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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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Martin Amis provides a brutal look inside a Russian gulag


I seem to have a peculiar attraction to novels about Russia. House of Meetings by British author Martin Amis is a fictional story of two brothers sentenced to ten years of hard labour in a Russian gulag during the Stalin years after the Second World War. They are sent to the same camp in northeastern Siberia at the sixty-ninth parallel and subjected to unspeakable horrors which they amazingly survived. I’ve always wanted to read something by British author Martin Amis and the fact I chose this book means I was probably exposed to a somewhat tempered version of his writing. But it was still extremely intense. And, with his extensive vocabulary, I should have had a dictionary beside me as I read.

Narrated by the unnamed older brother who was a handsome, decorated officer in the Russian army that conquered Germany at the end of the war, it is written as a memoir and letter to his American stepdaughter. The narrator attempts to validate his choices and experiences in life, describing them in brutal detail. The seemingly weaker, unattractive younger brother Lev succeeded in marrying the only woman his older brother loved and the effects of the strange love triangle that unfolded spanned several decades. The book’s title House of Meetings refers to a cabin at the labour camp that was used for rare conjugal visits by spouses of the prisoners. Lev’s one meeting with his wife Zoya is a source of fascination for his brother for the rest of his life.

The narrator revisits the gulag when he’s in his eighties to make peace with his memories and his life. Many intellectuals were imprisoned during the Stalin years for no reason other than to meet his insane quotas. Exploring the psychological impact of the experience on poets, doctors, teachers and others is difficult to imagine but Amis digs deep. He researched records, diaries and personal accounts of former prisoners and presents a complex picture of what it took for them to survive. It’s not an easy read but it is fascinating and I think Amis could have written the story as a fictional memoir without the encumbrance of the stepdaughter. I’d give House of Meetings nine out of ten.

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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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