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Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West
Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West
by Blaine Harden
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.96
149 used & new from $1.72

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Heartbreaking, March 4, 2013
Shin Dong-Hyuk was born a slave in a North Korean concentration camp. He was so isolated from the outside world that he didn't even know what money is. His life was in the hands of the guards. I simply cannot, and do not wish to, understand how anybody could treat other human beings so cruelly. This cruelty is not just the sadism of guards, it is institutional brutality, planned by Kim Il Song, one of history's most atrocious tyrants; his son Kim Jong Il comes close behind. Now power is in the hands of Kim Jong-Un, and maybe his Western education will bear fruit. He needs time, because he is in a very delicate situation. His is young, and there are a lot of entrenched powers at work who could depose him in a moment. He has to tread carefully. For the time being, I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, watch for signs of reform, and look forward to a more humane North Korea.
That said, the day after I finished reading this book, some American basketball player visited North Korea and praised all three generations of Kims as "great leaders." On the one hand, it is good that North Korea is allowing foreign athletes to visit, because exchange, and knowledge of the outside world is sure to help thaw things out. On the other hand, it is immoral to promote any form of government that you would not live under as a typical citizen. Unless Mr Basketball Player would live in a typical North Korean city, subject to possibly being placed in a place like Camp 14 just like all the other people in that country, then he should keep his mouth shut.
Let us all spend a moment in thought for the people of North Korea, and hope their lot improves quickly. Many thanks to Blaine Harden for writing this book, and much admiration for Shin Dong-Hyuk for his bravery, indomitable will, and strength. Good luck to him, and North Korea.


The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?
The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?
by Jared Diamond
Edition: Hardcover
168 used & new from $1.63

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars food for thought, March 4, 2013
As mainstream Taiwan rushes to discard everything distinctive and traditional in a headlong race to "get international," aborigines are turning back to their original cultures for inspiration and identity. I live in a Dayan (Tayal) village, and have many friends in the Tsou, Truku, Sediq, Amis, Puyuma, and other tribes, so over the years I have spent a lot of time observing and discussing many of the issues Diamond brings up in this excellent book. If you don't have a bunch of friends from tribal villages (or even if you do), but would like a lot of food for thought about this topic, this is the book for you.
What can traditional culture offer to keep us hale and hearty in modern Taiwan? Everything from dances and songs to bond with others, to language to learn from the ancients, to the many varieties of indigenous millet that are being revived. There is an intriguing mixing. Just yesterday I saw a photo of a young Puyuma wearing traditional clothes and a trilby. Quite a combination!
The traditional world has a great deal for us to recall. After all, their methods were tried and tested over millennia. We have to advantage that we may choose and discard, but remember to choose, not just discard.
The main thing I have to say to you about this book is: read it, it's good. I have two quibbles, nothing serious. First, Plate 34 shows a "Chinese" trader presenting his papers, but if you look carefully, you'll see that's a Viet Namese passport. Second, on p456 he says Ishi grew fond of railroad trains. I can't track it down at the moment, but I remember that he loved trolley cars, and rode them for hours, but thought trains were oppressive. I could be wrong. Big deal, read the book, you'll enjoy it. You don't have to agree with everything, but these are issues worth thinking about.


Dragon Bone Hill: An Ice-Age Saga of Homo erectus
Dragon Bone Hill: An Ice-Age Saga of Homo erectus
by Noel Thomas Boaz
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $32.91
94 used & new from $0.01

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent material on a very important site, August 24, 2012
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Since we were going to Beijing, we decided to go to Choukoutien (Zhoukoudian) to see the fabled sight of the Peking Man. Our inn's driver didn't know how to get there, didn't know any other drivers who had been there, and wanted to know if we wouldn't really rather go to the Great Wall? We hashed things out and were soon on our way. If you go, get a car and driver; public transportation would take forever.
The site is well worth a visit. There are few visitors, but the site is well laid out with paths and informative signs in Chinese, English, and Japanese. (The restaurant, actually the staff's lunch room, even provided us with a delicious, filling su-vegetarian lunch.) At various spots are sculptures of contemporary wildlife, so lifelike that we were startled by the first, a pair of hyenas ready to pounce on you as you come up the path.
However, the statues of the Peking Man and Woman are almost six feet tall. The bust of the Peking Man in front of the museum has the face of a very refined, educated fellow, one you could share a pot of tea with as you discussed the fine points of Wang Yangming's philosophy or Gould's rendition of Bach. This is certainly not the face of a guy who spent his days in a life and death struggle with wild beasts.
After our visit, I recalled that Dragon Bone Hill got good reviews, and I know Ciochon is a good author, so I decided to get this book. I had already read a lot about the Peking Man, in English and in Chinese, so I was familiar with the situation already, but figured that this would give me a good update.
The book fulfilled my expectations. Averaging 156cm for the men, these early people probably spent most of their time scampering up trees to escape from hyenas or saber tooth tigers, and the devil take the hindmost! This was not The Great Hunter striding across a landscape slaying beasts left and right. The book provides a great deal of detail about their circumstances as well as the fruits of almost a century of research.
Only one minor question: the authors say "the Chinese call the site Lunggushan." Apparently we are talking to different people, because it seems to me that everybody just calls it Chouk'outien. Never mind. This book is worth reading, and if you have a chance, take a trip to the site. Just make sure your driver knows how to get there.


The Ax Book: The Lore and Science of the Woodcutter
The Ax Book: The Lore and Science of the Woodcutter
by D. Cook
Edition: Paperback
Price: $17.40
45 used & new from $12.97

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a great guide to the ax, February 20, 2012
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Years of experience and vast knowledge went into the writing of this book. The author goes into every aspect of selecting, using, and maintaining an ax with great care and detail. He also has a good section on saws.
The book is so good that aside from recommending everyone who uses an ax or saw to read it, there's not much to say, so I will digress.
Something I didn't understand was that the author emphasizes that a straight handle is superior to a curved handle. I agree. Then why does the picture of the curved handled ax crossed with the double head ax appear on every chapter?
Of course the author is writing on his experience, which is far vaster, but different from my more limited experience. Here in northern Taiwan, we have different trees which provide different wood, so a lot of the information about American trees was interesting, but not practical for me. A big problem is that sometimes when you chop through a trunk, the tree stands and doesn't fall, because the crown is full of vines attached to the jungle canopy. Here is where bamboo is so handy. You can have a five meter bamboo pole chopped, cleaned, and ready to use in a few minutes, and it's a simple matter to attach a saw to that. Then good luck trying to saw through the vines. They're springy.
Also, the very first thing you need to know about a woodpile here is that snakes love them. When I was reading his chapter on woodpiles, I kept expecting him to teach the first rule of woodpiles: You never! ever! stick your hand into a woodpile without looking carefully twice! Then check again.
Something that amused me was comparing American, Japanese, and Chinese mindsets. How do you sharpen a saw? Cook provides ten pages of detailed information about the ins and outs of sharpening a saw. My Japanese carpentry book finishes the topic in one sentence: "Sharpening saws is a difficult task that should be left to a professional, so send your saw to a professional saw sharpener." I asked an expert about in northern Taipei about sharpening saws; he sold me a feather file, spent about two minutes explaining the basics, and cheerfully sent me on my way. The Chinese idea is, what works for me may not work for you, but put some effort into it, and eventually you will come up with something good.
FYR: I am the proud owner of two hand-forged axes, one a 3kg splitting ax, the other a hatchet forged from an artillery shell left over from the bombardment of Jinmen/Quemoy in 1958. For most of my work in the mountains, though, I use a laraw, a Tayal aborigine mountain knife.


The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World's Most Endangered Languages
The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World's Most Endangered Languages
by K. David Harrison
Edition: Hardcover
19 used & new from $17.58

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another Valuable Contribution by Harrison, October 20, 2011
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Readers of When Languages Die will find much familiar in this book, but Last Speakers, published by National Geographic, will probably reach a much wider audience. And wider recognition is what is needed now.

The Last Speakers is carefully written and thought out, but lively and fascinating to read. I could barely put it down. The only thing that disappointed me about the book was that I could not hear what the languages sound like; I think books like this should come with CDs. However, poking around on YouTube, I was very happy to find the Enduring Voices channel, with videos of many of these endangered languages.

Also, I was saddened by some of the photos. How distinctive these people look in their traditional dress! and how that is lost when they put on Western clothes and follow global trends. The same with their languages.

I was appalled by Dr John McWhorter's idea that "some languages are not suited for the modern world because of their complexity." If that is the case, English should be the first to go! It's easy for you and me, but try explaining to someone that you can say "pick up the book" or "pick the book up," but only "pick it up" and not "pick up it." And you can say, "I'm looking for the book," but you can't say "I'm looking the book for." Why not? You can say "The car is picking up speed," but you can't say "The car is picking speed up." Consider "up." Walk up the stairs, write it up (or write it down), phone me up, look it up, a friend turned up so I put him up for the night, and he should give up smoking, but if you bring up the topic, he might say oh please shut up!

"I bought the book last year; I have had the book for a year." This is torturously difficult to explain to Chinese speakers, because in Chinese, it makes perfect sense to say "How long have you bought the book?" but nobody would say "How long have you had the book?" If you will be so kind, please explain how to use "the."

Once you get it into your hand, Chinese (traditional characters) is much easier to write than English, and lots more fun. You may write the wrong character entirely (such as, here for hear), but rarely write the word wrong. I have taught English for 35 years, but I still have to peek to write manage - manageable, response - responsible. So if complex languages are to be discarded, English goes first!

But back to endangered languages. This is a topic close to my heart, because I speak some Tayal and Tsou and bits and pieces of a couple other Taiwan aborigine languages. Did you notice Taiwan on the Language Hotspot map? For what it's worth, I am doing my best to see that these ancient, enthralling languages do not disappear, and books like The Last Speakers are a great help and encouragement, and not only for me. I can take this book, published by the internationally prestigious National Geographic Society, and point out Taiwan on the map and say, See? Your language is valued!

It's not all bad news. Last Sunday, I went to watch a play staged in downtown Taipei performed almost entirely in the Tsou language, and on Thursday took a Tayal tribal elder to watch this year's biggest box office hit, Seediq Bale (about a Taiwan aborigine uprising in 1930 against the Japanese; look for the trailer on YouTube), in which the main characters all speak Seediq. Then on Saturday in one of Taipei's main bookstores, I picked up a book (or picked a book up) about traditional Yami songs, complete with MP3, including such old favorites as The Toothache Song. The last couple of days, I have been amusing myself learning to sing The Hero Song in Truku. So there is good news, but we have a long way to go, and books like The Last Speakers contribute immensely to the effort. Thank you, Dr Harrison! And thank all of you concerned readers.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 24, 2014 2:44 PM PDT


The Secret Speech
The Secret Speech
by Tom Rob Smith
Edition: Hardcover
323 used & new from $0.01

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Smith should be able to do better than this, October 14, 2011
This review is from: The Secret Speech (Hardcover)
Smith evokes the terror and helplessness of living in Stalinism. This book tells an exciting story. However, I suspect that many readers of Child 44 will be disappointed. Was the author writing with Hollywood in mind? While the first book was an unrelenting whodunit mired in communist bureaucracy, this book is a bit too much of the thriller, with some implausible episodes. An author of fiction creates the story, so does not need to place that story in irremediable quandaries. When the party is crossing the mountain pass, a plane pours landmines down on them, and they are saved only by a miracle; I personally don't think the author had to write himself into this corner.

I do have a few quibbles about the book. Although overall Smith's writing is excellent, he is occasionally sloppy about dangling modifiers. Also, from reading other Russian novels, I had thought that Russians addressed each other by name and patronymic and use lots of nicknames, but in this book, they call each other by first name only. Have Russian habits changed, or was this done not to estrange English language readers? But to me, it rang false; also, I thought Lev was the Russian form of Leo. Overall, although I am not really familiar with either nationality, Demidov came across to me more as an Englishman than as a Russian.

I liked the book, and suppose others will, but not too much. As was the case with Child 44, this book, at least my copy, was printed in such a tiny font that I despaired of being able to discern the minuscule letters, but very quickly the story wrapped me up, and I forgot about the microscopic printing. But I do hope that future books are printed with more regard for our eyesight.


Storm Prey
Storm Prey
by John Sandford
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $7.76
633 used & new from $0.01

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars getting back in shape, September 1, 2011
This review is from: Storm Prey (Hardcover)
I really enjoy Sanford's writing, but recent work has not been up to snuff. I am happy to say that Storm Prey shows Sanford getting back in shape. The writing is good, the plot is tight, the story is interesting, and he gets all the way through the book with almost no profanity (which I think is boring and unnecessary.) Maybe he should stick with Lucas Davenport and leave Virgil Flowers as a supporting actor.

The book is written with an understated humor that is hard to pull off; you can almost, but not quite, hear him laughing at the bad guys. An added benefit was that reading about the chilly Minnesota weather cooled me off during the hot summer.

In short, Storm Prey is not Sanford's best, but most readers will probably enjoy it. The end of the book has a teaser for Buried Prey, which looks as good as this one. I am looking forward to reading that, too.


Extreme Measures
Extreme Measures
by Michael Palmer
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: $7.19
388 used & new from $0.01

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Implausible and melodramatic, August 29, 2010
This book should appeal to 14 year old boys. The pace is pretty quick, but the writing is melodramatic. Overall, the story is improbable, the characters are hard to believe in, and my interest strayed. Put it this way: halfway through the book, I put it down and forgot all about it for almost a week.


Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America's First Civil Rights Movement
Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America's First Civil Rights Movement
by Fergus M. Bordewich
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.50
11 used & new from $2.41

5.0 out of 5 stars Good book in poor binding, August 18, 2010
What shocked me about this book was not the inhumanity and brutality of slavery. We all have as good an idea about that as is possible at 150 years' remove. Nor was it the cynicism, immorality, and depravity of the slave owners. That too we have a pretty good idea about. What I was shocked by was the ferocity of the hostility abolitionists faced in the northern states during the early decades of the 19th century. I knew that abolitionism was not initially popular or welcomed, but the rage and hatred it caused was far beyond what I was aware of.

There is much to learn about in this book. It is very informative, well organized, and well written. Although I would rate my knowledge of American history above average, I had never heard of the exploits of such heroes as Jermain Loguen, Jonathan Walker, or William Parker.

This is a book to read and reread, so I was upset that the binding started cracking when I was halfway through the book (paperback). The author's workmanship is impeccable, the binder's imperfect.


Wicked Prey (Lucas Davenport, No. 19)
Wicked Prey (Lucas Davenport, No. 19)
by John Sandford
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: $8.99
405 used & new from $0.01

1 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Hardly Up to Snuff, update, August 18, 2010
My friend James asked me to read this book. He began it three or four times, but the beginning is so dreadful he couldn't get any further into it, and wanted my opinion.

I agree. The beginning is so bad that I kept looking at the cover to confirm that this was a book by John Sanford. Once you get past the first couple chapters, it does improve, but it is hardly up to Sanford's usually high standards.

This confuses me. People online say that Sanford's son is doing the writing now and the father simply edits. That would explain the poor writing, but why? I had thought that Sanford, who has won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting, wrote for the enjoyment of his craft. Apparently that has gone past and now he's in it for the fame or the money, I don't know. But his son is such a lousy writer that he can't write dialogue without F. Junior, powerful dialogue does not come from writing obscenities that ceased to shock a decade or more before you were born.

If the son is going to keep writing the Prey series, I wish they would put his name on the cover, so we know we don't have to spend time or money on the book.

UPDATE 10.09.29: Sanford's son wrote to me, stating unequivocally that he does NOT write the books, ghost for his Dad, or even come up with the characters' names. I don't know who started the idea that Roswell (son) is doing the writing, but Sanford's quality has been so uneven that a scapegoat must be found. After Sanford wrote such brilliant earlier novels, this reader wonders what happened in Wicked Prey.

Roswell also directed me to meticulously prepared graphs on the website charting the rise and fall of swearing in the Prey series. Okay, we are down off the peak, but the same words over and over again do get tedious. Sanford Sr. can and should do better; I hope Sanford Jr will prod him. I am looking forward to future examples of the style, snap, and elegance of the best Sanford writing.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 30, 2010 12:35 AM PDT


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