Summer Reading

I’m having a great time near DC visiting my sister and her family.  I had a nice time last week in Bellingham too, seeing my dad, but since it’s still the 19th century out there and there’s no internet so I tend to average about a book a day.  Stuff I liked:

1)  Korea: The Impossible Country, Daniel Tudor

There are more detailed (i.e., academic) single-volume histories of Korea out there, but I’d recommend this to anybody interested in the subject.  In a very readable and concise 300 pages Tudor gets to the heart of the matter(s), and his cultural asides into Korean business and educational culture are excellent.  What’s more, he actually offers a viable solution to the many problems South Korea now faces (horribly low birth-rate, suicide, hyper-competitiveness): feminism.

2)  Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives In North Korea, Barbara Demick

It’s not impossible for Western journalists to visit North Korea these days, and Barbara Demick does so, but the heart of her book is interviews with North Korean refugees who have made it into South Korea.  Ranging from “true believers” in Kim Il-Sung’s paradise to the more mundane orphans who knew they had to make it out in order not to starve to death, the book paints a horribly vivid picture of what it means to live and die in North Korea.  In a completely brutal accounting, the one fact that stands out is that during a state caused famine nice people are always the first to die.

3)  The Map And The TerritoryMichel Houellebecq

I never recommend Houellebecq to anybody I know because it’s not for the faint of heart.  Here he’s at his darkest, nastiest, most self-loathing, and of course, his most hilarious.  A book about art and creation but above all else, representation in a modern era that’s as absurd as it is redundant.  What can I say?    Two-thirds of the way in he has himself and his dog brutally murdered, and I laughed out loud.  This is my kind of summer book, but then again I’m weird and come from a broken home.

4)  Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies, and Revolution, Laurie Penny

Polemical writing is tough.  I enjoyed this book but came away feeling like her shorter journalistic / op-ed type pieces are more efficient than the attempt at a unified whole here.  Some of the loose threads are provocative as hell.  Others just feel under-cooked.

5)  The Joy Brigade, Martin Limon

Limon is about ten books in to a pretty amazing series of detective novels set in 1970’s South Korea, based on his experiences as a military policeman for the US army.  It’s all sleazy and dark, but at the same time underpinned by the solid morality of a main character who came of age as a Hispanic kid in the toughest L.A. neighborhoods.  I’d recommend him to anyone looking for a different literary take on life in South Korea.  However, start with the earlier books.  At this point Limon is getting into some pretty fantastical territory — instead of busting crooks and pimps in the back alleys of Itaewon, George Sueno is now going the full James Bond and pulling off spy missions in North Korea.  I liked it, but I can see how it might be a bit much for some.

6)  Railsea, China Mieville

Not his best, but also not as overwhelming as his best (IMO, that would be Embassytown).  Pretty much as “light” as he gets lately as a rip-snorter of a re-telling of Moby Dick with the ocean replaced by endless fields of railroad track and whales replaced with killer worms, moles, and “blood rabbits.”  If you like your adventure stories “weird” in all senses of the term, here you go.

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