"We are of opinion that instead of letting books grow moldy behind an iron grating, far from the vulgar gaze, it is better to let them wear out by being read." - Jules Verne
Thirteen years reviewing books, audiobooks, graphic novels, movies and music!

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Saturday, April 11, 2015

A THOUSAND MILES to FREEDOM: MY ESCAPE from NORTH KOREA by Eunsun Kim with Sebastien Falleti. Translated by David Tian

        A Remarkable Tale

To be published in the United States on July 21, 2015. 
I received an "Advance Reading Copy" 

Eunsun Kim's tale of her escape from North Korea, along with her mother and her older sister is remarkably easy to read, remarkable engrossing and just a remarkable tale in general.

When Eunsun Kim was 11 years old her mother determined that they could no longer live in North Korea. Eunsun's grandparents were dead, her father was dead, almost everything in the house was sold for money to buy food but there was almost no food to be had because North Korea was in the middle of its Great Famine (1994-1998). Depending on whose statistics you use, the estimates range anywhere from 250,000 to 3,500,000 people starved to death or died from starvation-related causes. Of course, it is hard to say for sure because North Korea is such a closed off society.


Eunsun Kim and her family lived in the northernmost part of North Korea and they decided to cross the Tumen River into China and live as illegal aliens. They would have no promise of safety, no guarantee of work and risked being shot by the border guards on both sides of the border. But, at least they would have chance to eat.

She details several botched attempts at escape and I was pleased to see that at least one border guard was a decent human being. He could see they were starving and desperate and he took pity on them and let them go with a warning - twice! But, he couldn't feed them because there was no food to be had so this small family eventually makes it to China. The family tries to stay together but when Eunsun Kim's mother is sold into sexual slavery (she calls it an unofficial marriage, but the entire purpose of the marriage was to produce a son for her "husband" and no one recognized the marriage as legitimate) the family splits up. The daughters have a better time of it, but it is not easy.

As you can tell by the title, eventually Eunsun Kim makes it to freedom. Their last push to make it to South Korea is tension-filled and her story of how she adjusts to life in South Korea is interesting in and of itself. Now, she lives in South Korea and has lived and travelled all over the world studying (making up for lost years when she had to work to collect wood rather than go to school so they could get food) and promoting her book.

Ironically, A Thousand Miles to Freedom is late to be translated into English (it was published in French in 2012). I say ironically because the United States has had so much involvement with North and South Korea over the last 60+ years. This translation is very good (I teach Spanish and I know how hard it can be to make foreign text sound smooth in a different language). The text flows easily and makes it sound like Eunsun Kim is sitting with you telling her story in everyday, conversational language over a cup of tea.

Last two lines of the book: "The Kim dynasty has so successfully isolated my country that it would be easy for the rest of the world to forget about us. If my memoir can even play a small part in raising global awareness about our suffering and about the tragedies taking place at the hands of this regime, then all that I have endured will not have been in vain."

It can be purchased at Amazon here:  A Thousand Miles to Freedom: My Escape from North Korea

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

THE EASTERN STARS: HOW BASEBALL CHANGED the DOMINICAN TOWN of SAN PEDRO de MACORIS by Mark Kurlansky



Published in 2010 by Riverhead Books

The Eastern Stars is more a history of the Dominican Republic than a baseball book, but as author Mark Kurlansky clearly demonstrates, for the last 40 years or so the history of the Dominican Republic has clearly been molded and in some ways defined by its love of baseball. It is also a clear sign of the unhealthy state of economic affairs in a country when so many young people see no hope in moving up in the world except for playing professional baseball in America.


Kurlansky takes his readers through a meandering history of the Dominican Republic, moving backwards and forwards through time detailing a number of interesting stories about this Caribbean country but always coming back to the present to touch base and remind the readers that this is a baseball book, too. 


The Dominican Republic has had a long love affair with baseball thanks to American economic and military excursions into the country. It also has been so poorly managed by it various governments that for decades many young men have sacrificed everything in order to make it on to an American Major League Baseball team roster. Who can blame them - in 2006 ten percent of all major leaguers were from the Dominican Republic (p. 75). So many young men hope to win a contract, play for a few years and then return to the Dominican Republic and live like kings in their gated communities back in their hometowns.

Scouts prowl dusty sandlots looking for some spark of talent, even of the players are using balls made out socks and gloves made out of cardboard, the talent shines through. Or, at least they hope that it does.  Top prospects are enrolled in one of many "schools" that teach a lot of baseball and English and some math and science. In return, these schools get a cut of their contracts for helping to develop their talent. Even the Japanese teams have started sending scouts to the Dominican Republic.

As the title states, the real focus is the small fishing town of San Pedro de Macoris. It is unremarkable in every way except that it keeps producing major league baseball players. 

Why?

Kurlansky never comes out and says it but after reading so many pages about the Domincan Republic and its sad history the reader just knows that it is because there really isn't anything else. It's either baseball or fishing in ever-more-depleted waters for less and less fish for more and more work. Meanwhile, you can watch the SUVs of retired major leaguers pick their way around the potholes of roads that haven't been repaired in years and probably won't be anytime soon and know that the only rational choice is to put all of your effort into baseball and only baseball. Everything else is a sucker bet.

Note: many other reviewers have been critical of Kurlansky's detailing of some of the facts about the careers of some of the Dominican players the he describes, getting batting averages wrong and some of the dates wrong. No sport generates factoids like baseball and it is disappointing that Kurlansky has so many errors. But, read the book for what it was intended to be - a history of the Dominican Republic detailing how it became a sort of incubator for major league baseball players.

This book can be found on Amazon here: The Eastern Stars: How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de Macoris.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

Friday, April 3, 2015

NPR FAVORITE DRIVEWAY MOMENTS: RADIO STORIES that WON'T LET YOU GO by NPR



Published in 2012 by HighBridge Audio
Multicast performance
Duration: 2 hours, 16 minutes


This collection was inspired by listeners who wrote NPR and commented on why these stories from their vast treasure trove of stories have stuck with them for so long. Some are funny, some are sad and some are thought-provoking. They are also a mixed bag. Some are great, some are so-so and some had me wondering why they were included at all.

Pretty typical of the collection is a skit called "Complexities of Modern Love in the Digital Age". It features the two voice actors that you most typically hear when you call a big corporation for customer service and they lead you through the phone tree. In this case, they have the two voices talk to one another and date. The idea is sort of cute but the actual skit was not as funny as the idea of the skit.


A Kathy Griffin interview. Eh. 

The Cookie Monster interview was fun.

I loved the story about a stray cat that wandered into a prison yard and was adopted by the prisoners. They feed it, take turns with it and the amount of discord in the yard has dropped because of this one cat.

I also liked the story of the former KKK member who went from harassing his Jewish neighbors to converting to Judaism thanks to a little human kindness.

The story about pets in the Sarajevo during the war among what used to be Yugoslavia was very interesting.

The story of a young couple in China digging through the rubble after an earthquake looking for their only son and his grandparents who were babysitting was gripping and heartbreaking. Easily the best in the collection.

The story that will stick with me was "Growing Up, Aging Out: The End of Foster Care". It was told from a very sympathetic point of view, wondering what a girl was going to do when she turned 21 and was no longer eligible to be part of the foster care system. But, I found it to be very irritating and the longer I listened the angrier I got. This girl was not physically disabled. She still had not finished high school and she was nearly 21 years old. She was making no moves to get a job or even finish high school. Instead, had been conditioned to accept handouts her whole life and to not work. How would she live without a government check? What would she do? What she was doing was sleeping with her drug dealer boyfriend and trying to get pregnant. I listened to it with my high school-aged daughter and I turned it into a cautionary tale.

So, lots of forgettable stories, some so-so stuff, a couple of really good ones and one really disturbing one.


I rate this collection 3 stars out of 5.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

INSURGENT: BOOK 2 of AMERICA'S FUTURE by Charles Sheehan-Miles



Published in 2012 by Cincinnatus Press 

Insurgent is a worthy successor to the original book in this series, Republic: A Novel of America's Future. Book One details how a fictional confrontation between the state of West Virginia and the federal government over the proper role of the Department of Homeland Security eventually leads to a very short war in which West Virginia is quickly defeated. 

Book Two deals with post-war relations between the occupying federal government, its troops and the people of West Virginia and the closely monitored civilian government of West Virginia.


The flag of West Virginia
The parallels between this fictional war and the Iraq War and the multi-year struggle to create a stable environment in Iraq once Sadaam Hussein was removed from power are striking and, I am sure, quite intentional. And, since this is a book about Americans in a situation similar to that experienced by the people of Iraq, the Iraqi reactions are made all the more understandable to an American reader. 

Sheehan-Miles switches from the point of view of a small military unit helping to keep a crucial road clear to the civilians who interact with that unit to the officials in the limited civilian government and keeps multiple story lines going, including the origins of a nascent insurgent group with powerful weapons and even stronger religious beliefs who starts taking on the occupying troops with bombs, assassination attempts and threats against those who collaborate. 

It is a compelling read and, like I said about the last book, it is guaranteed to make you think.

It can be purchased here on Amazon.com: Insurgent: Book 2 of America's Future

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

NOWHERE to RUN (Joe Pickett #10) by C.J. Box



Published in 2010 by G.P. Putnam's Sons

Wyoming Game Warden Joe Pickett is in the last week of his exile to a lonely post - Baggs, Wyoming. Most men would take this last week to fill out the last bits of paper work, say goodbye to new acquaintances and maybe just take it easy. Not Joe Pickett. Joe loves the mountains of Wyoming and he looks at this as one last chance to take a pass through some wild and rugged territory that he may never get to see again. So, he heads off to check into a complaint about butchered elk (a hunter wounded an elk and before he could catch up to it to finish it off someone had already finished it, butchered it and carted off the best pieces) and several comments from long-time locals that the area just felt like something was wrong.

So, Joe heads off with a couple of horses, his nearly useless pistol (Joe is a great guy but a terrible shot with a pistol) and his trusty shotgun and all sorts of camping gear to investigate. He also has his satellite phone that he uses to check in with his wife and family every night.

Sure enough, everything feels wrong and soon Joe comes across Caleb Grim, a giant of a man. Caleb and his twin brother Camish are living illegally in this protected area. Joe stops to cite them. He should have ran when Caleb looked him in the eye and said, "You coulda just rode away." But, Joe is not that kind of guy. 

And, his family knows something is wrong when he doesn't call home that night...

Nowhere to Run is much more action-packed than most of the Joe Pickett novels and C.J. Box does a great job of describing action. It is inspired by a true story of a game warden encountering twin mountain men but it still felt a little forced. It was good, sometimes it was impossible to put down but there were times when it just didn't feel like the story really should have fit together the way that it was being told.  The whole book rates a very respectable 4 stars out of 5. 

I strongly recommend this series.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

NPR CLASSIC DRIVEWAY MOMENTS: RADIO STORIES THAT WON'T LET YOU GO (audiobook)



Published in March of 2010 by HighBridge Audio
Multicast Performance
Duration: 2 hours


This collection is comprised of 13 stories (and one intro track) culled from 31 years of NPR radio stories (1979-2010). Most of these stories have depth but not all are equal. 

I was profoundly moved by a story called "My So-Called Lungs" featuring a young woman starting college while struggling with cystic fibrosis. It was engrossing on multiple levels and my high school-aged daughter and I were captivated by the woman's honesty, grace and humor in the face of inevitable death. 

On the other hand, the story "Death of a Child: Losing Adam", featuring a child who was dying from a terminal illness just felt intrusive and maudlin. 

The interview with George Foreman was interesting and quite enjoyable, although NPR being NPR, they found a way to bring a downer note to it by tying the George Foreman grill into it and interviewing homeless people who used it as a cooking appliance of last resort.

The collection ends with a great story, undoubtedly exaggerated, about 2 friends hitch hiking across Nebraska in the 1970s. "Hitching a Ride with Junior McGee" is a great short story told well and is a good way to finish the collection.

Note: this collection is up and down, but the strong stories are very, very strong and are worth listening to.

I rate this collection 4 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon here: NPR Classic Driveway Moments: Radio Stories That Won't Let You Go