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My Book of Books

"Wisdom is not the product of schooling, but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it"

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Biographies

“In Order to Live” Yeonmi Park

This one’s for you if you’re interested in what life is really like in modern day North Korea.

Shocking. The word I would use to describe this book. Shocking on a whole new scale. In many ways, this book reminded me of reading about Mao’s reign over China in Wild Swans. But the author of this book was born in 1993, the same year as me. To think that the experiences she describes are happening to people now, is truly horrific. The poverty in North Korea, the human trafficking in China once they cross the border, the journey to South Korea via Mongolia, and the enormous culture shock of arriving in South Korea, all accompanied by a perennial fear that is difficult to imagine. The saddest thing of all is when you try to think of a way out of the terrible situation that faces North Koreans. The fear of nuclear war will surely cripple any meaningful action by western governments. And the chances of change from within are equally crippled by the culture of citizens monitoring each other and living in fear of the authorities.

“We all belonged to inminbam, or neighbourhood “people’s units”, and we were ordered to inform on anyone who said the wrong thing. We lived in fear, and almost everyone- my mother included- had a personal experience that demonstrated the dangers of talking.” p16

“In most countries, a mother encourages her children to ask about everything, but not in North Korea…”even when you think you’re alone, the birds and mice can hear you whisper.” She didn’t mean to scare me, but I felt a deep darkness and horror inside me.” p19

“Everything about you is recorded and stored in local administrative offices and in big national organizations, and the information is used to determine where you can live, where you can go to school, and where you can work.” p26 This explains how the actions of the inminbam contribute to your position in society, or “songbun” status.

“Instead of scary fairy tales, we had stories set in a filthy and disgusting place called South Korea, where homeless children went barefoot and begged in the streets.” p46 Government propaganda extended not just to children’s stories but to their schoolwork as well- using derogative terms to describe Americans in maths problems.

“Just about every morning we woke up to the sound of the national anthem blaring on the government supplied radio. Every household in North Korea had to have one, and you could never turn it off. It was tuned to only one station, and that’s how the government could control you even when you were in your own home.” p66 This meant that people woke up and ate lunch at times set by the state.

After having an operation, “Because we had no money to bribe them, the nurses ignored me. My mother had to do everything from keeping my incision clean to giving me whatever food she could find.” p112

“The Chinese government doesn’t want a flood of immigrants, nor does it want to upset the leadership in Pyongyang. Not only is North Korea a trading partner, but it’s a nuclear power perched right on its border, and an important buffer between China and the American presence in the South.” p131 Therefore North Koreans were at huge risk of being sent back to North Korea by the Chinese authorities.

“The material things were worthless. I had lost my family. I wasn’t loved, I wasn’t free, and I wasn’t safe. I was alive, but everything that made life worth living was gone.” p142 In China, Yeonmi agreed to live with the person who had trafficked her and her mother in return for him buying her mother back so that they could be reunited.

“If the Chinese government would end its heartless policy of sending refugees back to North Korea, then the brokers would lose all of their power to exploit and enslave these women. But of course if North Korea wasn’t such a hell on Earth, there wouldn’t be a need for the women to flee in the first place.” p154/5

Reflecting on her time in China: “For nearly two years, I’d felt like all five of my senses were numbed. I could not feel, smell, see, hear, or taste the world around me. If I had allowed myself to experience these things in all their intensity, I might have lost my mind…So I survived, but I never felt joy, never felt safe. Now, as I listened to my mother sing the old songs, the numbness melted away.” p186

While crossing from China into Mongolia “I also started hating the dictator Kim Jong Il that night. I hadn’t thought much about it before, but now I blamed him for our suffering. I finally allowed myself to think bad thoughts about him because even if he could read my mind, I was probably going to die out here anyway…even in the face of death, betraying the Dear Leader was probably the hardest thing I had ever done.” p196

On reaching South Korea “I felt the shame of the survivor who lives while so many friend and family members have died or are are trapped in a living hell.” p206

Park’s interrogation agent in South Korea, interviewing her about her past, scoffs at the idea of her attending university but admits that everyone deserves second chance. “A second chance is what criminals get. I knew I wasn’t a criminal; I did what I had to do to survive and save my family.” p211 This also reminded me of the rhetoric that some people are using when discussing the current European refugee crisis.

“if everything I had been taught was a lie, how could I know these people weren’t lying, too? It was impossible to trust anyone in authority.” p215 Just one of the long lasting effects of having lived under such a dictatorship.

When asked during her 3 months at a resettlement center what her hobbies were, Park thought “I had no idea what a “hobby” was. When it was explained to me that it was something I did that made me happy, I couldn’t conceive of such a thing . My only goal was supposed to be making the regime happy.” p216

 

“Do No Harm” Henry Marsh

This one is for you if you’re interested in the life of a brain surgeon that is happy to discuss his mistakes and criticise the NHS.

As patients, we tend to put our doctor(s) on a pedestal. Maybe it’s because we want to believe they are going to solve our problems, regardless of whether they can. Maybe it’s because so many patients can’t imagine the responsibility of being a doctor, so think that they must be ‘super human’ in some way. Whatever the reason, we often don’t want to hear about things going wrong. And we are quick to criticise when they do, even if we have been warned multiple times of the risks involved in a certain procedure. One of the things I loved most about this book was that Marsh was so comfortable with appearing human. Mistakes are made by people all the time. Some are big, some are small. Some have drastic consequences, others go unnoticed. But while we can easily recognise that mistakes are a part of our imperfect human nature, we don’t often extend this hand of understanding to medical professionals. Having retired in 2015, Marsh has a wealth of experience of working in the NHS which allows him to take you step by step through the introduction of increasing bureaucracy and government targets that have sadly become so dominant today. And for those that love a bit of gore, there are some fantastic descriptions of surgery itself in this delightfully short and easy to read book.

“The idea that my sucker is moving through thought itself, through emotion and reason, that memories, dreams and reflections should consist of jelly, is simply too strange to understand.” p1

“She would be added to the list of my disasters- another headstone in that cemetery  which the French surgeon Leriche once said all surgeons carry within themselves.” p5

“‘Informed consent’ sounds so easy in principle- the surgeon explains the balance of risks and benefits, and the calm and rational patient decides what he or she wants- just like going to the supermarket and choosing from the vast array of toothbrushes on offer.” p36

“As patients we are deeply reluctant to offend a surgeon who is about to operate on us.” p37

“I dislike telling patients that their operation has been cancelled at the last moment just as much as I dislike telling people that they have cancer and are going to die. I resent having to say sorry for something that is not my fault and yet the poor patients cannot very well be sent away without anybody saying something.” p97/8

“The junior doctors work such short hours that they are desperate for even the most basic surgical experience.” p119

“how strange it is that I should now be listening to a young man with a background in catering telling me that I should develop empathy, keep focuses and stay calm.” p129 This was after Marsh had worked as a doctor for 30 years!

“Life without hope is hopelessly difficult but at the end hope can so easily make fools of us all.” p139

“Surgeons must always tell the truth but rarely, if ever, deprive patients of all hope…Nevertheless, sooner or later, most of the patients, like Helen, will reach the point of no return. It is often very difficult for both doctor and patient to admit that it has been reached.” p142

On the old X Ray system of hanging them up: “the system was completely reliable and quite unlike the computers that now dominate my working life.” p156

 

 

“Open” Andre Agassi

This one’s for you if you’d like to know more about tennis at the highest level, or about Agassi’s fascinating hatred of tennis.

One of the most common debates in sport is whether nature or nurture is more important in setting champions apart from their competitors. Andre Agassi could not have been given better nurturing as far as his tennis was concerned. His dad started his training program when Agassi was a baby, and spent long days with him on the tennis court in the garden with a contraption that Andre named “the dragon”, which fired balls at the young tennis prodigy. From his first tournaments in the under 10 age group, his talent caught people’s eye. But the long term psychological effects of being pushed into a sport so intense at such a young age, with incredible amounts of pressure from his father are evident, and described very openly in this book. Aside from Agassi as a person, it is interesting to grasp what is really goes on behind the scenes: all the injuries that are never spoken about, the easily explainable losses that are used by the press as ammunition with which to attack players, and the personal ups and downs that are inevitable for players who, at the end of the day, are only human. It really makes you appreciate how little the press really know about what is going on with each player. As a result they go on little nuggets, and have no problem filling in the gaps with whatever they feel will make the best story. As you suspect from watching on TV, the mental challenges that players face during the hours and hours of a single match are fascinating to read about.

“it’s the Four Seasons, so it’s lovely, but it’s still just another version of what I call Not Home. The non- place we exist as athletes.” p6

“I’m like a tennis racket on which I’ve replaced the grip four times and the strings seven times- is it accurate to call it the same racket?” p7

“It’s no accident, I think, that tennis uses the language of life. Advantage, service, fault, break, love, the basic elements of tennis are those of everyday existence, because every match is a life in miniature.” p8

“one loss has caused me to take up his rant. I’ve internalised my father- his impatience, his perfectionism, his rage- until his voice doesn’t just feel like my own, it is my own. I no longer need my father to torture me. From this day on, I can do it all by myself.” p38 Aged 8, having won 7 u10 tournaments in a row, Andre loses a match.

“You’re a tennis player! You’re going to be number one in the world! You’re going to make lots of money. That’s the plan, and that’s the end of it.” p57 After injuring himself playing football, Andre goes back to play again a few weeks later, much to the anger of his dad who removes him from the pitch.

“The warden has tacked several years to my sentence, and there’s nothing to be done but pick up my hammer and return to the rock pile.” p77 Andre goes to the Bollettieri Academy, which he compares to a prison, and after seeing him play for the first time, Nick Bollettieri phones his dad to offer to keep Andre on for free. Andre only decided to go because he thought he could go home after a few months, and nobody asks if he wants to stay.

“I learn about myself, create myself through imitation. How else could I do it? I spent my childhood in an isolation chamber, my teen years in a torture chamber.” p141 On the value of the team he built up around him.

“But I don’t feel that Wimbledon has changed me. I feel, in fact, as if I’ve been let in on a dirty little secret: winning changes nothing.” p165 Following 1992 Wimbledon.

“After all these years I’ve got what I’ve always wanted, something to play for that’s larger than myself and yet still closely connected to me.” p267 The Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy.

“No matter what your life is, choosing it changes everything.” p359

“Transformation is change from one thing to another, but I started as nothing. I didn’t transform, I formed…I think older people make this mistake all the time with younger people, treating them as finished products when in fact they’re in the process. It’s like judging a match before it’s over, and I’ve come from behind too often, and had too many opponents come roaring back against me, to think that’s a good idea.” p372 after a question from the press on his transformation.

“If this is a Man/The Truce” Primo Levi

This one’s for you if you’re interested in a beautifully written autobiographical book about an Italian Jew before, during and after the Second World War. His detailed account of his time at Auschwitz is harrowing, inspiring and incredibly moving in equal measure.

The sign outside Auschwitz had it’s motto written on it- “Arbeicht macht freit” which means work gives one freedom. p28

“He who loses all often easily loses himself” p30

Talking of ‘life’ within Auschwitz- “the only things alive are machines and slaves- the former are more alive than the latter” p78

“the more civilised the more the wisdom and efficiency of its laws hinder a weak from being too weak or a powerful one too powerful” p94. I thought this was a very interesting measure of society.

“When one waits time moves smoothly without need to intervene…when one works, every minute moves painfully and has to be laboriously driven away.” p110

Talking of the constant proximity of death in the camp “until one day there will be no more sense in saying tomorrow” p139

And reflecting on the subject again at the end of the War- “there are no longer any strong men among us”, “they will only find us, the slaves, the worn-out, worthy of the unarmed death which awaits us”, “to destroy a man is difficult but you Germans have succeeded.” All p156

“I had completely forgotten the hunger and the cold…so true is it that the need for human contact is to be numbered among the primordial needs” p223

One’s moral universe “represents an abridged form of his biography” p224

Describing the passing of time at Auschwitz: “empty days, without encounters, without events to anchor the memory” p299

“there is no rationality in the Nazi hatred: it is a hatred that is not in us, it is outside man…but we can and must understand from where it springs” p396

On why he thinks he managed to survive: “determination…to always recognise in my companions and myself, men, not things and then to avoid that total humiliation and demoralisation which led so many to spiritual shipwreck.” p398

Just to explain the two titles for this- you can buy the two books in combination which is what I did, effectively reading them both as one.

“Wild Swans” Jung Chang

This one’s for you if you’re interested in a very easy to read account of Chinese history.

Wild Swans is written as a personal history of 3 generations of women in the author’s family. According to an interview in 2013 in The Telegraph, it became the best selling non fiction paperback ever. I found her comment about the progression of the West particularly interesting in light of recent discussions of free speech.

“Dr Xia was not keen on taking medicine, insisting that the way to good health was a sound body…treatment…cured one part of the body while doing damage to another.” p52

“the barbarity of the age old customs, cloaked in ‘tradition’ and even ‘morality’ enraged her” p97

“The need to obtain authorisation for an unspecified ‘anything’ was to become a fundamental element of Chinese Communist rule. It also meant that people learnt not to take any action on their own initiative.” p158

“The party’s all round intrusion into people’s lives was the very point of the process known as thought reform. Mao wanted not only external discipline but the total subjection of all thoughts, large or small.” p193

“Spending a Saturday” came to mean making love because that was the day that married couples were allowed to be together. p228

“Mao feared that any independent thinking might lead to less than total obedience to him.” p233

There were 3 interesting quotes about work ethic in a communist society. “How much work was done did not matter because the produce now belonged to the state, and was completely unrelated to the peasants’ lives.” p273. “we frequently spent 10 hours in the fields doing a job which could have been done in five” p527. “The virtual absence of any chance of a better future and near total immobility for anyone born a peasant took the incentive out of the pursuit of knowledge” p532

“Many thought…that the famine was caused by natural disasters” p287

“I was incapable of rational thinking. We were so cowed and contorted by fear and indoctrination that to deviate from the path laid down by Mao would have been inconceivable.” p378

Mme Mao “We would rather have socialist weeds than capitalist crops”, “We want illiterate working people not educated spiritual aristocrats” p592

“it was the very tolerance of opposition, of protests, that kept the West progressing.” p602

Mao “ruled by getting people to hate each other…Mao had managed to turn people into the ultimate weapon of dictatorship. That was why under him there was no real equivalent of the KGB in China.” p633

“I am Malala” Malala Yousafzai

This one’s for you if you’re interested in the reality of life in Pakistan, or how a teenager from Swat Valley became the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Malala’s book is easy to read and gives a fascinating first hand account of life in Pakistan over the last two decades. However much you read/watch/listen to the news, reading about life under the Taliban is shocking.

Malala is clearly an incredible young girl, whose courage and commitment to improving the lives of women in Pakistan is inspiring. But there are refreshing reminders that she is just like any other teenage girl and I loved her description of one girl stirring things up as “putting masala on the situation”.

“While most of us can’t live with our wives, he can’t live without his.”

On Pashtunwali code, “If a man in one family is killed or hurt by another man, revenge must be exacted to restore nang [honour]”.

“Our own intelligence service, ISI, virtually created the Taliban.”

“The Quran teaches us sabre- patience- but often it feels that we have forgotten the word and think Islam means women sitting at home in purdah or wearing burqas while men do jihad”

Speaking of the MMA, a group of 5 religious parties who were involved in training the Taliban, “it was as though they wanted to remove all traces of womankind from public life”

“First the taliban took our music, then our Buddhas, then our history”

“the girls of the Red Mosque madrasa…raided houses they claimed were being used as massage centres, they kidnapped women they said were prostitutes…When it suits the Taliban, women can be vocal and visible.”

Malala’s father “We are dependent on these mullahs to learn the Quaran. But you just use him to learn the literal meaning of the words; don’t follow his explanations and interpretation. Only learn what God says. His words are divine messages, which you are free and independent to interpret.”

“The Taliban could take our pens and books, but they couldn’t stop our minds from thinking.”

“When you are in the Taliban you have 100 per cent life security”

“Education is neither Eastern nor Western, it is human”

“Faqir [Mohammed] had a $200,000 bounty on his head  yet there he was sitting in a government offical’s house having dinner”

Why Malala’s father got involved in politics- “When half your leaders tell lies and the other half is negotiating with the Taliban, there is nowhere to go. One has to speak out.”

“As I found with my ear, no one knows how much power they have in their each and every organ until they lose one.”

 

I found Malala’s glossary helpful and thought I would include a few of the words here for anyone as ignorant as me.

jihad- holy war/internal struggle

purdah- segregation or seclusion of women, wearing a veil

madrasa- school for Islamic instruction

mullah- a derogatory term for an Islamic cleric- From Google.

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