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Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag
Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag
by Kang Chol-Hwan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.68

4.0 out of 5 stars Yin and Yang, 30 Mar. 2015
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Kang Chol-Hwan is a Korean whose grandparents had lived in Japan and returned to North Korea to help rebuild the Communist nation following the Korean war. With relatives still in Japan sending money and goods, the family lived in considerable comfort in Pyongyang, even if they did have to sacrifice some of their possessions to the party. Chol’s grandfather was in charge of distribution of food and consumer goods, giving him access to pretty much whatever he wanted and making him a good person to know.

Until…

… when Chol was 9, his grandfather disappeared. The family was then required to leave Pyongyang and move to Yodok, a secure village surrounded by mountains and barbed wire. In the book, Chol describes this as a concentration camp – which it is in part. But it is also part prison, part collective farm, part re-education centre. It is something that does not have a direct equivalent in the West.

Chol narrated his story of before Yodok, during Yodok and after Yodok. Whilst some of the detail is shocking, the book is written in a positive, upbeat fashion. Chol is seen to be a lively spirit who never gives up – right from the beginning when he insists on taking an aquarium of tropical fish with him to Yodok.

Comparisons will be drawn with Barbara Demick’s much lauded collection of narratives: Nothing To Envy. The Aquariums of Pyongyang is the superior product. Whereas Nothing To Envy was presented entirely through the lens of American values, portraying North Korea as a soulless place where people lived in constant fear and authority was unshakable, Kang Chol-Hwan’s narrative portrays a more credible, human society. Chol shows us that bribery and corruption were rife; that there was fun to be had in downtown Pyongyang; that some teachers were kind whilst others were severe; that some officials tried to be helpful; and that many in the population had pride and belief in their system. We are given an insight into the lives of high ranking bureaucrats; into petty crime; we are shown street gangs; drunken brawls; porous borders. The reader is left with an impression of a government that might have been in control of political thought and expression, but whose control of the population in other aspects of life was severely limited. As well as the public face of strict order, there seemed to be quite a lot of chaos and making stuff up as it went along.

Overall, the book is short, unsentimental, and led by Korean beliefs and values. It feels authentic.

If there is a weak spot, it is the bookending with an introduction and ending that feel almost as though they were written by a different hand, offering a very brief historical context and some references to President George W Bush, Christianity and the reuinification. But buried in this material there is the observation that, coming from North to South Korea, it appeared that “everyone seemed free to do just as they wished. No system organised their movements and activities… this sort of society just couldn’t last; it could never face a crisis. I later realised that this only seemed like disorder. A pervading logic governed people’s interactions”. To me, this says that there are two systems – one demonstrably more successful than the other right now – but that the North Korean system does have a logic and an ideology to it that can make sense to its people. It is not all about evil dictatorship; even in the prison camps there is a structure to society and rules to which people can adapt and play sometimes for advantage and sometimes for disadvantage. In the order of North Korea, there is spontaneity; in the spontaneity of South Korea there is order. It’s like Yin and Yang.


The Country of Ice Cream Star
The Country of Ice Cream Star
Price: £4.35

2.0 out of 5 stars Egulac, 29 Mar. 2015
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Ice Cream Star is a 15 year old girl, living an outlaw life in post-Apocalyptic Massachusetts. She lives in a tribal world divided mostly, it seems, on ethnic grounds. Whilst Ice Cream and her band of outlaws scavenge the leftovers from the old world (the world of the Sleepers), other tribes seem to have a better life.

One of the first things to have been lost, it seems, is the power of language. Ice Cream narrates in the patois of her tribe, a mostly monosyllabic language owing a debt to her tribe’s African American heritage, and perhaps a dose of French Creole. Hence, good becomes bone; pretty becomes bell; and bad becomes mally. It takes a bit of getting used to bit it is not rocket science. Other tribes have different idiom and one, the Marianos – residents of the former New York City of Hispanic heritage – speak in our own language. We, as bright readers, can understand both dialects whilst Ice Cream struggles. She makes up for this, however, with unexplained competence in “rooish”.

Ice Cream’s world is at war; it has been for ever although it is never quite clear why. It certainly doesn’t seem to be a battle for scarce resources or strategic territory. It just seems to be war for its own sake,

Oh, and Ice Cream’s world is dominated by a disease, the posies, that kills everyone once they reach the age of 18-20. Much of this very long novel is a quest for the cure.

The novel comes with a heap of good reviews and has been long-listed for the Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction. The language, certainly, is inventive. Howeverm it is written almost entirely in some kind of iambic meter that has a hypnotising effect, leading to long tracts being read on autopilot without any meaning being taken in. It is difficult to conceive of Ice Cream’s narrative being genuine conversation. Moreover, every break in the iambic meter jars.

The language feels sort of ancient – a cross between Shakespeare and more recent pastiche. The monosyllables make it hard to convey character and convincing emotion; we know that Ice Cream is brave and stubborn but there seems to be little more to her – and almost nothing to any other character. They are just cardboard cut-outs. There is no motivation or rationale behind any the plot. It just seems to be an exercise in meeting one tribe after another; visiting one ruined city after another. It reminds me of The War Of The Ghosts, a bizarre Native American tale that was used by a psychologist for memory recall.

The 630 long pages drag and drag without any sense of getting anywhere. The ending is supposed to be momentous, but the reader (or this reader at least) had long since stopped caring or believing.

As a shorter work this might have had something, but for a work of this length, it takes more than an interesting pretext and an idiosyncratic voice to carry it.


Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea
Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea
by Barbara Demick
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.49

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Real lives but not necessarily typical lives, 23 Mar. 2015
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Nothing to Envy is ostensibly a description of everyday life in North Korea, told by those who have lived through it.

Alas, the model is flawed. The book is compiled by an American visitor to South Korea. She has been heavily influenced by her own values and those of the society in which she has been living. Moreover, her interviewees, being those who have risked their lives to flee North Korea, are perhaps not typical of the North Korean population. They have an axe to grind against their old society and a wish to justify their decisions to emigrate. Thus, we have a book that compares everything to American society (as big as Pennsylvania; mountains like Vermont, etc.) and people who lament their inability to set up private businesses and live their lives with the partner of their dreams.

Apart from our gallant émigrés, all the North Koreans are shown to be simultaneously brain dead slaves to the system who will grass their friends and neighbours to the authorities; and starving, oppressed people who live in fear of the snitches.

There are similar contradictions with the society as a whole. There is no private market; money is just a token for buying little extras; officials are immovable and people are starving; yet on the other hand, there are private market stalls with licences, money gets shipped in from Japanese relatives, officials are open to bribery and there is plenty of food if you have money to pay for it. We are told that everyone is born with a glass ceiling over their heads beyond whish they may not aspire; these ceilings can be lowered if people transgress, but can never be raised. People are discouraged from forming relationships, yet little baby North Koreans don’t seem to be in short supply. People cannot travel even into or out of town without permits, yet the trains are full to overflowing; people go out into the forests to forage for food; and traipse half way across the country to wade across the (inexplicably unguarded) shallow river that forms the border with China.

All of these things might have some truth, but packaging it up to create a neat, homogenous picture of North Korea leaves these contradictions unexplained and seemingly unnoticed. It doesn’t really convince the reader that it captures what North Korean life is actually like. However often it is repeated – and some parts of this book do feel repetitive.

Nothing to Envy feels a bit like a take on Anna Funder’s Stasiland. But whilst Anna Funder was clearly pushing an agenda in Stasiland, she allowed different voices to have their say; she allowed glimpses of better times as well as the bad. She created a three dimensional picture of life in East Germany. But Nothing to Envy is (perhaps necessarily) much more limited in its scope. Barbara Demick may have provided the reader with (six) real lives from North Korea, but hasn’t persuaded the reader that they are typical real lives from North Korea. Demick is hindered by the fact that the regime is still in place, making it difficult to get the views of supporters of the regime. There are occasional nods to a better time when the North Korean economy was blessed b y gifts from Russia and China; there are also occasional acknowledgements that pre-war Korea had been deeply conservative, traditional and poor. Thus, not all the perceived failings of the present day were fairly the fault of the incumbent government.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to support the North Korean government, nor to suggest that life there is peachy. I do, though, think that research on the subject needs to be fair and objective if it is to be of any value. I think it is going to take more than a handful of disaffected former residents of Chongjin and a writer bringing a big dose of Western ethnocentrism.


A Man Made Entirely of Bats
A Man Made Entirely of Bats
Price: £1.89

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Dinner dinner dinner dinner ..., 12 Mar. 2015
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Flash fiction can be very clever. Just a page or three setting out a story with a structured beginning, middle and an end, usually doing something slightly quirky or unexpected.

Having been drawn to this book by the cover, I opened it and read a rather good half pager starring Wonder Woman, spending most of her time wondering things as she flew about the place trying to avert disasters. It was well done, drawing on our existing pre-conceptions of Wonder Woman (which are so entrenched they didn’t need to be articulated) and letting them conflict nicely with the portrayal of a bored, fey woman.

So, I put the book down and bought the Kindle version – much cheaper!

And it is a short collection of mostly superhero themed flash fiction – 24 pieces to be precise. Most of them raise a smile; few will be remembered for long. They have basic images – religious leaders playing poker in the Bellagio; a Ross Geller Man walking around looking like Ross Geller; a man who reluctantly accepts the mantle of King of the World. All this Americana with a distinctly Australian sub-text.

The problem I have, though, is how to read flash fiction. Sitting down, reading from cover to cover, the book might take a couple of hours. But the rapid fire of scene setting - comic reveal - closure gets very wearing, very quickly. A couple of pieces at a time might work; three at a pinch but more than that and there’s a feeling of reading just for completeness’ sake. But reading only a couple of pieces is only going to take five or ten minutes, then what? Perhaps flash fiction would be happier published as singles in current affairs magazines or on websites. But as a bound collection they don’t really work, especially when the subject matter is so samey.

Actually, Patrick Lenton has done remarkably well to create 24 works that are not straight repeats of one another; he has got 24 distinct ideas and each one is well done. One can hardly blame him, as a writer, for bundling his work into a format that is likely to be commercially appealing to a publisher. It does, though, create a product that is less than the sum of its parts, giving out its ideas too cheaply and in a form that means most of them will not get the attention they deserve.


Our Iceberg is Melting: Changing and Succeeding Under Any Conditions
Our Iceberg is Melting: Changing and Succeeding Under Any Conditions
by John Kotter
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £7.69

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Think like a hero, 6 Mar. 2015
In 1995, John Kotter had an idea. He identified eight reasons why transformational change within organisations can fail. These were then inverted to create eight steps to implement transformational change. They are:

* Establish a Sense of Urgency
* Create the Guiding Coalition
* Develop a Vision and Strategy
* Communicate the Change Vision
* Empower Employees for Broad-Based Action
* Generate Short-Term Wins
* Consolidate Gains and Producing More Change
* Anchor New Approaches in the Culture

These eight steps were grounded in real life examples and, in my own experience, are very sensible steps. I am a Kotter fan.

But for the past 20 years, John Kotter has been dining out on this single idea. I have seen his original model published twice in the Harvard Business Review; Kotter has expanded the idea into a best-selling book (Leading Change, 1996); and has set up the Kotter International to sell the concept to businesses which have, presumably, not read the HBR articles or bought his book.

Ten years after having the big idea, Kotter wrote a fable to illustrate the eight steps with the help of some penguins. It's a cutesy story written in large letters padded out with lots of white space (like snow) and cutesy pictures of penguins. There are humorous asides to the reader, offering a reminder that this is all about business theory and that penguins don't really carry briefcases and attend business meetings.

It is well done, and Kotter offers a good portrayal of the various forms of opposition and resistance that can build up, and how best to overcome it. Kotter seems unsure that readers will spot the brilliance of the fable, so he spells it out at the end in words of one syllable. He then explains that organisations seeking to undergo transformational change should buy copies of the book and distribute them widely amongst those who will be leading the change. He suggests that discussing the penguins around the table will help to diffuse potentially confrontational situations, and take the personality issues out of play.

Perhaps the penguins can be more than a pretty illustration of the eight steps. Perhaps they can, in and of themselves, become tools to be deployed to facilitate change. I have my doubts and cannot quite envisage commencing a change project by handing out a pile of penguin books and asking senior managers to read them. I suspect they would be more comfortable with reprints of the original Harvard Business Review article - but maybe my lack of imagination is what is stopping me from being a hero penguin.


The Stillman
The Stillman
Price: £4.19

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Snow Phoenix, 2 Mar. 2015
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This review is from: The Stillman (Kindle Edition)
Jim Drever is a stillman at an unnamed distillery in the Scottish Highlands. It is a solitary job, allowing much time for introspection between recording measurements of alcoholic strength in the logbook. Jim’s job is important; he is respected in the workplace by his colleagues and the management. He has a perfect family; a wife, a daughter who is about to get married; and a younger son. Jim has a placid nature; he has no great wish to travel or see the world; he simply accepts the cards that life has dealt him.

But beneath the calm exterior, Jim has a lot going on. He is haunted by a visit he had made overseas some years ago to clear up his estranged mother’s affairs. He has a mysterious e-mail he dares not open. He is bored by his family. He has an expensive wedding to plan, and the distillery is working on short time. Jim is a smart man, but for the most part he wastes his wisdom on quiet observation, letting events take their own course. The reader is left wondering just how sustainable this strategy is going to be as things go from bad to worse.

The novel has three distinctive strands: (a) the here and now, heavily focused on the distilling process, snow and the selection of kilts (b) the trip to Cuba some years before; and (c) the sometimes opaque diary of Jim’s dead mother. The three strands work together well; in particular, the sunshine and vitality of Cuba offer a contrast to the cold and cheerless Scotland. The diary is the crucial bit storywise, but it is also the least engaging part of the piece. Jim’s dead mother never quite comes alive, never really feels real. Perhaps even worse, it feels a bit contrived.

Overall, The Stillman is a good novel. Like its protagonist, it is unspectacular, solid, and with hidden depths. It is a short read, well paced and quite charming.


The First Bad Man
The First Bad Man
Price: £7.79

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Days Of Open Hand, 26 Feb. 2015
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This review is from: The First Bad Man (Kindle Edition)
The First Bad Man is an unusual book. The reader knows this because (a) it doesn’t have a proper cover and (b) the reviews say so.

We meet Cheryl Glickman, a 40 something woman working for a Los Angeles organisation selling instruction in female self defence as a keep fit regime. Cheryl gets on well with the owners and has observer status at Board meetings. She lives alone and has a set of obsessive-compulsive routines that get her through. Then, one fateful day, the company owners seek a volunteer to accommodate their wayward daughter who is apparently a Hollywood star in the making…

This is where things get weird. I think it is safe to say that some of what follows is fantasy rather than reality. What is not clear is how much, if anything, is actually real. There are breaks in the narrative thread; there are non-sequiturs; there are impossibilities and wild improbabilities. Oh, and much of it is very explicit.

Of course, one might say – it is all fiction, so none of it is real. But at least in fiction, there is usually a suspension of disbelief that allows the reader to take what is being said at face value. Miranda July starts out on that path, but her deviations get wilder and wilder. By the end – an epilogue that makes no sense at all – one wonders if even the early parts of the narrative can have any truth. Given the benefit of hindsight, even the normal seems surreal.

So Miranda July has succeeded in her aim of being unusual, but does it make for an experience that rewards the reader? I suspect that, despite some wonderful, fizzy ideas (colour therapy, the self-cleaning apartment, the Open Hand business model), the answer is no. The reader has to work hard to keep any track of what is supposed to be going on, and to find it was all nonsense anyway feels like a slap. At times, the imagery is strong and the dialogue amusing; Cheryl’s gaucheness is endearing; but it is not enough to stop the whole thing feeling a bit stodgy. None of the characters has enough consistency to be engaging, and unreliable narrators tend to work better when the reader comes to have a better idea of what is going on than the deluded character – in this case I suspect the reader will end up just as confused as Cheryl.

One feels that Miranda July has gone to no small effort to make her work unusual. One wishes, perhaps, that she had not tried quite so hard. Two stars for attainment, three stars for effort.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 4, 2015 10:33 PM GMT


Nora Webster
Nora Webster
Price: £3.66

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Doing the things that we want to, 24 Feb. 2015
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This review is from: Nora Webster (Kindle Edition)
Nora Webster, mother of four, Enniscorthy, late 1960s. Recently widowed.

This is a story of a phoenix rising from the ashes. Initially caught up in grief and devastation as her husband Maurice dies, leaving her in a financial mess and social isolation, Nora gradually begins to assert her own identity.

There are many little sub-plots. The plight of the boys, sent to stay with their aunt during Maurice’s illness, returning with stammers and nightmares. The girls leaving home to set up careers or engage in politics. Nora’s position with Gibney’s, a large firm run by the husband of a school friend. Most of these stories just spiral off into nothing, but chapter by chapter, we see the emergence of a confident and independent Nora. As a widow, she no longer had to ask permission to do anything. She is not subject to the restrictions of the young and single; she is not bound by marital duty. In 1960s Ireland, Nora gradually begins to see that she has a rare and favoured status.

The novel begins slowly and it is hard to feel involved with a large and somewhat dreary cast. The hooks and intrigues that are used to draw the reader in are left frustratingly unanswered. But piece by piece, the novel builds a momentum that is as much societal as it is personal. As Nora changes, so too do those around her. Each of her four children is able to make choices that would have been unimaginable a generation earlier. We start to see the introduction of consumer goods, quiz nights, fancy clothes. There’s even a brief flirtation with the concept of homosexuality as a lifestyle rather than a sin.

Colm Toibin writes in a plain style; he doesn’t hide important detail in ornate and obscure language. Yet despite the plain speak, the scenes are constructed immaculately. They are vivid, real and fully immerse the reader.

Toibin’s previous novels have often ended almost in mid sentence. It’s as though he gets to a point and just decides he has said enough and stops writing. This novel is of that type; there is no ending as such, just a feeling that Toibin is done.

Some readers may find Nora Webster a bit drab and dull; actually it isn’t. For this reader, at least, it is a novel of transition and hope. Going hand in hand, there is the emergence of the individual, and the emergence of a nation state.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 9, 2015 4:44 PM GMT


In Real Life
In Real Life
Price: £7.12

4.0 out of 5 stars If only..., 24 Feb. 2015
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This review is from: In Real Life (Kindle Edition)
You know those Gen Y kids with their sense of entitlement? Ever wondered what would happen to them when they grew up?

Well, In Real Life visits three university friends. We meet Lauren in 2004 as she walks out of a relationship and decides to head to Canada for a working holiday and a journey of self discovery. We meet Ian in 2014; he has just spent the past decade working in a record store, quietly pursuing his dream of rock stardom, but now broke and living in his sister’s spare room. And then there’s Paul, also in 2014, filling a guest lecture spot on a creative writing course, courtesy of having had his one and only novel published some years earlier.

All three are drifting aimlessly, their decisions to seek self-actualisation coming back to haunt them. Others may have settled for less, but ten years later they have rather more. Our three protagonists are just left with broken dreams – sometimes involving each other – and hermit lives. The world has moved on; they haven’t. In one memorable scene, Ian and his coworkers are being laid off at the giant music and DVD megastore; they turn up for the last day of work with bags and backpacks; stuff them with unsold merchandise by way of severance payment; and then get home to find it is all worthless anyway. The world no longer wants CDs and DVDs.

The three main characters are all well drawn, but perhaps Ian is the most complete. His misery is exquisite, living in his sister’s guest bedroom, a monastic cell with no internet, working at the call centre managed by his sister’s unctuous boyfriend. Whereas Lauren and Paul might appear to have some hope left in life, Ian has nothing at all. Perhaps this is a metaphor for the gap between the happy, celebratory lives Gen Ys portray in their social media profiles and the grim reality of emptiness – with Ian choosing not to relieve his plight with escape into on-line fantasy.

In Real Life feels very current; very state of the nation. It is perhaps too short and too focused on the three individuals to become a true classic. But it is humorous – if sometimes sobering – read.


Shark
Shark
Price: £4.31

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Sharks on Acid, 13 Feb. 2015
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This review is from: Shark (Kindle Edition)
Readers of Will Self’s previous (Booker shortlisted) novel Umbrella will find Shark more than a little familiar. We revisit psychiatrist Zack Busner, running an experimental Concept House, offering psychiatric patients a communal living arrangement without wards, locks and restraints. The style is similar to Umbrella, with long slabs of text, eschewing conventional paragraphing, punctuation or linear style. It’s like stream of consciousness on acid. In fact, very specifically, it *is* stream of consciousness on acid.

One of the particularly impressive feats of this style of narration is that it never draws breath. Whilst there are full stops, there’s no point where you can see a change of scene or a natural pause. Yet the reader does zip from scene to scene, time to time in the middle of sentences, in the middle of words. And it's all chock full of references. There are references within the references. Even when you know what is going on, it is hard to see how it is done. It is smooth and seamless, perhaps like the sharkskin fabric of which all the suits in the novel seem to be made.

However, whereas Umbrella had a very focused narrative beneath all the fog and choppy timelines, Shark does not. If anything, it seems to be a loose collection of short stories, each centring around one person who is, in some way, associated with Concept House on a particular day in 1970. The stories themselves might be from before 1970 (some wartime stories); during or after that date. Dates are seldom given; they must be inferred from events taking place in the wider world. Taken together, they might be supposed to create some sort of “state of the nation” narrative of the second half of the 20th century. Of course, they are not presented in discrete stories – they cut back and forth, buried in swathes of pretty abstract meandering. By meandering, I mean the kind of stuff you occasionally hear from a mad alcoholic, often in sentences with subjects and verbs, sometimes with obscure vocabulary, but seldom actually making any sense.

If you haven’t read Umbrella, Shark may well intrigue, fascinate, impress, surprise, delight. It is fizzy, it is slippy, it is very, very distinctive. It may repel, it may frustrate, it may infuriate. It’s a long, hard book.

But if you know Umbrella, there is a fair chance that, despite its clear merits, Shark may disappoint and, even worse, bore you.


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