Reviews - ebooks and audiobooks: Primates of Park Avenue, yakuza in Hawaii, North Korea's famine
The release of Joseph Kim’s book, about starvation in North Korea in the 1990s, comes at a time of reports that the country is facing another drought. That makes Under the Same Sky, co-written by Stephan Talty, poignant. Mostly descriptive, the memoir is filled with untold suffering, as Kim’s family grapples with a lack of money and food, and is torn apart by it: his father succumbs, first to madness, then to a strange condition that kills him over 21⁄2 months. His is just one of a million deaths caused by the great famine. But there were many more victims, among them Kim’s sister, sold to Chinese men by their own mother, a resourceful woman who would take off for weeks in pursuit of crazy schemes to make money. Because the family home had been sold – it bought the family cornmeal for a week – Kim eventually finds himself on the street. Then he hears of Christian churches in China that “will give you money”. Finally, there’s America. You should read this book not for the writing, which is basic, but to understand what happens to people in a famine.
Under the Same Sky by Joseph Kim (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) e-book
Anyone with an interest in the yakuza will know of Jake Adelstein, the US journalist who, in the early 1990s, was the first non-Japanese staff writer for the Yomiuri Shimbun. Tokyo Vice, his first book, secured his reputation as the go-to gaijin for insights into the way Japan’s mafia works. In Operation Tropical Storm, Adelstein tells how an FBI agent, “Jimmy Sato” (aka James Stern), gains the confidence in Hawaii of a low-level Japanese mobster, who returns to Japan and tells his “big boss” of the half-Japanese contact he’s made in the US who will pay more than the street price for speed. It’s 1993, and crystal meth is the drug of choice for the workaholic Japanese. Readers are taken to the Roxy strip club, Benihana sushi joint and elsewhere before the sting operation, which scores the FBI its only arrest of a big-shot yakuza in the US. Readers new to Adelstein will appreciate his background to Japan’s underworld; others might feel a little lost because so much information, including Japanese slang, has been crammed into a Kindle single.
Operation Tropical Storm by Jake Adelstein (Amazon Digital Services) e-book
Social researcher Wednesday Martin didn’t have to find a long-lost tribe speaking an unknown language for her anthropological study. She just took a taxi to New York’s Upper East Side to find her subjects: the primates of Park Avenue. Specifically, she analyses the mothers whose worlds fascinated and occasionally appalled her. Their babies were more like baubles on whom were lavished all the best food, nannies and schools. After complaining about not fitting in, Martin, whose book is read confidently by Madeleine Maby, finds herself “going native”, as she becomes one of the people she is studying. She wants what they have (including an Hermes Birkin bag), but she doesn’t lose her observational skills, noticing women charging into her as they walked down the street. Comparing this to chimpanzee acts of aggression, she realises women were measuring her up and crowding her. Hongkongers will recognise some of Martin’s observations of power dynamics.
Primates of Park Avenue by Wednesday Martin (read by Madeleine Maby) Simon & Schuster Audio (audiobook)