Archive for the ‘personal journey’ Tag

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)

Growing Relationships   Leave a comment

 

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Hive-Mind by Gabrielle Myers is labeled a memoir, but it’s slightly more than that. Written in diary-like form, Myers describes her summer of 2006 on a farm in Northern California. This is no kiddie account, though. While it’s the focus of her narrative, Myers alternates the chronicle with a look back to her relationship with her mother and growing up in Virginia. As if this isn’t enough, she also includes poetry.

It’s evident that sharing the earlier memories is cathartic; this is true of the latter ones, but is less obvious until the end. Myers’s descriptions of life on the farm, from early spring to late September, are vivid and stunning. I can practically feel dirt stuck in my fingernails as she, Baker (also working on the farm) and Farmer (the woman who owns the land and decides the daily chores) sow and weed and sweat and harvest. The author is also impressive in describing meals prepared from food on the farm.

Farmer is an enigma. This may be Myers’s point: Farmer never reveals enough about herself to know who she is.  Myers shares her own thoughts and reactions, but that isn’t enough to make Farmer compelling. Baker is an open book and, consequently, is more interesting.

Myers isn’t writing about coming of age, but of becoming aware. This is evident as she connects the different phases in her life following a 1995 conversation with her mother: “… how I feel can become how someone else feels.”

Hive-Mind
Three and three-quarter Bookmarks
Lisa Hagen books, 2015
299 pages

Schooled in Cooking   3 comments


The title of Kathleen Flinn’s experience at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris is what initially caught my eye: The Shaper Your Knife, The Less You Cry. These words are advice from one of her chef instructors as begins the first of three sections required to earn a diploma from the prestigious cooking school. The subtitle offered more foreshadowing than I would have liked, though: “Love, Laughter and Tears in Paris at the World’s Most Famous Cooking School.”

Flinn’s account combines her background, her romance and her Parisian education, which involved much more than cooking as she learned to navigate a new city with only un petit peu knowledge of French.

The book is divided into the three parts that correspond with the units at the school: Basic, Intermediate and Superior Cuisine. Flinn’s culinary undertaking is humorous, honest and, unfortunately, predictable. Of course she grows through this journey; of course she learned techniques that were as foreign as the language; and of course she is with the man of her dreams. The latter requires no spoiler alert; this is revealed early in the narrative.

Despite its predictability, Flinn gives an insider’s view of how the classes are taught, the types of people who enroll (not surprisingly from all over the world) and the friendliness of the French people. She also includes several recipes and even includes a menu guide for book groups. Fortunately, none require deboning a chicken or dealing with dead rabbit heads.

The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry
Three-and-a-half Bookmarks
Penguin Books, 2007
278 pages

Walking Out of Character   Leave a comment

Harold Fry

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry begins as a slow, methodical, unexpected journey – for the main character and the reader. Rachel Joyce’s novel practically crawls through the first few chapters. Then, like Harold, it picks up the pace only to falter on occasion like most adventures.

This poignant tale shares qualities of a love story and mystery, but is more the former than latter. And, it’s about different types of love: romantic, familial and companionable.

After receiving a letter from Queenie, a work colleague with whom he’s lost touch, Harold sets out to mail a response. Despite the fact that he left the house without his cell phone and is dressed somewhat formally, he decides to embark on a 600+ mile trek from one end of England to the other to talk to Queenie in person. He has no backpack, water bottle, map or other equipment. In fact, he walks in boating shoes.

The elements of a mystery come in the form of questioning the relationship between Harold and Queenie, as well as between Harold and his estranged son, David. There’s also the fact that Harold is married, although he and his wife, Maureen, do little more than share a past and the same house.

The characters’ imperfections are what make the story work, albeit inconsistently. As personalities evolve, foibles become more defined, but so do strengths. Harold loses his way in more than one manner, but he, like the reader, gains perspective even if it is not particularly satisfying.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
Three Bookmarks
Random House, 2012
320 pages