Thursday, December 24, 2015

‘Without You, There Is No Us’ (Book Review)

Few outsiders get an opportunity to peek into the closed world of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, i.e. North Korea). Suki Kim is one of them. Curious about life on the other side of the concrete wall, the South Korean-born, American journalist jumped on an opportunity to teach English at the newly-formed Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), the only private academic institution in North Korea, funded largely by Evangelical Christians. It was 2011, when the DPRK was preparing to celebrate the centennial birthday of its first “Great Leader” Kim Sung-Il but ironically ended up mourning the death of its second “Great Leader” Kim Jong-Il instead.

Disguised as a missionary disguised as a teacher, as she puts it, Kim taught writing to the sons of North Korea’s educated class while secretly taking notes for her book, Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite, A Memoir (Crown Publishers, 2014). This idea of pretending, linked with the concepts of truth/honesty and falsehood/lies, serves as a running theme. Undercover Kim confronts a student body that lies about its county’s successes and living the good life as well as cheats on assignments, seemingly automatically without conscience. The students’ behavior matches her overall experience in the DPRK, where the oppressive government puts on displays for the benefit of foreign visitors, hiding the poor, underfed, and overworked peasants who make up most of the population.

Rather than merely assuming that everything isn’t what it seems, Kim’s position on the inside allowed her to see first-hand these contradictions in action. And while she is no supporter of North Korea, she maintains a healthy amount of objectivity, willing to take a critical look at herself, South Korea, and the United States, trying to understand the North Korean view. For example, she becomes more aware of how Americanized South Koreans must appear to the North Koreans when the Sinicization of North Korean culture (due to its close relationship with China) begins to bother her. Despite all the lying that had to take place to bring about the book, Without You comes across as a very honest account.

There were a few things that left me dissatisfied, however. At times, I felt that the book was a little disorganized, and the ending was definitely too abrupt. In addition, I was left wondering as to whether she ever “got closure” when it came to the pain over her family’s losses brought about by the north-south division. While I don’t doubt that Kim’s experience had a profound effect on her, she doesn’t transfer that well to the reader. The book offered very little in the way of surprises, portraying life in the DPRK pretty much how anyone who has watched a documentary on North Korea, or even – yes, I’m saying it – The Interview, would’ve imagined it. Without You is definitely a good read, but I wouldn’t say it’ll be a game changer.

Disclaimer: I received an advanced copy of this book as a First Reads giveaway winner on There was no obligation to write a review.

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (Book Review)

Every year, well-meaning individuals read tons of books, magazine articles, and blog posts on decluttering and organizing your living space. Yet despite their best efforts to apply what they learn, the goal of perfection is elusive or temporary, and everything reverts to how it once was. If you’re like me, when this happened, you’d blame yourself: “I didn’t work at it hard enough,” “I didn’t evaluate my storage needs correctly,” “I’m just lazy,” etc. Maybe that’s true, but maybe it isn’t. Did you ever consider that the method was the problem?

That’s the position of professional organizer Marie Kondo (blog; other website) in her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing (Ten Speed Press, 2014). This book is cute, feminine, and an easy read, but most importantly, its method works. Unlike your favorite magazine, Kondo doesn’t want – and doesn’t have – repeat customers. Why not? She teaches her clients how to conquer their clutter problem once and for all.

No, this is not a promotion on the “minimalist” lifestyle. The “KonMari method” is not about getting rid of things for the sake of getting rid of them. It’s not about “learning to live without.” Rather, it’s about conquering the suffocating clutter that rules people’s lives by helping the reader see her possessions in a whole new light.

That was true for me. I’ve had a lifelong battle with clutter, forming bad habits early on, learned from my hoarding parents. Rather than enjoying my possessions, I clung to broken Barbie dolls I’d long outgrown just because of a fear of not having anything. I “saved” boxes worth of Lisa Frank products, only to find the pencil erasers disintegrated and stickers unusable years later. I kept stuff just because other people wanted me to keep them, and I concocted bizarre scenarios to justify saving the strangest things. And even though I had so much, I was never happy because, rather than ruling my possessions, I was letting them rule me.

After decades of reading hundreds of resources on storage and organization, I had no results. Then I read Life-Changing Magic, and it gave me the “Ah, ha!” moment I’d been searching for. I needed to quit buying into the lie that clutter is manageable. I had to conquer it, totally and completely. And that meant getting rid of stuff…a lot of it. I asked myself, “What do I want to keep?” instead of asking, “What can I throw away?” I forced myself to be honest about not wanting to finish certain projects. I tossed conference papers and seminar notes that I had no desire to read. And I gave my collections of books, music, and mementoes their first real purges.

Whew! What a relief! I really am a lot happier now. It’s a slow process, which Kondo admits, but I can see results already, especially in how I view my possessions. They now work for me, and I can eliminate what I don’t enjoy quickly and guilt-free.

There have been hurdles. Kondo doesn’t address joint ownership and what to do when your spouse isn’t onboard with the program. She also doesn’t anticipate people’s tendency to keep things longer if they think they can sell them, something that’s incredibly time consuming and rarely pays off in the end. Maybe garage sales and Craigslist don’t have the same allure in Japan as they do here in America.

There has also been some skepticism on my part. I remain unconvinced that everything should be stored upright. It’s worked pretty well for somethings, like socks, but I’m sure Kondo’s ruining her laptop by storing it like a book! I also think that she discounts the enjoyment that storage containers with their sleek, uniform look have over old cellphone boxes and such. In my opinion, cardboard boxes need to go.

All things considered, however, I love Life-Changing Magic. If you have a problem with clutter ruling your life, than I wholeheartedly recommend you take a look at Kondo’s book. Sure, it reads a bit awkwardly, possibly due to the translation. And as Japanese culture and the Shinto religion permeate the book, you might have to think about how to “translate” it into American culture. But I hope that none of this will discourage you from giving the KonMari method a chance. I’m sure glad I did.