Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Book Review: Human Acts: A Novel by Han Kang

Title: Human Acts: A Novel
Author: Han Kang
Pages: 224 pages
Release Date: January 17, 2017
Publisher: Hogarth
Genre: Historical fiction
My Rating: 4/5

From the internationally bestselling author of The Vegetarian, a “rare and astonishing” (The Observer) portrait of political unrest and the universal struggle for justice.

In the midst of a violent student uprising in South Korea, a young boy named Dong-ho is shockingly killed.

The story of this tragic episode unfolds in a sequence of interconnected chapters as the victims and the bereaved encounter suppression, denial, and the echoing agony of the massacre. From Dong-ho’s best friend who meets his own fateful end; to an editor struggling against censorship; to a prisoner and a factory worker, each suffering from traumatic memories; and to Dong-ho's own grief-stricken mother; and through their collective heartbreak and acts of hope is the tale of a brutalized people in search of a voice.

An award-winning, controversial bestseller, Human Acts is a timeless, pointillist portrait of an historic event with reverberations still being felt today, by turns tracing the harsh reality of oppression and the resounding, extraordinary poetry of humanity.

In May of 1980, Chonnam University students took to the streets to protest strong military rule in their school and city of Gwangju. Exercising martial law, South Korea's leader Chon Doo-hwan sent his troops to immediately shut down the demonstration by any means necessary. Students were gunned down. Appalled local citizens took up arms by raiding local armories and police stations to continue the democratic Gwangju Uprising. Nine days and 600 casualties later, they surrendered to Doo-hwan's troops.

Although the rationale behind the Gwangju Uprising is timely today, the political unrest is secondary to what Han Kang's Human Acts is about. Broken into interconnected chapters, Kang explores what compels people to protest ("Conscience, the most terrifying thing in the world"), survive imprisonment, torture, sexual assault, and to heal.

Don't get me wrong, Human Acts is not about perseverance. Quite the contrary. Kang's characters assert that 'moving on' is often not possible. Putting up emotional barriers is sometimes the only way to survive. This is absolutely worth a read for Kang's writing and imagination, but hot damn, this book was brutal in every sense of the word. 

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this honest review.

Additional links

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Book Review: A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy by Sue Klebold

Title: A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy
Author: Sue Klebold
Pages: 336 pages
Release Date: February 15th 2016
Publisher: Crown
Genre: Nonfiction; Crime
My Rating: 4/5

On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Over the course of minutes, they would kill twelve students and a teacher and wound twenty-four others before taking their own lives.

For the last sixteen years, Sue Klebold, Dylan’s mother, has lived with the indescribable grief and shame of that day. How could her child, the promising young man she had loved and raised, be responsible for such horror? And how, as his mother, had she not known something was wrong? Were there subtle signs she had missed? What, if anything, could she have done differently?

These are questions that Klebold has grappled with every day since the Columbine tragedy. In A Mother’s Reckoning, she chronicles with unflinching honesty her journey as a mother trying to come to terms with the incomprehensible. In the hope that the insights and understanding she has gained may help other families recognize when a child is in distress, she tells her story in full, drawing upon her personal journals, the videos and writings that Dylan left behind, and on countless interviews with mental health experts.

Filled with hard-won wisdom and compassion, A Mother’s Reckoning is a powerful and haunting book that sheds light on one of the most pressing issues of our time.

All author profits from the book will be donated to research and to charitable organizations focusing on mental health issues.

After finishing Dave Cullen's 2009 Columbine, I soon after stumbled upon Sue Klebold's book about her son's involvement with the Columbine massacre. Released only last year, A Mother's Reckoning was monumental, as the Klebold's have remained rather silent in the seventeen years since the shootings for both legal and sensitivity reasons. 

I loved this. Sue's extensive work with suicide prevention is apparent. She has dedicated her life since Columbine to better understand Dylan's actions. More specifically, to better understand why - in what would become his final act - he committed suicide.

More than once, Sue explains that she solely blames Dylan for his choices but does point her finger elsewhere (namely video games, movies, the school's culture, bullying, and Eric Harris). She goes so far as to include the line, "Eric was a failed Hitler; Dylan was a failed Holden Caulfield." I don't know how I feel about that.

I was surprised to piece together how conservative Sue is despite her claims of being pretty liberal. For example, Sue explains that Littleton, Colorado "wasn't the drug-riddled inner city, or some supposedly godless corridor like New York or Los Angeles." whoa there Donald Trump.

In some instances, Sue was the mother who believed her child could do no wrong. In recounting parts of Dylan's life 17 years later, in some ways I believe she still is. A little of this read as Sue telling her audience what they wanted to hear. Although I was conflicted by a lot of what Sue wrote, I fucking love her. Her thorough attempt to piece together her past in order to move forward is commendable. What a life she has lived.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Book Review: Columbine by Dave Cullen

Title: Columbine
Author: Dave Cullen
Pages: 496 pages
Release Date: March 3, 2010
Publisher: Twelve
Genre: History; Crime
My Rating: 5/5

"The tragedies keep coming. As we reel from the latest horror . . . " So begins a new epilogue, illustrating how Columbine became the template for nearly two decades of "spectacle murders." It is a false script, seized upon by a generation of new killers. In the wake of Newtown, Aurora, and Virginia Tech, the imperative to understand the crime that sparked this plague grows more urgent every year.

What really happened April 20, 1999? The horror left an indelible stamp on the American psyche, but most of what we "know" is wrong. It wasn't about jocks, Goths, or the Trench Coat Mafia. Dave Cullen was one of the first reporters on scene, and spent ten years on this book-widely recognized as the definitive account. With a keen investigative eye and psychological acumen, he draws on mountains of evidence, insight from the world's leading forensic psychologists, and the killers' own words and drawings-several reproduced in a new appendix. Cullen paints raw portraits of two polar opposite killers. They contrast starkly with the flashes of resilience and redemption among the survivors.

I've been wanting to read this one for awhile. It kept popping up in my radar throughout the years. Understandably, the motive behind this tragedy is super interesting. The "dyad phenomenon." Cullen did a fantastic job, I'm not so sure we could ask for anything more.

Book Review: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson

Title: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America
Author: Erik Larson
Pages: 447 pages
Release Date: February 10, 2004
Publisher: Vintage
Genre: History; Crime
My Rating: 1/5

Author Erik Larson imbues the incredible events surrounding the 1893 Chicago World's Fair with such drama that readers may find themselves checking the book's categorization to be sure that The Devil in the White City is not, in fact, a highly imaginative novel. Larson tells the stories of two men: Daniel H. Burnham, the architect responsible for the fair's construction, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer masquerading as a charming doctor.

Burnham's challenge was immense. In a short period of time, he was forced to overcome the death of his partner and numerous other obstacles to construct the famous "White City" around which the fair was built. His efforts to complete the project, and the fair's incredible success, are skillfully related along with entertaining appearances by such notables as Buffalo Bill Cody, Susan B. Anthony, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison.

The activities of the sinister Dr. Holmes, who is believed to be responsible for scores of murders around the time of the fair, are equally remarkable. He devised and erected the World's Fair Hotel, complete with crematorium and gas chamber, near the fairgrounds and used the event as well as his own charismatic personality to lure victims.

Architect proverbial dick swinging juxtaposed with a lady killer. I so did not care. This book was the sloggiest of slogs. Full disclosure: I had no intention to ever read more of Larson's works. But a very nice neighbor let me borrow this and I don't want to be a shitty neighbor. So not only did I not like this, but will probably be discussing it in small talk for the rest of my life.

I think direct quotes should still be used when writing narrative-style history to avoid confusion. For example, Erik Larson writes at one point (about women), "The city toughened them quickly, however. Best to catch them at the start of their ascent toward freedom, in transit from small places, when they were anonymous, lost, their presence recorded nowhere." Was this an actual quote taken from the killer's personal diary or is this Larson's own douchey, creepy assessment?

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Book Review: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson

Title: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin
AuthorErik Larson
Pages: 448
Release Date: May 10, 2011
Publisher: Crown
Genre: Nonfiction; History
My Rating: 2/5

Erik Larson, New York Times bestselling author of Devil in the White City, delivers a remarkable story set during Hitler’s rise to power.

The time is 1933, the place, Berlin, when William E. Dodd becomes America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Nazi Germany in a year that proved to be a turning point in history.

A mild-mannered professor from Chicago, Dodd brings along his wife, son, and flamboyant daughter, Martha. At first Martha is entranced by the parties and pomp, and the handsome young men of the Third Reich with their infectious enthusiasm for restoring Germany to a position of world prominence. Enamored of the “New Germany,” she has one affair after another, including with the surprisingly honorable first chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels. But as evidence of Jewish persecution mounts, confirmed by chilling first-person testimony, her father telegraphs his concerns to a largely indifferent State Department back home. Dodd watches with alarm as Jews are attacked, the press is censored, and drafts of frightening new laws begin to circulate. As that first year unfolds and the shadows deepen, the Dodds experience days full of excitement, intrigue, romance—and ultimately, horror, when a climactic spasm of violence and murder reveals Hitler’s true character and ruthless ambition.

Suffused with the tense atmosphere of the period, and with unforgettable portraits of the bizarre Göring and the expectedly charming--yet wholly sinister--Goebbels, In the Garden of Beasts lends a stunning, eyewitness perspective on events as they unfold in real time, revealing an era of surprising nuance and complexity. The result is a dazzling, addictively readable work that speaks volumes about why the world did not recognize the grave threat posed by Hitler until Berlin, and Europe, were awash in blood and terror.

I can understand why Erik Larson might delve into the subject of the American ambassador to Germany, pre-WWII: Hitler is coming to power etc etc, what did the American ambassador think about all this etc etc, what did the Nazis think of the American ambassador etc etc. I get it. It could be interesting. I can only suspect that after devoting too much time to the average and uninteresting Dodd family Larson was like, "fuck it, I'll try to make a compelling story and see if people take the bait because I'm a bestseller." I'm not buying what you're selling, Larson. This book was boring af.

William Dodd had no interest in being an ambassador to Germany. He did it because FDR personally asked him (unbeknownst to Dodd, after many others turned FDR's offer down). Dodd also hoped that the workload would be minimal so he could finish a book he started on the American south. It wasn't. Soon after arriving in Germany with his wife and twenty-something-year-old children, Dodd showed regret. "I have worked twenty years on the subject and dislike to run too great a risk of never finishing it. Now I am here, sixty-four years old, and engaged ten to fifteen hours a day! Getting nowhere. Yet, if I resigned, that fact would complicate matters. It defeats my history work and I am far from sure I was right in my choice last June," Dodd whined to a friend. Dodd asked for permission to take a three month vacation only 6 months into the new job.

That's not to say Dodd is lazy. Or unintelligent. He was horribly idiotic sometimes (example: On Hitler: "fundamentally, I believe a people has a right to govern itself and that other peoples must exercise patience even when cruelties and injustices are done. Give men a chance to try their schemes."), but he was also incredibly humble, steadfast, and wise. The only memorable act I can recall of Dodd is a super passive aggressive, albeit wonderful, speech he made to the American Chamber of Commerce in Berlin, in 1933.

Dodd referenced moments in English and French history to basically say "the Nazis are doomed." "In conclusion, one may safely say that it would be no sin if statesmen learned enough of history to realize that no system which implies control of society by privilege seekers has ever ended in any other way than collapse." To fail to learn from such "blunders of the past," he said, was to end up on a course toward "another war and chaos." Did I mention Joseph Goebbels and Alfred Rosenberg were in attendance? We repeat history, always. Just like we are now drawing comparisons to the rise of Hitler and Trump, but whatever.