Book Review: North Korea’s Hidden Revolution: How the Information Underground Is Transforming a Closed Society by Jieun Baek

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North Korea’s Hidden Revolution by Jiuen Baek – Available Here 

Up until I read this book I hadn’t really put any overly critical thoughts into how North Korea functioned. I had pretty much painted the entire country as a giant prison camp and local life was basically just A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which may not be wrong for an absurdly large percentage of the approximately 25 million people who, after doing something desperately evil in a previous life, call this place home, but it hardly handles the strange and utterly genius underground economy Baek’s book covers.

As all oxygen for the body must be pushed from the heart, all goods must come from Pyongyang. The problem is Pyongyang’s heart is arrhythmic and murmured to the point you’re lucky if anything outside your chest does anything but turn necrotic, especially during the famine of the mid to late nineties. So, say what you will of capitalism, the market, uh, found a way. Suddenly food, cloth, and eventually tech came flooding into the country for anyone who had cash in hand. Of course, most didn’t and hundreds of thousands to million still died, but the building of the Underground Silk Road that seems to have functionally defined the country’s internal economy. Doctors send patients to these merchants to buy painkillers and antibiotics during illnesses, children use it to personally request the latest episodes of their favorite dramas, thieves fence stolen coal and anything else they happen to find that could make them a won.

The stories Baek gets from the defectors from North Korea are varied and harrowing and give the book a nice personalibility towards it. Realizing that the book is about how the invasion of foreign media is causing the book’s titular ‘Hidden Revolution’ I would have gladly spent more time with the defectors who get together at buffets for meetings. These people, some of whom share nothing but the same country of birth, getting together venting, adapting, and processing the previous week/month/year in context to their previous experiences, I wanted more of that. This isn’t even a critique anymore I just want a book like that. Maybe I can get Adam Johnson to do it? He did something similar in one of his short stories in Fortune Smiles, so maybe.

The book is well enough in its writing and excellent in its research and each part builds a larger and larger mosaic of how defectors and critics interact as a sort of open secret. The problem is Baek doesn’t seem to want to assume you’ve read any part of the book besides what you are reading. She tells you and tells you and tells you some more. Which is great, but, I, I guess, what do you call it? Retain? I retain things when I read, maybe not forever put certainly over the small jump of the partition separating the book’s parts. I understood the first time you told me that people used USB drives filled with foreign dramas they bought on the black market. I understood it again when you told me that one of the defectors decided to defect to South Korea after viewing a USB drive full of dramas he’s gotten on the black market. And again when you told me that the USB drives filled with an audiobook of the Bible read in the North Korean dialect were sent via balloons into North Korea were likely picked up by black market merchants and reformatted to house foreign dramas because they could be sold for more. Why not just say more lucrative media instead of including a variation of the same fact we’ve already learned. Things like this happen frequently and allow the book to function as a series of excerpts which might be helpful if one were putting together a thesis or something, but having read it in a handful of sessions it was downright grating at the time. A little creative flair in the writing and all this backchannel repetition could have been disguised or at least shunted.

As a first book about North Korea I think it did really well bringing you into the contemporary world of North Korea. If you can get past, or perhaps not even notice the things that bothered me, then this book is a phenomenal look at the strange authoritarian (or as Baek calls it: Socialist) failure North Korea seems so hell-bent on preserving. Frankly, I just would have given up once cellphones and the internet came along. Sure, you guys can have a vote, but I’m going to sponsor all of the candidates and reserve the right to have you murdered or imprisoned if you piss me off (Hurray, Oligarchy!). Hell, just let Jesus in and say that he told you were the new him and the North Korean Quaternity is born! I’m rambling at this point, but seriously, authoritarianism just sounds so hard and after reading this book, just so much like clenching sand in your fist, but then I suppose some people will do anything to avoid to having to listen the plebs grouse about such tawdry things as food.

“[Ji Seong-Ho] ran up to a moving train and pulled himself aboard as it left the prison camp and headed toward the power plant. But on that fateful morning he felt dizzy since he hadn’t eaten for several days. Although he had planned to jump off the train as it entered the next station, he lost consciousness. He woke up after an unknown period of time and saw that the train had passed over his left leg which was hanging from his body a couple of inches below his hip hanging by a thin tendon. Reflexively grabbing at his split leg, only then did he notice that the train had also sliced off three fingers on his left hand. With every exhalation pushed a puff of cold air through his lips and squirts of blood from his leg and hand exiting his flesh. Frantically scared but also weak he cried out for his parents and for his younger sister. ” – Jieun Baek, North Korea’s Hidden Revolution: How the Information Underground Is Transforming a Closed Society

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Book Review: The Future of Violence by Benjamin Wittes and Gabrielle Blum

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The Future of Violence by Benjamin Wittes and Gabriella Blum – Available Here

Look at the title of this book. The Future of Violence. War, war never changes, but violence? We are absolutely brilliant about coming up with ways to cause grievous harm to one another. What cool military and privatized inventions await is in the much talked about singularity of technology? I don’t know. That’s not what this book is about. The Future of Violence is more concerned about the question of violence on a societal level, which, frankly, is infinitely more interesting.

Drones, 3D printing, and genetic editing (as well as a myriad of others) are what the book calls technologies of mass empowerment, things that decrease the barrier for an individual, organization, or government’s ability to commit violence on any scale. It’s less concerned on the specifics of what it can do and more along the lines of how one could create a legal framework from responding and preventing such attacks from becoming the world’s new normal.

Wittes and Blum give a careful overview of the legal theories that have been argued in the past as well as necessity for our definition of ‘freedom’ to change in the face of these new technologies. Which is where the book gets implicitly political and is going to get a certain group of people screaming about ‘muh freedoms’ and how the government is going to go full 1984 and no amount of missile drone attacks on orphanages can justify that loss of freedom.

And they might be right. That’s why writing about the future is hard. The authors do a very good job trying to convey the possible scale of the issue without falling into fear-mongering, which is why some of their examples are…rather weak and perhaps worse, unoriginal.

There is a quote by Benjamin Franklin that is used in some circles when the idea of regulation of new tech and general surveillance: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” Now, while the quote in context is basically just Franklin admonishing a wealthy family for refusing to pay taxes that would help pay for the defense of towns on the frontier, it’s that sixth word that often gets missed in the resuscitations of this particular bit of wisdom. Essential. In the face of these new technologies and potential catastrophes, it is that word that we all have to grapple with and define as a species in order to prepare ourselves for the future.

The Future of Violence doesn’t give any answers, it just has some options, most of which are going to be incredibly uncomfortable for the modern (American) reader, but it does attempt to open up the discussion as early as possible so that if the worst does happen we don’t go full USA PATRIOT Act and burn the house down because we saw a spider in the sink.

“This book is extremely dry and I couldn’t for the life of me find a decent quote that came across as anything but trite or like three paragraphs long.”- Jacob Kohl, reader of The Future of Violence

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Book Review: Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson

 

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Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson – Available Here

Adam Johnson is quickly becoming one of those writer’s that I resent for their skill and the ease with which they display it. He plays with your emotions using prose so unassuming and lacking in ulterior motive that it disarms you until he decides he’s placated you enough and then punches you firmly in the nose.

He is a magician. A man who makes it look so very easy as I sit here fussing so uselessly over my own work. Every story in the collection is brilliant, some even perfect. They hit every mark they aim to strike even after rereading it years later the same level of awe still cuts directly into my veins. I have changed my mind, he is no magician, he is a warlock, someone who has cast a spell and enslaved some sort of literary demon and used its powers to create his art.

I hate you, Adam. That’s right I called you Adam. I hate you because I don’t know what else to do in the face of someone so practiced in layering plot, character, and surreality. No, leave me be, Adam. You’ve had your fun. Leave me to my inept scrawlings while I weep into my iced coffee.

“She and I were storytellers. Swapping stories constituted our good times. That’s what sustained our marriage until, I guess, stories weren’t enough.” ― Adam Johnson, Fortune Smiles

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Book Review: Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram by Iain Banks

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Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram by Iain Banks – Available Here

If you picked up this book and wanted to read about whisky/dram/scotch then I have little doubt that, after reading it, you are probably more than a little disappointed. If you picked up this book because you are an Iain Banks fan then I have little doubt that you are also, quietly disappointed as well. Now if you matched either one of those previous two types and also happen to be a massive petrol head you were probably pretty a little less disappointed than everyone else because man, Banks really likes his cars.

This book is not about whisky. Whisky is the MacGuffin that a publishing house paid him a couple hundred thousand pounds to track down and who in their right mind could possibly say no to that?

Agent: “Hello, Jacob? We have news that a publisher wants you to travel the country, meet a bunch of your old friends, get trashed on rum and then write something about it afterwards.”

Me: “Will I be able to go on random tangents about current events, insert random autobiographical pieces, and go on about my own personal interests?”

Agent: “…I-yes, the publisher said yes.”

Me: “Cool, how much do I have to pay them?”

Agent: “They want- they want to pay you.”

Me: *the maniac laughter of someone who just realized they are the luckiest son of a bitch in the entire world*

And so that is the idea that gets us Iain Banks only nonfiction book, Raw Spirit. It’s a Travel Log that cares about nothing so much as getting enough padding to count as a book and justify all of the expensive dram he bought for the sake of ‘research’. And this isn’t a bad thing. Banks seems to straight up tell you this is what he’s doing. Some daft person offered him money to get drunk with little oversight, Banks said yes, did that, and now he’s doing his part by writing the damn book.

And Banks is a strong writer and as full of wit as ever, but without the natural dialogue of characters he and bound to some semblance of truth, he forced to contain his imagination into the realm of the real, which is, if you are familiar the remainder of his work, must have absolutely killed him. The containment of that much manic creative energy might be what led to the page after page of sidenotes and oh-I-remembers that makes up the bulk of the book. The only problems is when you spend so much time talking about everything you end up with a book about nothing that seems desperately sure that it is, in fact, very much something.

Raw Spirit races up and down the Scottish roadside and then, mile by mile, loses all sense of inertia and purpose until I was left almost as grateful as Banks must have been after writing it. It’s not a bad book, it’s just not a good book. I might be a good travel log, I don’t frequent the genre, but travel logs are not why people read Iain Banks and much of what makes him such a fantastic writer sort of gets lost in the pace of the thing. I suppose it is nice to know that great writers—especially when it’s someone like Banks, whose skill as a writer I am desperately envious of—can fail at something, even a little. Like some sort of authorial schadenfreude tempered by the realization that the odds of me being able to get paid enough for three months work that I could spend the next nine driving around the Scottish Highlands.

“To the people who insist they really do have a great idea but they just can’t write, I’d say that given some of the books I’ve read, or at least started to read, it would appear that not being able to write is absolutely no obstacle whatsoever to writing a book and securing a publishing contract. Though becoming famous in some other field first may help.” – Iain Banks, Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram

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Book Review: Ubik by Philip K. Dick

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Ubik by Philip K. Dick – Available Here

Yeah, alright. I did it. I told myself I wouldn’t, but here we are. After reading twelve goddamn Philip K. Dick books and finding only a handful that didn’t piss me off as lyricless, drug-laddled sci-fi dime novels, I told myself that I was done. Why did it take me so long? What sort of masochistic psychotic would take a dozen punches to the head after the first one failed to entice or breach far above the creek high barrier of being simply entertaining? Because someone swore by him, someone I respected, someone smarter and better equipped in pretty much every linguistic art than myself, said he was shot to the head that altered the way they saw the world.

I live for that. I live for books that hit you so hard pieces of you are left exhumed and crucified on the pages after you are finished. These books are hard to come by and the idea that there was even one hidden among the teetering stacks of Dick’s bibliography gnaws at the back of me like the rumblings of a toothache.

So after four years I came back to the yellow-papered alter of Dick’s major works and picked up the last one I had yet to read: Ubik.

In the nigh half decade since I had last walked Dick’s path, I hadn’t forgotten my general hatred towards his style of writing or his non-characters saying narratively important things when they had no legitimate means of intuiting but because he was either too stoned or impatience to be bothered to write the extra chapters required for the world to properly wield an answer organically let’s just scream authorial fiat and move on, I went in with low expectations…which helped.

Less grating in style and psychedelic philosophizing, Ubik acts as a middleground in both time and theme between Dick’s earlier novel Eye in the Sky and his later, rather indulgent headtrip VALIS. Being slightly more correct it’s basically Dick’s Eye in the Sky had some transtemporal affair with the yet 30 year unborne Stephen King novel It.

Ubik is, on its face, about a group of people who survive an explosion and afterwards begin to perceive themselves going back in time. As they do so more and more of them begin to die off and leave the rest of the certain the same ending is coming for them.

Ubik runs through this gauntlet of (mostly) psychological suspense, attempting in that Dickish way to leave us guessing, but much like every other book that attempts Ubik‘s particular temporal gambit (e.g. Graham Joyce’s more thoughtful but much too long The Silent Land) one can’t help but have figured it out by about the time Dick finally begins to show his hand, which leaves the author dumping information via dialogue in bursts that, while classically Dickish in their clumsiness, are hard to read without gritting one’s teeth.

Which takes us to the ending, which is a chapter of one part Power of Believing, two parts Deus Ex Machina, and a sprinkling of All Reality is Illusory, Shut Up.

So not a strong ending, then, which again, is not uncommon for Dick, barring my favorite of his novels (read: A Scanner Darkly) most of his book operate by the mode of thinking that “Hey it’s not the destination it is the journey,”, to which my response is always, “Sure, but you can’t expect me to be grateful for a beautiful trip through the Adirondacks if it’s going to culminate in us running off a cliff and hitting the bottom of a gorge going 85 miles per hour.”

I’m picky like that.

“You know that recent Supreme Court ruling where a husband can legally murder his wife if he can prove she wouldn’t under any circumstances give him a divorce?” ― Philip K. Dick, Ubik

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Book Review: Digging to America by Anne Tyler

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Digging to America by Anne Tyler – Available Here

At my work we were given the task of filling out a sheet of paper about the books we liked and the ones we didn’t. There were ‘whys’ and titled examples of what drove us to keep reading and what simply drove us crazy. With a monument forged of papers, management then set about pairing us together and tasked us with recommending books to the other person as an exercise in reader advisory (I work in a library).

This was a book that was on my partner’s all-time favorites. I’ve since lost the sheet that had the total information on it, but I seized this book in order to try and get to know the person who recommended it, to try and built a bridge between our vastly different literary hunting grounds.

And so I started Digging to America, a story about two adopted foreign babies and the story of the drastically different families that raise them.

That’s it.

We see the children grow up, but mostly engages their families interacting and occasionally battling each other over their cultural differences (one is of Iranian heritage, the other white bread American).

The inoffensive style and milquetoast plot (non-hostile pushes towards assimilation and pushback on the premise that traditions are important, oh my!) dance around characters that are human, but in the most uninteresting way possible. They have desires and wants, but they feel so frivolous, so ‘is-this-really-all-you-have-to-worry-about’ that it feels more like being told a story about your parents neighbors than it does a novel.

As negative as all of this sounds I have to say, I didn’t hate the book. I didn’t anything it. I could pick it up and put it down the same way I would utensils from the dishwasher.  It was a book I read and continued reading until it was over and then I sat there for several moments trying to figure out how the hell I was going to talk about it.

I’ve always been someone who has abided by the rule that one should love a book, hate a book, but never succumb to indifference. Which is unfortunately where I currently find myself sitting. Digging to America is the story of two families. It is a shame, then, that neither of them managed to be anything more than passingly interesting.

“Isn’t it odd,” Maryam said. “Just like that, a completely unknown person is a part of their family forever. Well, of course that’s true of a birth child, too, but … I don’t know, this seems more astonishing.” “To me, both are astonishing,” Dave said. “I remember before Bitsy was born, I used to worry she might not be compatible with the two of us. I told Connie, ‘Look at how long we took deciding whom we’d marry, but this baby’s waltzing in out of nowhere, not so much as a background check or a personality quiz. What if it turns out we don’t have any shared interests?’ – Anne Tyler, Digging to America

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Book Review: Will Save the Galaxy for Food by Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw

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Will Save The Galaxy For Food by Yahtzee Croshaw – Available Here

There is something about Yahtzee Croshaw that has always appealed to me. I discovered his Zero Punctuation just before it got picked up The Escapist back in 2007. His disdain for tropish literature and general cynicism for, well, everything puts him in the same mode of engaging various forms of media as I do. It wasn’t until 2010 that he wrote his first novel called Mogworld, which follows dead sorcerer who is dragged into the fickle strands of unlife by a renegade sorcerer. Mogworld was actually the book I was reading at the time I was first diagnosed with diabetes, the sardonic humor of which actually did a lot to keep me from drifting too hard into the dark and perilous space that chronic illness tends to drag the newly ill. His second book following a jam-based apocalypse entitled simply Jam was less impressive, mainly because five years was enough time for me forget literally everything other than what the title reminded me. So, we are up to a mix bag of plots but a solid handle of authorial voice and humor.

Which leads up here, to his most recent novel Will Save the Galaxy for Food, a satirical sci-fi space adventure where the stereotypical age of heroic star pilots has been rended and torn into a gristles of spongy memory due to the invention and ubiquity of teleportation because why indeed would you risked being mugged by space pirates if you can simply violate the laws of space-time by getting somewhere instantly.

The book is as ridiculous as it sounds and let me tell you, given the state of the world right now, it is exactly what I needed to slough off the top few layers of grim this last year of politics has left on me. Will Save the Galaxy for Food is that small guilt you allow yourself even though some self-serious and possibly wretched part of yourself tells you you shouldn’t.

The characters aren’t most three-dimensional, but wanting that in a book of satire is like searching out loaves of bread at a butcher shop, it’s just not what we do here. The female characters are not exactly bastions for positive feminist critique, but it’s a deal breaker for something parodying pulp sci-fi stories where female scientist used to be so beautiful as to be distracting to their male counterparts.

Will Save the Galaxy for Food parades out all the old sci-fi tropes, slathers them in rouge and fire-water, and dances around them with a lightheartedness that will make any pulp science fiction reader grin. Unless it doesn’t, in which case I would ask you why, but be utterly unconvinced by whatever your answer was. It’s quick, sarcastic, and overflowing with wit, which right now is exactly the kind of diversion I didn’t know I needed.

“Originally it had had two settings: Stun and Kill. These had proved inadequate against the ridiculously well-armored skin of monsters from particularly rough planets, so I’d found a way to tinker with the built-in limitations. The dial now had a third setting, labeled with the handwritten words ‘Solve All Immediate Problems.” ― Yahtzee Croshaw, Will Save the Galaxy for Food

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