Friday, March 21, 2014

Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan

I saw a neurologist once.  I was feeling increasingly confused, forgetful, and mentally disheveled.  I would find myself driving on the freeway and suddenly not know where I was or where I was going.  I would walk into a co-worker's office only to forget why I was there.  I'd read a book or watch a movie and not remember what it was about.  The neurologist gave me a handful of tests, during which I quickly realized, I'm definintely not crazy.  I knew my name, what year it was, and could easily draw the face of a clock on a sheet of paper.  Given the timing of my symptoms with the recent birth of my son, I was diagnosed with nothing more than mommy brain.

A bit embarrased, but definitely relieved, I laugh about my bought of hypochondria.  At the time though, I thought I was losing it.  And that's what happened to Susannah Cahalan.  She slowly started noticing little things that were unlike her...a jealous thought, a migraine, sensitivity to lights.  She even went to the doctor and had an MRI and blood tests.  Everything came back normal.  Maybe she was stressed.  Maybe she was about to have a breakdown.  Maybe, as one doctor believed, she just partied too much.

But when her symptoms went from bad to worse and she had a series of seizures, Cahalan had the doctors' attention.  Still, all the tests came back negative.  Her symptoms, which appeared similar to schizophrenia, took her down a month-long rabbit hole of madness, most of which, she has no memory.

Brain on Fire is Cahalan's descent into madness and her climb back out.  As it turns out, it was a simple test, in fact one of the same ones I was given on my panicked visit to the doctor, that led to Cahalan's diagnosis.  Cahalan relied on interviews with her family, doctors, and her own fragmented memory to reconstruct the events during her illness.

If this doesn't sound compelling enough, Cahalan takes you deeper.  You'll learn about monstrous tumors complete with hair and teeth that inhabit otherwise normal people, and even delve into the supernatural to see how her symptoms are eerily similar to people believed to be possessed with evil spirits.

Given Cahalan's occupation as a journalist and the fascinating subject matter, this is a book you won't want to put down.  And given that it's a true story, you won't soon take your sanity for granted. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

This book was a CBR recommendation and I wasn't disappointed.  In fact, I'm calling it now as one of my top five books for the year.

Nothing to Envy is based on the lives of North Korean defectors, whom Demick reported on extensively during her time working as the Los Angeles Times Bureau chief in Korea.  Her book focuses on six individuals, all from Chongjin.  It is beautifully written, at times reading like a fictional novel rather than a journalistic work of non-fiction.  Sadly, but intriguingly, the book also read like a YA dystopian drama when Demick described the facts of life that are socialism in North Korea.

From her descriptions of the rationing of food and electricity to the requirement that citizens must apply for travel permits even to travel within the county, I realized how truly naive I was about other parts of the world, for I couldn't fathom a society quite like she described.  Demick describes buildings with elevator shafts build into them, but no elevators; cities outfitted for electricity that went unused all but a few hours of the day; sporadically run railroad lines; empty factories; and employees who worked unpaid, but for the promise of additional rations, when they became available.

NASA image of the Korean peninsula.
Reading about the capital city, Pyongyang, was reminiscent of reading about the Capitol City of Panem in the Hunger Games.  Only the elite were allowed to live and study in Pyongyang.  They received more food and electricity than others elsewhere.  This is also where foreigners visited, so the regime went to "great length to ensure that its inhabitants make a good impression with their appearance and are ideologically sound."  Demick herself felt that when she visited as a journalist, people would be placed in certain areas and in certain outfits to create a false idealistic image of the country.

Demick gives antecdotes here and there that are at times hilarious and disturbing.  One of my favorites is her description of typical math word problems.  "Three soldiers from the Korean People's Army killed thirty American soldiers.  How many American soldiers were killed by each of them if they all killed an equal number of enemy soldiers?"  Or one of the songs taught in music class...

"Our enemies are the American bastards
Who are trying to take over our beautiful fatherland
With guns that I make with my own hands
I will shoot them.  BANG, BANG, BANG."

And the propoganda.  Oh the propoganda.  The posters throughout the country with the smiling face of Kim Il-Sung, the public address systems installed in buildings for government announcements, the people hired to drive through the streets announcing how well companies were doing and how hard everyone should work.  Citizens not only worked for the state at day jobs, they also attended ideological training before and after work.  It was exhausting just to read about.

Then there were the community groups and meetings...each person was a member of their neighborhood inminban.  This was basically a system whereby neighbors looked out for criminal activity or political disobedience.  Even a quick, sarcastic comment could sentence a person to a prison labor camp.  No one dared speak ill of the government for fear that an overly zealous neighbor would report them.  This bred a culture in which people would say and do things for no reason other than to give the impression that they are law abiding, loyal citizens.  Demick writes about people who would add things to letters to show how much they loved their country and the "Supreme Leader" for the sake of the government censors.

Demick also details the mass hysteria that gripped the country when Kim Il-sung died.  Some people were truly hysterical.  But for those who had doubts, they knew that if they didn't show the "appropriate" response to his death, it could mean time in a prison camp.  So even those who defected, who were disullusioned with the country's politics, found themselves crying tears for a man they didn't respect.

Of course, Demick covers the famine of the 90's, where hundreds of thousands of North Korean citizens (if not millions) died of starvation.  The country's leaders had campaigns like the "Let's eat two meals a day" campaign early in the food shortage.  Enrollment in school dropped precipitously as children died of starvation.  By 1995 the frog population of North Korea was wiped out due to overhunting.  Families took to fields and forests to gather weeds and moss and learned to cook indigestible food longer to make it more palatable.

Demick chronicles the lives of six individuals, all from the same city, but with a spectrum of background stories.  There is Mrs. Song, a true believer of the Juche self-reliance ideology and occasional leader of her inminban.  Mrs. Song religiously polished her state-issued pictures of Kim Il-Sung and his son, Kim Jong-il with the state-issued polishing cloth (not making this up).  We also learn about Oak Hee, Mrs. Song's rebellious daughter.  Perhaps my favorite story line was that of Mi-ran and Jun-sang, secret sweethearts who could never get married because of the "sins" of Mi-ran's father's past.  His role in the South Korean army during the Korean war gave his family bad songbun, or social status, that lasted three generations.  There is also Kim Hyuck, an orphan whose actions were motivated by hunger, rather than state loyalty, and Dr. Kim, who learned after defecting that dogs in china ate better than doctors in North Korea.  Through Dr. Kim, Demick describes the effects the food shortage of the 90's on the North Korean citizens.  Pellagra, acute constipation, and stunted growth, among other ailments afflicted her patients.  The hospital also suffered, no longer offering heat or even IV bags to its patients, who would bring empty bottles of beer in which to put the fluid.

From these individuals, we see orphanages, black markets, schools, hospitals, and the day to day lives of a varied cross section of North Koreans.  Demick gives us a general history of the politics and demography of Korea, she describes the indoctination of the Juche ideology so well that we, in a small way, understand the motivations of the individuals when they eat while children around them starve.  Or when they fear for their futures when they can't shed a tear over Kim Il-sung's death.  Or when they make the life-changing decision to leave North Korea forever.

Nothing to Envy is about more than you think.  It's not just a retelling of the strange and infuriating things about North Korea that make us glad to be Americans.  It's also about the pride of the North Korean people, many who truly believe they have nothing to envy from the rest of the world.  It's this second thing that is harder to grasp, but perhaps by reading this book, you'll be a step closer to understanding it.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Dark Moonlighting by Scott Haworth

Hmmm....everything about this book makes me want to like it.  The premise, the satire, the author, and a lot of reviews I skimmed on Goodreads.  But I just can't bring myself to the level of enthusiasm of these other reviewers.

Dark Moonlighting is the first of a four novel series.  It's about Nick, a 600 year old vampire doctor-lawyer-police officer (needing only 2 hours of sleep a night, Nick has plenty of time to work) .  No, Nick isn't sexy, he doesn't glow in the sunlight, and he doesn't live on synthetic blood.  He has a virus that drives him to kill about one person a week, drinking their blood and then urinating profusely after each kill.  If you calculate the "Urinator's" body count, this comes to around 30,000 souls.  But don't fret, Nick doesn't kill innocent people.  A vampiric Dexter of sorts, he rids society of its scum, which, in this day and age, includes dreaded spammers and door to door evangelists.

Some of the reviews I've read have hailed the book for its departure from the popular vampire genre.  Reviewers are thrilled with a vampire who doesn't take himself too seriously.  While these things may be true, it doesn't automatically mean the book is good.  Are we so disullusioned with Twilight and True Blood that we'll bed the first ugly vampire to wink at us?

The problem I have is with the writing.  Yes, Dark Moonlighting is tongue in cheek and bleeding with satire and pop culture references, but despite this, the jokes flatlined for me.  I kept getting the feeling I was reading something a junior high schooler wrote.  There was no subletly to the humor, instead, the jokes were obvious and overexplained.  Who knows, maybe that's part of what makes it funny and I'm just not getting it, but I couldn't get over the amateur feel the writing had.  Haworth has a lot of good ideas, he just didn't execute them to my liking.

I can't completely write the book off, as it had its moments and was a quick, easy read.  But I won't be rushing to complete this tetralogy any time soon.