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Four books: two fiction, two non-fiction; three in English, one in Korean; three stinkers.

1) Nothing to Envy - Barbara Demick
Nothing to Envy is one of several about life in North Korea recently published for a popular audience. Demick's novel decision to center her narrative on several individuals from a specific geographic area (that's not even Pyongyang!), and not around a specific family or class of individuals not only helps this book to stand out from similar fare but gives readers a more thorough overview of the ways that class and background influence everyday life in the country. It's a unique and refreshing change.

Unfortunately, while Demick has spent many years as a newspaper journalist covering the North, she is not a country expert and it shows. Her statements on life and society in the North are often contradictory, and she makes one glaring error sure to leave casual readers out at sea. Her lack of Korean fluency also dilutes the story's impact. For instance, a photograph of a barren Chongjin street (while certainly speaking volumes about North Korea's poverty) would have been even more poignant had Demick realised that the lettering on the sole billboard in the shot reads "On the Economic Front Line." Demick also missteps in trying to set up a climactic reunion for one of her main interview subjects, as she reveals far too much of the other party's thoughts and background within the first twenty pages of the book for there to be any question about whether or not this person has managed to escape to the South. These faults aside, Demick's concise narrative voice and novel approach to the subject make this a book well worth reading for anyone interested in the DPRK.

2) Hush, Hush - Becca Fitzpatrick
If you thought the Twilight series involved a little too much mental heavy lifting, this is the book for you.

If you thought Stephenie Meyer uses too many big words, or uses words correctly too often, this is the book for you.

If you thought Edward Cullen would have been hotter if only he were a little more emotionally and physically abusive to the female main character, this is the book for you.

If you think most novels would be better if they spent far less time on plot and character development, and more time spoon-feeding their readers drivel, this is the book for you.

If you think 99% of YA novels are unrealistic because the protagonists' friends, parents, caregivers, teachers, and other authority figures spend far too much time doing things that don't involve making sexual jokes at the protagonists' expense, this is the book for you.

If you need a present for someone you don't like and whose intelligence you'd like to insult, this is the book for you.

It is nice to see a novel with an attractive, semi-naked man on the cover for once. You can view this cover on the upper lefthand side of its amazon page. Congratulations. You've just seen the main redeeming aspect of this book.

3) The Sacred Book of the Werewolf - Victor Pelevin
I would have thought that by the 21st century the assertion that "real" men are violent and abusive during sex (and are only attracted to women because they get off on the idea of "tricking" them into fucking) and "real" women find sex humiliating, but like being physically coerced and injured (and if they say it's rape, it's because all women are manipulative liars), would be seen for the tripe it is, not used as the basis for yet another novel on the "painful truth" of the "war" between the sexes.

This is too bad, because Pelevin is quite good when he's lampooning modern Russian politics and society or exploring the modern application of Buddhist concepts. Unfortunately that gold is buried under far too much of the same old evolutionary psychology philosophical diarrhea to make this volume worth anyone's time. Read something else.

4) 겨울 연가와 나비환타지 - 함한희 & 허인순
    Winter Sonata and the Butterfly Fantasy - Ham Han-hee and Heo In-soon

Apparently, Korean academic writing is similar to Japanese academic writing, which is to say, not academic at all. For this volume, our intrepid authors have decided to uncover why a thirty-something South Korean actor in a treacley-sweet soap opera became the numero uno heartthrob for bored, middle-aged Japanese housewives. (PS: Can you spot the answer to this question hidden in this question?)

Their airtight research program involved reading all the Japanese-language posts on said actor's homepage bulletin board (hello, biased sampling!) and occasionally asking the board's denizens leading questions about why Bae Yong-joon (the abovementioned heartthrob) is so great. Not surprisingly, these women (in the grip of their first fandom) ascribe near saintlike qualities to Bae: he gave their frozen hearts the ability to experience love again, he taught them the importance of family when they knew it not, he gave them the strength to diet, to go back to school, to overcome a debilitating illness. He is the 21st century equivalent of the portable shrines that house Shinto deities (real assertion!).

My favorite part of the book, however, would be the obligatory hand-wringing over what a horrible, unappreciative neighbor Japan is: "If one tries looking to the past, it is possible to find some Japanese, although very few in number, who've been able to overcome their sense of superiority and deeply revere the Korean people" (real quote!). This then leads into a 6+ page digression about An Joong-gun's Japanese biographer and a quasi-historical Japanese warrior who defected to Joseon during Japan's 15th century invasion of the Korean peninsula. As an added bonus, the authors do not even attempt to relate this digression to the purported topic of the book. Final verdict: Ham and Heo keep using the word "research." I do not think it means what they think it means.

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January 2012

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