Foreign Policy Blogs

On Our Bookshelves: The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why it Matters * Juliet, Naked * The Gun Seller * Not Quite What I Was Planning

Jessica D’Itri

I am reading The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why it Matters by B.R. Myers, an associate professor at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea. The book purports to explain the national myth that informs the worldviews of North Koreans. The author refutes the standard trope that North Korea is Confucian and communist in ideology, instead revealing a paranoid, race-based nationalism. Myers starts out with the history of North Korea’s formation of myths, counter-intuitively crediting Japanese influence from colonial-era Korea. Next, he uses the national myth to try to explain the most important and misunderstood elements of North Korean society, such as the personality cults surrounding Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung and attitudes toward foreigners. While every country mythologizes, making its national leaders more heroic, its victories more definite and its suffering in defeats more the meaningful, in this closed society mythologizing is taken to a whole other level, so that every event is filtered to fit the national myth. For example, instead of admitting that the United States and others are providing food aid to a starving North Korean population, the food is portrayed as tribute from a fearful and awed outside world. Myers convincingly argues for the serious treatment of an official ideology that many North Korea watchers dismiss as too crazy for anyone to believe. As a bonus, the book is well-illustrated with North Korean propaganda posters and paintings.

Barbara Gonzalez

I’m in the midst of reviewing thesis-related newspapers from 2000 but managed to squeeze in Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked. As a fan of High Fidelity and About a Boy, I was truly grateful to find this book at a shop while being stranded at an airport. In contrast to other Hornby novels, this time the main character is a woman. Annie lives in a dead-end town and has a dead-end job. In her early 40s, unmarried and childless, Annie struggles to find meaning after breaking up with the boyfriend she had settled for years ago (“Her relationship now seemed to her to be betoken failure, not success. She and Duncan had ended up together because they were the last two people to be picked for a sports team, and she felt she was a better sport than that”). Never mind the depressing but true to life beginning. In the end, this novel is about second chances which seem to be always around the corner for those who are brave enough to be open to them. Loved it.

Nonna Gorilovskaya

Moment Magazine is in production for our 35th anniversary issue, so my eyes are in no shape to do serious pleasure reading. Good thing for the six-word memoirs project, courtesy of the editors of Smith, an online magazine. Why six words? Legend has it that novelist Ernest Hemingway was challenged to write a short story that short and came up with “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.” After deadline, I plan to read Not Quite What I Was Planning, which pulls together some of the best responses, since I love personal essay-type things. I strongly identified with Stephen Colbert’s contribution: “Well, I thought it was funny.”

Jessica Hun

I am currently reading a highly recommended novel The Gun Seller written by British actor and comedian Hugh Laurie, star of Fox’s House M.D. The novel is about a former Scots Guards officer Thomas Lang and his reluctant involvement in a conspiracy connected to international arms dealers, terrorists, the CIA, the Ministry of Defense of United Kingdom, beautiful women and fast motorcycles.