Friday, April 12, 2013

Good and Cheap (Books)! Day 11

Some countries capture my imagination. I make no apologies for my love of Canada, and if Random House decided that I needed to relocate to Vancouver, Zorro and I would be packing within the hour. I think that my Canadian obsession started because it was the first foreign country I'd ever visited, and I am a sucker for old growth forests, maple sugar candy, and brilliant writers. I love Russia, but I think that fascination comes from its incredible history. Russia was the enemy when I was a kid, and yet, amid this land of what we were taught was an oppressive, backward political system, there stood St. Basil's Cathedral, and some of the greatest writers the world has known, and mysterious lands like Siberia. And then there's North Korea.

Even before 'Lil Kim decided that Austin should be on the missile strike list, and before 'Lil Bush declared the country a member of the Axis of Evil, I was intrigued by North Korea. (Actually, I have a thing for totalitarian regimes. I admit it. I have a problem.) Here is a country who, technically, has been at war with the United States for the last seventy years. It's a country full of paranoia and cultural brainwashing and mass delusion, where the leader is basically a god. If Kim says that unicorns live in a cave under a parking lot, that's truth. I've already written about my love for Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son (which was vindicated when it recently won The Morning News' annual Tournament of Books). But, with so little information coming out of North Korea and so much propaganda, what the hell is it like to just, you know, be a normal person there?

Enter Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy. This book is journalism at its finest. Demick follows six "ordinary" North Korean citizens over the course of fifteen years. These are people who fall in love, go to work, want families. If these people lived in the US, they'd be my neighbors (not the ones with the Christmas lights still up in freaking April, but the less annoying ones). In North Korea, though, expressions of affection are forbidden (heck yes!), Orwellian informing is rewarded (dude, PLEASE TAKE DOWN YOUR CHRISTMAS LIGHTS), and the Kim family is always right (instead of Zorro as supreme leader. That's just wrong). They are willingly not on the Internet. In the fifteen years that Demick chronicles, these people witness the death of Kim Il Sung and the rise of his craziness Kim Jong Il, and they suffered through a famine that killed 20% of the population. Eventually, faced with the reality of being a doctor who cannot care for patients, for example, the people profiled come to the painful realizations that North Korea is a country on the brink. The emperor has no clothes.
North Korea at night (the dark spot)

With the recent saber-rattling and threats coming from the dark part of the Korean Peninsula, Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy provides insight and a human element to North Korea.

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