In our monthly book club, we discuss whatever we happen to be reading and ask everyone in the comments to do the same. What Are You Reading This Month?
Laura M. Browning
With all the fanfare and think pieces about North Korea’s involvement in this year’s Winter Olympics, I was curious to learn more about what it meant to have the sister of North Korean’s dictator at the games. Commentators have made much of Kim Yo-Jong’s appearance as well as the 200-plus North Korean cheering squad that moves in eerie synchronization. Recent headlines have included words like “charmed” and “fawned over.” So I picked up Suki Kim’s 2014 book, Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among The Sons Of North Korea’s Elite, to try to get a better handle on what is perhaps the world’s most secretive country. I gulped down half the book in one evening. Kim’s gorgeous prose quickly establishes a rare level of expertise: Born in Seoul, her uncle was taken by North Korea troops when he was just 17, a sorrow, that Kim says, she inherited from her mother. Kim came to the U.S. when she was 13, was able to visit North Korea on a couple other occasions, and speaks the language fluently. She embedded herself with a group of Christian missionaries who taught English at Pyongyang University Of Science And Technology in 2011, in the last six months of Kim Jong-Il’s reign.
For starters: The all-male elite college that educates the next generation of the North Korean ruling class is bankrolled by American evangelicals. (They cannot and do not proselytize, but presumably want a foothold if the country ever opens up.) If you can wrap your head around that, it’s still nearly impossible to comprehend the level of surveillance that Kim was subjected to. She’s not allowed to talk about the internet with her students, every lesson plan must be pre-approved, her emails home are constantly monitored, and she can’t ask very many questions.
The book raises more questions than it can answer, and given how little follow-up Kim is permitted to do, it’s haunting and frustrating. Will these students ever learn that their intranet is nothing like the world’s internet? Will they ever understand that their inability to move freely even within their own city is not an experience shared worldwide? Will they ever even see the gaunt bodies and hollowed-out faces whose enslavement to the government is both a human rights crisis and a highly effective method of rule by terror? It’s impossible to know how much they really understand about the outside world—or even other parts of their own country—since Kim can’t talk to them about it. Kim’s writing makes the book a pleasure to read, despite subject matter that’s difficult to take in and hard to understand. In America, we mask our fear of a nuclear showdown, and our president’s Twitter-taunting, with jokes about Trump’s need to compare “button sizes.” In Kim’s college classes, her students didn’t even know what Twitter was. These stories about what her students knew and didn’t know make North Korea’s dictatorship brutally personal, as she comes to love the students and also worry who they are destined to become. And although she lived in Pyongyang and researched the book before Kim Jong-Un’s ascent to power, it still gives essential if horrifying context for North Korea’s visibility in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
Jon Wiederhorn and Katherine Turman’s Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History Of Metal has sat on my shelf, unread, for nearly five years. It survived two big culls of books I no longer wanted, moved halfway across the country with me twice, and lived in three different apartments. The delay probably comes from my having read too many music oral histories in a short time span, but I finally cracked it open this month and have flown through it. Metal stretches back five decades and too many subgenres to name, so Wiederhorn and Turman can’t possibly tell the whole story, but Louder Than Hell nicely balances broad strokes and nitty-gritty details. They don’t get too lost in the weeds of internecine hair-splitting (is this thrash or crossover?), and unsurprisingly, the book overflows with colorful characters and stories. “Colorful” is also a euphemism; some of the stories of sexual conquests and ostensibly innocent mayhem that elicited high-fives back in the day read darker now, particularly in the #MeToo age. (Testament’s Chuck Billy boasts about throwing a woman who was “mouthing off” out of his van, which was parked on a dock—so she fell 20 feet into water she couldn’t escape from and was injured by the pier the water pushed her against.) Still, the authors nicely balance the salacious and the substantive, making Louder Than Hell an engrossing read.
I’ve been following Ijeoma Oluo’s work since at least December 2014, when she emerged as a vital voice in discussions of race in America after tweeting a heartbreakingly ironic litany of actions black people should avoid—including such seemingly innocuous things as taking public transit and asking for help with your car—in order to avoid being shot by police. She’s since gone on to write for The Stranger, The Guardian, and New York magazine, and elsewhere, as well as become the editor-at-large for The Establishment. Her debut book, So You Want To Talk About Race, is now out and features her signature mix of culture criticism and political and social commentary. One of Oluo’s many gifts as a writer is being able to make the most fraught topics accessible, and in some cases, even surmountable. I’m only halfway through it, but already So You Want To Talk About Race appears to be as much a how-to guide for talking with willing participants about systemic oppression as it is a self-help book for those looking to avoid “trickle-down social justice.” The book is briskly paced but thoughtful in its analysis, and is bound to help progressives young and old broach those “uncomfortable” conversations at home and abroad.