Dear Leader by Jang Jin-Sung

“The General will now enter the room.”

4/5 stars.
Paperback, 368 pages.
Read from December 12, 2017 to December 15, 2017.

Who isn’t curious about North Korea? It is a strange and secretive country with an eccentric, peculiar, and potentially very dangerous leader that shuts out the world. How much of the North Korean propaganda is true? Are the people there truly sheltered and do they suffer? If you believe this defector and author of this memoir it will only make you hungry for more information on this fascinating country.

Jang Jin-Sung, a pseudonym for a North Korean man who was a famous and well-respected poet and government official. His life was much easier than many of his other friends and family due to his high ranking status. He was special as he was allowed into the small inner circle of people who got to meet their “Dear Leader” in person due to how well received his poetry was. Jin-Sung worked within The United Front Department (UFD) which is “responsible for inter-Korean espionage, policy-making and diplomacy” and in Jin-Sung’s job he was responsible for writing poetry and praise for North Korea under the facade of the praise coming from other countries, like South Korea. In order to do that, he was allowed to read South Korean newspapers and writings in order to keep with the style and approach of the writers there. The work was dangerous and highly controlled as with new ideas comes the idea that the North Korean regime is lesser. However, Jin-Sung began to question his “Dear Leader” after meeting him in person and after following a trail of dangerous thoughts and actions it eventually made him realise that he needed to defect or risk his life and potentially his whole family’s.

“I was restless with yearning to write realist poetry based on what I saw, and not loyalist poetry based on what we were all told to see.”

The harrowing description that Jin-Sung leaves an impoverished stifled and scared nation of people is hard to read. His escape is tragic and reads like a terrifying thriller that you are too afraid to look away from. I was completely engrossed in the story and was left hungry for more by the end. Books like this and others like them have come under scrutiny for their authenticity or have left many wondering how much was embellished for the sake of publications. It is almost easier to NOT believe that North Korea is a terrible as this book makes it sound as it is hard to fathom that so many people are living in such an oppressed and psychologically inhumane way. If this novel is as true as the author claims, it makes me thankful that my life is my own, that I have food in my belly, and that I express myself how I see fit.

“One reason why North Korea is unable to pursue reform and open itself more to the world is that this would risk exposing core dogmas of the state as mere fabrications.”

Whether you want to believe all, some or none of what is in this book you can’t deny the books high readability and enjoyability. In fact, this book made my top five favourite non-fiction reads of 2017 I enjoyed it so much. I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in history, espionage, North Korea or memoirs. I can assure you that Jin-Sung’s story is not one you are likely to forget.

 

 

 

Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto

“Forgiveness is moving on. It is a daily act that looks forward. Forgiveness smiles.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 210 pages.
Read from February 20, 2018 to February 27, 2018.

This was the one book in the 2018 Canada Reads that I was most excited for. While the book started slow I was absolutely captivated by the brutal history of this family and was soon not able to put it down.

Sakamoto’s family has a rich, tragic and courageous history. His grandfather on his mother’s side, a white-Canadian from the east coast, joined the war efforts in WWII where he was captured in Hong Kong by the Japanese. He lived and suffered intensely for four years in POW camp. His grandmother, on his father’s side, is a Japanese-born Canadian. Sakamoto details the horrifying things that the Canadian government did to his grandmother’s family and the Japanese living in Canada during WWII, especially after the Pearl Harbour bombing. This is a part of history that most Canadians know little about or the brutality of what we did to our own people. I know I sure didn’t and it really opened my eyes. Canada is often viewed as an untainted and tolerant place to live but our own history is just as stained as others. Additionally, I imagine very few Canadians know of the regiments that served out in Hong Kong and the losing battle that they had to endure.

The book continues through Sakamoto’s family saga and the remarkable ability for his grandparents to forgive was a constant foundation in his life. Can you imagine when Sakamoto’s parents wanted to marry how that might have felt to their own parents? Each had suffered so much from each other’s different ethnicities and tet their powerful understanding, shared suffering, and ability to move forward is nothing short of courageous. Sakamoto also details the difficult upbringing he had with his alcoholic mother and how that shaped his future ambitions and responsibilities.

Mitsue Sakamoto, the author’s grandmother, Phyllis MacLean the author’s mother, Ralph MacLean, the author’s grandfather and Stan Sakamoto the author’s father in Medicine Hat Alberta in 1968. Source: The Daily Mail

Sakamoto’s story is highly emotional and I would be lying if I did not say I welled up in few parts.  The suffering and tenacity of his grandparents and even the death of his mother were hard to bear as a reader. Sakamoto really drew into some great emotional depth with his story-telling. The added pictures in the book were also a great touch as it really felt like you knew his family.

While I ended up loving this book, I did not start off feeling that way. The book had a slow start for me as I was initially unsure as to where this story or memoir was going. I found some of the initial story transitions to be a bit clunky, though once his grandfather set off for the war things smoothed out and the main theme of the story was starting to finally come together.  While I enjoyed the story of his upbringing and the suffering endured by him and his mother with her alcoholism it was a massive shift in the direction of the book. The book was now reading more like an autobiography. This disjointing and lack of connection from his grandparent’s story to his own story was not as successful as the rest of the emotionally enticing parts about his grandparents. While his own story is moving in its own right, the novel just did not feel like a complete whole on the theme of forgiveness.  Even with that,  I decided on a 4-star review instead of 3 for this book because of how the book made me feel and for how intently I could not stop reading certain portions.

As I currently live in Hong Kong, I found the parts of his grandfather’s time there especially interesting.  However, Sakamoto mentioned that Kowloon is part of the New Territories and part of mainland China, which isn’t correct. Kowloon is a part of Hong Kong and is its own district.  Since 1997, China has since reclaimed Hong Kong but it is technically still its own country and many locals would not be happy being referred to as mainland China! It was wonderful envisioning these areas that I know well and what they would have been like during the war.  As a Canadian, it was also intriguing to read about a battle that took place during WWII that I imagine many Canadians don’t know about. There are some historical museums and treks in Hong Kong that I am now anxious to partake in.

So far, I have read 3 out of the 5 books in the 2018 Canada Reads. Compared to The Marrow Thieves and Precious Cargo, this novel is definitely one to “open your eyes” as the horrors of the Canadian government during WWII and the part that those Canadian regiments played out in Hong Kong are remarkable and need to be known. The content of this novel is truly jaw-dropping and extremely relevant in the context of today’s racial issues and learning from our own past. As it stands, this novel best meets the criteria for the debate in my opinion but what will the final two books hold? We will soon find out…

Precious Cargo by Craig Davidson

Nothing beats a good feel-good novel.

4/5 stars.
ebook, 210 pages.
Read from February 11, 2018 to February 19, 2018.

You know what? Nothing beats a good feel-good novel. Especially one that knows how to make you laugh, smile and cry at the time.

Craig Davidson had hit rock bottom with his writing career. His efforts and a once promising start had fizzled away into nothing. With the bills racking up Craig was looking for anything to help him get by which, is hard to do when you have jumped around with small jobs here and there while pursuing writing, that is until he stumbled upon a school bus driving position. No experience required. Perfect. Little did Craig know that this job was going to offer him so much more than just a paycheque. Craig’s first gig is driving a short bus for special needs children, a position that many drivers often turned away. Dealing with kids can be trying at the best of times but having to work with kids who have needs that are harder to understand or deal with is often a whole other story and requires a special and attentive sort of care. Craig wasn’t sure what he was getting himself into but he was willing to try. With his unique brand of humour, Craig quickly charms the kids on his bus, learns their routines and personalities, and quickly falls in love with the job and his unique bunch of rowdy kids. It would be a year that would shape his life and perspectives going forward.

giphy (2)Craig has the gift of humour and has finessed his writing style well. The book is entertaining, highly readable and massively relatable for anyone who has pursued writing or who just has your average-Joe type persona, which is most of us! Craig is intimate making you feel like you really get to know him and each of the kids on his bus. The book also offers valuable insights into the difficult lives that many people with special needs and their families have to deal with and the courage that it comes with. Craig learned that his own failures were nothing compared to what these kids had overcome and with how able they were at dealing with difficulties that he could never have even dreamed of.

While I enjoyed the true story portion of this book I did not enjoy the random chapters of Craig’s unpublished YA dystopian novel in which the characters were inspired by the kids on his bus.  It’s a nice sentiment but I found it very jarring and when it first came up I had no idea what I was reading or how it pertained to Craig’s main story at first.  If I were an editor I would have eliminated those portions completely and then maybe made a reference to it at the end.

Now does this book “open your eyes“? To an extent, yes. It is an important reflection on how disabled people are treated in our current society and just how challenging it can be. Do I think that this theme was the main attraction of this book? No. Did I love reading it? Oh yes. This is a great read and I have already recommended it to a few of my friends. Does it deserve to win Canada Reads? My current opinion is no but we will see what the other contenders bring to the table. Onward!