Tuesday, November 16, 2010


This book weaves together the stories of half a dozen North Koreans who eventually defected to South Korea, where Demick interviewed them. An early chapter features a photograph of both Koreas at night; Seoul is a big blob of light; the rest of South Korea has scattered lights throughout; North Korea is dark. And Demick shows, again and again, just how dark it is--both opaque to visitors (who are barely allowed, and kept to carefully manicured bits of the major city, Pyongyang) and having a very dark future. The stories of starvation are what stay with me--the parents feeding their children on ground-up bark and weeds; people eating dogs; people digging through nightsoil to find undigested pieces of rice, after aid from the former USSR vanishes.

One of the most curious stories was the thwarted love story between Mi-Ran and Jun-sang, who kept their forbidden relationship secret for nine years ... and then idealized it for half a dozen after Mi-Ran left. But Demick doesn't make the mistake of suggesting that as soon as these defectors moved to South Korea, everything came up roses. She explores quite frankly the difficulty of assimilation and how learned personality traits in North Korea did not translate so well south of the border.
There's black humor throughout. My favorite bits are some of the math questions in the North Korean textbooks (p. 120):
Eight boys and nine girls are singing anthems in praise of Kim Il-sung. How many children are singing in total?
A girl is acting as a messenger to our patriotic troops during the war against the Japanese occupation. She carries messages in a basket containing five apples, but is stopped by a Japanese soldier at a checkpoint. He steals two of her apples. How may are left?
Three soldiers from the Korean People's Army killed thirty American soldiers. How many American soldiers were killed by each of them if they all killed an equal number of soldiers?
And a favorite song:
"Our enemies are the American bastards
Who are trying to take over our beautiful fatherland.
with guns that I make with my own hands.
I will shot them. Bang, bang, bang."
My one gripe is that it feels to me as though at times Demick plays fast and loose with her translations--the sentences feel too close to contemporary American slang. I found myself wondering, Really? Did that sixty-year-old grandmother really say that? But the book is interesting, especially as I knew very little about North Korea.

Sapphire, PRECIOUS

The heartrending story of Precious Jones, age 16, who begins her story: "I was left back when I was twelve because I had a baby for my fahver [sic]."
At first glance, I wasn't sure if she was left, back when she was twelve--left by whom?--and then I realized she means "left back a grade." But this book is about every kind of being left--left back, left behind, left for hopeless, having AIDS left in her, left for dead. It could have gone melodramatic and cliched--this story is one we've heard before--but the nuances are all fresh. Even the way that Precious confronts the other Others. She declares that she hates gays--she's repeating what she's heard Farrakhan say--until she discovers her teacher "Ms Rain a butch." Again and again, Precious bravely allows her felt experience to overturn what she thinks she knows. But this book was a hard read and created some images in my head that I wish I didn't have.

Justin Cronin, THE PASSAGE

A good, horrifying read. This novel is post-apocalyptic in the style of the HUNGER GAMES trilogy (although more adult than YA), except that this time the weapon is a virus that turns people into vampires. Warning: this is not a TWILIGHT redo (thank God) ... nothing sweet or sexy about these blood-suckers. Cronin uses a third-person narrative with shifting focalization among four or five complex major characters, which works. My only gripe is the ending. It's almost as if Cronin decided he was tired of writing and stopped. Not a lot of closure ... and while that can be done productively, this just felt like the novel just petered out. But for about 700 pages, this novel tears along with plenty of suspense and good prose.

Hiatus destination: HOGWARTS

Ok, I'd read the first two Harry Potter books years ago. But now that I have a daughter who is reading them, I jumped back in. Read all seven in about 18 days. Was walking about in a mild trance muttering spells. Wingardium Leviosa. Am I pronouncing it right? Wrong? Why doesn't that spell work on my children's wet towels? It worked for Hermione and her feather. Wondering what I really think of Snape. And why doesn't the ministry believe Harry in the face of all that proof--how can they be so stupid? And what's up with Rupert Grint--he was quite cute as a youngster but later?
But I am back, now.