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Enjoy, laugh, disagree or simply empathize with those who lived life in THE sixties and are now rockin' life in THEIR sixties, and beyond.


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The Girl With Seven Names had nine lives


If someone on your Christmas list enjoys books, I have a great recommendation and it’s not too late to have it delivered from Amazon. The Girl With Seven Names is the true story of how a young woman, with no foresight or planning escaped North Korea and became an international advocate for human rights. The book is a beautifully written, first-hand account of life for the average person in North Korea by someone who later came to experience the world beyond the Kim Jong autocracy. During her escape and resettlement, Min-young assumed a series of seven different names as part of the strategy needed to hide her past and create new identities to protect herself and her family still in North Korea. Hyeonseo Lee is the final name she retains.

Min-young was born and grew up in Hyesan, a North Korean town on the northern border with China. Hyesan was separated  from Changbai in China by a narrow river. Locals could wade across the river in waist-deep water or over ice in the winter when border guards on both sides were looking the other way or were sufficiently bribed to look the other way. This arrangement resulted in a brisk black market trade of superior Chinese consumer goods and food items coming across the border that were unavailable to most North Korean citizens. This trade supported Min-young’s family.

As a rebellious teenager of seventeen, Min-young made a decision to cross the river one night to visit the Chinese side, planning to return a few days later. Because of her age and naivety, she gave little thought to the gravity and consequences of her decision. If she had been caught coming or going, she and her entire family would be executed or at the very least deported to a labour camp. A series of decisions resulted in her being unable to return to North Korea. She traveled to visit distant relatives on the Chinese side who provided her with accommodation and help. She was constantly under threat of being exposed as an illegal immigrant which would result in her deportation and execution. An arranged marriage with a Chinese national seemed the only solution but Min-young got cold feet and fled. Over the next few years she assumes various identities and moves across the country trying to stay one step ahead of authorities, criminals and traitors. Through a complicated set of manoeuvres, Min-young eventually manages to escape to South Korea where life is not as she imagined it would be.

Who doesn’t love finding a good book under the tree? For you or a book-lover you know.

Most of us think we live in the best country in the world. Canadians are certainly entitled to feel we won the lottery being born in Canada. Americans have traditionally considered the United States to be the best country in the world, although, in fact, they fall further down the list. Canada consistently ranks as number two and the best is Switzerland, Germany or Denmark, depending on the source of the research. Citizens of North Korea have also been indoctrinated by the Kim-Jong regime to think they’re living in the best country in the world under the benevolent leadership of three generations of the Kim family. Despite famines, starvation and deprivation, North Koreans have no sense of context to compare their lives with the rest of the world. They grow up worshiping their ‘Great Leader’ or ‘Dear Leader’ as a god and their source of life. Those who escape quickly learn that things in the outside world are very different from what they’ve been told.

I absolutely could not put this book down. The author employs a literary J.R. Ewing cliff-hanger at the end of each chapter that further induced me to push on which I often did into the night. Hyeonseo Lee as she is now known has achieved local, national, then international acclaim for her human rights advocacy work, sharing her experiences to help others in similar situations. To be able to view life in North Korea from the perspective of someone who grew up there and compare it with a new life in a once-forbidden world is a rare insight. It’s a harrowing story of injustices suffered by citizens who live in countries without the freedoms we take for granted in Canada—a real eye-opener that will make you further appreciate our Canadian way of life and values. There wasn’t a single page of this book that I didn’t love and in view of the current tensions between the United States and North Korea it’s a timely read.

To order The Girl With Seven Names from Amazon.com click here.

 


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Dear Margaret: I was wrong. I’m sorry.


It was a scramble to finish reading the book Alias Grace before the television series aired as I didn’t want to preempt any of the deliciousness of the story line. Written by Margaret Atwood more than twenty years ago, it took me a long time to get to the book because I’d been put off by her later writing, including The Handmaid’s Tale. I disliked The Handmaid’s Tale as I found it too dystopian and weird when I first read it in 1986. Times have changed; the world is becoming scarier and The Handmaid’s Tale is no longer as remote from reality as it once seemed. I’m loving the television series and can’t wait for the next season.

Alias Grace is historical fiction (my favourite reading genre) based on the true story of Grace Marks, a pretty, young Irish immigrant housemaid in Toronto in the mid-1800’s. Put out to work by her alcoholic, abusive father at a young age, Grace secured employment as domestic help in a well-to-do Toronto household where she made friends with Mary Whitney, another young employee of the household. Life was not easy for domestic servants and they were frequently exploited by their employers. When Mary Whitney dies from a botched abortion, Grace is tainted by virtue of her friendship with Mary and is forced to leave and accept a position further north in rural Richmond Hill working for a bachelor ‘gentleman’ Thomas Kinnear. His relationship with his existing housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery soon becomes evident and presents complications for the entire household. Nancy is mercurial, swinging from overly friendly to mean and jealous.

In July 1843, while Kinnear is away from home, Nancy informs Grace and the handyman James McDermott that their services are no longer required and she intends to dismiss them before Kinnear returns. Then the story gets muddy. Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery are murdered but no one is sure who did it; James? Grace? Or both? The resulting murder trial is a major scandal in nineteenth century Upper Canada. McDermott is condemned to death by hanging and because of Grace’s vague testimony that was highly manipulated by her pro-bono lawyer and her young age (she was only fifteen), she receives a life sentence in the harsh federal penitentiary in Kingston, Ontario.

The complex characters of Grace Marks and James McDermott make it difficult to get at the truth.

During her incarceration, a number of well-meaning citizens and professionals attempt to extract the truth from Grace about the day of the murders but without success. Many people feel she is innocent and lobby for her release. Famous novelist Susanna Moodie even took a stab at getting to the truth (sorry for the bad pun) in her book Life in the Clearing but it was generally acknowledged that Moodie’s tendency to exaggeration and belief in spiritualism heavily coloured her account. After fifteen years of incarceration, Atwood introduces a character called Dr. Simon Jordan who specializes in studying mental health issues (such as they were at that time). He undertakes interviewing Grace over a period of months in an attempt to extract the truth once and for all. Although uneducated, Grace is obviously highly intelligent and articulate which makes it difficult to sort out fact from fiction.

Atwood’s story alternates time frames and narration. We’re often presented with the story in Grace’s own words as well as from the perspective of Dr. Jordan and a third party. I’ve never understood why some writers eschew quotation marks when employing dialogue some of the time but not all of the time. I suppose it’s a technical issue beyond my uneducated grasp but it does make for a bit of confusion at times sorting out conversations. Whoever said Canadian history is boring is just plain wrong. Just as I was wrong in discounting Margaret Atwood’s writing after The Edible Woman published in the mid-sixties and still my favourite Atwood novel. Alias Grace is a wonderful read. You’ll find plenty of touchstones you can relate to and the mystery surrounding the double murder will keep you engrossed in the book beyond the last page into the “Afterword” by Atwood. Millions of book buyers can’t be wrong.

To order Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood from Amazon.com, click here.

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Hillbilly Elegy is a quite simply a must read


There’s a reason Hillbilly Elegy, A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance has been on the New York Times’ best seller list for several weeks. It’s an amazing book. If you enjoyed The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, you’ll love Hillbilly Elegy for the same reason. Some might consider Vance a bit young (he’s only in his mid-thirties) to be producing a memoir, but many people including Walls and Catherine Gildiner who was the author of the wonderful trilogy about her early years, have lived young lives truly worthy of sharing. Memoirs by people who have risen above challenging beginnings to succeed in life have always fascinated me and we have so much to learn from them.

J.D. Vance was born into a poor, uneducated, unstable Appalachian family surrounded by a larger community of similarly dysfunctional people. His mother was pregnant at sixteen and although his father didn’t stick around he was never completely estranged. Vance was born into a life anchored by an alcoholic and ultimately drug-addicted mother with an endless stream of boyfriends and husbands, some good but most bad, an assortment of half-siblings and dismal prospects for a better life. The only stable element in his ever-changing life was the presence of an older half-sister and his gun-toting, cussing, mean maternal grandmother who truly loved him. His grandfather, although ultimately living apart from his grandmother was equally loving and loved by Vance and provided a kind moral compass for the boy. He moved back and forth between Kentucky and Ohio depending on his evolving family situation with all its domestic strife, his ever-changing sets of siblings and even changing last names.

Many of the social problems experienced by hillbillies are attributable to their own poor choices in life.

When children are born into a community of people who are always fighting and are disinclined to hold regular jobs or even have ambitions of doing better, they grow up without incentive, without hope and without direction. Those who are lucky enough to find someone in this quagmire of humanity who can see beyond their obvious limits is truly fortunate. Vance possessed a level of intelligence that allowed him to at least finish high school despite poor grades and poor attendance in the midst of his family’s turmoil. Despite their own lack of education, his grandparents encouraged and promoted education helping him by providing a safe home when he needed it, moral direction when he strayed and were successful in regularly putting him back on track. When a cousin suggested the only way Vance would be able to get a college education which was the key to a better life, he opted to pledge four years of his life to the Marine Corps to subsidize his later college education. He ultimately parlayed this into a law degree from prestigious Yale University and through Hillbilly Elegy shares the experience of his journey with others who might benefit from what he learned along the way.

Vance’s enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps was step two in bettering his life after step one which was completing high school.

Vance discovered a world entirely different from what he had always known when he enlisted in the Marines and to a greater extent afterward when he went to university and law school. “When I joined the Marine Corps,, I did so in part because I wasn’t ready for adulthood. I didn’t know how to balance a checkbook” he said. The Marine Corps assumes zero knowledge on the part of its recruits and even accompanied him to open his first bank account. He had received no early guidance in nutrition, fitness/wellness or personal pride during his growing up years and describes himself as a cultural alien. He came to learn and understand the value of interpersonal skills and what he refers to as social capital to help smooth the way through networking. New relationships with friends and fellow students introduced him to a completely new set of social behaviours that were not aligned with his temper and hillbilly upbringing. Most people acknowledge that not all education is gained in the classroom but Vance had no experience with such everyday basics as table manners, how to dress appropriately, how to handle conflict or even how to give and receive love. Interestingly, one of his valued law school mentors at Yale was Amy Chua, author of Tiger Mom.

While he’s circumspect about suggesting solutions to the economic and social problems that are rampant in the rust belt of America, the author provides a rare glimpse into the lives of those people who live hopelessly grim and depressing lives. He knows better than most how they reached this point and why it is so self-perpetuating. Poor life choices, poor role models and social problems breed generations of people with no hope for betterment.  His observations are informed, articulately presented and blunt. What I found particularly revealing was his perspective on how entire generations of rust belt people turned against the Democratic party and put their hopes in the Republicans. Vance explains the misconceptions and clever rhetoric that guide their votes and destroys any hope of a better future. They are told “premature parenthood, drugs, incarceration . . . what separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations that they had for their own lives. Yet the message of the right is increasingly: ‘It’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault’.” Untrue and unproductive.

I can’t recommend Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance strongly enough. I learned so much reading this book and only wish the people of Kentucky and Ohio who are described in its pages would also earn from the wisdom he dispenses. I’d give it 10 out of 10.

To order a copy of Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance from Amazon, click here.

To order The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls from Amazon, click here.

To order the third book in Catherine Gildiner’s trilogy, Coming Ashore, click here.

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The Sense of an Ending ends with a twist


How would you react to receiving a letter or other communication from someone you were intimate with in the swinging sixties or early seventies and lost track of decades ago? And what if that communication required a face-to-face meeting, after all these years? Imagine the emotions that would be ignited. That intriguing premise is the basis for a book by Julian Barnes called The Sense of an Ending. What prompted me to read the book was a review in The New York Times. The reviewer was so impressed with the story that as soon as he finished, he immediately started at the beginning to read it again. I can’t say that was my response but I did enjoy it enormously.

At around two hundred pages, The Sense of an Ending is a quick, easy read. When I first started reading, the main character, Anthony Webster reminded me of Holden Caulfield. The story begins in the early sixties with the friendship of three schoolboys in England whose dynamic is altered by the later introduction of a fourth boy, Adrian. When they go off to different universities, they maintain a tentative friendship but their lives naturally begin to follow divergent paths. We follow Tony Webster’s journey through the changes generated early in the sexual revolution. We observe his struggles and confusion with “the meaning of life” which was a popular concern of boomers. Then, suddenly, he’s in his seventies and receives a solicitor’s letter informing him he’s been named as the beneficiary of a minor settlement in the will of the mother of an old girlfriend from university.

The emotional struggles, the mystery surrounding the endowment and the confrontations that result profoundly affect Tony Webster’s entire philosophy of life. I won’t divulge the plot and its twists as I really think you should experience the book first-hand. Baby boomers will relate to the subtleties of morals, ambitions and social relationships we experienced and will find the book particularly interesting. But it’s also a kind of mystery story with a plot twist that makes the entire book worth reading.

Click here to order The Sense of an Ending from Amazon.com

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Funny girl Amy Schumer serves up more than humour


amy1Amy Schumer’s autobiography The Girl With The Lower Back Tatoo” is her personal vagina monologue. Anyone who has watched her television specials or her movie Trainwreck” understands that Schumer’s humour isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. She’s smart, talented and totally unfiltered which not everyone appreciates. As a Boomer reading her account of growing up in a blended family where both parents had multiple marriages, we see her living and enjoying a moral freedom we did not experience growing up in the fifties and sixties. Our generation laid the groundwork.

Schumer’s descriptions of the progression of her thirty-something life cover the spectrum from innocence to humour to lessons learned and as with anyone’s life story, some pain. While her humour is obvious, her smarts and work ethic rise above. Top comediennes make it look easy but years of being on the road, living in uncomfortable conditions, working for little or no pay and enduring more than their share of insults and rejection go into developing a career in comedy. The title of her book refers to her regrettable decision while still a teenager to get a massive tribal tattoo on her lower back which ultimately became infected, left keloid scars and is lopsided. We all make mistakes. I once had kakki green hair but that was fixable.

One surprising piece of Amy Schumer’s life that she shares is her experience as a victim of domestic abuse. She warns that despite being a strong, smart woman, she was not immune to believing “It’s not abusive if they feel really bad afterward and promise to love you the rest of your life, right? Right? Wrong.”  Sharing her story and the conflicted feelings surrounding the experience will hopefully make other women aware of the insidious and dangerous path to abuse. This chapter was particularly enlightening and provides valuable insight into the issue.

Another topic worth reading about in this book is Schumer’s position on body image.  She condemns body shaming that drives innocent little eight-year-old girls to go on diets or should-know-better big girls to aspire to heavily Photo-shopped images of unrealistic, unnatural models in magazines and social media. I share her beefs in this regard and hope someday we will see a return to more realistic role models. She also had her only one-night stand with a guy who sounded a lot like Prince Harry (but he wasn’t).

And for anyone doubting the effectiveness of on-line dating, she has some good news. Her boyfriend of several years is a guy called Ben whom she met on a dating site. She and a girlfriend signed up on a lark, were members for forty minutes, got four matches and Ben was one of them. Don’t expect a joke book; it’s a memoir. Overall, I really enjoyed The Girl With The Lower Back Tattoo. It’s a fast, easy, informative read written by a savvy, entertaining and hard-working woman. I had to wait a long time for my name to come up on the waiting list from the library, but it was worth the wait. If you don’t want to wait, click here and order it from Amazon or download it.

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Breaking the rules in Russia could be fatal


If you have a few hours, I'd be happy to share titles of my favourite books.

If you have a few hours, I’d be happy to share titles of my favourite books. Or you can check the “Book Reviews” tab at the top of my blog posting.

Recommendations for good reading often come from unexpected sources. A few years ago I went to a bookstore for an evening of discussion about Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, a book I hated and found trite but was curious to see why it appealed to other people. Only two people turned up—me and one other lady. Even the speaker was AWOL. The evening was salvaged however when the other attendee and I had a cup of tea together and traded titles of great books we’d enjoyed recently. She wanted the names of some Canadian authors, which I was happy to provide, and one of the books she recommended to me was Wild Swans by Jung Chang which I absolutely loved. It’s the story of three generations of women living three very different lives in twentieth century China.

A couple of weeks ago while sitting with foils on my hair at the hairdresser, the lady in the next chair started chatting to me about books and before you could say, “have you read?. . .” we were madly exchanging titles. When I mentioned I like historical fiction and really enjoy stories about Russia, she recommended The Charm School by Nelson DeMille. And, boy was she right. I couldn’t put it down.

charmThe story is set in 1988 Russia while the Cold War was still flourishing. An American tourist gets lost in an isolated, restricted forest area outside Moscow and is confronted by a rogue American who claims to be one of hundreds of American prisoners of war kidnapped at the end of the war in Vietnam and traded by the North Vietnamese to Russia in exchange for missiles.

The plot follows American Embassy staffers Colonel Sam Hollis, Lisa Rhodes and other agents as they attempt to verify the escapee’s story that the POWs have been imprisoned for more than two decades at a special high-security facility affectionately referred by the prisoners as Mrs. Ivanoff’s Charm School. The American captives are forced to train Soviet agents in how to become American in their speech, dress, demeanor and social habits. When the Russians are fully trained to be indistinguishable from real Americans, they are deployed to the United States as agents assigned to infiltrate and assimilate into sensitive areas of American business, the military and government where they will relay intelligence back to Moscow. This book was written pre-911 and its message is eerily prophetic.

The Charm School is fast-moving, never dull and follows the efforts of the embassy team to verify the story, locate the school and perhaps finally free the captive American POWs, who are now middle-aged. Espionage is always clouded by an overlaying lack of trust of anyone within the circle of characters. This is further complicated by the everyday difficulties associated with simply speaking, traveling, socializing or trying to work under the watchful and paranoid eye of the KGB. This book will appeal to men and women alike, and as I said, I couldn’t put it down. But, if you’re ever in Russia, don’t go off-roading.

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