WITHOUT YOU, THERE IS NO US: My Time With the Sons of North Korea's Elite
Written by Suki Kim
Not a lot is known about the mysterious land of North Korea. The few visitors/tourists that travel to the hermit kingdom get a very regimented, limited frame of reference, one that is pre-approved and paints the nation and its dictatorial leadership in the most flattering light. Author Suki Kim spent six months there under the guise of being a Christian English teacher employed at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), academic home of North Korea's young elite. In this book, she speaks candidly of the monotony of day-to-day life, the motivations of the Christian missionaries who were her colleagues, as well as the naive, auspicious nature of her beloved students. One definitely gets a sense of the claustrophobic environment in this oblique country; it's hard not to feel paranoid that someone is also watching you while reading this.
Favorite line: "One by one, they rushed up to me to ask the same things. The news consumed them. The story of how a boy wizard had only been an abstraction for them, and they could not believe that they would actually get to see a movie based on it. For them, the lure was not so much the storyline, of which they knew virtually nothing, but the fact that the rest of the world had seen and loved it, that it was a true blockbuster. This unexpected chance to join the Harry Potter bandwagon made them feel included in a world that had always been denied to them."
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WHERE BEARS ROAM THE STREETS: A RUSSIAN JOURNAL
Written by Jeff Parker
Western media has painted modern Russia as a lawless, corrupt society led by a ruffian. This book implies that the portrayal isn't entirely false (the general motto of the country could be "not legal, but fair") but that there's so much more to its enigma than we know. What is life like for the average Russian – a group of people forced to pave their existence through omnipresent crisis and upheaval? Well, they're not entirely different from anyone else in the world just trying to get by with perhaps an added emphasis on consuming alcohol in quantities that have decreased the average life expectancy and a habit of "duality", a phrase which the author uses to describe the Russian wont of sending conflicting messages.
The most interesting part of the book for me was reading about the treatment of women in this militaristic society that nurtures and encourages the macho, crude, aggressive male stereotype. With eleven million more females than males in the Russian population, this has led to an imbalance of power and equality that trickles down from competition to securing a mate to police response on domestic violence incidents which aren't viewed as a violation of human rights.
Favorite line: "Soviet schools forced kids to memorize the great Russian poets, especially Pushkin. I have often wondered what good it's done them. You cannot expect many farmers in Mississippi to quote Whitman, while you can expect every farmer in Krasnodar Krai to recite you a verse of Pushkin or to pick their favourite from among Chekhov, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Surely there must be some appreciation for language and for beauty, and there must be something worthwhile in the fact that there are all of these texts that the whole nation shares – poems, fairy tales, great social novels, absurdist short stories … all these shared prisms to see the world through. And yet, in comparison with the stability of the West, with our lack of shared literacy reference points, everything in Russia is governed by degrees of chaos. Is there something about wide-scale appreciation for art that leads to chaos?"
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