Tragic. Heartbreaking. Powerful. Riveting. Brutal. These are some of the words that readers have used to describe Masaji Ishikawa’s memoir A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape From North Korea. First published in Japan in 2000, the book spans Ishikawa’s entire life, from his birth in Japan in 1947 to his escape from North Korea in 1996. What happens in between is a harrowing and critical look at what it means to live in a totalitarian state.
At the beginning of this year, my goal was to read 24 books by the end of the year. With only a couple days left in 2017, I throw in the towel. Although I didn’t hit the goal, I’m happy to report that I read 17 novels this year! A great jumpstart to getting back into reading. I’m looking forward to doing even better numbers next year. In the meantime, I take some time to look back on what I read this year.
This book taught me that book shopping is like clothes shopping; Never buy something just because it’s on sale. Yup, that’s how it happened, my Kindle seduced me with discounts. As I swiped through the available books, W. Bruce Cameron’s A Dog’s Purpose caught my eye. The movie adaptation had just been released by Amblin Entertainment, and there were accusations of animal mistreatment during production, so I wasn’t planning on watching it. I was still interested in the story though, so I decided to buy it.
I’m going to cut the suspense: I HATED THIS BOOK. I hated it! And I’m a dog-lover! More than a dog lover, more like obsessed dog parent. I’m the type of person who buys sweaters for my dogs and makes YouTube channels for them. Despite this I couldn’t get over the hump, I couldn’t embrace and enjoy this story.
The story is told through the eyes of Bailey, a dog who goes on to be reborn and live beautiful and remarkable lives. He’s a sweet dog, and the narrative voice is exactly what you would expect from a Golden Retriever: simple, goofy, and limited in vocabulary. It’s super cute, until it’s not.
I love cutesy dog talk as much as the next dog lover, but sustained throughout the entire book, for several hours of reading, that’s tooooo much. It gets tiresome, and there’s no depth to the book because of it. Because the entire story is told through limited perspective, vocabulary, and insight, the whole thing becomes so surface level. I realize that the whole point of the book is to put you through a dog’s experience, but c’mon man, for the whole book?
I feel like this book should have a trigger warning attached to it. Although it’s a story about rebirth and love, it also depicts the cruelty and reality of being a stray dog. I won’t drop any spoilers, but if you’ve ever seen one of those sad dog videos on YouTube, you know what I mean.
I didn’t enjoy reading these parts. You could argue that none of it matters because he’s reborn and gets to do it all over again, but it still doesn’t erase what you read. For me, this illicited a sadness that was pervasive throughout my reading.
Moreover, it also clouded other moments in the book that weren’t necesarily sad or negative at all. It’s like I was constantly on the edge of my seat because I felt like the dog was about to get harmed, attacked, or killed. Every tense moment in the book just gave me anxiety. It was like watching Game of Thrones, anyone can die at any time!
There were moments…
That being said, there were moments of tenderness that even brought a tear to my eye. Moments that made me look at my dog and think, do you feel that way about ME? It’s impossible not to smile and get the warm and fuzzies, but it’s manufactured that way. If you’ve ever watched an episode of This Is Us, it’s that calculated fluff, the stuff writers know is irresistible. Those moments were enjoyable, but they were few and far between, and I didn’t like feeling anxious in between.
All in all, when it comes to this book, I think you could: