This month’s books included an equal split between fiction and non-fiction, and books on the realities of life in both China and North Korea. I didn’t plan to read them so close together but the similarities were striking and chilling. I also read a long novel that I really, really did not like, which does not happen very often. Enjoy (the blog post, not bad stories and authoritarian regimes)!
Friday Black – Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
I am always impressed by short stories, because I think building a world and a compelling narrative in only a few pages is a big task and an even bigger achievement. Overall, I think Adjei-Brenyah does a fantastic job in his debut book. These stories are surrealist, Black Mirror-types tales which explore racism, consumerism and police brutality, primarily in America. As with any collection of short stories, there are highs and lows: the most powerful story has to be Zimmer Land, which is about a theme park where people can use virtual reality technology to murder black men spotted in their neighbourhood (under the guise of exploring the nature of justice), followed closely by the Finkelstein 5, about one man seeking vengeance with his friends for the deaths of five murdered black children. The weakest had to have been Lark Street, about a young man processing his girlfriend’s abortion by imagining himself taking care of twin foetuses. It didn’t really work and had some strong pro-life vibes. Other stories, notably Through the Flash, had a strong premise but were just too big an idea to execute in the short story format. Overall, though, this is a wonderful collection of surrealist, modern stories that take an unflinching look at racism, consumerism and technology today, and are worth reading.
I also love the dedication: For my mom, who said, “How can you be bored? How many books have you written?”
Geek Love – Katharine Dunn
Man, I did not like this book. This book was fucking weird. It’s all about a family who run a circus where the main attractions are… the children themselves, because their mother, with their father’s help, doused herself with radiation and experimental drugs during her pregnancies in order to give birth to freaks (their word). There’s Arturo, who has no limbs and only fins; conjoined twins Electra and Iphegenia; Hunchbacked albino dwarf Olympia, who narrates the novel; and Chick, who appears normal but turns out to be telekinetic. The book follows them through their lives with the circus, as Arty becomes more corrupt, controlling and abusive. There are also forward flashes to Olympia’s later life, in which she is trying to reconnect with her daughter, though the daughter in question thinks she’s just an odd old woman living in her apartment building.
My main problem with this book was that it didn’t exactly challenge any of the prevailing notions about so-called freaks. Each main character in the book has some sort of extreme deformity… and they live a bizarre life, primarily dictated by their megalomaniac brother and which includes supernatural incest, a cult of voluntary amputees and a few violent deaths. I don’t know what the point of this book was other than to say yes, freaks are freaks. This book was full of grotesque medical procedures, sexual deviancy and gratuitous violence. Also, the light magical realism doesn’t make sense at all. Telekinetic Chick is essentially a superhero – he can put people to sleep, hurl items vast distances and impregnate people with other people’s sperm (I know, I know. WHAT) using only his mind. He starts fires and talks to steak. This book is very odd. And I felt like it only served to reinforce the notion that ‘freaks’ are weird, grotesque and incapable of normal, loving relationships, which is not exactly a heartwarming, progressive or groundbreaking message. Definitely not for me.
On Fire – Naomi Klein
Naomi Klein’s books come in two distinct formats: dense, long, impressively detailed tomes that have taken her years to put together, or shorter, more accessible books that are clearly only like this because they needed to publish a book quickly in order for it to be topical. This is the latter.
There are pros and cons to both types of Klein’s books. The longer books are so impressively researched, written and evidenced, but man, they can be a slog because of their sheer length, depth and tiny font size. They are so worth it but it is an effort. Her shorter books – No is Not Enough, about Trump, and On Fire, about the climate crisis – are a much easier read, but they understandably lack the years of careful research, planning and thinking that go into her other work. On Fire is a collection of essays and speeches from the past ten years, many of which have been published or spoken before, though were almost all new to me. The lens through which Klein views the climate crisis, seamlessly integrating all kinds of social justice into her analysis, is masterful, and has hugely informed the way I conceive of climate change and what we can do about it. This comes through best in her essay Let them Drown: The Violence of Othering in a Warming World. However, some of the essays are weaker, and you can tell this is a book that has been put together quickly because the general political – and literal – climate had a different publishing deadline. If anything, the strongest section in the book is the introduction, which lasts for approximately fifty pages. It is clear that this part was written recently, with all Klein knows now, and it is tighter, clearer and most compelling as a result.
I will always recommend Klein’s books if you want to read about politics, but if you are looking for information on climate change, you must start with her incredible book This Changes Everything, and read this after as a supplement.
We Have Been Harmonised – Kai Strittmatter
I have been convinced for a while that none of us know enough about China and this book only confirms my suspicions, while helping rectify some of that lack of knowledge at the same time. We should all be paying more attention to China, because it is going to be one of the defining features of global politics throughout our lives. It already is.
Kai Strittmatter is a German journalist who has lived and worked in China for over a decade. He has written this book to illuminate some of the hidden truths about the Chinese government and the kind of society they are forcing upon China’s citizens. It’s funny to me that we all love Black Mirror as a window to the future – you only need to read this book to realise that much of that future is already here, it’s just happening in a country you don’t hear much about. Not only are many parts of China under 24/7 surveillance – complete with a threat of being hauled off and imprisoned or murdered without trial for saying anything that criticises the regime – but the government is already rolling out a social credit system that bars people with low point scores from taking certain trains and planes and obtaining a personal loan. Yes, this is real.
Not only is China’s government enacting all sorts of repressive and cruel practices on its citizens, it is also investing heavily overseas, embedding the CCP’s interests and priorities into international projects. China has invested in projects spanning Africa and South America, but also lent money to various European countries too. The CCP nakedly aims to have the biggest and best economy in the world, by whatever means necessary.
One thing that stood out to me, though this will probably be the subject of its own blog post, was that this is the first time in recent history that a major world power has had such radically different politics, culture and language to the other major nations. Any kind of international cooperation will be made that much harder because the aims and approach are so different. I also noticed how much of a sausage fest this book is. Maybe that’s the fault of the author, but either way, there was very little mention of how women fare in a country ruled almost exclusively by authoritarian men (though history tells us that it tends to be not well). To me, that omission was stark. Finally, there was also no mention of the climate, which I understand from a narrative perspective but question from a personal position. It is important to talk about China’s approach to technology, AI and society – but more than any of those things, it is important to talk about their approach to our planet, because with a population of 1.4 billion people and a rapidly growing middle class and industrial sector, how China approaches the climate crisis could well be life-defining for all of us. This is a great book; you should read it. I highlighted so many passages!
Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman
After seeing that I read Good Omens last month, my friend Grace recommend Neverwhere as a good place to start with Neil Gaiman’s solo ventures. As with the other good fantasy books I have read, I loved the world building. That is definitely the thing I love most about fantasy novels. Neverwhere is the story of normal London businessman who gets sucked into London Below, a world of demons and monsters and people who talk to rats beneath London Above (the city us mere mortals know about). Richard performs one good deed for a girl in dire need of help and his life is never the same.
Again, I loved the world. The creativity is inspiring! Gaiman is so richly descriptive it’s hard not get lost in London Below with Richard and Door and the Marquis and the rest of the cast of fantastical characters. However, the story was… a little thin, I thought. Richard is so totally unremarkable – and remains totally unremarkable – yet he manages to avoid death and beat adversaries in ways that the experienced magical beings could only dream of. This guy shouldn’t have lasted five minutes in London Below if you consider the grisly ends many of the other characters fell prey to. But he did, and the quest continued, and I could read about magical worlds all day, so I did enjoy it overall.
Without You, There Is No Us – Suki Kim
Korean-American Suki Kim did something that most of would consider a bit nuts. She went somewhat undercover with a group of Christian missionaries to teach at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) in North Korea. Kim taught English to the sons of the North Korean elite, all while secretly gathering information on the reality of life in North Korea for this book. Kim had visited North Korea before, as a journalist, but it was under the same restrictions that almost all outsiders visit North Korea under: a government-sponsored tour, where all activities are carefully planned and regulated and there are no opportunities to explore alone or even talk to normal North Koreans. Kim saw teaching at a school for months to be her best option for getting a more authentic look into North Korea’s repressive regime today.
I like Kim’s writing. It is very clean and moving, not unlike Murakami, and I think she communicated the isolation and surveillance of the regime well. However, some parts didn’t quite work for me. Her ‘lover’ back in New York makes frequent appearances (in her thoughts), even though it is not clear that they have any real relationship to speak of. The way she talks about fiercely loving her students within days of meeting of them, even though they are strangers and almost the same age as her, is a little odd. I don’t think there is anywhere near enough exploration of the total weirdness that is evangelical Christianity funding North Korean universities and supplying them with staff?! What the fuck. While proselytising by the staff is banned, you know it goes deeper than that. There is no explanation other than that Christianity is playing the long game, hoping to snare a few North Koreans should the nation open up. It is so odd, and I wish Kim had analysed that dynamic more.
Ultimately, though, this book does communicate the crushing sadness of a regime like this, even for the most privileged of North Korean citizens. As fake news starts to reign in the West and democracy is under threat, this book is perfect example of why exactly protecting our rights to freedom of speech, information and the democratic process should remain paramount.
Have you read any of these books? What should I read next month?