Displays little art or artifice but freezes the heart and seizes the soul.

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THE AQUARIUMS OF PYONGYANG

TEN YEARS IN THE NORTH KOREAN GULAG

A young man who spent ten years of his youth in a North Korean prison camp tells the story of his life before his family’s arrest, of his dreary years of imprisonment, of his release, and of his perilous escape through China to South Korea.

Rigoulot speaks only in the introduction, where he declares that this is “the first detailed testimony about a North Korean prison camp to be published in the West.” And a chilling testimony it is. With his family in Pyongyang, Chol-hwan was living fairly well, by North Korean standards. His principal childhood interest was tropical fish—at one time he had ten aquariums lining the walls of his room. After an interlude for some family history and a description of daily life in Korea, Chol-hwan reports the ominous disappearance of his grandfather in 1977 when the author was only nine. The old man had been guilty of some vague treason against what is portrayed as a quintessentially paranoid government. A few weeks later, four security agents appeared, helped themselves to most of the family’s possessions, and then sent virtually the entire family off to the mountainous Yodok prison camp. Only the mother was spared: her family had a “heroic” background. In remarkably serene prose, Chol-hwan describes the deprivations and horrors he and his loved ones experienced for the next ten years, including living in fetid quarters, dressing in rags, suffering continual humiliations and beatings, eating salamanders (raw) and rats (cooked), working in brutal conditions, and witnessing numerous executions—almost always for attempted escapes. An enterprising and strong boy, Chol-hwan learned the ropes and how to twirl them and so managed to survive and even to feel some sorrow at leaving his friends when, unexpectedly, the authorities released his entire family. The final third of the narrative deals with the author’s reintegration into North Korean society and his eventual escape to the south.

Displays little art or artifice but freezes the heart and seizes the soul.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-465-01101-2

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2001

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Not an easy read but an essential one.

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HOW TO BE AN ANTIRACIST

Title notwithstanding, this latest from the National Book Award–winning author is no guidebook to getting woke.

In fact, the word “woke” appears nowhere within its pages. Rather, it is a combination memoir and extension of Atlantic columnist Kendi’s towering Stamped From the Beginning (2016) that leads readers through a taxonomy of racist thought to anti-racist action. Never wavering from the thesis introduced in his previous book, that “racism is a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity and are substantiated by racist ideas,” the author posits a seemingly simple binary: “Antiracism is a powerful collection of antiracist policies that lead to racial equity and are substantiated by antiracist ideas.” The author, founding director of American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center, chronicles how he grew from a childhood steeped in black liberation Christianity to his doctoral studies, identifying and dispelling the layers of racist thought under which he had operated. “Internalized racism,” he writes, “is the real Black on Black Crime.” Kendi methodically examines racism through numerous lenses: power, biology, ethnicity, body, culture, and so forth, all the way to the intersectional constructs of gender racism and queer racism (the only section of the book that feels rushed). Each chapter examines one facet of racism, the authorial camera alternately zooming in on an episode from Kendi’s life that exemplifies it—e.g., as a teen, he wore light-colored contact lenses, wanting “to be Black but…not…to look Black”—and then panning to the history that informs it (the antebellum hierarchy that valued light skin over dark). The author then reframes those received ideas with inexorable logic: “Either racist policy or Black inferiority explains why White people are wealthier, healthier, and more powerful than Black people today.” If Kendi is justifiably hard on America, he’s just as hard on himself. When he began college, “anti-Black racist ideas covered my freshman eyes like my orange contacts.” This unsparing honesty helps readers, both white and people of color, navigate this difficult intellectual territory.

Not an easy read but an essential one.

Pub Date: Aug. 13, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-50928-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: One World/Random House

Review Posted Online: April 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2019

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...

NIGHT

Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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