In Order to Live – Yeonmi Park

What the cover says: “On the cold, black night of 31 March 2007, my mother and I scrambled down the steep, rocky bank of the frozen Yalu River that divides North Korea and China.  There were patrols above us and below…”  This is the incredible, true story of thirteen-year old Yeonmi Park, who risked her life when she and her family fled North Korea.  Revealing what it was like to live under a brutally oppressive regime, which starved and terrorized its people, Yeonmi tells fo her family’s courageous decision to escape and of the extraordinary, heartbreaking journey that followed, culminating in a daring night-time trek across the Gobi Desert to freedom.  It is a story of astonishing endurance – both physical and mental – which has already inspired people all around the world.

Why I picked it up: This was February’s Rebel Book Club read, on the theme of Against the Odds.  I’m normally a big fan of biographies and true-life stories (I loved a similar theme back in September) so I was excited about this one.

What I thought:  I initially loved this book.  It was fascinating to read about life in the secretive North Korea, a country which is in the news a lot but that we know so little about the everyday life of (it reminded me a little of City of Lies by Ramita Navai, which we read back in April 2016).  And Yeonmi’s life was very difficult under the regime.  I was struck by her naivety when she decided to flee to China with her mother – her sister had already left – with no idea that they were being trafficked and would be sold into marriage in China.  Whilst I found her story moving, I found reading it less and less enjoyable; the book was clearly sparking debate within the Book Club, with members posting some very critical reviews of the book questioning the accuracy and legitimacy of her story.  She goes into less detail about events as you go through the book and I did find myself doubting what she was saying at times.  She and her family obviously went through some horrific experiences and I wish her well, regardless of the doubts raised about the exact details of her experiences.  It did make me think about how vulnerable refugees are, especially women, and how desperate people are to survive.  Those refugees arriving Europe everyday (funny how that’s not on the news so much any more) have so often been through hell to get here and are just trying to create a better life for themselves and their families – Yeonmi’s story reminded me that behind each number in the statistics you hear is a person with a story who has endured things I hope I never have to.

Stumbling On Happiness – Daniel Gilbert

What the cover says: In ‘Stumbling on Happiness’ Professor Daniel Gilbert combines psychology, neuroscience, economics and philosophy with irrepressible wit to describe how the human brain imagines its future – and how well (or badly) it predicts what it will enjoy. Revealing some of the amazing secrets of human motivation, he also answers thought-provoking questions – why do dining companions order different meals instead of getting what they want? Why are shoppers happier when they can’t get refunds? And why are couples less satisfied after having children while insisting that their kids are a source of joy?

Why I picked it up: I read about Daniel Gilbert and his book when reading Tools of Titans by Tim Ferris back in January.  I’m a total sucker for books that explain how our minds work!

What I thought: I absolutely loved Gilbert’s tone.  The material – neuroscience, psychology and behavioural economics – could be really dry in the wrong hands but his writing is interspersed with little anecdotes, humorous observations and asides that keep you smiling and engaged throughout the book.  His hypothesis is that we are really bad at predicting what will make us happy because of the natural limits of our own imaginations.  You cannot overcome these inherent biases but, by being more aware of them, you can compensate for them with your own planning.  One of my favourite parts of the book was Gillbert’s explanation of why we -mistakenly – believe we are unique.  In a time when division is rife in politics and public life, understanding that our brains are so honed to look for differences that “inconspicuous similarities” just blur into the background gives us an opportunity to be aware of those similarities over our differences.