A River in Darkness

I really like memoirs, but it seems like most of them are just the same struggles- abuse, depression, drugs, etc. Those stories are important, and I have no problem with them, but I feel like I’ve read enough of them to last me awhile. I have started branching out and trying to read books written by and about other cultures, beliefs, ethnicities, etc from around the world. I received this book from the Kindle First program and was expecting a harrowing tale of escape. I didn’t get that, but I was riveted by the story anyway.

The author, Masaji Ishikawa, is half Japanese (from his mother) and half Korean. As a child, his father was emotionally and physically abusive, but the family had a stable life in Japan, but when Masaji was 13, his father forced the family to move to North Korea. The family gave up their stability for extreme poverty. They were the lowest caste and worse, returnees, which is the lowest of the low. His family went through hunger like you can only imagine surviving on weeds at times, sickness, struggle, and misery. Life in North Korea is nothing like what the pictures lead us to believe. Unless you are in the upper class or extremely wealthy, life is pure torture.

Masaji survived over 30 years and had a family of his own. He was fortunate enough to escape (because the punishment is death if caught) and made his way to Japan, always looking over his shoulder. However, he is still fighting to get his wife and children out of North Korea.  The majority of the story is about living in North Korea and the hardships rather than the escape, which made the entire book harder to stomach. The horrors that the North Koreans face is astounding. This was a very moving book that will stick with me for a long time.

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The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific

A friend recommended this book to me a few years ago. And, immediately, I was turned off,  simply because of the title. But they, he proceeded to tell me about the plot: a guy and his girlfriend movie to a tiny, barely inhabited island in the Pacific and try to survive for a few years. What all this has to do with sex lives and cannibals, even after reading the book, I still have no idea. However, don’t judge this book by the title. It is entirely worth reading.

Maarten and his girlfriend, Sylvia, move to Tarawa, which is near the equator, nearly a third world country where water must be boiled before drinking, where people (literally) shit in the ocean only to have it washed back up to shore, where dogs are such a nuisance that they are either eaten or aren’t even braked for when driving, where fish is eaten at every meal, where canned goods are flown in, sporadically, from Australia, where this is no hospital or medicine, and where the live expectancy is just over 50 years old. So, yea. Given all that, this book is really funny. Maarten’s experience, harrowing and hilarious, is not one I would ever embark on. Ever. But I’m glad he did, and survived, to tell us this story. And, of course, in the back of your mind, you will realize just how wonderful we have it with food, water, medicine, and shit free oceans.

He has written other books about his travel, but my friend says this is his best work. Between vignettes of his situation, he tells us about the history of the island and its surrounding neighbors. This was much less interesting to me, but for no reason other than I’m just not interested in it. It was still well researched and well written. I wasn’t expecting much from this book, but I’m very glad I picked it up.

The Liars’ Club

I’ve been wanting to read Mary Karr for awhile, now. She has been recommended to many a good number of times, for various reasons. Thankfully, none of those reasons are that Karr and I share a similar childhood. I grew up in the south, too, but that’s where the similarities end.

Where I had a good home, stable childhood, and two working parents, Karr and her sister Leica (Lisa), lived predominately with their alcoholic mother, while their father came and went (mostly because the girls chose to live with their mother to protect her from herself). These days, CPS would have been more involved, but back then, kids just figured out how to deal with dysfunctional parents. Their mother suffered from depression, fueled by alcohol. And their father, though hard working, just couldn’t deal with his wife and they divorced after some time. A few boyfriends and a step father later, Mary and her sister grow up, return home to their dad, to see what life is like on the other side.

And where this story isn’t necessarily unique in the memoir world (seems like every memoir starts with a terrible childhood, because happy childhoods aren’t worth writing about?) the writing was grand. A good memoir has the reader hearing the author’s voice in his/her head. I could easily hear Karr, even though her voice is nothing like what I imagined it to be (thanks, YouTube). The turns of phrase she uses are authentic and meaningful, rather than forced.

I look forward to reading her next two memoirs, Cherry and Lit, to see how she survived trying times with southern grace and dignity.