Live from Vegas: Ms. Germanotta & Mr. Cooper

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In case you were buried under a rock in 2018…

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Without You, There Is No Us

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What would a book about North Korea (officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) be without some kind of controversy tied to it? Certainly not Suki Kim’s seminal 2014 book Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite.

Suki Kim was born in South Korea smack-dab in the middle of the highly authoritarian Park Chung-hee era. She and her family then  immigrated to the United States in the wake of a minor hotel scandal in Washington D.C., when Ms. Kim was five years old.

Without You, There Is No Us (the author borrows the title from a patriotic song celebrating the Great General Kim Jong-il) follows Suki Kim’s journey in and around Pyongyang over a roughly 10-year period, from her first visit to the capital city of the DPRK in February 2002 to the six months she  lived in Pyongyang in 2011, or Juche 100 (of course North Korea has its own calendar, which starts in 1911, the year Kim Il-sung was born according to the Gregorian calendar).

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(The always romantic Pyongyang. Imagine how beautiful it is at night without electricity.)

Ironically, she first went to North Korea for Kim Jong-Il’s 60th birthday, and left upon his death in December 2011.

The book focuses mainly on Ms. Kim’s experience in 2011, when she was an ESL instructor at a school that taught its undergraduates neither science nor technology but was aptly called the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST). Further to that, the school was completely funded by the $10 million James Kim, a Korean American, raised from evangelical churches worldwide, yet PUST did not allow for the teaching of any faith, and students were not allowed to be exposed to the Bible.

WTF?

As she herself put it, there were “[t]hirty missionaries disguised as teachers and 270 male North Korean students and me, the sole writer disguised as a missionary disguised as a teacher.”

It’s tantalizingly titillating. Deception upon deception upon deception. Now, to be fair, how else are we going to learn anything relatively objective about the ultimate Hermit Kingdom if not by deceit, spying, and other duplicitous behaviour? The short answer is that it’s impossible.

So, the first layer to this onion is that most of these Christians were not properly trained as ESL teachers. The second layer is that almost nobody had a Ph.D., yet they were mostly referred to as “professors” and “teaching assistants.” The third layer is that Suki Kim is not Christian, and identifies her family as mostly atheist. The fourth layer is that she had to keep track of her experiences surreptitiously on four separate memory sticks, as her every move, conversation, email correspondence, and phone call was monitored by North Korean officials.

Aside from getting a general background on Korean history (both sides of the border), we also learn about Ms. Kim’s upbringing, her family members, and her career as a writer and journalist (and teacher). Mostly, though, the reader is given as intimate an account of everyday life for North Korean students as you can read about today.

It will come as no surprise that North Koreans have been brainwashed to a point that we would call Jim Jones-like cultism; they  venerate Kim Il-sung, his son, Kim Jong-il, and now Kim Jong-un as something akin to how God-fearing Christians view God and Jesus Christ.

(Those are two tall dudes.)

They’re also hopelessly ignorant (and Kim Suki was reportedly teaching the best and brightest in the country). Apparently kimchi is the most famous food on all continents, Korean is spoken in every country, the world reveres Kim Il-sung, and North Korea is the gold standard by which other nations should aspire to emulate. But ask them about Macs, iPods, Kindles, the Internet, the Great Pyramid of Giza, the dark web, Burger King, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, or the first country to land a man on the moon, and all you will hear is crickets.

As one reviewer, Euny Hong, quipped in her New York Times book review in 2014:

“To call North Korea a banana republic — the term historically used to denote little dictatorships with only one export — would be an insult to bananas. For North Korea produces nothing the world needs, and the regime knows it. Kim recounts many ­examples of how this global uselessness is the regime’s own fault. To cite just one, the government has, until very recently, concealed the existence of the World Wide Web.

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(Who knew? North Korea has a clothing and accessories retail chain.)

Finally, there is the last “hot issue” surrounding this book. Depending on which version of the book you buy (i.e. which printing and in which country it’s purchased), the word “memoir” may or may not appear on the cover.

According to an interview with NPR titled “Mislabeled as a Memoirist, Author Asks: Whose Work Gets To Be Journalism,” Kim Suki “argued that her investigative reporting would not have been confused for a personal narrative account were she not Korean or a woman.”

Ms. Kim put it in her own words as follows: “I did not know that this was going to be a memoir until the very last minute, when the book cover arrived and I saw the words. And I immediately said, ‘I don’t under[stand]. I mean this is not a memoir.’ I never thought of it as that. The book has personal perspectives, but all of that was used to explain this foreign world. Now suddenly my reporting was not acknowledged once you call it ‘memoir.'”

Whatever you label it, this is a fantastic book and a one-of-a-kind journey into the heart of the beast. As someone who read the book knowing nothing about the author or her objective, Without You, There Is No Us is successful both as a memoir and investigative journalism to me.

Finally, Suki Kim has done a very good job, partly through her own personal stories, to explain what to outsiders is a complicated situation as seen through a Western lens: from Romanization (there are three systems now in play between the two Koreas) and geography (why the 38th parallel and why in 1945?) to history (the Three Kingdoms of Korea era is different from the three-dynasty period) and cultural traits (why basketball and soccer are acceptable sports in North Korea because they’re group activities, while golf and tennis are alien to North Koreans as individual endeavours).

Long of the short, in a time when Trudeau and Trump are both being blasted by the media and citizenry alike, read this book if for nothing else than to be soberly reminded how much we have to be grateful for in our respective democracies.

UPDATE: In a December 16, 2014 letter to the editor of The New York Times, Suki Kim wrote the following:

“The review of my book Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite (Dec. 14) offers a gross misreading. The reviewer writes: ‘Kim’s narrative suggests that the regime’s stranglehold on information is starting to crack.’

In fact, the book as a whole suggests quite the opposite — that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s stranglehold is even tighter than we assume, and that it extends to the children of the elite. The reviewer cites a passage in which a tiny number of graduate students are taught to use Google as an example of North Korea’s loosening of control, omitting that the dean of the computer department thinks ‘their access must be quite limited.’ She also writes: ‘The books reminds us that evil is not only banal; it is also completely arbitrary.’

But my book is about the exact opposite — how evil is not arbitrary in North Korea, and how it is systematically meted out from the top down, the military dictatorship that exploits the myth of the Great Leader to its own citizens imprisoned in a gulag posing as a nation.”

SUKI KIM

NEW YORK

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Toronto: The Livable, User-friendly City!

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(A shot of downtown T.O., just up the street from my pad)

How’s that title for a tourism slogan! Come to Toronto, where you can live as a human being AND use kindly things in a way that will make them seem like they’re a friend.

Writer and translator Manjushree Thapa over at The Millions has penned what is labelled a “quasi-love letter to Toronto,” the city I was born in, grew up in, and now live in (making me as rare a species as the Manhattanite who was born, raised, and still lives on the 59 km2 island), titled “I Don’t Love You, Toronto: On Books and Cities.”

It’s an interesting look at Toronto from the point of view of someone arriving here as an adult. Not only does she look into the city’s Native Canadian roots (something most of us Torontonians, sadly, know little about), but she also links some well-know CanLit (Canadian literature) books to the city.

Although Ms. Thapa is from Nepal, she nailed something soooooo Toronto when talking about housing: “…we’d slip into that most Torontonian of conversations, about buying or renting or moving away entirely.” The only thing missing from that statement is …or put our names down on the provincial 160,000 person waiting list for affordable housing (almost half of that list being in Toronto alone).

For what it’s worth, my favourite novel about Toronto remains Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, which earned him a Toronto Book Award in 1988.

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Like, Fill This, Yo!

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Imagine, if you will, receiving the following message:

hi lance(lot)

wasn’t that, like, so so so clever how i, um, ya know, changed you’re, like, name like that?!?!? anyways, i, was, ah, ya know, just wonderin’ if you’d, like, wanna hook up this, um, weekend and, like, shoot some stick at bobs burgers?! everyone’ll be there, eh.

k, talk soon

rance mulligan

If you have not self-immolated or torn out all your hair after reading that doozie, then congratulations. I am currently smoldering, my scarlet gown and long wig reduced to ashes.

As Willy S. would have written if he were alive today:

Shall I compare that missive to an 18-car trainwreck?

Thou art more lovelier and more temperature:

Rough winds do shake ‘n bake the buds of grammar, punctuation & filler words,

And language’s lease hath all too short a hot date.

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Ah, yes, filler words. What would the world come to if we wrote the same way many of us speak English? At the top of my Seek & Destroy List are filler words in spoken English, notably the use of “like.”

Filler words, otherwise known as pause fillers or the hesitation form, are essentially meaningless words, phrases, or sounds that fill in a gap in speech. I suppose my question is this: Do native English speakers (i.e. those most guilty of committing said verbal infractions) not realize how dumbass they look when constantly using the word “like” as a filler word?

Surely you can’t be serious, the reader says. I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.

I, like many before me, have spent a considerable amount of time trying to clean up my writing, but how many of us are conscious about the way we speak? They say first impressions leave the most lasting impression. And while it’s true that how you look and present yourself are critical in making a great first impression, how you speak is also important. (I was going to write very important or quite important, but then remembered the challenge I threw out yesterday about eliminating mocking adverbs for the next seven days.)

So, the next time you catch yourself using one of the most common filler words (like, um, ah, you know, okay, er, right), reach for a bar of soap and give your mouth a good ol’ cleaning. The person with whom you’re speaking to will be eternally grateful.

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To Kill a Mocking Adverb (and Other Killables)

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Benjamin Dreyer has some advice for both aspiring and established writers (and something Stephen King — who once wrote “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs” — would wholeheartedly embrace): “Go a week without writing ‘very,’ ‘rather,’ ‘really,’ ‘quite,’ and ‘in fact.’ ” (“Feel free to go the rest of your life without another ‘actually,’ [too.]”)

In his book Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, Mr. Dreyer has penned what his publisher calls “A witty, informative guide to writing “good English” from Random House’s longtime copy chief and one of Twitter’s leading enforcers of proper grammar — a twenty-first-century Elements of Style.

I think Messrs. King and Dreyer would agree that instead of going into overkill mode with your adverbs when writing, stretch your noodle to think of more appropriate/creative adjectives, metaphors or similes.

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Grammar: It Ain’t Don’t Get No Better Than This

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What do word nerds do in their free time? Sometimes they tell jokes (or cut and paste witty witticisms into their posts). As per one shiny example:

Klaussz: Did you hear about the constipated mathematician?

Scooter: He must have had bad dandruff!

Klaussz: What the **** is wrong with you, man? No! He worked it out with a pencil.

Actually, word nerds, grammarians and overall spaznuts like yours truly like going though dictionaries, reading interesting blogs on linguistics,, and dissecting languages as a whole and how they reflect on cultures, etcetera, and so on, ad nauseam.

Earlier, while looking up something on predicates, I stumbled upon a post on some random site from an old friend of mine who is a walking dictionary in both English and Korean.

Growing up, my teachers told me that a sentence only required a subject (pronoun or noun) and a verb (action word). But as I got older, things seemed to get dicier with the official explanation. Now it was all about a subject and a predicate.

To me, predicates just seemed like snooty verbs, a pack of wolves dressed in sheep’s clothing. Or, you know, something like that.

Anyway, my pal Gary Rector had this to say about the topic at hand, and I thought I’d share it with all the other hosebags out there who share my fascination with words.

The predicate of a sentence is the verb and its objects, complements, and modifiers (if any). Look at these example sentences:

John is sleeping. [The verb and predicate are identical: is sleeping.]

Mary likes coffee. [The verb is likes. The predicate is likes coffee.]

Sally takes her coffee with cream and sugar. [The verb is takes. The predicate is takes her coffee with cream and sugar.]

 

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A Little Heartbreak, A Dose of Literary Reality

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I’m hoping this was just a speed bump on the road called Jack Reacher.

I just finished Lee Child’s latest addition to the Jack Reacher series, Past Tense, and was…What’s the word…Saddened? Untitillated? Underwhelmed?

JR is once again the middle of Nowhere, USA. He’s kinda/sorta looking for his father’s birthplace. He gets into a few fights. He wins them all handily. The end.

Of the roughly 3,454 books I’ve read by Mr. Child, this was the first time I felt let down, something many of us have experienced at one time or another with authors/artists we love. We are, after all, human. No artist can remain at the top of their A game forever (although a solid argument could be made for Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso, Mr. Picasso’s baptismal name).

I remember the first time this happened to me as a reader of fiction, feeling somewhat crestfallen, that is. I fell in love with Tolstoy at a young age, starting with War and Peace, moving onto Anna Karenina (which his old comrade Dostoyevsky called “the greatest love story ever written”), and culminating in his last novel, Resurrection, in 1899, which had a great premise but ultimately fell flat.

Then it happened with Murakami Haruki. I loved A Wild Sheep Chase. What followed (in English translation) was Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Norwegian Wood, Dance Dance Dance, South of the Border, West of the Sun, and then his opus, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. From there, things went south for me (but not west of the sun), including Murakami’s choice for his new translator. It began with Sputnik Sweetheart and Kafka on the Shore, and then — contrary to what some believe — 1Q84.

Alternatively, there are some “red wine” authors that seem to get better with age, like Ayn Rand (I know, I know…This will be controversial with certain readers), who went from We the Living (amazing, with a terrific ending) to The Fountainhead (profound, nearly led to a complete nuclear meltdown for Ms. Rand) to her true opus, Atlas Shrugged (which had a profound influence on philosophy, politics and social movements). The same could be said of Somerset Maugham, who started relatively early with Of Human Bondage, then The Moon and Sixpence and then, at the tail end of his career as a novelist, his opus, The Razor’s Edge.

Finally, there are the yo-yos of the literary world. Take Fyodor Dostoyevsky. He broke out to wild acclaim in 1846 with a novella called Poor Folk, and didn’t get 15 minutes of fame; he got, quite literally, 15 days of being what Guardian contributor Daniel Kalder called a “cause celebre.” It would be 20 years (of being pissed on and heckled) until Fedya D regained his rightful place as a master of fiction after the release of Crime and Punishment in 1866. His last novel, seen by many to be his opus, was The Brothers Karamazov.

As a final note, and as it pertains to the genesis of this post, 61 Hours and Worth Dying For are my two favourite Reacher novels to date.

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They’re Ba~~~ck

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As part of their Thank You Canada Tour (@thethankyoutour) last year, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the most decorated ice dance skaters in Olympic history, took their farewell tour across every Canadian province along with some of their BFF skating colleagues.

Tonight, Sunday, February 10, CTV will be broadcasting one of these performances. If you want to see some pretty sick (but not ill) figure skaters doing some pretty wicked hot (but chilly at ice level) things with a pair of skates, go to CTV.ca tonight at 7 p.m. EST, or click on this link to stream live.

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Creating More Memorable Memories

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@larrykim has an interesting article on memory and memory formation called “Want to Improve Your Memory? Science Tells Us the Key (and It Can Actually Be Fun).”

I’ve long been fascinated by memory. From mnemonics (devices for aiding one’s memory) to art (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Blade Runner both posited the question of whether implanted memories made a person inhuman) to science and health (does the onset of Alzheimer’s, for example, take away our humanity/humanness?) to  why long-term memories can sometimes be stronger than short-term memories.

Ancient Greeks and Romans were drawn to mnemonics for the obvious reason of retaining more information, but also because they believed it made them better orators. I read once that the origin of mnemonics came from a house fire in ancient Athens. Everybody who was present perished in the blaze except for one man. Amazingly, he was able to identify the charred corpses of the dead based on nothing more than their location within the house. Thus, it’s no surprise that early instructors of mnemonics used the analogy of the rooms/walls/doors/widows in a house to compartmentalize the acquisition of knowledge.

But back to Mr. Kim’s article and his advice for giving your mind a good ol’ lube job:

Try these tips for improving your recall when you want to remember important information:

  • Distract yourself. You might feel like you’re being super productive and focused by sticking to your work, but you’re less likely to recall it later.You’re not a bad person for taking a two-minute YouTube break, and for crying out loud, stop buying into the myth that multitasking = greater productivity.

  • Celebrate quick wins. Dopamine is released when you finish something, so have a list of small tasks you can tackle to get some quick wins in throughout the day.

  • Take regular body breaks. Get a jump rope. Run up a flight of office stairs. Even if all you have time to do in get up and do 10 jumping jacks beside the desk, you’re giving yourself a little boost of endorphins and dopamine.(Bonus: it’ll make you more creative, too.)

  • Take the opportunity to try something new. It doesn’t have to mean learning a whole new skill. Maybe it’s a sensory surprise — run your hands over different materials, or go outside when it’s cold and come back in. Maybe (outside of a scent-free workplace) it means a warmer with different scented oils. The point is to create change in your workspace so it’s not always the same old, same old.

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