Monthly Archives: June 2014

Book Review: Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee– A Look Inside North Korea

Dear Leader by Jang Jin-Sung

Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee– A Look Inside North Korea by Jang Jin-sung provides an inside look into the North Korea. Jang served as one of the eight poet laureates of North Korea under Kim Jong-Il. Among those duties was the work on theAnnals of the Kim Dynasty, where Jang notes, was written by writers and poets and not historians. As part of the protected, privileged, inner circle Jang did not experience the extreme poverty personally, but did encounter it on his trip back to his hometown. Jang’s inside experience makes Dear Leader the Breaking with Moscow of the early twenty-first century. 

Most of what happens in North Korea, stays in North Korea. With only twenty-four embassies, there is little intelligence gathering throughout the country. The people have limited access to the media, all of it state owned. North Korea, poor, but with a government capable of monitoring daily lives and activities of it citizens. What it cannot monitor it enforces by threat. Prison camps and sentences for entire families (three generations) are not out of the norm and can be imposed for seemingly minor offences. Jang’s offence was losing a Western book he loaned to a friend. That carried the death penalty. 

Jang manages to escape with the friend he loaned the book to and is better prepared to defect than most North Koreans. Once out of North Korea and in China they find that the previous privilege has no benefit in trying to get to South Korea or South Korean help. Throughout his escape he tells those who help him stories of what he witnessed and experienced in North Korea. The main problem he has getting to the right people. China does not want North Korean refugees, but turns a blind eye to importing women to be wive’s of Chinese men. But ordinary North Koreans are seen as a threat to legal Korean communities in China. There is also an interesting experience with Chinese Christian organizations and churches — which were instrumental in helping latin American refugees in the 1980s. 

I have read several books on North Korea and was a bit skeptical about this one. Several defectors have told stories of tremendous hardship and cruelty at the hands of the government or simply of government neglect when the times became difficult. It is with these experiences that people are able to make their case for asylum. South Korea accepts all defectors but the most practical way to escape is through China and then on to the South Korean embassy in Mongolia. Chinese guards the entrance to the South Korean Embassy checking passport of those trying enter. Jang does not disclose how he was able to enter the South Korean compound, but a careful reader or a person familiar with international law will easily figure it out. 

All in all a great book and a great story. I did have a difficult time, at first, feeling any sympathy for a man in the inner circle of North Korean power who probably would have remained in his privileged position had his friend not lost a book. Jang, however, does come across as an honest person and sincere in his writing. A very good read about a country little real information is known about. 

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Book Review: Mao’s Little Red Book: A Global History

Once Mao Tse-tung’s thought is grasped by the broad masses, it becomes a source of strength and a spiritual atom bomb of infinite power. ~ Lin Biao 

Mao's Little Red Book by Alexander C Cook

Alexander C. Cook has put together a great book about the second most read book in the world. The Quotations of Chairman Mao, or simply Mao’s Little Red Book, took the world by storm and created fans as well as enemies. Cook put together the a collection of scholarly essays from experienced scholars in this extremely well documented book. The amount of documentation and citations is well above and beyond what I would have expected. The writing is clear, to the point, and gives a variety of viewpoints. 

Mao’s quotations on revolution and socialism may seem dated to many casual readers or those without a history or political science background. But it must be remembered that the world was a very different place fifty years ago. Fifty years may not seem like a great deal of time, but a great deal of change happens over a fifty year period. Consider that World War II and the Desert Storm were fifty years apart and think of the changes weapons, technology, and economies.

Mao’s Little Red Book covers the effect it had in China and around the world. The Little Red Book was originally intended for the People’s Army as a tool to keep moral, dedication, and the revolutionary spirit live and well. The demand from the public for a copy was overwhelming. The printing office needed to outsource the production of the book to try and keep up with the demand. Having a copy was a sign of pride and duty for the average citizen. It was quoted and brought up even in casual conversations. It did create a cult of Mao though. That may seem strange and on par with the Kim Il dynasty in North Korea, but it was not that odd in China. Collected quotes had a long history in Chinese culture going back to the Confucius. 

The book was taken in different ways throughout the world. Originally not intended for outside use, even to the point of Chinese officials asking that visitors return any copies of The Little Red Book that they may have. The government felt that outsiders would not get the proper message in context by reading the small sampling and urged interested people to instead read the more complete volumes. China did print The Little Red Book in a few languages, and then more including Swahili. The Swahili edition was published for Tanzania and made available at a very low cost. The problem there, however, even with the support the government, was with the people. High illiteracy rates made even a very inexpensive book almost useless. This was fixed with broadcasts of from Radio Peking in East Africa. 

The book although widely popular in many parts of the world was a complete flop in the Soviet Union. China and the USSR had a difference of opinion that sometimes lead to bloodshed. China saw revolution as active and the USSR believed it achieved all there was. Mao said the Soviet Union lost its way with industrialization; the people no longer poor or agrarian had lost touch with the revolution. The book also was not a hit in the Western Hemisphere. In America, outside of Berkeley and the Black Panthers, it had little effect. Although South and Latin America had more than their share of communist influence, it was mostly from Moscow. The exception, however, was on of the most well known revolutionary/terror groups in the Western Hemisphere: The Shining Path. 

The use of different scholars and different regional expertise gives Mao’s Little Red Book: A Global History far more range, coverage, and grasp on how Mao’s little book influenced the world and where it succeeded and where it failed and more importantly why. The book may be above the grasp of the causal history reader, but well worth the read to those with an interest and a background. It is probably one of the more heavily documented books I have read outside of graduate school. Footnotes take up significantly more space than most mass marketed nonfiction books usually use. An excellent scholarly examination.

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Book Review: The Girl They Sold to the Moon

The Girl They Sold to the Moon by Chris  Stevenson

The Girl They Sold to the Moon by Chris Stevenson is a Young Adult science fiction novel. Stevenson is an Alabama resident originally from Southern California. He has worked as a federal police officer, reporter, and a mechanic. Stevenson has nine titles that appear on Amazon in the science fiction, fantasy, horror, thriller, and romance genres.

The Girl They Sold to the Moon starts with an interesting premise set in the not too distant future. The economy collapsed in sometime before 2020, and the poor and middle class took much of the brunt of it. Although there is advanced technology like wrist worn computers that carry the individuals DNA and complete history, many people live in shipping containers located in makeshift camps. Debt, taxes, and other liabilities have created a demand for a new way to secure loans to avoid jail time for tax evasion and debt. FTALC is the corporation that met that need. Reginald Breedlove is about to pawn his seventeen year old daughter, Tilly, in exchange for a loan. The terms of the loan are fairly simple: a $90,000, six month loan, at 6% interest compounded daily (that comes out to $92,751). The rate is not that bad, but paying back that amount in a dead economy seems more like an addiction to payday advances than a way out of debt.

While Reginald received his money, Tilly is turned over to FTALC to work until the end of the loan period and the loan is paid back in full — six months. FTALC has an image to maintain, and there are implied promises of On the Job Training and classes. However, once the papers are signed and Tilly begins in processing behind closed doors the reality sets in. Guards move the new indentured servants through a near Orwellian life. Guards control movements and strict enforcement or rules are carried out by video surveillance. Tilly is assigned to work a mining colony on the moon. She is lucky in a way. Tilly is not assigned to menial labor; she is a dancer. Lucky, too, that the dancers are more closely resemble risque show girls than strippers.

Needless to say, there is no on the job training for a new skill, unless that means dishwasher or dancer. Tilly hears horror stories from other workers about the parents who abandoned their children to FTALC by defaulting on the loans. That left the children responsible for paying back the debt on the meager wages they earned; keeping the child indebted to FTALC. Some end up trapped in the system for many years. There are also husbands who ditched their wives to TALC to make a clean start with no intention of paying the loan back.

What follows is Tilly’s story and her six month tour as a dancer on the moon. The story line reads well and straightforward. There are some surprises and plot twists to hold the reader’s interest. I have a little trouble defining the Young Adult classification. The character’s in the story are mainly in their late teens, there is some violence, as in fighting, and although there is some innuendo there are no sex scenes and Tilly character seems quite innocent. Readers will find Tilly a very likeable and believable character. Without exception, the other characters all play very real and human roles.

The Girl They Sold to the Moon in two sittings. I found the premise of economic collapse and the markets’ answer very interesting. I can’t say that this novel predicts the future, but it takes only a little perception to see how it could evolve. One only has to look as far as a country like Saudi Arabia and its labor contracts to third world nationals to see how this system has already taken roots. Although the story itself was good, the setting and environment the story takes place in made it work for me. The Girl They Sold to the Moon is an excellent summer afternoon read.

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Book Review:Billy Purgatory

“I’m Billy Purgatory.” he said, proud as ever
“Such a strange name.”
“It’s a strange world, doll face.”

Billy Purgatory is an interesting kid. We first meet him at age ten and spends his time skateboarding and avoiding school. He has quite the attitude and vocabulary, not in a bad way, but in a Mickey Spillane, Mike Hammer kind of way. Still it’s not what you expect in a ten year old. Billy’s father was in ‘Nam, lost a leg, and is an inactive member of a motorcycle gang with a unique mission. Billy has been told his mother is dead and has been dead for a long time, but he is undeterred. He believes she is alive and is going to find her no matter what it takes.

Everything seems fairly normal in Billy’s life, but there is much more to things. Billy saves a girl’s life when he is returning from his skateboard haunt. That in itself is pretty impressive especially since he saves the girl from vampires. The girl he saves, Anastasia, is that one girl who will be “that girl” in Billy’s life. Once the reader accepts vampires, add in a human sized, talking, tequila drinking chicken who lives in Billy’s backyard. There is also a gypsy girl lives in the woods. When a narrator is needed, Artemis, Greek goddess of the hunt and moon, steps up and fills the reader in. Just when the reader settles in accepts what is going on and the character’s various forms, in walks the Time Zombie.

Billy Purgatory is an amazingly weird,and wild story that holds a bit something for all readers. There is war. There is mythology. There is a motorcycle gang. There is the supernatural. There’s skateboarding. For conspiracy theorists, there is also the real reason LBJ kept the war going in Vietnam. If the reader is not sure about vampires and giant, drunk chickens, he or she will be relieved to know that Billy isn’t sure of them either. As Billy grows up and continues to search for his mother, he tries to convince himself that certain aspects of his life were real.


Billy Purgatory, is that classic story of a boy searching for his mother, finding that very special girl, and a father – son relationship all run through a blender and perfectly packaged into a great story that is a complete riot.

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Book Review: Addicts & Basements

 

Addicts & Basements by Robert   Vaughan

Addicts & Basements by Robert Vaughan is a collection of free verse poetry. Vaughan is the former fiction editor at “Thunderclap!” and currently is the senior flash fiction editor at JMWW as well as the poetry and fiction editor at Lost in Thought Magazine. His work has appeared in numerous print and online journals. Vaughan was a finalist in the 2012 Micro-fiction Awards and a finalist in the 2013 Gertrude Stein Award. 

Poetry is something fairly new to me. My start was with my history background and World War I poetry. I have since started taking poetry collection in for review and ran the gamut of themes and poets. From the traditional, to open verse, to truly experimental, and poets from pastoral, to inner city, to LGBT poetry have all become part of my reading. For contemporary poetry I prefer that gritty, Selby-esqe, rough, punk rock type of writing. When I received the request forAddicts & Basements, I accepted it because it looked to fit my preferences. The title, a play on words, reminded me of the Neil Young song The Needle and the Damage done. Addicts & Basements did have the grittiness I expected and shockingly sometimes went much deeper than socially acceptable grit, but nothing deeper than real life. 

“The Black Sea” seems to set that tone but with grace and style. I had a feeling that this collection would be something I would like when the introduction featured three quotes one from William S. Burroughs, one from Virginia Woolf, and one from Morrissey — whom I know as the guy who sings Meat is Murder. My kind of people. Some poems have a very dark underside to happy family life like “Vaporous” others seem all out creepy, like “A Wonderful Life.” “On the Wings of a Dove” is a touching tribute to Matthew Wayne Shepard. Other poems relate to real life. We all know someone like the speaker in “Pool Hall.” “The Basement” relates to the fear I experienced of my own basement as a child. It was not a dead cat that did it to me, rather it was Dark Shadows. The feeling, however, is still the same. 

The voice speaking the poems seemed to change throughout the book. There is a voice speaking as a father, one as a boy who knits a pink scarf for his grandmother, a young woman, and at times the reader is left to determine the gender or orientation of the speaker. This may be a bit confusing for those who associate the writer as the speaker. The writer, however, is an artist not a gender, or as Patti Smith put it: When I’m writing a poem or drawing, I am not female; I’m an artist. Perhaps, it is one step farther than that as Smith also says: “All gender is a drag.” 

Intermixed in the collection are two poems that held a personal meaning with me. “Wheels” is fifteen lines about going back to his Schwinn. “The Patio” is about witnessing a cyclist getting hit by a car. In a split second the customers enjoying margaritas and queso and suddenly experience a bicycle getting mangled and a cyclist going through a car’s windshield.

Addicts & Basements is that real life poetry. It does not apologize for its contents. It reports from various angles, on various themes, from various witnesses to produce a real look at the world and the relationships of its inhabitants. Addicts & Basements pushes the reader out of his or her comfort zone. It leaders the reader through the underbelly of society very much in the same way Virgil lead Dante. A truly outstanding collection of cutting edge poetry.

Joseph Spuckler gives Addicts & Basements 5 Stars

http://www.authoralliance.net/readers…

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Book Review: Freedom of Expression

Freedom of Expression by Daniel J. Baum is a study of the fundamental rights and freedoms under Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982). Baum has been a law professor for over forty years and has written numerous books on law. As an American, I looked forward to the comparison between Canada’s equivalent to the First Amendment and what, if any real difference two hundred years would make in designing a “Bill of Rights.”

Canadian Charter and the American Bill of Rights guarantee very similar rights including religion, speech, and life, liberty, and the security of the individual. It is not too surprising that the cases in the book are very similar to American cases brought to the Supreme Court. Cases include political speech, hate speech, religious freedom, students rights, and indecency/obscenity. Reading through the cases I was able to draw a close parallel to American cases over the last fifty years.

Each chapter presents a case background, the court rulings, higher court rulings, judges opinions, and media opposition to the ruling. Baum also has some though thought exercises in “what if” scenarios. The case information is well documented at the end of each chapter as well as additional source material and an index at the end of the book. 

Although this book is published in Canada for a Canadian audience, I found it extremely interesting as someone who has spent their academic years studying political science. For the most part, my education ignored our closest neighbor in culture, history, and tradition. Reading it now does show the common heritage that we took and evolved from Great Britain and made our own. Although there are differences in between our two countries, they seem minor in guarantee of rights and the interpretations of those rights. I found this book extremely informative, and recommend it to those interested in basic constitutional rights, either as Canadians or Americans looking for comparison. The book is written on the level that anyone with basic political science/government studies at the college or high school level can read and understand. 

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Book Review: Congotronic

Congotronic by Shane Book is a collection of unique poetry. Book is the author of Ceiling of Sticks. He is a graduate of New York University, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. 

I picked up Congotronic because it was published by the University of Iowa Press, and I have not been disappointed by any of the works they have published. Congotronic, however, is very much out of my usual element of poetry. With no introduction, except for the cover art which lead me to think possibly West Africa, maybe Haiti, or again maybe big city America in the 1970s. The answer I received was “Yes.” The poetry seemed to capture all of that and more. There is imagery of an African fishing village in “Worldtown”. “Mack Daddy Manifesto” blends Engels and Marx into the street life of rap:

Real, real soon
as in yester-after-noon, I need to step to
your crib, and tell you how I feel the proletarians have
nothing to lose but their world to win. 

and into “Bronze Age”

The revolution?
Through our high powered geigers: twin-stroke
underbuzz of revolution’s engine; the puttering

three-wheeled revolution; the landless campesinos
beaten by pots and pans into land and nothing we could
do. They resented our husks.
 

Sometimes the words flow with a rhythm of a rap, other times they flow like cut-up, making the read stop, think, and reorganize the words he read. What is not lacking is imagery and message regardless of the topic. There is that edge of resistance, pride, and that reminder much like the iconic image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City in 1968. There is power in the words, and that power seems to speak louder as proper English drifts into street slang. There is that feeling of pride and power that rose in the 1970s and now fades with illusion of equality. An excellent and unique collection poetry.

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