Shin Dong Hyuk was born into slavery in Prison Camp 14 in North Korea. He is also the only person to have survived an escape attempt. This is his story as told to Washington Post reporter Blaine Harden. Tens of thousands of North Koreans are locked up, many for being the offspring of perceived enemies of the state, e.g., nieces or nephews of relatives that defected to South Korea. Children are raised from birth like so many industrially produced piglets knowing deprivation, hunger, disease, and competition for survival. Death threats are real and executions, often for petty crimes like food theft of fraternizing with members of the opposite sex are commonplace and witnessed by all. Frankly, the dehumanization of inmates by prison guards does not seem all that unusual in light of what we know about torturous regimes throughout history. Not to make light of Shin’s despicable treatment, but what stands apart in this account is the emotional scarring that Shin continues to bear even after years of counseling and PTSD treatments in the west. Having had his developmental years so stunted psychologically he still finds it terribly difficult to trust, to plan for the future, to comprehend money, to think of anything beyond food.
Proulx spins a tall Texas tale about a loner named Bob Dollar sent to the mythical panhandle town of Wooly Bucket. His objective is to scout sites for an environmentally devastating pig farm for an international conglomerate called Global Pork Rind. Proulx has done her research leading readers rather forcefully to despise corporate agriculture and lament the loss of the good old days. She is at her best when she is pushing her farce as far as it will stretch, loosening up enough to become laugh aloud funny by the book’s end. Her descriptions of land, history, people of the earth, climate, even the buzz of insects before a thunderstorm are spot on and make the book worth reading. A few of her polemics drag. She lets oil drillers and the farmers who ran the regional aquifer get off the hook, too, in her single minded focus to give hell to businesses that raise pork units in deadly tight quarters. Read Proulx for her sense of place and character rather than for politics and plot.
In the 1940s a Bedouin searching caves above the western shore of the Dead Sea discovered urns with scrolls inside. He knew right away they were both ancient and valuable and sold them. When they turned up in the antiques market, archaeologists started searching for similar caves. When archaeologists weren’t there Bedouin continued hunting. The scrolls, hundreds of them, date from the first centuries BCE and CE making them contemporaneous with the life of Jesus. Christian scholars have analyzed the texts for clues to the lives of early Christians. Jewish scholars, when they were finally permitted to examine the scrolls, look to the texts to learn about the lives of Jews just prior to the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Complicating matters is the adjacency of the archaeological site of Qumron, an Essene branch of Judaism that decisively separated itself from the Priestly cult of the Pharisees. This account is more of an academic summary article of the state of the archaeological and analytical affairs than it is a book worth curling up with. It is most fascinating for its insight into how historians of the period attempt to piece together archaeological and historical evidence to paint wildly contradictory canvases of life at the time. The lesson, not surprisingly, is that most of us peering back into the past find what we expect to see, oftentimes overlooking what might actually be there.
Four horse races are run at a bottom-of-the-barrel track inWest Virginia. The horses are knock-kneed, belligerent, over-the-hill, lazy, or used-up. So are the people that populate the track as their grooms, trainers, riders, and no-good-for-nothing hoodlums trying to make a fast buck. Gordon provides a view of people and horses I would never in my life meet and does so with such intimacy and accuracy that I felt I was in a neighboring horse stall peaking through a crack in the wallboards. Her races come alive, but somehow they don’t seem to be the main point. What Gordon wants us to see is that everything has a price. A horse can be bought, a race fixed, a trainer’s allegiance redirected, and even love can all be purchased. She captures each character’s manner of speech and thoughts with deadeye accuracy, but curiously, prints her dialogue with neither quotations nor attribution, leaving the reader to discern when words are spoken aloud and by whom. For that she won the National Book Award and though I couldn’t really put the book down it gave me a headache.
Detroit, once the nation’s industrial capital, is forty percent vacant. Politicians are corrupt, robbing what little money still flows through the city. Murderous thugs roam the streets. Homelessness, hunger, despair, lawlessness, and unbridled fear imprison law-abiding citizens inside their homes. Everyone else appears to be hanging onto street corners, jobless, self-medicating their misery. Certainly, there are worthy people in Detroit, pockets of revival, attempts to replace the rotten timbers of a city already mostly submerged, so why read a book that is simultaneously so depressing and unflinchingly focused on the negative? Because LeDuff can write like nobody’s business. After ten years as a New York Times reporter, he returns to his city to write for the Detroit Free Press, covering the city with the guts of a war journalist and the keen eye of a native son. Read the book because it will take you somewhere you would never go yourself and because no one could write this story any better.
A computer hacker living in an unnamed Arab country with enough liberties to allow full internet access crosses the secret police who are monitoring his activities. So far so good. As he runs for his life his narrative intersects with mystical stories from the Quran and A Thousand and One Nights and we are somehow supposed to draw cosmic conclusions about the intersection between the Internet and the ancient mysteries of Jinns (ghosts), prophets, desert humans with animal tendencies and the oppression of autocratic regimes. All too much when the characters aren’t particularly deep, the dialog is amateurish, and even the description of how hackers works sound like the author doesn’t really understand it herself.
An interesting perspective on U.S. history as seen through the relationships of all the Presidents since Truman to their predecessors. It is a forgiving and largely supportive account of each man learning a job burdened by pressures so weighty that only others who have borne the mantle could possible understand. As a consequence, the authors argue, the club of ex-Presidents rallies around the man in office regardless of political affiliation and we readers are left to understand that each President has fulfilled the office to the best of his ability and with the greater interests of the country always as his driving emotion. Through this lens no President in this book did anything wrong or unconscionable. Nixon meant well. Johnson did the best he could on Vietnam. Kennedy’s blunders in Cuba were minor. Bush the younger’s war on Iraq was justified. And all the ex-Presidents emerge, with time, as friendly, fatherly figures willing to assist in any way possible. Funny, the only ex-Prez to come off poorly is Carter. The man with perhaps the best post-Presidency press, Jimmy Carter, comes across as an egotistical loose-cannon as prone to do harm to international relations as he is to accomplish good. This is a book for old people that can remember living through most of the events in the book, not worth the time, I wouldn’t think, for younger readers.
A Japanese husband announces that he will follow through on his promise to divorce his wife because she has not borne him a child within their first year of marriage. He already has a mistress lined up when he dies of mysterious causes. Naturally, the spurned wife is the lead suspect but she is hundreds of miles away when her husband succumbs. The Japanese investigative team consists of a seasoned lead, Tokyo Policeman Kusunagi, who is insensitive about his perceptive, young, female recruit. Together they are aided by Professor Yukawa, a heady and utterly cranky academic. The reader on this audio book brought the well developed characters to life and though the ending was mildly anticlimactic the story itself was fully engaging.
Reinhard Heydrich, The Blonde Beast, ruled Czechoslovakia for the Nazis until he was assassinated in 1942. One of Hitler’s favorites — how is it I was unaware of him — he was the model Aryan: tall, physically strong, ambitious, murderous, a founder of The Final Solution, and in charge of subduing a conquered nation. And yet one Czech and one Slovak parachuted in from England with the intention of killing the highest Nazi official in their occupied country. The book is a cliff hanger, expertly crafted, originally in French, and translated into English, so the perspective is uniquely European. The book’s subtitle insists it is a novel, but if it is, the author’s presence as the researcher hunting for the assassins’ stories is so real, it is difficult to imagine what part of the account is fictionalized.
Annawadi, one of a million Indian slums, lies behind Mumbai’s glittering new international airport. Statistically speaking we all know slums suck, but before this book I don’t think any of us have ever really met the truly poor and destitute. This book brings them to life with deep honesty and power. Not surprisingly, like all people, slum dwellers are replete with human foibles and aspirations: competitiveness, ambition, depression, anxiety, desire, anger, and inadequacy. What the slum dwellers have in common as we come to share their lives is the necessity of fighting for dignity or earning enough for one more meal beneath a system so severely stacked against them as to induce miasthmatic hopelessness. This isn’t a happy book, but it is an important one, because in bringing poverty and injustice to the fore through the lives of Manju, Asha, Abdul, Kalu, Rahul and their peers we learn to see these people as real rather than faceless abstractions. Moreover, their plight is not so different from the poor in New York, Paris, or Lagos. Mostly this book is worth reading because it is so riveting. Boo’s research is incomparable, her book is a page-turner.