from the perspective of average citizens, far away from the carefully-constructed capital city Pyongyang and the state’s propaganda-filled press releases.

The book provides a quick but excellent background on how North Korea came to be what it is today. One of the book’s most memorable stories is the biography of Mi-ran’s father, which serves to explain her family’s low social status and “tainted blood.” A once popular and confident young man from a Southern farming area, Tae-woo was taken as a prisoner of war by the North and essentially trapped on the opposite side of the peninsula when a power struggle between the United States and Soviet Union resulted in the drawing of an arbitrary border across the map along the 38th parallel.

“Koreans were infuriated to be partitioned in the same way as the Germans. After all, they had not been aggressors in World War II, but victims. Koreans at the time described themselves with a self-deprecating expression, saying they were ‘shrimp among whales,’ crushed between the rivalries of the superpowers,” Demick writes.

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South Korea on the left and North Korea on the right, as seen from the Korean Demilitarized Zone. SCREAMfmLondon

‘Nothing to Envy’ follows its subjects as Kim Il-sung takes control of the DPRK with promises of an idyllic Communist state and, for the first few years, delivers on them. Then, readers see these people struggle to keep the faith after Kim Jong-il rises to power and the country’s economic crisis begins, resulting in the famine that ultimately killed around 3.5 million North Koreans.

Eventually, each of the subjects experiences a life-altering moment of final disillusionment which leads them to leave their country and, often, many loved ones, established careers and educations behind. For Jun-sang, the epiphany finally came when he was able to configure his television to pick up South Korean signals that told him news of the world and, for the first time, honest coverage of North Korea.

“Listening to South Korean television was like looking in the mirror for the first time in your life and realizing you were unattractive,” Demick writes. “North Koreans were always told theirs was the proudest country in the world, but the rest of the world considered it a pathetic, bankrupt regime.”

However, the defectors’ difficulties don’t end once they reach Seoul. The initial euphoria they experience often is short-lived, as they have to struggle to acclimate to modern society and start their lives over from scratch. Work experience and university degrees from the DPRK are useless, so the North Korean doctors and intellectuals we’ve gotten to know over the course of the book find themselves taking jobs as nannies and fast food delivery drivers.

‘Nothing to Envy’ concludes with an epilogue bringing the reader up-to-date with North Korea, briefly examining the first years of Kim Jong-un’s reign as Supreme Leader.

It’s an amazingly moving book, and it paints such a vivid picture of life inside North Korea for the past few decades. Not only is ‘Nothing to Envy’ a good primer on the Korean War and the politics surrounding it, but the personal stories within are so poignant they will stay with you long after reading.

The book’s conclusion is realistic and, therefore, inconclusive. The totalitarian regime in North Korea has already endured longer than anyone expected and continues to this day. Although many North Koreans manage to escape, so many are still living lives not unlike those depicted in the book — some are better off and some worse. And their stories are going untold.

‘Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea’
Barbara Demick
Release Date: Sept. 21, 2010
Genre: Nonfiction, History, Politics
Pages: 336
Grade: A

Click here to read about my visit to the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone.

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Great craic at the Celtic Arts Center

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New Irish dancers learn some basic steps at the Celtic Arts Center in North Hollywood. SCREAMfmLondon

I just knew there had to be a place in Los Angeles that gave Irish language lessons. I just knew. If it exists, it probably exists in LA.

That’s how I came across the Celtic Arts Center — An Claidheamh Soluis — in North Hollywood.

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SCREAMfmLondon

Every Monday night, the group gathers at the Mayflower Club, a wood-paneled venue complete with a small stage and, naturally, a well-stocked bar and provides free classes and workshops, then caps the night off with a traditional Celtic jam session.

Upstairs, lessons in Irish and Scots-Gaelic take place in cozy rooms lined with bookshelves full of worn-out classics including Yeats and Seamus Heaney. The beginners’ Irish language classes follow Máiréad Ní Ghráda’s book “Progress in Irish,” and when you graduate to the next level, the Arts Center also offers an intermediate workshop. But good luck with that. I’ve been stuck in a never-ending loop of beginners’ classes for like three years.

After wracking your brain over all the sínte fada, you can head downstairs, where the real céilí atmosphere settles in over a few rounds of dancing. Some of your classmates (like me!) are former competitive Irish dancers, and some are trying it out for the first time that night. Either way , they will grab you and throw you into the middle of the Walls of Limerick or the Siege of Ennis, and it will be a blast. Guaranteed.

And at 9 p.m., musicians set up their fiddles and drums for a traditional Celtic music seisiún.

The Celtic Arts Center is such a cool asset to the SoCal community. Definitely check it out!

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“I have a headache.” SCREAMfmLondon

2015 St. Patrick’s Day Céilí
11110 Victory Blvd.
7 p.m. Monday
Admission is free.
For more information, visit www.celticartscenter.com.

Book review: Sophia Amoruso, ‘#GIRLBOSS’

girlboss

Photo courtesy of Portfolio/Penguin.

Sophia Amoruso has a really impressive story. She chose hitch-hiking and shoplifting instead of college and still managed to turn her eBay shop into a multi-million dollar online business. As the founder and CEO of Nasty Gal (a well-known fashion retailer), she grew the business to its current success without ever even borrowing money. That’s amazing. I’m awed and jealous.

But her book, “#GIRLBOSS,” which purports to teach young women about succeeding in business, says a whole lot of nothing. It’s neither truly a memoir nor a self-help book. She touches on many things briefly and delves deeply into none of them. With such an interesting life story, I was expecting Sophia to give useful, thorough advice from her personal experiences, but I was super let down.

Here’s where Sophia first lost me: it’s on page 14, where she writes, “#GIRLBOSS is a feminist book, and Nasty Gal is a feminist company in the sense that I encourage you, as a girl, to be who you want and do what you want. But I’m not here calling us ‘womyn’ and blaming men for any of my struggles along the way.” She goes on to ask, “Is 2014 a new era of feminism where we don’t have to talk about it? I don’t know, but I want to pretend that it is.”

Noooo. It’s so, so exhausting to have successful women with the opportunity to reach a large audience of young people continue to perpetuate the idea that feminism is about sitting around blaming men for your struggles. Misogyny, sexism and patriarchy are real problems that exist in the world and impact so many aspects of our lives — especially in business. And Sophia really doesn’t talk about this at all in the book, despite making a clear distinction between “girlbosses” and plain ol’ “bosses” right off the bat.

Sophia goes on to touch on her pro-anarchy, anti-capitalism phase (hence the shoplifting) that has long passed, as she now specifically mentions cruising around in a Porsche wearing Prada shoes. It would have been interesting to see her write more critically on capitalism now that it’s working in her favor, or at least to have a more detailed explanation of her shift in morals. She sidesteps this topic with a measly parenthetical, writing, “I believed that capitalism was the source of all greed, inequality, and destruction in the world. I thought that big corporations were running the world (which I now know they do) and by supporting them, I was condoning their evil ways (which is true, but a girl’s gotta put gas in her car).”

In addition to a lack of detail regarding her personal philosophies, Sophia’s business advice also comes up short.

I, personally, suck at networking. This was one of the topics I was most eager to see addressed by a self-made female CEO. Sophia addresses networking in a half-page endorsement for connecting with others on LinkedIn and, on the very last page, acknowledges her father for “teaching me to negotiate like a monster” without sharing any of this negotiating expertise anywhere within the book.

I was sincerely hoping for some useful tips on making a deal or establishing business contacts or calling in a favor or drawing up a contract. Instead, Sophia devotes the majority of this chapter to giving advice on interviewing for entry-level positions like, “We can’t all be Shakespeare, but spend some time on your cover letter and have someone else look it over to make sure it reads well… Spell-check exists for a reason; use it, but don’t rely on it.” Yeah, Sophia, we know.

As evidenced by the book’s Twitter-ready title and Sophia’s tendency to directly address the readers as hashtag-girlbosses throughout, she was clearly unconcerned about the book’s longevity. It’s more of a marketing tool for her clothing business; she didn’t really care at all to give any substantial advice to women in the workplace or female business-leaders. Certainly nothing that could hold up over time or be used for reference in the future.

She did, however, provide pages upon pages of pseudo-inspirational one-liners in less than 140 characters each: “Compete with yourself, not with others. Judge yourself on what is your personal best and you’ll accomplish more than you could ever have imagined. Life stops for no one, so keep moving. Stay awake and stay alive. There’s no AutoCorrect in life — think before texting the universe.”

The paragraph just keeps going like that! What the hell is that last one even supposed to mean?

Altogether, “#GIRLBOSS” was such an overwhelming disappointment with very little to take away from it. Sophia’s remarkable accomplishments speak for themselves. She should have let them.

‘#GIRLBOSS’
Sophia Amoruso
Release Date: May 6, 2014
Genre: Nonfiction, Business
Pages: 256
Grade: D

I took a sightseeing tour of my own neighborhood

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The famed RastaBus. SCREAMfmLondon

I hear talk that sightseeing tours are a great way to explore unfamiliar neighborhoods in big tourist destinations full of historical landmarks, just like Hollywood. I wasn’t sure what I’d take away from one, considering I happen to live in the aforementioned big tourist destination full of historical landmarks that is Hollywood. Maybe I’d learn something new and come away with a fresh perspective? Maybe it would suck and be boring. I was down to find out.

I set off on an “A Day in LA” tour hosted by the RastaBus — a tri-colored van, carefully decorated with “One Love” bumper stickers and peace signs, that played one reggae song at the very beginning of the day.

At 10 a.m., we clamored onto the bus from our starting point at the Santa Monica Pier. It didn’t take long for my boisterous fellow riders to commandeer the sound system, start blasting “No Diggity” and pop open a few bottles of champagne. Whenever I’d previously encountered a RastaBus in the wild, the passengers have always been really drunk and exceptionally annoying. But the thing about annoying, drunk people is that it’s much more fun to be with ‘em than against ‘em. So, I filled a red Solo cup and kicked back as we headed up the Pacific Coast Highway.

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Brunch on the water at our first stop on the Malibu Pier. SCREAMfmLondon

Malibu

The first stop was definitely the best part of the whole damn thing, and it was totally an anomaly. This is kind of deluxe treatment is highly atypical for a RastaBus tour, I assume. I just happened to be rolling with some well-connected sightseers who managed to surprise us with a hook up for free food. Individual results may vary.

We were dropped off at the Malibu Pier, where we were served an elaborate array of breakfast food at Malibu Farm, a ritzy farm-to-table restaurant located at the end of the pier. After weaving our way through fishermen with their wriggling mackerels, we were escorted into the Surfrider Room, a private dining area on the second floor of the restaurant that overlooks the gorgeous Malibu beaches.

We were treated to fresh-squeezed orange juice and local syrah rosé wine. Quinoa oatmeal with pomegranate and chia seeds. Swedish mini pancakes with homemade whipped cream and fresh strawberries. Vegan chop salad. Grilled chocolate and whole wheat olive oil cakes. And my personal favorite: a fried egg sandwich made with bacon, arugula and baby potatoes on top of country wheat toast.

Next time, I’d skip the rest of the tour and come straight here.

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Malibu Farm’s fried egg sandwiches that made it all worthwhile. SCREAMfmLondon

Beverly Hills

There was supposed to be a tour of celebrity homes, but we mostly just peered up at Will Smith’s and Prince’s houses as we headed back eastward on the freeway. Seriously, that was it. Oh, and the tour guide also pointed out some scenery that appeared in a panoramic shot of “Two and a Half Men.” You know, just the essentials.

We drove in abject silence to a backing track of old school East Coast rap (for some reason) toward Beverly Hills, where our driver shared some fun facts about Rodeo Drive and offered to let us stop to walk around for a while.

“Keep driving!” someone yelled from the front of the bus. “Unless anyone has a black credit card we can use.”

The Grove

We had a scheduled lunchtime stop at the Grove and Original Farmers Market, where we had about 45 minutes to explore by ourselves. It’s a cool place to hang if you have a pocket full of cash and longer than 45 minutes.

As we left the Grove, we took Melrose Avenue followed by Sunset Boulevard, and our tour guide finally began sharing some information about the area via the RastaBus intercom system.

I was glad to finally hear from him. I was beginning to worry that he had fallen asleep at the wheel. Unfortunately, just as I feared, most of his information was pretty basic. Like, he explained who Judy Garland was. I kind of wished I was giving the tour myself; I’m full of useless historical and pop culture trivia. It took a lot of self-restraint to keep from interrupting his monologues.

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Griffith Observatory. Not pictured: nachos. SCREAMfmLondon

Griffith Park

Our next stop was the Griffith Observatory, where we were given another 45 minutes to wander aimlessly and not really accomplish anything. I must admit I was getting a little tired of being forced out of the pleasantly air-conditioned bus into the actual great outdoors.

Since there isn’t much science you can accomplish in 45 minutes, I headed straight for the café and emerged with a plate of nachos. The Café at the End of the Universe is significantly less cool than it sounds with a name like that, but they did sell me a plate of tortilla chips covered in fake cheese, guacamole and pico de gallo, so what more can you ask for?

Hollywood

Cruising through Hollywood, the tour guide actually shared some interesting information! Did you know that the blinking light atop the Capitol Records Tower spells out the word “Hollywood” in Morse code? I did not.

Shortly, my tourmates grew jealous of my uncanny ability to locate and devour nachos under strange circumstances, so they insisted that our driver stop at Chibiscus Asian Café and Restaurant on Sunset for some food. We called the restaurant from the van (“Hello, there are about 13 of us, and we’re coming in right now.”) and filled the entire small space with our raucous presence. I watched K-pop music videos while everyone else ate ramen.

And, then, very awkwardly, I said, “Hey… Would it be weird if I asked you to leave me here?”

They didn’t seem to think so, so I ditched the RastaBus and hiked back home by myself rather than sticking around for the ride back to Santa Monica.

And, well. I did learn the thing about the Capitol Records Building.

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View of my ‘hood from the RastaBus. SCREAMfmLondon

Here are some cool tours to take in LA that will circumvent the RastaBus experience:

Pamela Des Barres Rock Tour

Rock groupie Pamela Des Barres guides groups around Hollywood and Laurel Canyon, reading excerpts from her book, “I’m with the Band,” which details her escapades with Led Zeppelin and other classic rockstars.

Esotouric Literary LA Tours

Tour the hangouts of famous Los Angeles writers, including a jaunt to Charles Bukowski’s favorite liquor store, a Raymond Chandler-themed gelato shop and settings from James M. Cain’s “Mildred Pierce.”

Dearly Departed Tours

Creepy tours include the classic Tragical History Tour of celebrity death locations, the epic three-hour Helter Skelter tour of the Manson Family murder locations, and a horror movie location tour, among others.

Esotouric True Crime Tours

These morbid tours dig into LA’s most famous crimes, including the Black Dahlia murder, the serial killings of the Night Stalker and “hotel horrors” at hotspots like the Alexandria and the Cecil.

Book review: John Green, ‘The Fault in Our Stars’

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Photo courtesy of Dutton Books.

“The Fault in Our Stars” is designed to make the reader cry, but it is a bit more complicated than that.

John Green’s fourth novel centers on Hazel Lancaster, a 16-year-old cancer patient, as she considers exploring young love with Augustus Waters, a fellow cancer patient who has lost a leg to the disease.

This book is obviously designed to make the reader cry. That much is obvious from even the most vague of plot summaries.

Green, a YouTube personality who worked as a student chaplain in a children’s hospital, planned to become an Episcopalian priest before pursuing his writing career, and is now quite successful, having enjoyed some time on the New York Times bestseller list as well as a number of awards for young adult fiction. A film adaptation of “The Fault in Our Stars” starring Shailene Woodley (“The Descendents”) as Hazel is scheduled to be released in June 2014.

Naturally, Green’s time working at the hospital inspired much of the content of “The Fault in Our Stars,” and who doesn’t love to see affluent white men achieve success by exploiting the less fortunate souls they encounter while doing charity work?

Regardless, the novel is a quick and easy read that is predominantly enjoyable (except, of course, for the aforementioned inevitable crying).

Hazel and Augustus meet at a support group for children living with cancer that meets in a church basement (“the literal heart of Jesus,” according to their hapless counselor Patrick, who will be played by the excellent stand-up comedian Mike Birbiglia in the film). Hazel recommends her favorite book to Augustus, and the pair embarks on a quest to track down the ne’er-do-well author to answer their questions about the novel’s cliffhanger ending — obviously falling in love along the way.

The progression of the relationship is not exactly seamless, but it is sweet and absurdly romantic (to a ridiculous degree, even, when it gets to the point of sipping Dom Pérignon by candlelight in Amsterdam).

Where “The Fault in Our Stars” deviates most from stereotypical young adult “sick lit” or romance is the extended philosophical element that carries throughout. The characters are witty, interested in the world and spend a great deal of time ruminating on the human condition and the meaning of life as they deal more closely with mortality than typical teenagers.

Because the two main characters are also devout readers who are deeply committed to symbolism (Augustus, at least, actively creates and points out metaphors in his own life, such as a never-smoked pack of cigarettes he carries at all times), there are a number of literary references that parallel the story’s plot. The most obvious literary allusion is the novel’s title, which refers to a line from “Julius Caesar”: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” The characters discuss this excerpt at one point in the story, concluding that Shakespeare was incorrect because the fault is, in fact, often in the stars — lots of things happen to people outside of their control.

However, the most poignant allusion comes when Hazel recites some of T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to Augustus from memory on the precipice of a pivotal moment in the progression of their relationship. The poem is a particularly resonant choice because of the narrator’s famous indecision (“Do I dare / Disturb the universe?”), all the while Augustus and Hazel struggle to decide if temporary pleasure would outweigh long-term pain, if their lives and the lives of all the other “dead people” will have mattered at all in the long run.

Ultimately, all of the characters are likable and dryly humorous, specifically Hazel and Augustus, but also their parents and friends. And, for a novel about teenagers with terminal cancer, it was surprisingly lacking in angst and instead portrayed the protagonists as intelligent, thoughtful people who made mature decisions about their lives.

The love story wasn’t as impactful as expected, but “The Fault in Our Stars” is interesting, and its popularity alone may warrant it a read before next summer.

‘The Fault in Our Stars’

John Green

Release Date: Jan. 10, 2012

Genre: Young Adult

Pages: 318

Grade: B