Review: How I Became a North Korean, Krys Lee

As I’ve possibly mentioned once or twice (or thrice maybe?) on this blog, I find the country of North Korea morbidly fascinating. Even in an election season where the impossible-to-believe comes true on what seems like a daily basis (not in a good way), North Korea remains an unknowably impossible sort of country to have in the modern world. So I obviously was always going to read How I Became a North Korean.

How I Became a North Korean

This debut novel by Krys Lee, who has worked with defectors from North Korea herself, follows three characters on a long and strange journey to find a reality that they can accept. Yongju is the son of privilege in North Korea, forced to flee after the Dear Leader kills his father in cold blood; while a pregnant Jangmi allows herself to be sold into marriage in China in the hopes that her new husband will believe the baby is his. The non-North Korean of the group is Danny, a Korean American teenager in search of meaning.

How I Became a North Korean is a weird fever dream of a book for a weird fever dream of a country. If some of the plot twists seem unlikely, it can’t even compare to the unlikelihood that a country like North Korea could exist, this rarefied environment in which the country’s leader acts with utter impunity against his own people, and of which so little is reliably known that we can’t even assess what needs to change.

(Except, you know, everything.)

Krys Lee is writing about something I haven’t encountered before, which is the difficulties that North Koreans face after crossing out of their own country. Though rescue organizations do exist, Lee has had some experience with predatory Christian agencies less interested in helping refugees than gaining more donation money from visitors. This experience informs the bulk of the book, as North Korean refugees find not safety but a new kind of captivity when they leave their country.

Also appreciated: our dude narrator has feelings about our lady narrator, but he doesn’t make his feelings her problem. He is kind and supportive of her and I appreciate it. Also:

I was alarmed and amazed that she had somehow freed herself. She hadn’t been broken after all, only hoarding her strength.

Have you read/reviewed this one? Let me know and I’ll add a link!

Review: The Secrets of Wishtide, Kate Saunders

Note: I received a copy of The Secrets of Wishtide from the publisher for review consideration.

I do not read many mysteries. I think the reason is that so many mysteries come in serieses, and as a completist I find this very daunting. (Yes yes I am in love with the Amelia Peabody books, of which there are infinity, but I started reading them when I was like fourteen so it barely counts.) Also, a lot of mysteries feature divorced dude private eyes wandering around thinking bitter thoughts about their exes. Or really gruesome autopsy details. And I don’t like those things.

However, The Secrets of Wishtide is the first in a series, so there’s nothing to be daunted by; and it stars a widow detective in Ye Olden Days who has nothing but affectionate memories of her deceased husband; and they didn’t hardly have autopsies in Ye Olden Days. Problems solved! Moreover, it’s by Kate Saunders, author of this World War-I1 era sequel to Five Children and It that my library keeps taunting me that it’s in stock but then when I get there it’s checked out again.

Secrets of Wishtide

Curate’s widow Laetitia Rodd is engaged to find dirt on a woman called Helen Orme, whom the son of wealthy industrialist Sir James Calderstone is determined to marry, even though she is Unsuitable. Whilst pursuing this perfectly reasonable and harmless investigation, she finds herself at the center of NUMEROUS MURDERS and must discover what is up before an innocent man is hanged for the crimes.

Someone (probably Shae?) on Twitter compared this series to Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, and while Mrs. Rodd lacks Miss Fisher’s devil-may-care attitude to societal rules as they govern her own behavior, the book does share Miss Fisher‘s keen awareness of the ways gender norms keep women in check. Nearly every woman Mrs. Rodd encounters in this book has faced censure for stepping out of her society-approved lane, and the severity of the consequences are deeply informed by class and wealth. By the same token, Mrs. Rodd takes frequent advantage of her own relative invisibility as a poor-but-respectable widow to make inquiries of people she otherwise might have no access to. She is cloaked by marriage and position in a cloud of anonymity not available to women like Helen Orme.

So Saunders’s examination of that was a lot of — well, not fun, because it’s depressing, but it was interesting to see in an old-time mystery series. There are plenty of clues and red herrings to follow up, and if the final resolution of the mystery wasn’t tremendously shocking (due to not enough suspects), it was still a fun ride. There is a gruff and skeptical police inspector who — and I hope I’m not speaking out of turn here — can be expected to form a mutual grudging respect with Mrs. Rodd as the series continues. And y’all know how I feel about that.

  1. Pretend that hyphen is an en dash.

Review: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are, Frans de Waal

Phew, that was a long title. My fingers are tired from typing it all out. Are we smart enough to make concise titles? Often but not always! Snarking aside, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are (affiliate link: Book Depository) is a wonderfully accessible overview of studies of animal cognition.

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are

de Waal’s basic argument is that as humans get better at designing tests that take into account animal physiognomy, habits, and social structure, animals perform better on those tests. The most common limitation on tests of animal cognition is not animal, but human, intelligence. An example:

When octopuses were given a transparent jar that contained a live crawfish1, they failed to do anything. This greatly puzzled the scientists, because the delicacy was clearly visible and moving about. . . it turned out to be one of those human misjudgments. Despite having excellent eyes, octopuses rarely rely on vision to catch prey. . . . As soon as the jar was smeared on the outside with herring “slime,” making it taste like fish, the octopus swung into action and started manipulating it until the top came off.

In other news, octopuses can open jars. I hope that in the new world order our octopus overlords will remember that I ate no octopus in my life and left the dissecting of them to my lab partner.

If you’re interested at all in the way animals think, de Waal’s book is a thoughtful and accessible primer to zoopsychology. As well as featuring plenty of anecdotes that will make you go “holy shit why are animals so smart” — including this thing about chimpanzees assembling mini-tool kits to accomplish complex tasks — he continually reminds the reader of the limitations on what we’re able to know about animal brains.

Maybe my favorite thing about this book is de Waal’s indictment of the constantly shifting goalposts for what differentiates humans from the rest of the animal world. In de Waal’s mind, the answer to this question is not much, but many people are anxious to find something that sets us apart from the animals. The problem is that as soon as we locate a line of demarcation (tool use, cooperation, advance planning), we find that apes will cross it, given the right circumstances. And once we’ve found apes that cross the line, scientists of other animals — ones as simple as fishies! — will do more tests and discover examples of those animals that also cross the line. And then we are back at the beginning.

Personally, I find it rather peaceful not to be all that different from the rest of the animal kingdom. This way, when global warming wipes out the species and Earth has to start over from scratch, it won’t be so much of a tragedy: Just one animal species going extinct to make room for the next.

Thanks to Malcolm Avenue Review for the nudge to read this one!

Here’s my question: What do you think separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom? If anything! Oh, and also, how do you feel about octopuses? Are you fine with invertebrates being as smart as freaky octopuses are? Do you have concerns about them ultimately taking over everything?

  1. Full disclosure, the book says “crayfish,” but I can’t with that nonsense.

Saving Montgomery Sole, Mariko Tamaki

Y’all, I love Mariko Tamaki. If I were in charge of the universe, I’d request that Mariko Tamaki subsequently do like romance authors and write one book for each of the notable minor characters in Saving Montgomery Sole.1 Saving Montgomery Sole is about a girl with two moms who struggles to fit in to her glossy, carb-hating California high school; and then a Jerry Falwell-type preacher comes to town, and Montgomery is certain that her family will be a target for his hostility.

Saving Montgomery Sole

Mariko Tamaki hated high school and has said in interviews that she always struggled to fit in. In this book as in Skim and even This One Summer, and she absolutely captures the helplessness and frustration and sometimes-misery of high school. Montgomery and her friends insist on being themselves at a school where their selves are not entirely accepted, but Montgomery is the one who struggles with it. When other kids judge and tease her, she’s a simmering pot of rage, where her friends Thomas and Naoki have–to her–an astonishing capacity for letting high school mockery roll off their backs. And I love that although Montgomery has legitimate gripes with her school and her town, Tamaki’s not afraid to show Montgomery being, at times, a close-minded jerk herself.

If I have a complaint — get ready for an Angry Feminism Minute — it’s that all the skinny blondes in this book, and there are a lot of them, in a plethora of different settings, are one-dimensional carbs-obsessed bitches. Since a major theme of the book is that Montgomery and her friends are mocked for their perceived deviance from an acceptable norm, it’s disappointing to see the book itself condemning a particular gender performance in others. None of the skinny blonde bitches is granted any interiority, and while Montgomery ends up confronting some of her wrong assumptions about what people’s lives are like, the skinny blonde health nuts are not included in that revision of expectations.

As a culture, I’d like to think we’re moving away from uncritically reproducing the I’m not like other girls narrative — at least, I hope so. Equating a femme-y gender performance with shallowness and assholery just substitutes one set of restrictive gender norms for another set, and that’s not what we’re about as feminists, right, team?

  1. Yo I love that about romance novels. If you love a secondary character in a romance novel, like ever, you can be almost certain that they’re going to have their own book.

Pit Bull, Bronwyn Dickey

Are y’all ready for me to EXPLODE YOUR MIND GRAPES? Because the reason I read Bronwyn Dickey’s Pit Bull was this one interview that led me to some internet research that EXPLODED MY MIND GRAPES. Bronwyn Dickey said in this interview that we really don’t know anything about pit bull dog bites. And I was like, Um, okay, Bronwyn Dickey, I agree with you that pit bulls are misunderstood, but we know some stuff about pit bull dog bites, and because not knowing things drives me crazy, I went down an Internet rabbit hole researching dog bite statistics.

Team. Team. Listen. We know literally nothing about dog bites by breed. Please let me expand on this. Number one, we are super-garbage at identifying dog breeds. Below is a picture of two dogs, a pure-bred Basenji and a pure-bred cocker spaniel.

Pit BullNice-looking dogs, no? Now please inspect the puppies this pair of dogs produced.

Pit Bull

I KNOW, RIGHT? So okay, we begin by noting that everyone’s terrible at identifying dog breeds. Dickey also includes pictures of the puppies’ eventual progeny, and that’s even nutser: It turns out that within two generations, dogs revert to the statistical dog average.1

Next up, I went looking for how a reputable source like the CDC compiles breed-specific dog bite statistics, and it turns out that they don’t do it anymore, but when they’ve done it in the past they used humane society reports plus media reports. Y’all. Media reports. Like imagine your local TV station and how much they love scare stories, and then recognize that this is one of the main sources the CDC used to compile information about dog bites. In 2013, the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association looked for dog bite reports given to the media and humane societies, and the researchers looked more deeply into a few hundred of those cases.

AND LISTEN TO THIS, Y’ALL. (I had to start a new paragraph because this is so mind-blowing.) In forty percent of cases where there was a humane society report and a media report of the same dog bite incident, in forty percent of those cases, the media reported a different dog breed than the humane society. THINK ABOUT THAT. We know absolutely literally nothing about what breeds of dogs are more prone to biting. Zero things, is what we know. We have no reliable statistics whatsoever. Please tell your friends; I cannot be alone with this information.

Pit Bull

Pit Bull had so many tragic parts about poor folks losing their beloved family pets that I am not sure I can entirely recommend it. I’d like to make an annotated reading list where I note which pages are fine to read (bc heartwarming stories of dogs and owners who so much love each other), and which pages should be strenuously avoided (DEAD DOGS, there are so many DEAD DOGS in this book).

I do feel like I learned a lot about the sociological underpinnings of attitudes toward pit bulls. Surprise! It’s racism! As Gene Demby is perpetually noting, #housingsegregationineverything. When landlords or city councils ban pit bulls, they’re actually trying to forbid a type of tenant, and don’t die of shock, but the type is poor and black. It’s all pretty enraging, especially when alternated with stories of people who were forced to give up their dogs to euthanasia because the alternative is homelessness or similar disasters.

Read this or don’t — you know your limits re: dead dog stories — but I mean it, tell your friends this important information about dog bite statistics. WE KNOW NOTHING. LITERALLY NOTHING. Thank you Bronwen Dickey for opening my eyes to this preposterous-ass situation.

  1. That is not a real datum, it is just a joke, do not @ me.

You May Also Like, Tom Vanderbilt

You May Also Like attempts to fathom the question of why people like what they like. Before reading this book, you’d probably answer “It’s complicated.” But after you read it? You’ll, um, you’ll still say it’s complicated. Human brains are complicated organs, and we are just not very good at understanding them.

You May Also Like

When I’m reading pop sciencey sorts of books, I am on a hair trigger with regard to bullshit neuroscience of the type that Cordelia Fine has conditioned me to be on a hair trigger w/r/t; i.e., that thing where it’s like “the same part of your brain lights up when you’re scared as when you eat a new type of vegetable, so you must be scared of new vegetables!”1 I am happy to report that with a few minor and rare exceptions, Vanderbilt steers clear of this sketchy business. He is less interested in neurological explanations for taste than in talking to people whose work it is to figure out the whys and hows.

As you can probably guess if you live in this world, many of the people researching taste are doing it so that they can make more and better algorithms to predict what you will like if you already like X. Or so they can find ways to make you like Y if you are not currently a Y-liker.

algorithm-makers, probably

That second thing is of particular interest to me! Vanderbilt finds that framing makes a huge difference (duh): If you already know you don’t like country music, you are less likely to enjoy a song if someone says “hey listen to this song by Garth Brooks” than if you encounter a Garth Brooks song, stripped of context, as the background to a movie or commercial you enjoy. Social context matters too (also duh): When you see other people liking a thing, you’re more likely to like the thing yourself. Plus, if other people around you like a thing and your experience of the thing broadens, you are even likelier still to start liking the thing, because familiarity is a good predictor of developing liking.

(Cf my Stockholm syndrome re: radio-frequent songs including but not limited to Nick Jonas’s “Jealous” and One Republic’s “Counting Stars.”)

He also discusses the role of error in the way our tastes change, which is something that had never occurred to me. For instance, some irregular verbs have become regular over time, mainly verbs we don’t use that much.

Why? Because the irregular verbs we hardly ever encounter are the ones whose irregular forms we are least likely to remember, hence we convert them, through error, into regular verbs.

Interesting, right? So now we have “thrived” instead of “throve,” but “drove” is still the past tense of “drive.” Take that, prescriptivists!

If you are looking for final conclusions about what makes a person like a thing, You May Also Like doesn’t have a lot of answers. But if you just want to learn about the many factors that go into making personal taste, by spending time with the people who spend their time thinking about that, this is a fun and readable exploration of those worlds.

Jill at Rhapsody in Books also reviewed this. Let me know if you did, too, and I’ll add a link!

  1. This is what we call affirming the consequent. If you float and wood floats, that doesn’t mean you are actually made of wood.

Alias, Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos

Happy Monday! It’s time for another installment of Angry Feminism by Gin Jenny, this time aimed at Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos’s Alias, the comic on which the Netflix Jessica Jones show is (loosely) based. Ready? Let’s get into it! This review will be broken up into two parts, one where I come not to bury Alias but to praise it, and then one where I have an enormous BUT and some further thoughts on Feminism.

Alias

The bulk of Alias is a procedural story about Jessica Jones, Private Eye. I like this about Alias. If I had a complaint about the show (well, I had many), it was that we rarely get to see Jessica Jones actually pursuing her actual career. She does the minimum amount of PI-ing that can be called PI-ing, like Keith Mars isn’t even the star of his show and he does way more on-screen PI-ing than Jessica Jones in Jessica Jones. Whereas in Alias, each mini-arc is about a specific case that Jessica has to solve: cheating spouses, missing persons, exactly what you’d expect.

She’s also a complicated, not-always-likeable person, and the comic does not ask us to hold this against her. We know that there’s some bad stuff in her past (hello, superhero?), but even before Bendis tells us what this is, we’re meant to be on her team as regards her choices re: costumed heroism; and in fact, we’re meant to be on her team altogether, while also recognizing that she makes mistakes and bad decisions and this is part of her too. So that’s a great look for a female-led comic, particularly one that came out in the early aughts.

You can tell that Bendis is trying not to fall into gross, overused tropes of female trauma. He really is trying. Ant-Man, who Jessica dates for a while, comes off reeeeeal Nice-Guy-ish, and she has to legit run away from him yelling “RESPECT MY BOUNDARIES SCOTT.” And there’s another scene in which he asks her — not in an unkind way — if she’s been raped, to which she answers this:

Alias

I gotcha, Bendis. I see what you’re trying to do there, buddy. I see that you are making an effort there and I appreciate it.

But you know how I have talked in this space before all about how it’s a problem to locate the value of women characters in their bodies? Well, one thousandth verse, same as the first. In the last issue of Alias, Bendis loses a huge chunk of my goodwill for this series by ending the story in the following asinine way: Jessica reveals her woeful backstory to Luke Cage, how Killgrave made her watch while he raped a whole bunch of other women and also made her beg him to love her. Here in the present, Killgrave escapes from prison. She has the power to escape his mind control for Reasons (fine), so she kills him. Then she goes find Luke Cage to tell him she’s pregnant with his child, and this fuckery ensues:

Alias

Yo, just like: Okay. Let me just — okay. Jessica has never talked about wanting a child before. This is super out of nowhere. For this to work as a final scene, Bendis is banking on the reader accepting the premise that all ladies want babies. That is number one.

(Do I need to say this, actually? I guess yes? Dude writers, your attention please: Not all ladies want babies. If you want us to buy “pregnancy” as a happy, or even a happyish ending, you need to set it up emotionally prior to pulling the trigger. But you should still probably have a lady read over what you’ve written. Dudes assuming they know what ladies want to do with their bodies is, let’s say, somewhat fraught.)

Number two, returning to that earlier panel about Jessica having been raped, I know I said I appreciated the effort, but I didn’t appreciate it that much. Killgrave’s treatment of Jessica lets Bendis garner cookies by showing awareness that Lady Comics Readers are tired of rape backstories (yes we are). But it’s all still framed like rape. Jessica is triggered during sex. She heavily identifies with young women who appear to have been abducted or assaulted. In a flashback, she’s thrown into a state of dissociation following a particularly brutal command from Killgrave. And it all just feels like a dude comic book writer thinking “what can be a traumatic backstory for a lady person that isn’t rape but is still very traumatic indeed?” and being literally unable to come up with something that didn’t involve a woman’s ability to consent being taken away by a dude looking to dominate, humiliate, and overpower her.

THUS, this sudden pregnancy thing, which evidently we are supposed to root for because evidently it’s something our heroine wants, comes off super much as a corrective expression of Jessica’s womanhood following her triumph over her female trauma.

And look, I get that that wasn’t what Bendis was aiming at. But as women we are perpetually told that our value lies in remaining sexually pure; and, when we lose that purity, it lies in becoming a vessel for new life. It’s disappointing to watch Jessica punchmurder a character who responds to her deviance from the first half of that paradigm with violence and coercion, only to have the author assume her, and our, innate desire for her to align her life with the second half of it. It’s frustrating as hell, the more so because Alias and its creators have been much applauded for this portrayal of a complex female character and her recovery from trauma.

ETA: After writing and scheduling this post, the news came out that Brian Michael Bendis will be writing a new Iron Man comic featuring a black teenage girl named Riri. I believe in Bendis’s good intentions, both in Alias and in this upcoming Iron Man comic. I’m sure he wants to do and say the right things. But the pregnancy thing above is the perfect example of having good intentions and still getting it wrong. Hire some damn women of color, Marvel, and stop looking for praise behind infinitely reupping on the same white dude writers forever and ever.

This has been your Angry Feminism Minute. Tip your servers.

Angry White People, Hsiao-Hung Pai

By total coincidence, my hold on Angry White People came in the same week that Jo Cox was assassinated in England, apparently for her support of Britain’s presence in the EU and other liberalish political agendas. I heard the name “Nigel Farage” for the first and second times in this book and the news (respectively? not respectively? I don’t remember).

Angry White People

The real reason I put a hold on it in the first place was that I’m interested in what makes people choose one belief over another one. I try — I do try — to ground my own beliefs in data, as far as possible. Except that I know this isn’t how actual people actually manage their politics.1 I know that really people choose their beliefs based on what ethos aligns most comfortably with the type of person they want to be, or, if you ask Cynical Jenny, with the type of person they want to appear to be. And it is therefore really hard for me to understand why people choose far-right ideologies like the BNP or the rhetoric of Donald Trump, because surely nobody wants to look like or be a basically-Nazi.

Angry White People is about that. Hsiao-Hung Pai talks to men2 who have embraced the far-right mindset, though the degree to which her interviewees have committed to it varies widely. Some have become alarmed by the rhetoric of groups like the EDL (English Defence League, it’s racist, they hate Muslims) and are phasing out their involvement, while others have only grown stronger in their belief that immigrants are ruining England, garnering all the benefits, and taking all the jobs.

Reading about virulent racism in England is (depressing but) interesting because it highlights the way certain narratives about members of a given ethnic group, race, religion, etc., can come to seem urgent, true, and powerful despite clear statistical evidence to the contrary. America remains mightily under the sway of the Moynihan report and its narrative of broken black families and absent black fathers; even though the CDC has shown that black fathers actually spend more time daily with their children than fathers of other races. And when you live in America, it’s easy to lose track of whether or not that narrative is true, because you hear it so often that it continues to feel true.

yes, adorable child. yes it is.

In England, by contrast, there is this narrative that Muslim men are pedophiles and that they groom young girls (white girls sometimes! and kidnap them!) and share them around sexually at their mosques or whatever. I had never heard of this narrative before and was astonished to discover it in Angry White People. Immediately afterward, I encountered this same narrative both in Brexit coverage and in Sathnam Sangera’s Marriage Material, so it is definitely A THING over there. Americans, who are none too friendly towards Muslims ourselves, do not have this narrative. So it was a good reminder again of the way these narratives build and reproduce themselves out of free-floating prejudice and the desire to have a good reason to dislike a group you wanted to dislike anyway.

Also a great reminder to be suspicious of won’t someone save the children/womenfolk arguments. If you ever find yourself making an argument against a given group, and your argument is based on we must save their children/women!, just know that you are standing in a proud line of colonialist/racist rhetoric that uses women’s rights to justify oppression and theft against marginalized groups standing in the way of more powerful groups achieving still yet greater economic gain. KNOW THAT ABOUT YOURSELF FIRST. Speak second. (Or never. Never is also fine, in this context.)

Y’all, I don’t know. I don’t know with this world right now. Can someone recommend me a nonfiction book about, like, nice people doing the right thing, and it turns out well for them? Is that a dumb thing to want?

  1. Apropos of which: Don’t you want to read The Myth of the Rational Voter? I do. It looks good.
  2. And women, you say? No. Not really. Pai talks about women’s roles in the far right, but most of what she has to say is, women aren’t tremendously active in far-right groups like the EDL and the BNP. Here, permit me to fan you gently whilst you try to recover from the shock of this news.

Pandemic, Sonia Shah

I read Pandemic author Sonia Shah’s book The Body Hunter a few years back and was not satisfied with the quality of her citations. While I totally stand by that (the endnotes in that book were a mess), and I was all set to think ill of Pandemic also, actually the endnotes in this one were way much better sorted out. I conclude that she had better copyeditors this time around.

Pandemic

This book’s about the spread of infectious diseases, and Sonia Shah herself admits that she’s not sure how to tell the story she wants to tell. Much of her research, and a good chunk of the book, is devoted to cholera: its paths of infection, some of its major outbreaks over the course of history, and the ways it continues to rear its head even though we already know how to cure it. But the book isn’t fundamentally about cholera, so another large chunk of it talks about vectors for infection, the emergence of new diseases, and a whole bunch of other things that don’t get explored in super-depth.

A fluffy cholera bacterium!

Pandemic is interesting and taught me some things I didn’t know, like that birds rarely pass diseases to humans unless there are also pigs nearby, in which case it goes birds –> pigs –> humans; but overall, it’s neither one thing nor the other. Not a comprehensive history of cholera, not a thorough exploration of how new diseases emerge and take root, and not an overview of pandemics and how we’ve handled them.

It did, however, make me feel paranoid about ever touching animals again. Or water. Or other people. Or about taking an antibiotic. OCD runs in my family and I sometimes feel that it is perilously close to the surface. But I sensibly went to my parents’ place and petted the hell out of my dog Jasmine, and I even let her lick my ears one lick, and that reminded me that pandemics are unlikely but Jazz will always love me. So there, diseases.