Red Notice by Bill Browder

Um. Whoa.

Can that be a sufficient summary for this book review?

“Red Notice” is Bill Browder’s autobiography, yes, but it’s also his personal testament and accusation against his murderers.

Photo by Etty Fidele on Unsplash

Wait, what?

Yeah. It’s that crazy. Bill Browder is still touring the world in 2019, making global change, and very much alive. But he’s pretty sure he already knows if he’s found with a bullet in his head exactly who will have given the kill-order: Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, or another high-ranking Russian oligarch in the Putin regime. So he just wanted to make sure everyone else in the world knows too.

If you’ve seen “Kicking and Screaming” then you can appreciate all the “He’s Dick, and he’s got balls!” jokes.

To put that into perspective, Vladimir Putin might just be one of the wealthiest men in the world ruling the most openly corrupt government in the world. I say “might”, because his net worth apparently is dependent on who you ask (click here to read about speculation of his net worth). Can you imagine the resources at his fingertips? You might after this story.

Now seriously, Bill Browder has some serious guts. His story is incredible, and as a result he’s been called Putin’s No 1 Enemy.

From a cultural history perspective, this story is fascinating, because we see an example of how an American helps create a major cultural shift in Russia. But also, it’s so important to be conscious of how you read generalized statements. There are so many times that Browder says something along the lines of “Russia is….just that way.” In this book, that Russia that he is usually referring to is the government of Russia, but in any book we have to consider exactly what group the author is interacting with and not allow a generalization lead to misinformation or incorrect ideas.

I know a very different version of Russia (I was there 2013-2014 at the very end of this book’s timeline), because I was involved in a religious mission, whereas Browder was invested in finance and politics. And it was interesting to me at the beginning to read some of his generalizations about Russian people being cynical and guarded. So often I met people just the opposite, and there are a lot of reasons to that. I have a very naive view Russia. But, the further into the book that I got, the more I found myself thinking that I would have read so many situations better if I had read a book like this before going to Russia.

He describes one scene in particular that I can relate to wherein a sick man falls into traffic and nobody wants to help him for fear of being falsely accused by the police. I never could understand this when I was in Russia, but I felt that his observations were pretty well-grounded as I read the book, and allowed me to reflect on personal experiences with a whole new meaning.

I’ve waited for this book for 6 months to finally be available from the library and it was worth every second of the wait. As if the book wasn’t good enough, I also searched Youtube for some videos that are vital to the story and was so impressed at what I found. I don’t know what I envisioned when he talked about the Youtube content they created, but these are really really great videos that describe in simple terms major parts of the story and were used in order to protect different people and fight the corruption of Russian government simultaneously.

There are at least 3 in this series that should be listed when you follow this link to Youtube.

I also found a number of TEDtalks given by the man himself – Bill Browder – and this one is another decent summary of events in this story. But still, you have to read the book!

Pachinko

I hate to admit that I read an R-rated book, but the first thing you have to know about “Pachinko” if you’re on my blog is that it is NOT for youth. This is not one I would put on my bookshelves for the long haul, and because of that, I didn’t know whether or not I’d give it a review at all. But the excuses for why I kept reading through the book is because it really was such an interesting look into a WWII racism-fueled relationship between the Japanese and Koreans. If you haven’t read “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” then plan to read these two titles back to back for a whole array of perspectives on an overlapping bit of history. If you care to have a little more chronological order, then read this one first as it starts and ends earlier. You almost forget that it’s fiction. Almost. And then there is that other layer of the book bearing the motto “a woman’s lot is to suffer.” It takes you through how different women (and men) deal with that suffering. Do they grin and bear it, rise to the occasion, or let it overwhelm them? It does all of this by basically following 4 generations of shameful acts on a Korean family that ended up living in Japan around the time WWII.

There are two things you will need to understand before this book is over: 1. go-saeng and 2. pachinko.

Go-saeng,” Yangjin said out loud. “A woman’s lot is to suffer.”
“Yes, go-saeng,” Kyunghee nodded, repeating the word for suffering.
All her life, Sunja had heard this sentiment from other women, that they must suffer – suffer as a girl, suffer as a wife, suffer as a mother – die suffering. Go-saeng – the word made her sick. What else was there besides this? She had suffered to create a better life for Noa, and yet it was not enough. Should she have taught her son to suffer the humiliation that she’d drunk like water? In the end, he had refused to suffer the conditions of his birth. Did mothers fail by not telling their sons that suffering would come?

Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee

This book offers some very thought-provoking questions, like the one above, about the suffering that comes with this life.

I got way too far into the book before figuring out what a pachinko even is. At first, I was honestly envisioning a bowling alley, which just made no sense – why it would be frowned upon to work in a Japanese bowling alley. So don’t be like me and think that if you read this story. Instead, imagine a hundred slot machines and line them up in a small building or room. Also, take away the money that you would cash your coins in for gambling, and instead use your pachinko balls to trade in for special prizes or tokens. Gambling is illegal in Japan, but the loophole people found was to exchange their pachinko ball winnings for special tokens, and then sell those special tokens on the black market. And just like that, people have their gambling. Voila! Hence why its frowned upon. And yet some of the major characters of this book working at pachinko parlors are some of the most well-off characters! It’s these kind of backwards situations that carry the plot along – giving in to some “shameful” act and then living with any blessings, consequences, lies and scrutiny that follow.

Photo by Emile Guillemot on Unsplash

Physical deformities, illegitimate pregnancies, disagreeing with the government, preaching an unwanted gospel, internalized racism, gender equality, homosexuality, suicide, abortions, it’s like the Japanese-Korean “Inferno” diving through all the levels of things these people wanted to hide from a judgemental society. A society trying to figure out who they were and where everyone stands within a post-war mess that’s had multiple cultures all forced into this uncomfortable mixing of different kinds of people living together. So if you’re wondering what the historical relationship between Japan and Korea is, this might just be a good read for you.

Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

I think the kids nowadays say “I’m shook”? And I feel like this is the correct context for my first time ever using that slang, because this book for reals left me “shook”.

I just can’t say enough good things about the work and research that went into this book. And for people to share their stories like this is incredible too when you think about it! The author tells the overlapping true stories of 7 different people and their families as they slowly discover that communism doesn’t work and the leader they so loved has cheated them.

The alarming problem with North Korea that is illustrated in this non-fiction text is not that they live in squalid conditions under crazy dictators and without electricity. (I mean, that’s a huge problem, but that’s not the most alarming part.) No. The alarming problem is that Korea made its way into the twentieth century at pace with the rest of the industrialized world, but before the century ended, North Korea LOST their power grid. Can you imagine living your normal life with internet and theaters and telephones (which I can assume you have if you’re reading this), going through something as awful as a war, and then slowly watching each of those things be taken away as the electricity goes out?! It just blows my mind. I had never stopped to wonder what North Korea had once been, only ever looking at it as we all know it now.

I can’t even say more without giving it away. Just go read it. Please. And then tell me you read it so we can gab about it and maybe start a book club!

And for your little ones to read on the same topic, I think that N is for North Korea is great too!

Trevor Eissler, the author, may not have any real connection to North Korea, but don’t let that throw you. This is the illustrator’s story. And wow, do his pictures take you straight to all of the sites and culture that you will read about in Nothing to Envy! This book approaches the topic of North Korea in a very simple story that leaves it up to the adult to explain what is going on in the powerful images. I love it. Such a great conversation starter!

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