Nina's Reading Blog

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Archive for the ‘Memoir’ Category

The Corfu Trilogy

Posted by nliakos on December 3, 2019

by Gerald Durrell

  • My Family and Other Animals (Penguin 1956)
    • This was one of my mother’s books, and I read it myself many years ago. Recently, my interest has been reawakened by the delightful TV series The Durrells in Corfu, which my family gathered to watch on Sunday nights for four seasons of laughter-inducing episodes about the eccentric Durrell family’s life on the Greek Island of Corfu (Kerkira). The day after the Season 4 finale, I started re-reading the first of the so-called Corfu Trilogy. It introduces us to the main characters: mom Louisa Durrell and her young adult children, Larry (the Lawrence Durrell of Alexandria Quartet fame); Leslie; Margo; and the narrator of the entire trilogy, ten-year-old Gerry, whose later books about animal collecting and his special zoo on the Isle of Jersey (the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust) made him at least as famous as Larry. We also meet Spiros Halikiopoulos (son of a pebble?), a Corfiot who immediately befriends the family and sticks by them through thick and thin; Lugaretzia, who is hired as household help; and Dr. Theodore Stephanides, who became Gerry’s friend and mentor. Twenty years later, a grown-up Gerry remembered the details of his life on the island: not only the animals, which he observed with intense fascination, captured, and brought home as pets (to the horror of his family), but also the plant life, the sea, the weather, and of course the people. Gerry seems to have learned enough Greek to communicate fluently with the neighbors (something the TV series ignored; even in Season 4, all five Durrells can barely get a sentence out in Greek).  He describes the process in Chapter Two: “As the days passed, I came gradually to understand them. What had at first been a confused babble became a series of recognizable separate sounds. Then, suddenly, these took on meaning, and slowly and haltingly I started to use them myself; then I took my newly acquired words and strung them into ungrammatical and stumbling sentences. Our neighbours were delighted, as though I had conferred some delicate compliment by trying to learn their language. They would lean over the hedge, their faces screwed up with concentration, as I groped my way through a greeting or a simple remark, and when I had successfully concluded they would beam at me, nodding and smiling, and clap their hands.” He narrates his adventures both in his own garden and farther afield on the island and includes some very funny episodes about the people he lives with and the people he meets, such as the various tutors his mother engages to educate him. The funniest parts always include his ever-expanding menagerie: Ulysses the Scops owl, Achilles the tortoise, Alecko the black-backed gull, the “Magenpies”, Geronimo the gecko, the dogs Roger, Widdle, and Puke, and many more, some too tiny to name. The first book concludes with the family traveling to England where Gerry was supposed to go to school, whereas in reality, it was because of the impending Second World War that the family were forced to leave Corfu in 1939. (11/09/19)
  • Birds, Beasts, and Relatives (Viking 1969)
    • The second in the Corfu series continues in the same vein. Durrell describes in simile-laden prose the plants and animals he observed and sometimes captured. His similes help the reader envision what he was experiencing. For example: “…tiny crabs or beadlet anemones like little scarlet-and-blue jewelled pincushions”; “…a delicate growth of acetabularia mediterranea with slender threadlike stalks, and perched on the top of each stalk something that looked like a small green parasol turned inside out by some submarine wind”; and “a great black lump of sponge covered with gaping, protruberant mouths like miniature volcanoes.” (The above three examples were all in a single paragraph described shore life in a tiny bay.) My favorite similes, however, are the ones that anthropomorphize the wildlife, like this one: “… [the mantises’] bulbous straw-coloured eyes turning this way and that, missing nothing, like angular, embittered spinsters at a cocktail party.” And “[the tarantula] was standing half-way up a blue thistle, waving his front legs and peering about him, reminding me irresistibly of a hunter who had climbed up a tree in order to see if there is any game about.” I assume that the breath-taking detail with which he describes his island world can be attributed to the habit, already instilled in him at that young age by his mentor, Dr. Theodore Stephanides, of keeping a detailed journal of his discoveries and observations, in which he not only described things in words but also sketched them.  Gerry’s adventures narrated in this volume include night-fishing with Taki, acquiring a young donkey as a birthday present, Katerina’s wedding and childbirth, Sven (who never dates Gerry’s mother Louisa, as he does in the TV series) and Captain Creech (who is, if possible, even more irritating than he is in his TV portrayal), fishing for cuttlefish with love, dissecting a rotting turtle carcass on the front veranda, Leslie bribing a judge with postage stamps when Roger is falsely accused to stealing and eating five turkeys, a trip to London to retrieve Margo (Aunt Fan, Cousin Prue, some Bedlington terrier puppies, and a seance), Donald and Max’s visit, Gerry’s lunch with Countess Mavrodaki, the acquisition and loss of four baby hedgehogs, the wreck of Larry’s yacht, Gerry dancing with Pavlo the bear, and a family outing to Mr. Stavrodakis’ vineyard/winery. This last one constitutes the final chapter of the book and is the only chapter that isn’t particularly funny. The whole day is described with such love and longing, as if it were Gerry’s most important memory of the place he loved so much. He ends the chapter, and the book, thus: Lulled by the wine and the throbbing heart of the boat’s engine, lulled by the warm night and the singing, I fell asleep while the boat carried us back across the warm, smooth waters to our island and the brilliant days that were not to be
  • The Garden of the Gods/Fauna and Family: An Account of the Durrell Family of Corfu (Touchstone/Simon and Schuster 1978)
    • I had a hard time finding this one because it wasn’t obvious that one book had been published under two titles. Once I figured that out, I realized I already owned a copy. The narratives continue, looking at the island, the family, their friends and peculiar guests through young Gerry’s eyes. (The Durrells spent four or five years in Corfu, so Gerry might have been ten when they first arrived, but he was fourteen or fifteen when they departed. It’s never clear in the books how old he is in a particular chapter. The books don’t seem to be organized chronologically. I suppose he wrote about what he remembered best, and he didn’t plan it as a trilogy, but just kept adding volumes because of all of his books, these were the best sellers and thus earned his Wildlife Preservation Trust the most money (Writing was how Gerald Durrell financed his Jersey zoo devoted to saving endangered species). I was curious to see if the final volume mentioned anything about Gerry’s mother falling in love with the taxi-driver, Spiro. It didn’t. Nor did it have any mention of Spiro’s wife or children, if indeed he was married. So that juicy little romance was a fiction invented by the TV folks (not surprisingly). Also, in the books, Spiro is described as barrel-shaped, usually scowling, and ugly–not at all the handsome, charming man of the series, though he was able to find/make/buy/produce anything the family needed, which included some pretty weird stuff. There were some extremely funny moments, like Gerry’s bull horns (not bullhorns) falling on Leslie’s head and nearly knocking him out; King George’s visit to Corfu (also embroidered rather fancifully by the TV series director or scriptwriter); the time Margo brought home a besotted Turk with his two veiled wives, who was prepared to take on Margo as Number Three; the visit of the gentle American homosexuals, Lumy and Harry, who did make it into the TV series; and finally, Prince Jeejeebuoy’s birthday, in honor of which the whole family throws an elaborate India-themed party which takes days to prepare and naturally does not go completely as planned. . . . In sum, I enjoyed the TV series, but I am glad that it inspired me to go back to the books, because, as is almost always true, they are much better than the series!

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She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement

Posted by nliakos on October 24, 2019

by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey (Penguin 2019)

This book is actually two books in one. The first, the longer one, is the one referred to in the subtitle: the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment case that ultimately brought down not only Mr. Weinstein but also his entire company, The Weinstein Company (TWC). The second, only 62 pages, which tells the story of Christine Blasey Ford and the Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation, seems like more of an after-thought. Kantor and Twohey did not break that story, although Blasey Ford did attend a gathering they organized in 2019 to interview a disparate group of women who had come forward to accuse their harassers in order to learn how going public had impacted their lives.

As I had read in a review somewhere, Kantor and Twohey’s book helps the reader understand the journalistic process and the ethics which guide journalists’ work. We read about the editors and higher-ups in the New York Times who make the crucial decisions about what to print, when to print, whether to print, to continue pursuing a story or not, how much time to allow reporters to work on a story that seems to be going nowhere, and so on. There are references to others pursuing the same story (e.g., Ronan Farrow, whose book Catch and Kill I will read next) and the pressure to be the first to break the story rather than to write a “follow” (a summary of another person’s original article), which the authors say is “humbling to write”.

As for the actual story itself, Harvey Weinstein was a sleazy old guy with a lot of power and influence who (with the cooperation and assistance of his underlings) trapped young women in hotel rooms and tried to get them to disrobe, give and accept “massages”, take showers with him, and watch him masturbate. He occasionally raped them, but in general his modus operandi seems to have been “persuasion”, keeping in mind his dominance over them professionally–both the women who worked for him and young actors hoping for parts in his films. Some of them submitted; some escaped, but all, it seems, were harmed by the experience. Some of the harm was professional; e.g., a staffer unable to continue working in the film industry because she was prevented by a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) from explaining why she had left Miramax, Weinstein’s company at the time. Other harm was in the recriminations and self-doubts that continued to plague these women, who were prevented from discussing what had happened to them by the NDAs they had signed, thereby consigning them to living with the events and the feelings connected to them unresolved.

Kantor and Twohey show how the NDAs provided the victims with cash settlements far larger than they would have gotten had they complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the government agency charged with enforcing the laws against sexual harassment, and won–which, given the atmosphere at the time, was far from certain. Blaming the victim was common, and the EEOC was not even allowed to make public the information it had about serial harassers. “Such agencies would gather crucial information with taxpayer dollars and then, for the most part, were required to lock it away where almost no one could see it,” report the authors. Thus did the federal and state governments enable sexual harassers to continue to victimize people for years–in Weinstein’s case, over forty years before he was finally held accountable.

Once having signed an NDA, however, victims of sexual harassment or assault were muzzled for life. In effect, the NDAs prostituted the victims after the fact: after they were groped, fondled, “massaged”, forced to engage in oral sex, or raped, they were paid to remain silent about what had happened. While many victims wanted only to forget what had happened, the inability to reconsider that decision would haunt them for years and made Kantor and Twohey’s investigation much more challenging, because they were unable to persuade people to talk to them. These agreements should be illegal, in my view.

Definitely worth reading.

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Educated: A Memoir

Posted by nliakos on October 7, 2019

by Tara Westover (Random House, 2018)

Reading the story of Tara Westover, who was raised by fundamentalist Mormon parents on an Idaho mountain but who managed to earn a PhD. in history from Cambridge, was for me similar to reading a good mystery or thriller: once I got started, I couldn’t stop.  Her life on the mountain was so alien, the neglect she suffered from her father and the abuse inflicted on her by one of her brothers so unbelievable, and the way she internalized their misogyny so complete, I was driven to read on to find out how she escaped her destiny as an uneducated wife, mother, herbalist, and midwife.

She was aided and abetted in her escape by members of her family, like the brother who first made it to college, and to some extent her mother, a weak woman whose will bent to that of her (apparently mentally deranged) husband, but who at crucial times gave Tara the support she needed to break away.

Her experiences in college, after spending most of her childhood unschooled and then studying an ACT prep book on her own, were surreal. Think of an alien plopped down in a classroom, expected to know what to do. She did not understand that she was expected to read her textbooks, how to write a paper, how to prepare for a test. The surrealism increases when she travels to Cambridge University, first with a group of fellow Brigham Young University students and later as a graduate student. She was fortunate to find professors at BYU and at Cambridge who recognized her extraordinary ability and who went out of their way to mentor her.

But it was not easy to break away from the pull of her family and her religion. In the end, she managed it, but the story of how she did it is what makes the book so compelling.

Interesting quote, from Westover’s undergraduate days at BYU:

A few days before finals, I sat for an hour with my friend Josh in an empty classroom. He was reviewing his applications for law school. I was choosing my courses for the next semester,

“If you were a woman,” I asked, “Would you still study law?”

Josh didn’t look up. “If I were a woman,” he said, “I wouldn’t want to study it.”

But you’ve talked of nothing except law school for as long as I’ve known you,” I said. “It’s your dream, isn’t it?” 

“It is,” he admitted. “But it wouldn’t be if I were a woman. Women are made differently. They don’t have this ambition. Their ambition is for children.” He smiled at me as if I knew what he was talking about. And I did. I smiled, and for a few seconds we were in agreement.

Then: “But what if you were a woman, and somehow you felt exactly as you do now?”

Josh’s eyes fixed on the wall for a moment. He was really thinking about it. Then he said, “I’d know something was wrong with me.”

I’d been wondering whether something was wrong with me since the beginning of the semester, when I’d attended my first lecture on world affairs. I’d been wondering how I could be a woman and yet be drawn to unwomanly things.

To find out how she was able to break out of this misogynistic Mormon mold and reach for the sky, you have to read the book.

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My Beloved World

Posted by nliakos on August 30, 2019

by Sonia Sotomayor (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013)

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor calls this a memoir rather than an autobiography, but I think autobiography is more apt. Although it does not talk about her time as a federal judge or on the high court, her life story leading up to her first appointment to the federal bench (the accomplishment of her lifelong goal, to be a judge) is told with great honesty and completeness. Her judicial career being still in progress, she chose not to describe it.

I had only the vaguest notion of who Sonia Sotomayor was before I read the book; having read it, I now hold her in the highest regard. She has faced adversity (a diagnosis of Type I diabetes as a young child; poverty; parents who did not get along, and a father who eventually left) but prevailed due to her own hard work and her open, probing mind. She could be the poster child for the Encyclopedia Britannica, having educated herself far beyond what she was taught in school by reading the home set her mother scrimped and saved to purchase for Sonia and her brother. She is a role model for every struggling student who overcomes linguistic differences to learn to write clearly and forcefully and who learns to think critically and argue a point, rather than just to regurgitate memorized facts. She writes candidly of her marriage and divorce to her childhood sweetheart, and of her acceptance of her single state and childlessness. Having succeeded in a legal career as a Latina woman “from the projects”, she has experienced discrimination and prejudice but has never allowed them to stand in the way of her desire to seek justice for others. Her story is truly an inspiration. I loved this book.

 

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Find Me Unafraid: Love, Loss, and Hope in an African Slum

Posted by nliakos on May 23, 2019

by Kennedy Odede and Jessica Posner; Forward by Nicholas Kristof (HarperCollins 2015)

Kennedy Odede grew up dirt poor in the teeming Nairobi slum of Kibera. Jessica Posner grew up in Colorado, privileged by her family’s comfortable economic situation and her white skin. They met when Jessica spent a semester in Nairobi, volunteering with SHOFCO (Shining Hope for Communities), the youth group Kennedy founded. This book tells the story of how they met, fell in love, and married (as well as the story of Kennedy’s life) in alternating chapters. What drew me to the book was the cross-cultural aspect of Jessica and Kennedy’s relationship. I was astonished by Kennedy’s frank description of the squalor in which he lived (in which people in Kibera continue to live). I wondered how he could possibly survive, despite the severe hunger endured over years, lack of basic hygiene and medical care, abuse and violence. Not only did he survive; he thrived,  became educated, and returned to Kibera to extend a helping hand to others. It’s really an inspiring story. One is not surprised that Jessica fell for Kennedy, but she does not make light of the challenges she faced living in the same conditions that Kennedy had known his entire life.

You can watch a nice TED talk that Jessica and Kennedy gave about the stages of forgiveness here.

This is an awesome book. In addition to the love story, the reader will be amazed at how Kennedy and Jessica managed to establish a free school for girls in Kibera. You can watch a short video about it here. To donate, go to https://support.shininghopeforcommunities.org/give/177552/#!/donation/checkout

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds and shall find me unafraid.

From “Invictus” by William Earnest Henley

 

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On Two Feet and Wings: One Boy’s Amazing Story of Survival

Posted by nliakos on April 19, 2019

by Abbas Kazerooni (Skyscape 2014)

From the front matter page: “This book is based on real events that happened to me a long time ago when I was a child. To write it for you I have simplified some events and changed some details.”

Abbas Kazerooni is a California lawyer, actor, writer, and producer. Born in Iran in 1978 to formerly wealthy (under the Shah) parents, Abbas was nine years old when the regime, at war with Iraq since 1980, lowered the age at which boys could be drafted into the army (to serve as cannon fodder, basically) to eight. Terrified, the family decided to leave Iran. Abbas’ father’s passport had been confiscated, so they determined that he would stay behind, and Abbas and his mother would travel to Turkey and eventually to the U.K., where they had relatives.

But at the last minute, Marzieh Kazerooni was denied permission to get on the plane. Desperate, the parents let Abbas fly by himself to Istanbul, where they promised he would be met by a friend who would take care of him. The man did indeed meet the plane, but he did not take care of the boy. Instead of taking him home as he had promised to do, he handed Abbas a list of cheap hotels where Farsi was spoken and left. Abbas was alone in Istanbul, where he would live for several months until he finally received a visa for the U.K.

Abbas was very young and frightened, but he was also cautious, resourceful, and very lucky, He was lucky in that he happened to meet some very kind people who helped him (the taxi driver who helped him find the least unsuitable hotel that night; the hotel receptionist, who took a liking to him; some kind compatriots who translated for him at the British Consulate; and a consulate worker who took an interest in him.  He was cautious in that he carefully hid the money his parents had sent him with, eating only once a day, spending as little as possible, testing out the hotel receptionist and maid until he felt sure he could trust them not to rob him. And he was resourceful in that he had many great ideas about how to save, and eventually how to make, money. He ran errands in the marketplace and found various jobs for himself in the hotel (where he preferred to stay, feeling unsafe on the streets of Istanbul)–as the “tea boy” who served the other guests glasses of tea, as the shoeshine boy the hotel had never had before. Through it all, he hid his fear and distress from his parents; when he spoke to them, he intimated that he was staying in a better hotel than he was actually in and that everything was fine. But he shed many tears.

Abbas’ story reads like a novel. One can’t imagine how this little boy managed on his own for so long in a strange city where he knew no one and did not speak the language. But he did, and his story makes a great read.

Unfortunately, once he reached England, his trials continued. These are recounted in another book, The Boy with Two Lives. But eventually, he made his way to the United States, where he has apparently done very well for himself–no surprise, considering how resilient and clever he was at the ago of nine.

Posted in Autobiography, Memoir, Non-fiction, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

There Will Be No Miracles Here

Posted by nliakos on April 9, 2019

by Casey Gerald (Riverhead Books 2018)

I apparently placed a hold on this book, but I can’t actually remember placing it or why I wanted to read it. Nevertheless, when I was notified that it was available, I duly went and picked it up and read it. And it was interesting. . . . I just couldn’t figure out exactly where it was going or what Casey Gerald’s significance is.

Gerald had a difficult childhood, growing up poor in Dallas; his mother suffered from mental illness and abandoned the family when he was twelve; his father, a former college football star, spent time in prison. Casey was partly brought up by his grandmother and older sister. But he was a smart kid who wanted to please, and he was a good athlete; graduating from high school, he was selected to play football for Yale, which he had never heard of, and felt disrespected when it was suggested to him: Here was my own coach, saying in so many words that I was such a pathetic football player that he’d send me halfway around the world to play peewee football for a team nobody knew anything about. Yale changed his life’s trajectory forever.

He is black; he is gay; he is a Yale man; he graduated from Harvard Business School; he led a black men’s group at Yale, traveled and gave speeches within and outside of the U.S., worked for a Democratic think tank in Washington, D.C. during the Obama administration, attended a CPAC convention to see if he wanted to become a Republican, and considered a run for Congress. Lots of interesting stuff to write about in his young life.

Gerald’s style of writing is unique. It’s not dialect, although there are dialectal elements in it; it’s not intellectual, although there are big words, complicated thoughts, and references to literature and history. There is a kind of dry humor to it as he pierces through the shield of white complacency, but there are passages that break one’s heart, as when he writes about his friend Elijah’s suicide. He is unflinchingly honest. He writes about racism, and friendship, and mentoring. He writes about manipulating the system where who you know is more important than what you know and people are easily fooled by one who has a command of the language of the ruling elite. (This reminds me of Jamila Lyiscott’s wonderful TED talk about being articulate.) I liked the book, and not knowing anything about Casey Gerald before I read it, I never knew where it was headed, so it was full of surprises for me.

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Struck by Genius: How a Brain Injury Made Me a Mathematical Marvel

Posted by nliakos on February 7, 2019

by Jason Padgett with Maureen Seaberg (Houghton  Mifflin Harcourt 2014)

Jason Padgett was a mediocre student and a 31-year-old party boy who went to a karaoke bar with some friends one night and was violently assaulted by several thugs hoping to rob him. The traumatic brain injury (TBI) that he sustained that night left Padgett with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), synesthesia, and savant syndrome. It took him ten years to really understand all of these diagnoses; that journey is the subject of this book. But immediately following the attack, Padgett already experienced the visual “disturbances” that were to change his life and how he sees the world: “The world looked different: off-kilter, dreamlike. Everything that moved had trails of colored light following close behind it. There were triangles and squares in repeating patterns wherever I looked, from the windows to the lampposts to the street signs. . . . The glow of the streetlights seemed amplified. I could see the cars going by, little chipped shapes bouncing off their hoods.” Padgett never stopped seeing the underlying geometry of everything, even after his brain had healed. But he suddenly found himself fascinated by, and good at, mathematics, although he did not have the vocabulary to discuss it. Instead, he learned to draw exquisite copies of what he saw–pictures that helped him to understand and explain mathematical and physical concepts.

After a 3 1/2 year self-imposed exile from society during which he confined himself to his home, Jason Padgett bravely returned to the world and to school, taking classes at the local community college, where he was viewed as an eccentric. Little by little, he met people who recognized his newfound genius, and he learned about synesthesia and savant syndrome. He learned, among other things, that being born with one of these abilities, though rare, is more common than acquiring them, as he did. Jason Padgett is the only person in the world known to have acquired both synesthesia and savant syndrome as an adult.

It’s a fascinating story. You can also watch Padgett’s two TED talks: How Math Saved My Life and Alternate Realities from Relativity (TEDx Tacoma).

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Runaway Amish Girl: The Great Escape

Posted by nliakos on January 14, 2019

by Emma Gingerich (Progressive Rising Phoenix Press, 2015)

I was watching random online videos the day before yesterday, and I came upon this Megyn Kelly interview of Emma Gingerich, who was raised in an ultra-conservative Swartzentruber Amish community in Ohio and Missouri but left the community at the age of eighteen. Gingerich had written a book about her experiences, and the e-book cost only $4.49! So I bought it and started reading immediately (what I love about e-books–the ultimate impulse buy!). It’s very short, only 132 pages, and not particularly well-written; but one can make allowances for this courageous young woman who never felt like she belonged in her family or her community, and who risked everything for the freedom to drive, to go to college, to listen to music, to think for herself and to make her own decisions about dating and marriage. After all, she never had to speak or write much English until she left her Amish life behind. She had to enroll in English classes like any international student. Of course, she had to get her GED before she could fulfill her college dream; Amish schools go only until the eighth grade. She had to get a job to support herself. She had to learn how to do everything, from shaving her legs to driving a car to being a student to applying for financial aid to saying no to people who asked her for money, and much much more.

She was raped but overcame her trauma and shame to go to the police and pressed charges against her rapist, which resulted in his incarceration and later deportation, though when it happened, she writes, “I did not even know what it was called. I did not know anything about sex, which made the horrific experience even more difficult to explain to anyone, even if I had wanted to.”

In the first part of the book, Gingerich describes her life in the Amish community, where “dating” consists of chastely sharing one’s bed with a young man; this is tolerated by the parents, although they do not tolerate their unmarried daughters engaging in conversation with young men. She describes the chores she had to do, the clothing she had to wear, the pranks she pulled, the trouble she was always getting into because she would not follow the strict rules of the community, and her large family, who never really communicated with one another, let alone showed one another love.

The last few chapters focus on Gingerich’s escape, aided by acquaintances who took her in and helped her with the immediate transition (a roof over her head, getting new clothes, learning about deodorant, etc.). Soon she relocated to southern Texas, where she focused on learning English and getting an education: first the GED, then a community college degree, then a Bachelor’s (followed by a Master’s, which was in progress when the book came out). In these chapters, Gingerich also tells about her relationship with her family after she left, which surprisingly (to me) was never cut off entirely. She visited them in Missouri several times, including attending her brother’s wedding. I would have thought visiting would be discouraged, and indeed it wasn’t easy, but it did happen, and her parents seem never to have given up hope that she would return to the fold–something Gingerich never wanted to do for a minute, despite all the challenges of life “outside”.

Fascinating.

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The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story

Posted by nliakos on December 15, 2018

by Hyeonseo Lee with David John (William Collins 2015)

Born Kim Ji-hae in Hyesan, North Korea in 1980, Hyeonseo Lee had a happy childhood, despite her parents’ divorce when she was a baby. She was adopted by her mother’s second husband and was given a new name, Park Min-young, the second of the seven names of the title. She only learned of her true parentage when she was a teenager. Sadly, this knowledge resulted in her alienation from her (step-)father, who had raised her lovingly as his own child. He died before she was able to reconcile with him–the first of many heart-breaking losses and misjudgments that plagued her young life.

The book is divided into three parts. Part One, The Greatest Nation on Earth, describes Lee’s early life in North Korea, when she never questioned what she was told by her parents and teachers and actually believed that North Korea was the greatest nation on earth, that it was the South Koreans who were suffering and starving, and that all Westerners were ruthless devils. Chapter 4, “The Lady in Black”, describes how as soon as they start school, North Korean children are taught to worship the Kim family: The teachers read us stories of child heroes who’d fought the Japanese during the period of colonial rule in Korea, and legends from the boyhood of Kim Il-sung–of how he’d suffered for the people’s happiness even as an infant, giving away his own food and shoes to children less fortunate. Whenever the leaders were mentioned, the teachers adopted low, tremulous voices, as if they were intoning the names of living gods. The walls displayed photographs of Kim Il-sung as a young guerrilla; Kim Il-sung surrounded by smiling orphans; Kim Il-sung in his white marshal’s uniform, as the father of our nation. He was tall and striking, and his brave wife, Kim Jong-suk, who had fought alongside him, seemed like a lady from a folktale. It was not difficult to adore them. . . . Yet alongside the brainwashing is a widespread tolerance of smuggling, black markets and bribes, and Lee’s family benefits from this lax enforcement of the laws; her mother, in particular, does illegal business with Korean-Chinese on the other side of the Yalu River. The China-North Korea border, at least in this location, is as porous as any other border around the world. This surprised me. (Although I knew that many North Koreans escaped over that border, I guess I thought it was harder than it in fact is. For small children, especially boys, it is particularly easy, and according to Lee, there are no repercussions for crossing the Yalu to play with (Korean-)Chinese kids on the other side, and when done playing, the children simply return to their homes on the North Korean side. In fact, that is why Lee herself crossed just before reaching the age of majority; she knew she would not be punished.)

In Part Two, To the Heart of the Dragon, Lee, now almost 18, the age of adult responsibilities, thoughtlessly decides that she wants to see China, just across the river from her home in Hyesan. One December night, she walks across the frozen river and knocks on the door of one of her mother’s business contacts. From there, on a whim, she decides to go and visit some unsuspecting relatives in Shenyang, a large city eight hours away. One thing leads to another, and Lee realizes that she cannot go back home. She stays with her aunt and uncle in Shenyang for two years, and almost marries a Korean-Chinese man named Geun-soo, but she runs away before the wedding. Astonishingly (due to a combination of dumb luck and quick thinking), Lee manages to avoid the awful fate that entraps so many female North Korean defectors, learns to speak fluent Chinese, finds well-paying jobs, has a serious relationship with a rich South Korean businessman, and flies to Seoul to ask for asylum in South Korea.

Part Three, Journey into Darkness, chronicles Lee’s introduction into South Korean society and her risky, expensive rescue of her mother and brother. Again, a combination of quick thinking and extraordinary good luck results in eventual success, but there are moments when the reader is sure that this is going to end badly–only the photographs of the mother and brother visiting Chicago remind one that they must have prevailed. The story of their long journey through China, to a Laotian prison, and finally to South Korea is a fascinating one. But a more profound struggle awaits once they are “free”–discriminated against by South Koreans and ill-equipped to function in that fast-paced, ultra-competitive society, they both contemplate repatriation, despite its risks. Meanwhile, Lee’s relationship with her South Korean boyfriend ends, and she begins speaking out publicly about life in North Korea and her own personal story, culminating in a TED talk in 2013.

Years ago, I taught a student from North Korea. She was a rank beginner in English (a rare occurrence in today’s globalized world), so she was unable to tell me much about her story, but she did give me a short written biography that someone had translated into (poor) English for her. Like Hyeonseo Lee, she too was able to get her daughter out to join her in South Korea. When I asked how, thinking of the dangers for young women who escape to China and end up being trafficked as prostitutes or brides of poor Chinese farmers, she dismissed my question with one word: money. And Hyeonseo Lee’s story also shows that with enough money, one can do pretty much what one wants.

A really fascinating book. I tore through it as if it were a novel.

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