Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden – Book Review

Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West by Blaine Harden
Published by Viking Books, an imprint of Penguin

The plight of ordinary North Koreans has been a topic increasingly discussed with Kim Jong Il’s death, and the bevy of new fiction dealing with the isolated society. Barbara Demick does a wonderful job chronicling the privations of the 1990s and the ensuing breakdown of North Korean society in Nothing to Envy, and it seems that the North Koreans of the lower class in the outer provinces have had as hard a time of it as nearly any people group in the world. What is less often discussed, however, are the perhaps up to 200,000 people held in North Korean prison camps. Some of these camps hold prisoners for short times only, to ‘rehabilitate’ people like free market traders back into North Korean society. Others, though, such as Camp 14, hold families for lifetimes, even for generations, without any hope of release. In Escape from Camp 14, journalist Blaine Harden tells the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, the first person born into a North Korean prison camp to escape both the camp itself and North Korea.

Perhaps the most shocking parts of Escape from Camp 14 are those that detail Shin’s childhood in the camp. The dehumanizing treatment of prisoners – one guard who has since defected states that he was taught to “think of inmates as ‘dogs and pigs’” – meant that Shin never learned how to interact normally with other people. Everyone, including Shin’s own mother, was a threat to him, in competition for resources and someone who would snitch on him for any infraction of camp rules. Shin steals his mother’s lunch while she is at work, has rocks thrown at him by the children of guards, sees a little girl in his class beaten to death for stealing five kernels of corn. Eventually, as a 13 year old boy, he informs on his own mother and older brother who are planning an escape attempt and ensures their executions.

Equally fascinating and instructive are Shin’s attempts to acclimate to life outside of the camps, especially once he reaches South Korea and the United States.

“I am evolving from being an animal,” he said. “But it is going very, very slowly. Sometimes I try to cry and laugh like other people, just to see if it feels like anything. Yet tears don’t come. Laughter doesn’t come.” –p. 179

Shin had no idea about the government of his own country, let alone the rest of the world. It did mean that he had less brainwashing to unlearn, but the entire idea of normal interpersonal interaction has often difficult, and still continues to be so.

Escape from Camp 14 is not an easy book to read, much that happened to Shin will turn your stomach. It is, however, an important book to read. Perhaps people are not being systematically killed, but they are being worked to death, housed with little or no regard for the necessities of life and with no rights whatsoever. The existence of these camps has been known for years, but it is a subject rarely mentioned in the West, or even in South Korea. They are not something that we can continue to ignore any longer.

Harden tells Shin’s story in a clear, concise, and often horrifying way. Please read this book.

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Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick – Book Review

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
Published by Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House

In the futuristic dystopia imagined in 1984, George Orwell wrote of a world where the only color to be found was in the propaganda posters. Such is the case in North Korea. –p. 11

One of the hardest countries to get a look inside is North Korea. Closed off since the Korean War, North Korea initially seemed to be doing better, financially than its cousin to the South. Pyongyan, the one city where visitors occasionally came, was filled with only those inhabitants who would make a good impression on outsiders, but even outside of the capital city most North Koreans believed for many years that their lives were as good or better than those of most of the world’s inhabitants. All this began to change with the famine in the 1990s, however. As people began to starve to death, they took increased risks and increasingly subverted the state that had held them captive for so long. Crossing illegally into China to work or trade for food gave many North Koreans a glimpse of what life was like in the rest of the world. It was only at this time that defections began in earnest.

In Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, Barbara Demick chronicles the lives of a variety of North Koreans who eventually defected to South Korea. All came from different family situations in the stratified North Korean society, and all initially had varying degrees of dedication to the state, but all initially believed the propaganda they were fed. How could they not, after all? None of the outside world penetrates North Korea enough to show anything different. Plus, any resistance would mean repercussions not only on the protester his or herself, but on all other known relatives.

Demick interweaves her subject’s stories in such a way that is simultaneously fascinating and horrifying. Alternating stories could have made Nothing to Envy choppy, but it is done skillfully with good transitions, so that instead it serves to keep the reader’s interest and keep any of the subjects from fading into the background.

For a general overview of the day-to-day lives so North Koreans, plus fantastic background to the situation, beginning with the end of WWII, I cannot recommend Nothing to Envy highly enough.

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Never the Hope Itself by Gerry Hadden – Book Review

Never the Hope Itself by Gerry Hadden
Published by Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins

Before the call came, Gerry Hadden had every intention of becoming a Buddhist monk, but then his phone rang, and he was offered the position of NPR’s Latin American correspondent, a position he simply could not turn down. Never the Hope Itself is the story of Hadden’s time reporting on Latin America: from Haiti’s election, to drug trafficking in Colombia, to illegal immigration.

In Never the Hope Itself, Hadden mixes both personal and professional memoir. Unfortunately the proportion of life and work seems somewhat off. Hadden’s life in his home in Mexico is not as well developed as it might have been, causing those sections to feel oddly unfinished and lacking. This ends up not being a huge detriment to the memoir, however, because the really fascinating part of Hadden’s story is what he saw as an NPR correspondent in Haiti and Latin America.

Hadden excels at bringing to life everything he saw during his employment, including the perils of emigrating from Central America through Mexico to the United States. What American readers will likely find most shocking, however, is the reaction Hadden observed to 9/11. Certainly Hadden seems to have found it shocking:

For the next several days the Mexican newspapers were filled with op-eds and commentaries on how justice, albeit tragic justice, had been served. On how naive the Americans were for not seeing it coming. On how sad it was that people had died, but what did the Big Bully Up North expect after pushing the entire planet around since time immemorial? -p. 136

“The United States has been screwing over Latin America for centuries,” Guadalupe told me…. “The American government was behind it,” said Walter, Guadalupe’s husband, “and the American government responds to Wall Street. It’s all interconnected…. Many more Argentines died during our seven years of U.S.-supported military juntas than Americans on September 11. There is a lot of anger still. A lot of unhealed wounds.” -p. 137-138

These statements will be seen by many as very provocative, but they are particularly interesting in the context of everything Hadden saw, and it is worth reading Never the Hope Itself to at least begin understand where they were coming from.

All this being said, the section on 9/11 is a relatively minor one in the context of the book and certainly isn’t the main thrust of Never the Hope Itself. Hadden’s time in Latin America is fascinating and instructive and is a great starting point for those interested in learning about the recent history of the region.

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The Convert by Deborah Baker – Book Review

The Convert by Deborah Baker
Published by Graywolf Press

One might think that a young Jewish girl growing up during WWII in New York would, if anything, feel a strong kinship to her Jewish roots. Logic seems to suggest that the intense suffering of one’s people might make one more determined than ever to hold onto faith and cultural identity. Such was not the case, however, with Margaret (Peggy) Marcus. From an early age, Peggy was obsessed with the idea of Arab peoples and Islam. For her, the creation of the nation of Israel was an equal injustice to the people of Palestine as anything the Jews had ever suffered, the repeated lauding of Zionism by those around her was endlessly disturbing to her and, in the end, caused her to renounce her religious and cultural heritage. Before long, Peggy turned to Islam and became Maryam Jameelah, moved to Pakistan, and began producing copious writings against the tyranny of materialism and lack of spiritualism in the West. It is this transformation that Baker attempts to address in The Convert: A Tale of Islam and Extremism.

I say that Baker attempts to address this transformation, because I question the effectiveness of her approach. The storytelling was very nonlinear – from Maryam’s trip to Pakistan, to the extensive history of the man who would serve as her guardian, back to her childhood, and then through her early years in Pakistan. It seemed that this flow may have followed Baker’s own discovery of Maryam’s story, but that is not completely obvious. If it was Baker’s plan for The Convert to have a feel similar to the discovery journey approach of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, she needed to insert herself farther into the story, and give the reader a better idea of her background and biases; if it was her plan to write a more objective tale, she needed to be much less in the story. Baker directs at Maryam what can only be described as a rant at the end of Chapter 8, a moment that seemed very much out of place with the rest of the book.

The Convert is the type of book that really requires the reader to have the full story on the author. At the very end, in Baker’s note on methodology, it becomes apparent that many of the letters presented in a straightforward manner throughout the book were actually edited, and even rewritten, events moved from one letter to another, by Baker, in an attempt to make her story flow more smoothly and make more sense. She does succeed in making roughly the middle third of the book, comprised primarily of Maryam’s letters, flow very nicely, but at what cost? Without any idea about Baker’s biases and motivation, this is very problematic, as the reader is left without any idea to what extent letters were changed and to what purpose. It is hard to know how far to trust Baker, especially in light of the aforementioned rant.

The idea behind The Convert is a fascinating one: what makes a young woman of privilege drastically change her life and travel to what would to her be a very foreign country and rail against her native land? Sadly, the execution just was not there.

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The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon – Book Review

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
Published by Harper Books, an imprint of Harper Collins

Always a strong and opinionated young woman, Kamila Sidiqi is not entirely sure what to do with herself once the Taliban overruns her home city of Kabul. She can no longer go to school, or indeed go outside with any freedom whatsoever. To make matters worse, Kamila’s older brother and father must flee to avoid being conscripted or punished by the Taliban and Kamila’s mother leaves with her father, leaving her five youngest children – nearly all in their teens – at home alone rather than risk their lives on a dangerous trip. As the oldest of the children left behind, Kamila is determined to do whatever it takes to care for her siblings, but to ensure that they are materially comfortable, she needs to find a way to make money, not an easy task since the Taliban will generally not let women work outside the home, or go anywhere without a male relative as an escort. Kamila is a resourceful young girl, however, and it is not long before she comes up with a plan: she and her sisters will become seamstresses, taught by their accomplished older sister who is married, but still lives in Kabul. All of the girls will work together to create the dresses, and Kamila will sell them to tailor shops in the market place. Clothing is, after all, one of the few items which people are still in Kabul.

I love portraits of people, particularly women, around the world, particularly when they show the strength of the human spirit through adversity. Looking at “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana” in that light, it was a fascinating book; Kamila and her sisters were incredibly brave and resourceful, finding a way to not only maintain their own household, but to provide work for numerous local girls and women as well.

Unfortunately, Lemmon’s writing and storytelling failed to captivate me. Everything seemed very flat. The danger inherent in their lives was stated, but never felt particularly urgent, nor was the political situation explored with much complexity, which disappointed me. The writing was very straightforward, but to the point where it, too, seemed to lack complexity.

“The Dressmaker of Khair Khana” failed to challenge me and, as such, I cannot recommend it wholeheartedly for adults, although people with particular interest in the lives of women in the Muslim world may find interesting. I do, however, think that this would be an inspiring and completely appropriate book for younger teens who wish to explore the realities of people in war-torn areas of the world.

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