You should read…

I’ve put up a new page on FCW which details what I’ve been reading. You can see a list of what I’ve been devouring, words-wise, including short stories and essays. I often find myself thinking back to short fiction and nonfiction I’ve read, and noticed last year that I often forget what story or essay I am thinking about, or where I read it. So I decided to keep track. Turns out, I read a lot of short works. Hrm.

Anyway, a couple of recent nonfiction reads that I highly recommend:

On October 13, 2002, I woke up in a train station in Secunderabad, India, with no passport and no idea who I was or why I was in India.

So begins “The Answer to the Riddle is Me” by David Stuart Maclean, which appeared in the Winter 2009 issue of Ploughshares. Maclean gives a riveting account of memory loss that I wanted desperately to read more of, and so I was glad to hear it’s part of a full-length memoir on the subject — hopefully to be published soon. You’ll have to get your hands on a copy of Ploughshares to read the text (recommended), but Maclean also read an adapted version of this piece on a recent episode of “This American Life,” which you can hear the audio of here. Maclean’s reading starts at 36:00.

The night sky in North Korea might be the most brilliant in northeast Asia, the only airspace spared the coal dust, Gobi Desert sand, and carbon monoxide choking the rest of the continent. And no electrical glow competes with the intensity of the stars there. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had propped up its old Communist ally with cheap fuel oil, North Korea’s power stations rusted into ruin. The lights went out. Now when the sun drops low in the sky, the landscape fades to gray and the squat little houses are swallowed by the night. Entire villages vanish into the dusk. Even in parts of Pyongyang, the capital, you can stroll down the middle of a street at night without being able to see the buildings on either side.
Such darkness is a curse, of course, but it also has its advantages. If you are a teenager dating somebody you can’t be seen with, invisibility confers measures of privacy and freedom that are hard to come by in North Korea. You can do what you like without worrying about the eyes of parents, neighbors, or the secret police.

I’ve been fascinated by North Korea ever since spending a year in South Korea as an English teacher some years ago. And now I’ve found the book that I’ve been looking for ever since I visited the DMZ and stepped, for a moment, into that country: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. It comes from Barbara Demick, the Los Angeles Times’ Beijing Bureau Chief, who’s been interviewing North Koreans since 2001. I’ve read two excerpts from the book so far. Both were staggering in terms of content and detailed reporting. The heartbreaking “Not Like I Don’t Like You,” appeared in the Paris Review last fall. And “The Good Cook,” appeared in the New Yorker November 2, 2009. (Neither site offers the full text of the essays, so add the book to your to-read list. I have.)


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