Review: Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea

Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea
Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a well-written gripping journalistic account of North Korean defectors, describing their lives in the DPRK. I have to question whether the accounts are completely truthful and genuine as so much information which emerges from North Korea tends to be biased. However, the accounts make good reading and describe a truly Orwellian culture that is very unlike our own Western lifestyles. To a romantic socialist, some of what may appear is idyllic, but as is often the case, the horrors of famine and gulags are all too apparent. There is much quaintness in many of the stories, of simple love, of familial ties, of the teaching of children. The emotions felt by North Koreans are just the same as elsewhere in the world. However, it seems as though the state control of all aspects of life is extremely strict. The failure of the food supply system and the healthcare that was a real high point of the earlier years of the DPRK, is all to evident as the communist world collapsed in the late 1980s. One of the most intriguing aspects of the book is the way in which the defectors adjust to their new lives in South Korea. If ever the two Koreas are united, there is a massive gulf between the cultures which I don’t think can be bridged too easily. Overall, the book is quite disturbing, but still very gripping. I think it should be studied in context alongside other texts on Korea.

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Review: Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’d read some Philip K Dick before and this was certainly in a fast-flowing writing style. It only took me half a day to read the book from start to finish. It was totally gripping. The story is about the strange happenings to celebrity Jeremy Taverner, a genetically engineered TV host, He is catapulted into anonymity and left to face the police state brutalities that occupy the lower, less-known classes. There is a tide of colourful characters, mainly women, to whom this good-looking ‘6’ has lots of charm. The power and corruption of the police with their futuristic technologies is a scary concept and Dick tackles some concepts which are still current and in the process of being introduced such as ID cards. The way in which Taverner’s life is glued back together is cleverly done and is very mysterious. He has somehow warped through a portal in time, entered an alternate reality. The book touches on some really provocative themes. There are drugs, sex and rock & roll as well as racism, incest, violence. I love the way the story winds furiously and progresses. You get attached to the characters and really feel Taverner’s emotions. Do we feel sorry for the policeman? there are touches of humanity still there but he is also devoid of his integral humanity. I love the way the book neatly concludes, if it is a little sharp. An excellent read and I cannot wait to tackle my next Dick title.

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Review: Catch-22

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a 20th century classic novel I had to read. It is a fascinating story of the Second World War which grows ever more absurd as Yossarian proceeds on his quest to return home. The characters are fantastic, especially Milo, the entrepreneurial head of the syndicate. The horrors of war can be seen from the ever-increasing list of casualties which disturbs Yossarian as, enveloped in catch-22, the missions he is required to fly, before his tour of duty ends, keep increasing. At times, there is joy, when the men are recuperating from their flights, enjoying themselves in Rome or relaxing at the mess hall. There is always wit and humour although most of the stories have very dark conclusions. The novel jumps from character to character and from scenario to scenario but it is all wonderfully woven together and it builds to a final crescendo where the helplessness of Yossarian’s situation has built to a farcical outcome and he bids his attempt to escape the inescapable catch-22 which constantly revolves around every situation invoked in the tale. It’s a great read and I’m sure must have really appealed to those who were present in the battles of the war itself. A very good book.

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Review: The FARC: The Longest Insurgency

The FARC: The Longest Insurgency
The FARC: The Longest Insurgency by Garry Leech
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book covers a very interesting subject for what in general there is a dearth of information and that which does exist tends to be fundamentally skewed with bias. The left wing of Colombia’s forty year civil war is headed up by the FARC-EP. This revolutionary Marxist guerrilla group holds a vast amount of Colombian territory and is the de-facto government of a large amount of mainly impoverished rural people who are in general greatly neglected by their government. The FARC have a very strong propaganda campaign in action against them and in this rather brief book, the author attempts to unravel the myths surrounding the FARC, and to determine the truth of what lies behind the propaganda against them. The Americans and Colombian government accuse them of being narco-traffickers and narco-terrorists, and use these accusations in order to fund their fight against their enemy. The book is good at unravelling many of the myths and in general one gets a decent balanced impression and a feeling that one has touched upon the truth. the FARC can be seen as a genuine combatant army and are a bit different to the way they are portrayed as a terrorist or criminal organisation. Their insurgency, although very bloody and difficult, is based in the realities of a real war. They have an ideological struggle and truly represent the feelings of their people. Some of the facts are quite surprising. I found the chapter on human rights abuses very revealing. It shows that although the FARC are very far from perfect and have committed some truly heinous acts, in general, the Colombian government forces and right-wing paramilitary groups are far more oppressive towards the average civilian.
I think the author, who is an investigative journalist based in Colombia, has done a very good job with this work. I feel that for such a subject, a much broader and deeper piece of writing could be done. If anything the account is just a bit too brief. I hope to check out some of Garry Leech’s other books.

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Review: Siddhartha

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This short work by German / Swiss author and nobel literature prizewinner, Herman Hesse, was a cornerstone of the hippy movement which emerged during the 1960s. The book explores the journey of a young Indian man through an adventurous life, in which his main quest is to achieve enlightenment. He leaves home, becomes an ascetic and then meets the Buddha (Gotama), before rejecting asceticism and turning to the material world, seeking the pleasures of lust, wealth and gambling. He fathers a child with his lover and then departs off to seek pastures new, depressed and fed up of his life in the city. He finds a middle way between the asceticism of his youth and the high life of his merchanting. As a ferryman, next to the river, he lives with a wise old sage who comforts him and allows him to finally achieve the enlightenment he seeks. His son disowns him and his old friend, who becomes a follower of the Buddha, periodically bumps into him and eventually the story concludes with the two old men sharing views on life and what they have learnt, with Siddharta revealing some of the deep philosophies which have shaped him. It’s an exciting and eminently readable tale, full of Buddhist and Eastern mystical titbits that the reader can relate to and indeed be enlightened by. I can see why hippies favoured this novel and it really can be classed as a true twentieth century classic.

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Review: When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order

When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order
When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order by Martin Jacques
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an excellent study of China and its position in the modern world. The author explores the rise of China’s power, through history and into the future. China will be the biggest power in the global economy and this book projects how the new world will look. It examines Chinese attitudes to the world, the rate of development in China, and how China will treat the rest of the world as it assumes its position in the number 1 spot, currently held by the USA. A key factor which the author constantly identifies, in how China differs from previous world powers, is that China is not just a nation-state in the Westphalian sense, but a ‘civilisation-state’. It is continental in terms of its landmass and holds 20% of the world’s population. It has a rich 5000 year old history and is much less imperialistic in its attitude to foreign countries as the great powers which have preceded it. There are vast differences in how a world with China at its head will appear. The Western illusion will be shattered and countries will become ever more dependent upon a developed China. The study contains many fascinating statistics which prove the author’s thoughts and ideas. It introduces many topics which I had previously not really appreciated, such as the Chinese racial views on the world and also the dependency of Western Oceania countries such as Australia and New Zealand on the Chinese economy. As a sinophile, myself, I found the book thoroughly intriguing. It is unlike any other study I have read to date on China and offers a good glimpse into the future of the mother country. It is a question of when and not if, China becomes the biggest and most powerful nation on earth. It is scary to us in the West, what this may entail, but equally it is important that we ready ourselves for a new world order. This book provides ample preparation for anyone interested in what the growth of China means to them and how the world will change.

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Review: Animal Farm

Animal Farm
Animal Farm by George Orwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This short book is regarded as one of Orwell’s key classics. It was written at a time when criticism of the USSR in Britain was not encouraged as they were critical wartime allies. Orwell got through the net and his revolutionary animals at ‘Animal Farm’ are his way of assessing Stalin’s Russia. From initial success in their revolution to overthrow the humans, the animals build up their community with new laws, a utopia is created, where they are free from their former masters. Through the subsequent rise of a dictator, the dissemination of propaganda, the purges, wars and rewriting of the laws, we see a community rise and fall to a point where the ruling pigs more or less merge with the humans they superseded. Animal Farm contains some great characters which one gets attached to. The revolution can be seen through varies eyes, from the bleating sheep to hardworking horses, from the rats to cunning pigs. If one has an awareness of the development of the communist Soviet Union, you can see how Orwell has built his tale. Even without any knowledge of the Russian Revolution, the book can be taken as a story in itself, without the subtlety of underlining politics, the book is a quaint tale of a fantastical overthrow of the rulers of the farm and how a new life of self-governance is created. I enjoy reading George Orwell and Animal Farm is a thoroughly decent book. Recommended.

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