“The Girl with Seven Names” by Hyeonseo Lee

The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story(Author: Hyeonseo Lee) + (Year: 2015) + (Goodreads)

(Around the World: North Korea)


Review:

This is the second book that I have read, which tells the stories of North Korean defectors, the first being Nothing to Envy.

I debated with myself whether I need another book for my book world trip, but what set my mind was the idea, that while Nothing to Envy is a story told through a “middle man”, The Girl with Seven Names is an autobiography. Ultimately, now I can say that the difference between the two books is mostly in the way they view the subject. Hyeonseo Lee tells her own experiences, the life as she knew it, the world as she was taught to view it. However, Barbara Demick‘s book is more of a collection of stories, told through the prism of someone who knows the political situation well and could define the difference between what the defectors were experiencing, and what they knew about the world, versus what was actually happening. While this is mentioned in Lee’s narrative, she talks about it more in retrospect, as when certain political and historical situations were unfolding, she was oblivious to the facts, having been indoctrinated in the North Korean values.

For me, The Girl with Seven Names was a very valuable and interesting look into North Korea, and especially the way the people there view the world. But more so, as Hyeonseo Lee says so herself, she was not even from the lower classes of society, so she had it better than the rest. And “better” was not starving to death, not being sold as a bride in China, not being invited to serve and please the “leader”.

I think it’s really hard for any of us, even those, like me, who have lived in a communist, or post-communist country, to imagine the level of poverty, corruption and censure that people experience in a country like North Korea. I’ve witnessed firsthand only one somewhat similar country, that I’d rather not name, and it saddened me deeply how much people need to put up with to gain even their basic human rights, how much bribery is needed to not be falsely accused of a crime you didn’t commit, or how little you have, and yet learn to live with. That is not to say that I’m not seeing remains of this to this day in my own country. There was one particular sentence in The Girl with Seven Names, which reminded me of how Bulgarians can be, and which is something that I’ve heard even from foreigners who otherwise like or even love Bulgaria and the Bulgarian people:

“North Koreans have a gift for negativity towards others, the effect of a lifetime of compulsory criticism sessions.”

While to my knowledge, people haven’t had those criticism sessions here, I feel like pessimism and negativity are only two of many things that get born from regimes like the one in North Korea. So in many ways, the book was both very alien and unimaginable, but also very familiar, and close to home.

The fact which saddened my while reading both The Girl with Seven Names, and Nothing to Envy, is how North Koreans are treated while trying to defect. I would understand the unnecessary repercussions if North Koreans were not wanted in South Korea. But knowing that South Korea welcomes them, for all the countries around to stop the defectors, imprison them, or return them to North Korea to be punished or even executed, seems the highest level of inhumane.

While reading this book, I couldn’t stop thinking how lucky Hyeonseo Lee was in comparison to other defectors. At the very least, she managed to get out, and save her family, and even become a spokesperson about the rights of North Koreans. But what about all of those who were detained, killed, or maybe even worse…?

I think that books like this one are such which every person should read. Especially those who live happy little lives in a rich country in the West, and have no understanding of how the world works, or how bad some people have it. I’m sorry if it seems harsh, but the lack of empathy in some countries has reached levels which are so high that should be criminal. We’re all people, so we shouldn’t just accept that we deserve to have it better than others.

“A History of Violence: Living and Dying in Central America” by Oscar Martinez

In America's Backyard: Life and Death in Central America

(Author: Oscar Martinez) + (Year: 2016) + (Goodreads)


Review:

This book is very informative and gives the reader a wide perspective of the lives people live in countries . If you’ve ever wondered what life in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras is like, this is the book for you, but beware – it’s bloodier and more nightmarish than you can even imagine. In fact, this is a life which can arguably be called worse than the one in war-torn countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. The proof for this statement is the fact that in Central America we can find the cities with the highest murder rate and also the deadliest gang in the world – Mara Salvatrucha.

Considering the careless and sheltered life some Europeans and Americans live, A History of Violence is an eye-opener for some facts we intentionally don’t want to learn anything about and dismiss because they do not concern us. Therefore, I think that people should think about reading this book or another one on the same topic.

Aside from this, though, the rest is a downfall. I can openly say that I admire Oscar Martinez‘s will to stay in that part of the world and document these events while many others would flee screaming.

However, in all truth, Oscar Martinez is not a gifted writer. Very far from it, actually. At the very beginning he describes his audience and it’s clear that this book is meant for American readers, which I think is downright stupid, because no author should ever limit in such a way the people he or she wants to reach and dismiss all others. Aside from that, it’s obvious that A History of Violence was written in the course of a couple of years and it’s painfully obvious that the author didn’t read it. He continues to repeat himself, explains the same things over and over again, mentions the same people for the first time again and again. We are explained who Chepe Furia is and how many years in prison he got about 20 times, in 5 different chapters Los Zetas are introduced as an organization we don’t know anything about, then as one we do know about, all of a sudden, as if we could forget them in a matter of 8 pages, Martinez explains who they are from the beginning. He does the same thing with his explanations about the sentences for human trafficking, repeating himself in a very unpleasant manner: “a robber would get, say, 10 years, but a human trafficker, a person who sells humans would get 4!!!” Two chapters later: “a pick-pocket would get 10 years, but someone who sells people, a human trafficker, would get 4!!!”

The entire book is written in such a sloppy manner, with the author constantly repeating himself and also failing to choose whether he wants his book to be written in the form of a realistic account of events, or that of a Latin cop drama. He starts chapters as one would start a soap opera, then goes to normal storytelling, then moves back to overly sentimentalist sentences the purpose of which is to get the reader’s sympathy as a cheap tear-jerker. No.

“Tibet on Fire” by Tsering Woeser

 

Tibet on Fire: Self-Immolations Against Chinese Rule

(Author: Tsering Woeser) + (Year: 2016) + (Goodreads)

(Around the World: China)


Review:

The fact that I’m the first and, so far, only person to review this book on Goodreads says a lot about the topic of the book itself. I will return to this later, because it’s very important for the cause Tibet on Fire defends.

Tsering Woeser and her husband Wang Lixiong are very prominent authors in China and defenders of the Tibetan cause(as Woeser is 3/4 Tibetan herself). Due to that fact, I’m very happy I had the opportunity to receive this book through Netgalley, despite the lack of interest from other readers.

I’m not going to sugarcoat it: I do not understand how an abomination such as the Chinese government can be so easily tolerated and accepted by our “developed” world. This is a govenment which is guilty of at least two different genocides(that I know of) – the systematic humiliation, torture and murder of the people of Tibet, as well as that of Uyghurs, and not to mention the oppression of their own people.

And now to return to my first remark: we, Europeans and Americans, consider ourselves so smart, so liberal, so compassionate and understanding, we fight racism and homophobia… Yet, we do NOT stand up against genocide. We do NOT care about genocide. We do NOT give a rat’s a** that people are dying, as long as it’s not in our countries. Hey, who cares that China is systematically erasing Tibetan culture from the face of the earth and aiming and a complete cultural assimilation through violence? Why should we read a book about it? We shouldn’t! DUH! We shouldn’t burden ourselves with such unnecessary information. (And since I’m afraid of some not-so-bright people reading this review, I want to point out that this is sarcasm)

To the point, I have no connection to Tibet, do not know a single person from there, will probably never get the opportunity to visit, because of obvious reasons, and yet, I am scared that one day the Tibetan people will disappear, their language, their culture and their beliefs will be gone, deleted from history by the Chinese. And that would not be just a loss for the Tibetan people, it would be one for all of us, because this is our world, as we are all PEOPLE FIRST.

That being said, I completely disagree with the notion of self-immolation. The author repeatedly says that it’s a way for the Tibetan people to keep their dignity and protest against the atrocities done to them. However, I do not think that I will change anything, and therefore, I’m completely against it. Dignity would be through life and work to do everything in one’s power to protect their cultural heritage. With this rate the Tibetan people will exterminate themselves and all that that would do would be to make it easy for the Chinese. And the Chinese propaganda will not be in any way affected. They will lie their way out of it, the Western world will continue closing its eyes and that would be that. Therefore, my honest personal opinion is that the Tibetan people should stop sacrificing themselves and instead fight to protect their lives and culture.

What I didn’t like about the book was the writing itself. It was too weepy and sentimental, which on its own made the point the author is trying to prove weaker. I tried to not think too hard about it, but on such a topic I think a more scientific method should be used because in some moments, despite the fact that I sympathize and support the Tibetan people’s cause, I was rolling my eyes at some of the expressions the author used.

If you want to know what is happening in some of the places on our lovely planet, I recommend reading the book and/or watching this documentary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mqdQtwFjeMY

 

“13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened In Benghazi” by Mitchell Zuckoff

13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened In Benghazi

(Author: Mitchell Zuckoff) + (Year: 2014) + (Goodreads)


Review:

To the point: this is a very powerful and captivating book. It’s also highly informative about not only the events themselves, but prior to that, about Libya’s state before and after the fall of Gaddafi.

The writing of the author is what you’d expect from a journalist: to the point and making an impression. I shy from saying that I enjoyed his style, because the events of 13 Hours are so horrifying that I can’t say there is any place for enjoying anything in it.

That doesn’t, of course, mean that it’s a bad book. On the contrary, it leaves a mark and it makes you think. You can see some bias, but it’s not that Zuckoff is fervently defending his country against the big bad wolf – he is showing admiration and affection about the soldiers that fought in Benghazi that night. A country has nothing to do with it, there is no idealizing of the unworthy. On the contrary, the author is actually challenging some of the decisions that the American government made that night, which on the other hand makes me feel admiration to the author, as well as the Benghazi operatives. So much, in fact, that I’m actually willing to show trust, to a degree, whereas I usually have very mixed feelings about books depicting either side of a war, because I always expect too much bias and therefore changing up the events as the author sees fit. With 13 Hours I think it’s possible to accept that the account of the soldiers is as realistic as it can be.

There are a few frustrating things surrounding the 9/11/2012 events though.

1. What kind of animals are these people?* I know that nowadays it’s not politically correct to judge other nations and etc. But… it’s animals we are talking about. I hold a firm belief that there are many Muslim people on this planet who are just normal and sane. However, there are also way too many fanatics and psychopaths. I’m not Muslim and yet I’m aware that Jihad is not necessarily war against the world and it can easily be seen as war against the self. But it is convenient for these brainwashed freaks to use their religion as an excuse to massacre thousands and millions of people, including their own, and this is something for which I think death is too little of a punishment.

* All of this is as relevant today as it was three years ago, since as everyone is aware, the brutality in the Middle East has not ceased and has, in fact, become even more horrifying.

2. What exactly happened to Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens? Because in the book, as well as in Wikipedia, it says that he died from suffocation, was later taken to the hospital and after that retrieved “fully clothed” for the flight to Tripoli. However, in many articles reigns the statement that he was tortured and raped and on the pictures, one of which also shown in the book, you can see that his shirt is badly damaged and possibly torn, if not missing altogether in other pictures. So there is no way that his body arrived “fully clothed” at the airport. And here lies one of the things that bugs me about books that have to do with military history – there are inconsistencies.

3. Where was the White house in all of this?

At first it seemed to me that they really didn’t give a flying f*ck what was going on in Benghazi that night. Why didn’t the troops in Spain and Italy deploy? Why weren’t any planes sent? There was no help close by? It would take nine hours, counting from the start of the attack, for help to get there? GUESS WHAT: these people were fending for their lives for 13 hours. And I’m positive that if it was a hotspot that you cared more about, you’d find a way to teleport whatever and whoever you needed. But what’s the life of 30 people when there is Afghanistan’s oil to fight about.

But then I started thinking:

Why wasn’t the team allowed to leave the Annex? What were the commanders waiting for, were they really expecting the 17 February militia to take care of this, because it seems unlikely. UNLESS: was it very convenient that yet another drama unfold, right on 9/11, to show the already frightened Americans how bad the Libyans are and how important it is that America is constantly partaking in some military conflict.

Also, it is obvious that the Compound wasn’t secure and there were not nearly enough men to protect it.

Why, you’d ask?

Because the government needed American victims, innocent American blood spilled. They were obviously expecting an attack, they were even warned. Later, of course, the story pushed especially by Clinton, was that this highly organized, planned and mapped-out attack was the result of a spur of the moment anger of a handful of Libyan shepherds who were outraged by some movie. Spare me. If I went in front of the White house and threw my lit cigarette in the garden, it would be announced as the result of heavily planned riot.

So what’s convenient: We pretend that we don’t know anything, we pretend that everything is all right, we pretend that there is no threat. We give up as many lives as necessary and we spin the tale about how our interest lies in protecting our people and not stealing the oil of North Africa and the Middle East.

Here is the recipe:

1 x Dead ambassador aka an official representative of the United States.

3 x (or as many as possible) Dead soldiers who were doing their duty, protecting their comrades, fighting for their beloved country

= thousands of freshly motivated soldiers to continue spilling blood, thinking that this was is actually to protect the lives of their families, who are in fact thousands of miles away and least touched by these wars;

= USA keeps on fighting the good oil wars, money keeps spilling in, power keeps growing, on top of that we are helping out the world because there clearly cannot be so many people, aye?

“The Amazing Journey” by Grady Hicks

The Amazing Journey: True Story of a Father and Son's Odyssey Around the World

(Author: Grady Hicks) + (Year: 2015) + (Goodreads)


Review:

THIS BOOK IS A STRONG RECOMMEND.

It truly is an amazing journey.

I received The Amazing Journey through NetGalley for an honest review and once again, visiting the GoodReads page, I’m shocked that I’m one of the few who have expressed interest. I should state that I’m not even a big fan of memoirs, neither do I often read non-fiction books.

But I do love travel, listening about travel, watching pictures and so on. I honestly don’t think that there is something as amazing to do as to see the world. In my opinion not even reading is as marvelous, simply because when one is reading as book, they are imagining themselves having the same adventures. Traveling – that’s living the adventure.

Grady Hicks and his son Austin plan a trip before Austin goes to college – they start from their home in Texas, then travel to Hawaii, after that they have a short stop in South Korea, then China, Tibet, Nepal, India, England, France and home again. FAN-TAS-TIC!

Honestly, if I were offered the opportunity to do this trip, I’d be on the plane as fast as you can say “plane”.

The most amazing thing about this book is that it’s sort of like a guidebook, but also filled with many personal views of the places the Hicks visit, recommendations and must-see’s. If I were to find myself in any of the places they visited that I haven’t been to, I’d definitely reference the book about places and restaurants, as Grady and Austin seem to always have a very good luck with the places where they can grab a bite.

This is not a book about struggle, although there is some, nor is it about saving the world, one African country at a time.

This is a book about exploring, about embracing the world and the variety of people and cultures there are out there. It’s a great trip through many different nations with different political and belief systems.

! Caution ! It can make you want to pack your bags, sell your house and go to Nepal or something. 

One of the things that made a great impression on me in The Amazing Journey, was actually Austin Hick’s behaviour. At first, I’d have to be honest and say that he was super annoying. I’m probably the same age as he is, and yet I’m not a brain-dead texting machine. I do text, but not for a moment would I think about spending half my trips in Hawaii and China texting. I was really hoping that he’d go through some sort of a catharsis and that he did, or at least I hope so. The scene with the pencil was quite endearing. I can’t be sure that his dad didn’t idealize him a bit, including his thoughts at the end of the book, but I’d be kind of proud of him if he managed to change his views a bit. It really bothers me that there are so many people in my generation and younger who have ABSOLUTELY no idea what’s going on in the world. People who just have it all and are not even giving any value to the things they have.