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.

 

 

 

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!

Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs

There are parts of this story that hard to believe. How much, if any, was embellished?

“I told myself, ‘All I want is a normal life’. But was that true? I wasn’t so sure.

4/5 stars.
Paperback, 315 pages.
Read from October 9, 2017 to October 12, 2017.

As a species, we have always been curious about tragedy, in that when something bad happens we can’t look away, like a terrible car wreck. This book is the terrible car wreck of Augusten’s childhood and as readers, we are utterly absorbed and shocked at the wreck and mess that follows. I know this book is supposed to be somewhat humorous as that is one way the author has found a way to deal with the failings in his upbringing but I, for one, found nothing about this to be humorous.

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Actual footage of me reading this book.

Augusten’s young life started off dysfunctional but still somewhat normal. His mother was always dramatic and his father reclusive but they were a family.

“My mother began to go crazy. Not in a ‘Let’s paint the kitchen red!’ sort of way. But crazy in a ‘gas oven, toothpaste sandwich, I am God’ sort of way.”

Shortly thereafter his father abandons him and so Augusten is left with his spiralling mentally ill mother. Augusten starts off as a very neat and tidy boy with a flair for fashion and often finds his mother’s antics and resulting behaviours distressing, even at such a young age.  Deidre, Augusten’s mother, has a love for poetry, feminism and the dramatic and when it is compounded with whatever illness she is battling makes for a troubling situation for Augusten. Deidre begins to see Doctor Finch as a form of therapy for herself. While the doctor is legitimate his methods are not and Augusten soon finds himself apart of these strange therapy sessions and even begins to know the doctor and his family on a personal level. Then, a few years into the sessions, Deidre, after reclaiming her sexuality as a gay woman, decides that the best decision for the two of them is if Augusten is adopted and forced to live with the doctor and his messy and peculiar family. From this point in the story onwards, you are going to count your blessings for your own dysfunctional family.

From find the word of God within bowel movements to underage gay sex with a paedophile and having the free reign to do whatever he pleases Augusten’s time with this family is beyond quirky. There are parts of this story that hard to believe.  I mean the author’s real name is actually Chris Robison and the truth of this novel came into question after its publication and immediate popularity.  How much did Chris elaborate and how much did his memory fail in regards to his time with the Finches? There was a call to remove the non-fiction and memoir tag from the book but at the time it was already too wildly popular to change.

From depictions of his mother to the doctor and his family have been called into question with the depictions that Chris lays out in his book. His mother even wrote her own book so that she could tell her own story in response this book. The real name of the Finch family is the Turcottes and the children of the family have since sued the author for the false allegations that this book made about them.  Theresa, or Natalie as she is referred to in the book, remembers Chris’ obsession with fame when he was younger and was shocked with the “categorically false” and “wildly embellished” story that he put together. Chris has stood by his story and his memories:

“This is my story. It’s not my mother’s story and it’s not the family’s story, and they may remember things differently and they may choose to not remember certain things, but I will never forget what happened to me, ever, and I have the scars from it and I wanted to rip those scars off of me.”

I am thankful that I did not know about these allegations before reading the book as it allowed me to read the novel without prejudice. I enjoyed the quirky story, even if it isn’t true or strongly embellished but deep down a part of my hopes that it isn’t true because the events in this story are truly shocking.

I will stick with my 4-star rating on this book because I did still enjoy it despite just recently reading about the controversy surrounding it. Overall the novel is an easy read with mediocre writing but with a story that makes you unable to look away, like a car wreck, and won’t let go. I would encourage readers to approach the book with a grain of salt and just enjoy the insanity of the plot. I think that the those who enjoy memoirs and quirky and dark stories with a dash of humour will enjoy this novel.


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