What’s in a Name or Two or Seven?   Leave a comment

The Girl with Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee, subtitled Escape from North Korea, illustrates the author’s determination, grit and luck in her search for a new life. The title comes from the different names the author was given throughout her life, some to appease family members others to ensure her safety.

What began as a lark, just before her 18th birthday, Lee – then known as Min-young – crossed the river from her home in North Korea into China. Such an exercise, if apprehended, was punishable by imprisonment or death.

Initially, the narrative focuses on the author’s early family life: how her parents met, relatives, living conditions and more. Thanks to her father’s job with the government and her mother’s ability to bribe officials, the family fared well. Yet, this is the least interesting part of the book. It isn’t until Min-young faces a new life that the story becomes more engaging.

Changing her name to reflect a connection to China, she must learn a new language, always be on the alert for those who would turn her into the authorities and, generally, protect herself. Eventually, she makes her way to Shanghai, where she spends several years until concocting a plan to seek asylum in South Korea. This is not a decision she makes lightly. After all, her childhood included indoctrination citing that part of Korea as corrupt and barbaric.

Lee’s journey covers more than crossing borders. She endures emotional turmoil, guilt for leaving her family and fear of repercussions if caught.

The Girl with Seven Names: Escape from North Korea
Three-and-a-half Bookmarks
William Collins, 2015
304 pages (including index)

Little Fires Everywhere: Read the Book First   Leave a comment

*This review was written in 2018. I thought I’d posted it, but turns out it’d been languishing in my Documents folder all this time. At least I remembered I’d read the book before watching the first episode on Hulu….

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The way families communicate with each other and the rest of the world is at the heart of Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. This novel falls into the can’t-put-it-down category. The characters are haunting in their embodiment of what they believe is right and wrong. When those lines are blurred, they become even more real – like people we know, or like the people we are.

Mia Warren and her teenage daughter Pearl arrive in the upscale, planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio. They rent an apartment owned by Elena Richardson, the mother four high school-aged children. Elena, who’s mostly referred to by the author as Mrs. Richardson, has lived her life as if following a recipe: step-by-step never considering substitutions or variations. Mia is an artist. She and Pearl move from place to place with the regularity of seasons. Mia promises Pearl this time, they’ll settle down.

That the families become intertwined is no surprise. The narrative opens with the Richardson’s manor-like home burning to the ground. Like bookends, this is where things wrap up.

Pearl and Moody Richardson become best friends. These are like-minded, intelligent kids who don’t quite fit in with the popular crowd like Moody’s older brother and sister. There’s also his troubled sister, Izzy, adding to the dynamics.

Little Fires Everywhere
Four-and-a-half bookmarks
Penguin Press, 2017
338 pages

Seeking Asylum   Leave a comment

This may not be a popular stance to take, but American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins doesn’t deserve all the negative hype surrounding its publication. Primarily, she’s accused of misappropriating the migrant stories of those from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras because she isn’t Latina.

Not all stories about the Holocaust are written by those with a direct or indirect connection. That’s the beauty of imagination: it shouldn’t have limits.

Granted, Cummins’ novel isn’t perfect due to predictability, extraneous characters and the perceived need to translate Spanish words and phrases. Nonetheless, it’s a riveting story that’s difficult to put down and stop thinking about.

In her author’s notes/acknowledgements, Cummins describes the extent of her research, which is impressive. The narrative’s power lies in the truth of the ordeal her characters endure seeking a better life in el norte.

Sixteen members of Lydia’s family are killed by a cartel at her niece’s quiceanera. Lydia and her eight-year-old son are the sole survivors and know they need to run or face a similar end. The story’s rapid pace rarely slows down as mother and son attempt to elude the cartel first by bus to Mexico City where they discover it’s impossible for them to board a plane, then by train but not as comfortable passengers. Instead, they join other migrants trying to reach the United States and risk their lives by riding atop the railroad cars.

Their journey is fraught with obvious danger, surprise friendships, palpable fear, and self-discovery. It’s worth reading.

American Dirt
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Flatiron Books, 2020
383 pages

Before Bookmobiles   Leave a comment

 The Giver of Stars is a primer for women’s rights and a celebration of librarians. Set in Depression era in the rugged mountains of rural Kentucky, Jojo Moyes creates a colorful portrait of a group of five women who come to be known as the Packhorse Librarians. Moyes takes a page from history when Eleanor Roosevelt championed the WPA’s (Work Progress Administration) efforts to distribute books in remote areas of Appalachia.

Alice Van Cleave is newly married and far from her family home in England. She has difficulty fitting in in the small, rural town where her husband and father-in-law own a nearby mining operation. An appeal for women to help distribute books leads Alice to become an unlikely participant. She’s mentored by Margery, a no-nonsense, independent woman. Three others join the pair.

The novel is as much about the strength of women as the role of the librarians who not only deliver reading material but offer companionship, comfort and news from town. As Alice’s friendship with Margery and the other librarians grows, she realizes her marriage is slowly disintegrating. Her father-in-law is a bully, and Alice’s husband is uninterested in pursuing a physical relationship with her.

The relationships among the librarians with their reading community evolve from mistrust to dependence. The descriptions of the rugged landscape are beautiful and harrowing.

The power of friendship and sharing the joy books offer are richly detailed. The precursor to bookmobiles, the packhorse librarians brought new worlds and ideas to areas previously overlooked.

The Giver of Stars
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Pamela Dorman Books
390 pages

A #Movement, Journalism and Truth   Leave a comment

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The phrase Catch and Kill, the title of Pulitzer Prize  winner Ronan Farrow’s account of power brokers’ abuse of women, has its roots in journalism. It refers to a media outlet obtaining the rights to a story and then letting it rot. That is, the public never sees it.

Farrow writes of his efforts to expose Harvey Weinstein who used his power as a Hollywood producer to take advantage of women by promising, or at least suggesting, he would help further their careers in exchange for sexual favors. This isn’t about a singular or a few incidents; there are many, but it took Farrow’s determination to uncover the truth.

Although Weinstein is the focus, Farrow also recounts efforts by other men in similar roles to keep their secrets from surfacing. These included threats of intimidation to keep the victims of abuse silent; spies, financial payouts and efforts to kill the story – not just once but multiple times.

When Farrow began working on the story he was an investigative reporter for NBC News. The more information he obtained, including on-the-record statements from the victims, the more the was thwarted by upper management at the network. He was finally given approval to pitch the story elsewhere, which is how it came to be published by The New Yorker.

Farrow recounts the numerous fact-checking, the uncovering of documents and a general resistance to revealing the facts associated with how the story broke. He imbues the narrative with sensitivity, vulnerability, occasional humor and tenacity.

Catch and Kill
(subtitled: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to protect Predators)
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Little, Brown and Co., 2019
448 pages (includes index)

Racism Has No Boundaries   Leave a comment

Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha

Sandwiched between race riots in 1991 and 2019 is the story of two families, one Korean and one African American, connected through violence. Loosely based on the shooting of Latasha Harlins, author Steph Cha has crafted an important, engaging novel illustrating the prevalence of racism in the form of a who-dun-it in Your House Will Pay.

In 1991 teenager Ava Matthews is shot and killed in a neighborhood convenience store in South Central Los Angeles by the owner Jung-ja Han. Ava had gone with her younger brother, Shawn, to buy milk. Although Jun-ja Han is convicted, she served no jail time.

Fast forward to 2019, Korean immigrant Yvonne Park is shot outside the pharmacy where she works with her husband and daughter, Grace. In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I’ll only say the shooting attracts Shawn’s attention.

Shawn’s cousin Ray has just been released from prison. Shawn, has a decent job and is a father-figure to Ray’s teenage children. The family no longer lives in South Central, but gang activity is never far away.

Cha primarily focuses on Grace Park, a twenty-something living with her parents. Although she’s in touch with her older sister, Miriam is estranged from the family. Grace is the more naïve of the two, while Miriam has a wider life view.

Suspects for Yvonne’s shooting are sought, including Shawn, who has an alibi, and Ray, who doesn’t. It’s impossible for Shawn not to reflect on his sister’s murder and the lack of justice in her death.

Your House Will Pay
Four Bookmarks
Harper Collins, 2019
304 pages

Lost in a Land of Books   1 comment

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern is a cross between a fairy tale and a video game, with some magic thrown. This requires the ability to suspend one’s sense of disbelief.

Most chapters begin with the name of Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a graduate student who finds a mysterious, uncatalogued book in his school library. It’s especially baffling since it’s about him. Alternating chapters relate to a particular story within the found book. Confused yet? I’ll back up. A land, beneath ours, contains an ancient library with guardians who protect the books and the stories they contain. Zachary’s efforts to uncover the book’s meaning take him on adventure where bees, cats, doors, books – lots of books – and swords are important symbols.

Morgenstern creates a literary world unlike any other. It’s dependent on imagination and an appreciation of the different realms books take us to when we read. The writing is rich in visual detail, even if, at times, it doesn’t always make sense. This is similar to what Zachary experiences. He encounters multiple choices in his quest; almost as many subplots presented to the reader trying to fit all the pieces together.

Pirates, a sea of honey, searches for lost loves, artists, friends and mysterious passageways also inhabit the novel. The deeper Zachary goes into what is ultimately a search for the starless sea, the less engaging the narrative becomes. Yes, I wanted to know what was going to happen, but at almost 500 pages, it took too long to find out.

The Starless Sea
Three-and-three-quarter bookmarks
Doubleday, 2019
494 pages