Tag Archives: North Korea

Book Roundup #9

8 Aug

“Half of a Yellow Sun” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Adichie seems to get more famous by the day. First for her amazing novel “Americanah” , then because Beyonce quoted one of her speeches on feminism in her song “Flawless.” The woman is a feminist leader, an icon, but above all, she’s an incredible writer. This is one of her earlier books, set during Nigeria’s civil war in the 1960’s. Her characters are vivid and complex, and every word is strung with beauty.

“This was love: a string of coincidences that gathered significance and became miracles.”

“Slouching Towards Bethlehem” by Joan Didion Another book about the 1960’s. This is a collection of Joan Didion’s essays from that time. Didion spent the 60’s living in California and writing about the hippie movement in San Francisco and about the younger generation. It’s interesting to think that these are the people that are now the older generation and to read a lot of the criticisms about them are similar criticisms about my generation. Lazy and too idealistic. Too caught up in a movement to think about the greater realities of the world. Spoiled American children. How quickly some seem to forget history and their own experiences.

“Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee-A Look Inside North Korea” by Jang Jin-sung Another memoir of a survivor from North Korea. I can’t get enough of the hermit kingdom. Jang Jin-sung was a high official in the North Korean government under Kim Jong-Il, writing propaganda poems. He was commissioned to write an epic poem and asked to return to his hometown to do some research. When he arrived, he saw how his family and neighbors were starving and suffering. Upon returning to Pyongyang, he lends a ultra-classified book to a friend. His friend loses the book on the subway, and the two decide they have to escape North Korea or else they will be sentenced to life in prison for sharing the book. This memoir differs from the other ones I’ve read in that it takes place mostly in China as Jang Jin-sung and his friend hide from the authorities and depend on other North Korean defectors to help them. Obviously, they make it out and escape to South Korea. But it seems that it was mostly luck, and it’s sad to think about how many don’t have that same luck.

“Hour of the Bees” by Lindsay Eager My librarian sister also studied Children’s Literature while earning her Master’s in Library Science. She has always been a fan of young adult and children’s literature and passes her favorites onto me. I wouldn’t say this is one of her favorites, but we were on vacation together and she lent this to me to read on the plane home. Most readers have the habit of thinking of young adult and children’s literature as dull and puerile. But there is a lot of good, introspective work being produced, and I’m glad my sister can open my eyes to that on a regular basis. This book was about a young girl in New Mexico whose family spends a summer on a ranch with her ailing grandfather. She learns about her past, about her family, and about the value of home. It was a quick read but entertaining nonetheless.

“Marie Antoinette: The Portrait of an Average Woman” by Stefan Zweig I became fascinated with Marie Antoinette a couple of years ago when I was visiting Versailles with a friend, and we both realized that we didn’t actually know the details of her life besides the sensational. “Let them eat cake.” She was beheaded. She wore huge wigs. But what else was there? This is a great biography of her, because (as it suggests in the title), she was an average person. She had nothing inherently special about her, good or bad. She was born into wealth and royalty and was married off for political reasons. She was spoiled as some wealthy people are and had no sympathy for the poor, because it was a part of society she never saw and never understood. This book paints her as a person who was caught up in history, in the changing fortunes of empires, and came to represent what was wrong in a greater political system. It was a great read that delved into the history of the French revolution which never ceases to be interesting.


A Kim Jong-Il Production by Paul Fischer

10 Aug

Happy National Book Lover’s Day everyone!

This is the second book I have read about North Korea. The first had my jaw on the ground. This threw me into a full-blown obsession with the hermit kingdom.

This book is nonfiction which sounds impossible when you hear the premise. The book is about two South Koreans, one a film actress, the other her estranged film director husband. In the 1980’s, Kim Jong-Il had them kidnapped and brought to North Korea where they were forced to make propaganda films, including a Godzilla-knockoff. They escaped years later and this is the tale of their saga. They were put through brainwashing prisons, isolated in strange houses with North Korean guards and minders to stop them from escaping. They were forced to watch movies with Kim Jong-Il and to thank him for kidnapping them.

The best part about Fischer’s writing (and all good nonfiction writing in my opinion) is that he intersperses the drama of this true story with relevant politics and history of the region. While the other North Korean book I read was incredible and painted the daily lives of North Koreans from different songbuns (social classes) with heartbreaking detail, I came away from this book with a good basic understanding of the history of how North Korea came to be, the official state biography of Kim Jong-Il, and the finances and politics behind supporting this rigidly nationalistic dictatorship. The book has a comic-book-like dust jacket, but the research is meticulous and fascinating.

I’m obsessed. I’m OBSESSED with North Korea. All my nearest and dearest have had to listen to non-stop rambling about the craziness in the country. I see mirror images of the empire around me everywhere. I went to a Yankee game on Friday night, and as I looked at the giant sign with George Steinbrenner’s face and the words “The Boss” on it, I could only think of the propaganda of Kim Il-Sung “The Supreme Leader.” Remember how Donald Trump called Mexicans rapists and thieves? That’s almost verbatim the rhetoric that Kim Jong-Il uses to describe Americans!

I think my obsession stems from the fact that North Korea is a mystery. We can’t really know what life is like there, and the world is at a loss as to what to do with this strange pocket of comic-book-level villainy. What we know of North Korea are just glimpses. Here are some of the better things I’ve found in my obsessive research.

  • This three-part documentary from Vice does a good job of getting inside the country and sneaking a bit past the carefully orchestrated face North Korea shows the world. The main documentary guy made me nervous. He karaoked “Anarchy in the UK” in front of his minders! I was nervous he was going to end up in a concentration camp. People have been sent there for much less. Lisa Ling also has a good documentary available on Netflix called “Inside North Korea.” That documentary delves more into the brainwashing of the citizens.
  • This photo gallery is beautiful and disturbing. I like this one even more.
  • Ever heard of the mass games? It’s organized insanity. Once a year to celebrate the founding of their country, thousands of North Koreans put on this bizarre performance for their leaders. People practice all year for it, and the giant moving pictures in the back are made up of thousands of children holding giant books over their heard and flipping the pages in tandem. IT’S WEIRD. It was thought up by none other than Kim Jong-Il.
  • In recent news, North Korea announced they are creating their own time zone which will be 30 minutes off from everyone else. Of course the are. Of course they are.
  • All mockery aside, though, it’s quite tragic what goes on beyond our reach. The people of North Korea are enslaved to the strongest cult of personality the world has ever seen. My heart breaks to think of the starvation, the brainwashing, the labor camps, and the violence North Koreans have to live through. It’s important to remember that while the leadership in the country is deplorable and terrifying with their constant talk of nuclear war, millions of people are suffering within the country’s borders, and it is to them that we owe a bit of compassion and concern.

I leave you with an apt quote from this book that I highly recommend anyone and everyone to read.

“The people are still required, under pain of imprisonment, to thank Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il every morning for their food, even though Kim Il-Sung is dead and they have no food”

Book Roundup

15 Jan

Oh heavens. 2013 has not been kind to me so far. We are two weeks in, and I spent the first week bed-ridden with a nasty cold (albeit not the super-flu that’s going around) and a couple of days ago I sprained my ankle walking down stairs (no one has ever accused me of being graceful.) Hopefully this just means I’m getting disasters out of the way now in preparation for an amazing 50 remaining weeks. But despite a brief respite in California with my family when both legs were functional, and I was only suffering from a lingering cough, I have spent most of my time in bed watching “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and reading. Thanks to my new addiction to Good Reads (Join and be my friend!) I’ve been reading a lot of amazing books lately. I only like to recommend books that I absolutely loved, and I’m amazed that I have three to write about. In that sense, 2013 has been awesome.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Boot_jkt-330I’ve written about Cheryl Strayed before. She is one of the most honest, intuitive writers I’ve encountered in a long time. “Wild” is a memoir of her time hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. She was 26, lost, confused, and simply out of ideas. So, quite ill-prepared, she decided to take a summer to hike the trail and figure her shit out.

As someone who is also 26 and likewise lost and confused, I found her hell-bent journey fascinating. She doesn’t hide or sugar-coat any of the bad decisions she made in her life, and like a lot of 20-somethings she embarked on a somewhat foolish journey. The wisdom of what she learns about herself and how she reconciles her past with her blurry future was fascinating to me. I couldn’t put it down.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick

Nothing_to_EnvyWow, man. North Korea is an insane place. I’m sure you already know that. We all laugh about the antics of Kim Jong-Il, but this is one of the most isolated places on Earth. We really have no way to know what’s going on in there, and they don’t know what’s going on out here!

Demick interviewed six escapees from North Korea about their lives inside. It’s mind-blowing. I read this in a day. My jaw was on the ground. It’s heart-breaking to know the immense amount of suffering going on, and the fact that the people there are so brainwashed that they think they are the lucky ones in the world. When I lived in the Czech Republic, we studied the failures of communism, but this takes it to a whole new level of failure.

How to be a Woman by Cailtlyn Moran

how-to-be-a-womanI have decided that this book should be recommended reading for most everyone. First of all, it’s a hilarious memoir of her life. Second, she makes some damn fine points about feminism and the state of women in the world today. Third, it’s not an intimidating book at all. People are TERRIFIED of the term feminism, but they really shouldn’t be. It’s quite simple, wanting women to have equal standing in the world. I read this book while I was lying in the sun in California, quietly nodding to myself and occasionally letting out a “Mmmmhmmmm” or an “Aymen!”

“What is feminism? Simply the belief that women should be as free as men, however nuts, dim, deluded, badly dressed, fat, receding, lazy, and smug they might be.

Are you a feminist? Hahaha. Of course you are.”