Monday, September 1, 2014

North Korea: "Exit Emperor Kim Jong-Il" by John Cha

Kim Jong-Un, in the news earlier this year for having his uncle executed, is but a baby in Exit Emperor Kim Jong-Il, which details the current North Korean dictator's grandfather and father, in their rise to tyranny. John Cha wrote this work after interviews with a former North Korean adviser to the second Kim (Jong-il) who defected to the south after becoming disillusioned.

North Korea is small and its people impoverished yet it plays a very visible role in international politics because of its nuclear arsenal, its suppression of civil rights, ongoing and abysmal human rights abuses, Dennis Rodman's affection for the so called "emperor" and more.  The Christian Science Monitor reported earlier in 2014:

"The regime is repressive in a way unthinkable in the West. Loyalty to the Kim family is paramount. There is no exile movement, no dissent, no opposition newspaper. Access to South Korean media is outlawed, as is free travel. Famously repressive Cold War states like Albania and Romania were fabulous models of freedom compared to the North today." (R. Marquand, January 19, 2014)

Cha details the schooling in politics received by Kim Jong-Il from his father, Kim Il-Sung, who assumed power in 1948. (Literally, Il-Sung just assumed power, with backing of the Soviets, and began a personality cult by 1948, calling himself the "Great Leader.") Jong-Il's son, Jong-Un is but carrying on the family tradition of tyranny. From middle-class middle America, it is very difficult to see how the nearly 70-year repression of the people of this country could ever end.

Iceland: "Independent People" by Halldór Laxness and "The Greenhouse" by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

Several friends and family recommended Independent People but when I realized it was first published in 1942, I supplemented it with a more recent work, The Greenhouse. My goal has been to read works of fiction published in my lifetime, and 1942 is a bit early.  I'm also always looking for works by women. So here is another pair, this time about the same country in the early 20th century and the early 21st.  While certainly times have changed, the essential Iceland seems very much the same.

Ms. Ólafsdóttir makes explicit allusions to the work of Nobel-prize winner Laxness. Among the ties are the names of children: Asta Sollilja, the name of a key character in People, means "beloved sun lily"; the narrator of The Greenhouse has an infant daughter named Flora Sol. In both works, a man seeks to express his deepest self through agriculture, although cultivating a rose garden in a southern European monastery garden (The Greenhouse) is a distinctly less arduous task than subsistence sheep farming on a volcanic island with a very short growing season. Each ends up responsible for a daughter he did not intentionally bring into the world. Lobbi is a father through what we now call a hook-up; Bjartur's wife enters the marriage already pregnant. Neither achieves what he thinks will occur in his life. Events -- as they do everywhere -- take over and each protagonist can only do his best in the circumstances he faces.

Even with these similarities, the books deal with different themes in different ways. Laxness's work is described as "epic," as in the Icelandic epics of yore. It is also overtly a cry for justice and economic equity between producers (the sheep farmers) and buyers (merchants). Ms. Ólafsdóttir's work is domestic, dealing with one person's thoughts and spiritual growth as he comes to grips with his life, the death of his mother, and his interactions with his child. Lobbi, the protagonist of Greenhouse, is temperamentally the opposite of Bjartur (who lives in a house he calls Summerhouse) in People. Lobbe worked closely with his now dead mother in their family greenhouse; he is indecisive and adrift and somewhat distant from his father and twin brother, due in part to that brother's developmental disabilities. Bjartur of People is a prideful, determined fellow who dominates all in his family. Lobbi allows things to happen to him; Bjartur tries to control everything. And in the end, each must cope day-to-day, and each comes to love a daughter whose arrival in his life seemed almost unbelievable.

Status after 11 months

After 11 months, I have read just over 50 titles (of 200 planned) and blogged about 30 or so. The blog takes way more time that I have to devote to it, so now I just read. I'm in the middle of four titles now: "Mexican Bolero", "Crabwalk" (Germany), "I the Supreme" (Paraguay), and "The Implacable Order of Things" (Portugal).

The books above, by the way, were all from the local public libraryand I've read each and returned them on time :)

It is 20% off weekend at Half Price Books, so of course, I found more titles to add to the collection. Plus a stop at a bookstore near Purdue University, where one of my kids goes, added two (Malawi and Cameroon).

New purchases led to review of what I have accumulated but not yet read. The stack is quite tall. It is a good thing I skipped the idea of doing this in a year, despite being inspired by A Year of Reading the World. One strategy, of course, is to look for shorter works. Two collections of short stories will help, plus they give me access short works of fiction from Tanzania, Lithuania, Cyprus, Lichtenstein, and Macedonia.

I've started including memoirs, poetry, and nature or travel writing, as long as they are written by someone "of" the country either in childhood or now. Thus, I have Mark and Delia Owens's book "Secrets of the Savannah" for Zambia, at least until I find something else.

Writing from people living in countries with low literacy rates is hard to find in English or French: Current challenges include Central African Republic, Benin, and Bhutan. It is likely that the near 50/50 gender ratio that is currently on my list will tip toward male, as I find works from countries where far fewer women have basic human rights.