Two books about North Korea

North Korea has been in the news a lot lately.  Recently President Trump called North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-un “the rocket man”.  This worried me. Doesn’t he know better than to bully a country?  Especially one that has nuclear weapons and an immature leader at the top. Scared as I was,  I realized I didn’t know very much about North Korea.  Frankly, my knowledge was limited to thinking of North Korea as the bad place and South Korea being the good place. And all the leaders in North Korea seem to be named Kim Jong something or other.

My research led me to read two books about North Korea.  The first was the Pulitzer prize winning novel “The Orphan Master’s Son” by Adam Johnson.  The novel features Pak Jun Do who reminded me of Forest Gump.  Pak Jun Do is an orphan who grows up in a labor camp.   At a very early age he is identified to be a good citizen who not only does what he is told but does it extremely well.  He starts out his career as a kidnapper and goes on to reach the highest level of government.

The book is a story of love and sacrifice and also paints a picture of what life is like in North Korea.

It was a novel so it got me thinking, is it really that bad?  My friend, Cathy, recommended a companion book called “Nothing to Envy” by Barbara Demick.  Barbara is a journalist who interviewed and  followed the lives of 6 North Korean defectors over 15 years.

This book explained more about the culture of “Songbun” which is the caste based system that assigns jobs and status based on party membership.  This system fosters the repressed society by instilling fear in the minds of all citizens.  One bad word about the party that is overheard by a spy (they are everywhere – who can you trust?) can banish you and your family to a prison camp.

In this system the government provides jobs, food and housing, however in the mid ’90’s a terrible drought impacted the crops and left millions of people dead of starvation.  The book goes into great detail about the imaginative ways the 6 defectors survived.

While these books are a bit depressing they are both excellent books that I would highly recommend.  I found myself appreciating our fine country even more.  We have plenty of food, opportunity and free speech.  In North Korea I would be banished to a prison camp for the first paragraph of this blog. God Bless America.

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New Job, New Cabin, New Gym

A lot has changed in the last few months, more than is comprehended in a Facebook update, and frankly more than most people probably care about.  So for those of you who invested a few more clicks into my life, here’s a deeper dive into the BIG three changes that have happened in my life.

First of all:  New JOB:  After 18 wonderful years, my time at BBY came to an end late this summer when my position was eliminated.  I quickly embraced this change and enjoyed a brief and productive search.  I ended up having just a few weeks “off” as I landed at Ergotron in Eagan as AVP of E-commerce.  The company manufactures ergo-dynamic office furniture (sit stand desks, converters and monitor arms) and I look forward to sharing a link to our new site soon.

With this change, my “three exit commute” expanded to a 13 exit commute (still not bad!) which now forces me to allow 25 minutes instead of 10 minute to get to the office.  There is much to miss about BBY, the size and scale of the company, the rewarding work and all the friends I have met along the way.  That said I am embracing working at a smaller company whose perks include an office, free coffee, being able to book my own travel, new friends, easy access to conference rooms and the opportunity to build our e-commerce business from the ground up.    I’ve been here for one month and I love it.

Next up:  New CABIN:  This was a shocker to some when I shared the MLS listing for our old cabin, but have no fear, this was not a knee jerk reaction.  We have had our place on Lake Marie for 6 years and have loved every minute of it.  That said, with 6 acres it got to be too big for us.  That plus my hubby loves his power tools so whole weekends would go by with me barely seeing him.  We are “downgrading” a bit on the size of the property but our new cabin (we close in a few weeks) should allow us to see each other more.  It’s still in the Annandale area with a lovely view of Pleasant Lake.  It will require some work to get it to where we want to, but most of that is inside.  By the way, old cabin is still for sale – spread the word!

Finally, when I left BBY I had to find a new GYM.  Laugh if you will but this was a big deal for me.  After years and years at the BBY Wellness Zone I had many friends and beloved trainers that I saw every day.   I was sad to leave them, but we have already had a few lunches and I expect more.  After a brief search, I joined Lifetime Fitness in Bloomington and have started to make new friends.  The gym has state of the art equipment, a group fitness class every morning and free coffee!  (See the theme here?)  One nice thing about my new routine is that I am able get ready at home which allows me to see my family in the morning.

There has been a lot of change and I am excited and energized by it. Now it’s time to settle into some new routines before something equally new and exciting comes along.  Till then!

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The Bahamas – We missed the hurricanes

Every fall Sean and I book our “vacation” aka travel without the kids (for future reference a “trip” includes the offspring.) In the past we have been horrible parents and missed Homecoming events, confirmations, you name it we have missed it. This year we “threaded the needle” and decided to go before JHS Homecoming, during a Hamline football bye week and ended up picking “Hurricane Month”.

The week before we left Hurricane Irma was creating a sensation and every time we looked at the weather we made a percentage prediction of whether or not we would go.  The week before we left the most common prediction was 50%.  But Irma passed by the Bahamas so off we went!

We landed and the weather was beautiful.  We rented a little white car and cruised the islands.  We saw a lot of boarded up windows but upon further inspection it appeared that much of the work was not recent.  Like many tropical islands there is a wide range of beauty and upkeep. We stayed at the gi-normous Atlantis hotel and marveled at the magnitude and beauty of the place.

And of course we did what all well informed American’s do:  we watched American politics and the weather.  No comment on the politics.  Sheesh.  But the weather!  Who is this Jose?  And what about Maria?  Crazily it appeared they were going to again miss the Bahamas and the weather remained hot and gorgeous.  We were so sad to see many of our favorite places ravaged by these storms (St. Maarten AND St. Croix) and felt a little bit guilty that we were sitting on a beautiful beach while these storms raged around us. In many ways it feels like the same good fortune I feel when I think about being born an American – more on that in a minute.

But this is a book blog and I digress….yes I read many, many books.  There is only so much weather and politics and sunning I can take.  The best of the books I read was “The Latehomecomer” by Kao Kalia Yang about growing up as a Hmong woman in St. Paul.  READ IT, you will learn much about what it’s like to come to America – again with the thankfulness!

I also read the super snarky and very funny “Don’t Get Too Comfortable” by the late David Rakoff.  He laments about first world problems in a series of hilarious essays.  It was great to have a little bit of comedy and relief amid all the politics and weather.

Then I went and got all depressed when I read “What the Health” by Eunice Wong.  Many of my family and friends have become vegans after watching this on Netflix.  I already AM a pretty healthy eater but this talks about the dangers of meat, dairy and even eggs and is a proponent of a plant based diet.  I tried.  I did.  I ate veggie wraps at lunch.  Sean kept calling me “Plant Head”, yet I broke down the last night and we had a meat lovers pizza.  YUM!  The good news is that this book doesn’t rip on my best friend in the world – the CARB.  Go carbs go!

I also read “Everything you want me to be” by Mindy Mejia, another Minnesota writer.  Plot:  A high school senior is killed and her boyfriend and English teacher are the main suspects. It is very well written and was the most entertaining of the books I read.

I ran out of books and had a very interesting experience trying to find something else to read.  Amid the land of plenty (aka Atlantis) people furrowed their brow and looked confused when I asked them if there was a book store nearby.  One woman actually said “you mean like to read?” We had to venture off the property to BookWorld to find a mega store that had more school supplies than books.  I knew it would interesting and I am glad we got there at 5:15 because it closed at 5:25.  Yep, not 5:30 or 6 but 5:25.  Amazing the things you see when you travel!

It’s good to travel and even better to be back home.

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“Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah

This weekend after a long spell of mediocre books, I finished “Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah and I was moved to recommend this book to the readers of my blog.   The book is a series of short stories about a “colored” boy growing up in South Africa.

You probably know Trevor as the 33 year old host of “The Daily Show”- a funny comedian from South Africa who loves to challenge the political status quo.  But did you know that his birth in 1984 was actually considered a crime?  Trevor was born to a white Swiss father and a black South African mother at a time when such a union was punishable under the “Immorality Act of 1927” with up to five years in prison.

Trevor’s stories are sharp edged snapshots of his life.  They explain the culture and thinking of a bi-racial young man growing up in post apartheid South Africa.  And they are hilarious.  My favorite short story was called “Trevor, Pray.”

In this story, Trevor explains that he grew up in a world run by women; his mother, his grandmother and his great grandmother, Koko who was well into her nineties, stooped, frail and completely blind.  His home did not have running water and so he had to use an outhouse which he hated because he was afraid of the flies that resided at the bottom of the pile.  One afternoon he decided to forgo the outhouse and use newspaper – “like a puppy”.  He hysterically describes the act as a “powerful experience” which came to a close when he realized his blind great grandmother was in the room with him.  She was unable to see him, but she began to smell something and she proceeds to call out to anyone in the house to explain this smell.  Trevor decides to hide both himself and his “output” from his grandmother but later has to pay the price when they determine the house is bewitched with a demon.  “Help us!  Pray, Trevor.  Pray to God to kill the demon!”  Trust me when I say he uses much more colorful language and this short story will make you laugh out loud.

In the end, this book is a tribute to his mother, a single woman who raised him to believe in thinking big and following your dreams.  His mother was a fiercely independent and religious woman and the final chapter recounts the terror she faced and overcame at the hands of her abusive second husband.

This book has it all.  It’s funny, well written, appreciative and will give you a good look at what it was like to grow up as a young bi-racial boy in South Africa.

 

 

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“Hillbilly Elegy” by JD Vance – Does it really explain how Trump won the election?

I pride myself on reading books that are relevant and significant.  That’s not to say I don’t like an occasional beach book but my ears perk up when I hear somebody really debating about a book.  Discussion books are my favorite.

When my Minneapolis book group talked about reading “Hillbilly Elegy” by JD Vance, the conversation got so heated that a few of my friends refused to read it.  Apparently this book was going to explain to my liberal minded friends just how the hell Donald Trump took the election away from HRC by appealing to the blue collar workers that live in the Rust Belt states.

My own political views tend to be liberal but they have been challenged over the last few years as my adult children have become political.  My son leans to the right and my daughter to the left.  In my typical consensus building style, I try to hear them both out and in the process I have sharpened my own view which has been influenced by both of them but has shifted me from the middle left to more smack dab in the middle.

“Hillbilly Elegy” is a memoir written by JD Vance who grew up in Middleton Ohio to an alcoholic and drug abusing mother in a poor and dysfunctional home.  The first part of the book paints the picture of his young life and the challenges that he overcame.  Ultimately he moves in with his grandparents and it’s with this stable home environment that he finally reaches his potential. He earns good grades, goes on to college and Yale Law school and now finds himself among the country’s elite.

It’s not until the second half of the book that his disillusionment with Democratic “Obama” politics becomes clear.  He worked himself through college via the military and low paying entry level jobs but saw other people abusing the welfare system.   And honestly, his rant felt like one I would give to my own children.  It’s basically to work hard and rely on yourself and not the government to hand things out to you.With hard work and dedication you can achieve anything.  Who can disagree with that?

So, the question is:  Does this book explain why Trump won the election?  The answer to me is yes.  I think it explains how an entire culture has become disillusioned with the state of the country and blamed one leader or one party.  And since the election was so close, those folks that want less government and more capitalism got what they wanted.  And they got a tough talking renegade leader to see them through this change.

The book is entertaining, easy to read and offers an insightful view of a community of people that we don’t often get to read about.  Don’t be too alarmed that it’s overly political and frankly, even if it is somewhat political, I have learned from my children that it’s okay to talk it out.  In the end your own views may become a little more precise.  And through a little bit of heated debate you make just find them changing ever so slightly.

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Spring Break in St. Maarten – April 2017

It seems like the winter has been dragging on forever and ever so I was delighted when April 8 finally rolled around and we boarded our aircraft headed to St. Maarten for Spring break.  Our travel group has been shrinking as we get older since the two college kids now have a break at a different (EARLIER) time and no longer can join us.  Last year we enjoyed our time alone with our youngest daughter.  This year she brought a friend along which was really fun for all of us.

St. Maarten is special for us because it is the first place we ever vacationed together back when we first started dating.  We love the island and this trip marked our 4th trip there.  As a beach lover I brought and finished three books, all three of which I enjoyed and would recommend.

The first book I read was “Commonwealth” by Ann Patchett.  I was very excited to finally get this one from the library (drawback of the library – long wait time) because I have really liked some of her former works, especially “Bel Canto.” This book was a character driven family drama that centered around 2 families that were brought together when the mother of the Keating family met and fell in love with the father of the Cousin family.  It tells the story from the perspective of the 6 children from each of their first marriages and the trials and tribulations of being part of a forced second family.  To be critical, it’s non linear format was difficult to follow, but that was minimized for me by Ann’s ability to create lovable characters and to tell everyday contemporary family stories with clear descriptions and amazing insight.  I read it quickly and enjoyed it very much.

Next, I read “My Brilliant Friend” by Elena Ferrante which is the first of 4 books and is soon to be an HBO series.  It tells the fictional story of 2 friends, Lila and Elena growing up in Naples in a poor neighborhood in the 1950’s.  This first book tells the story of these two young and fiesty girls as they go through childhood and middle school and of their complex friendship that ranges at times from intimate to competitive. The complexity and character development of these girls is unlike anything I have ever read, however, it took me a while to understand the flow and style of her writing and frankly I had to re-read the beginning parts because I missed so much.  But after I settled into her style, I began to really love this story and I can see why she is Italy’s most beloved and acclaimed writer and I plan to read the next books in the series.

I finished the week up with a book given to me by my friend Loralee called “Behold the Dreamers” by Imbolo Mbue.  This novel tells the tale of a lovable young man, Jende, from Cameroon who just landed a huge job working as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards who is a Wall Street executive.  These two families become intertwined when Jende’s wife, Neni begins to nanny for the Edwards family children.  And triumph turns to tragedy when Wall Street crashes and both families have to make sacrifices.  It goes without saying that the main point of the book is that the sacrifices made by Jende’s family are much more impactful than those of the Edwards family.  The author who is a native of Cameroon tells this story with a positive slant and a clear eye for the good and not so good aspects of the American dream.

It was a great week with some of my favorite people at a lovely place.  And I also got lucky when I picked 3 very good books.  CHA – CHING!  What more could you possibly want?

 

 

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The Library – 5 reasons I re-joined

I read a lot and over the years have spent a small fortune buying books.  I always resisted the library because it seemed inconvenient. I will chalk this resistance up to pure laziness or perhaps just pure busy-ness.  I also blame Amazon by pointing out they have  made buying books so easy I was lulled into this habit. I  just had to type a few letters into the search engine and the book magically arrived.

As I bought these books I favored the hard copy of books for two reasons.  First, I have this image of my home lined with cherished books that friends and family pull off the shelves as we banter about our favorite literature.  Sadly, this never happens.   Second, as a longtime retail professional, I  like a good deal. Amazon drives me crazy because they price the ebooks at only a dollar less than the hard copy.

I started getting signals to make a change.  My book clubs started planning books for 6 months at a time.  I have also been in a “de-clutter mode” following the loss of my father in law and the trauma of dealing with all of his possessions.  These two factors got me motivated to give the library another try.  So without further adieu here are my top 5 reasons to re-join the library.

  1.  It helps reduce clutter.   I love owning my favorite books, but there are many painful reminders in my home of books I did not like, books I could not finish, or the worst – books I never even started.
  2. It’s a great way to try out new books without any commitment.  Try it, start it or not- it still goes back with the others in the stack.
  3. The library gives you a due date which to me is a deadline.  This gives me motivation to finish.  I always work better under a deadline, I mean who doesn’t?
  4. I am saving money.  I think that means a bigger allowance for my shoe and coffee habit!
  5. I like getting out and seeing the people who live in my community and not just the other parents of 9th graders!  I have enjoyed browsing and visiting my library to get a better sense of who else lives in the community.

So there you have it.  I’m hooked and now it’s in print.  I’m a library lady.

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