The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea

by Bandi
Grove Press

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“Though it was close to midnight, Gyeong-hee sensed hundreds of figures hovering at those windows, peering out like rabbits from their burrows, eyes narrowed in accusation.”

Starvation, terror, death—this is the world of people trapped north of the Korean DMZ in a country led beneath the auspices of a single man who will do anything to preserve his fiefdom. And these conditions exist only in the best of favors. For many people, a minor offense, or perceived offense, results in banishment, generational curses, or hard labor—a sentence of sunup to sundown toil, torture, and thirst until a person is literally worked to death. The latter is what one expects from life under a socialist monarch, but it is the former, the everyday grueling aspects of ordinary life, that are captured within this insightful and harrowing collection of stories written about life in North Korea.

The author, who remains in North Korea, employs the pseudonym, Bandi, to protect his identity. He writes tales of people paying for the sins of their forefathers, sins that would be considered inconsequential in a free land, and sins they fear that they might commit in the future. Fear is the most powerful tool of a totalitarian regime. The cost is not only the theft individual liberty, but the draining away of the soul. Those who will not conform to fear, who will not be reformed by it, are simply eliminated—removed from society, cities, or the ranks of the living if necessary.

“City of Specters” is one of the most haunting in the collection—not because of physical brutality, but because of the way authoritarian control pervades the human spirit. At the outset, Han Gyeong-hee fights the crowds assembling in Pyongyang for an annual celebration honoring the supreme leader. She is strong and independent, contemptuous of her husband’s flaws, while struggling with the night terrors of her young son. Her son is frightened by the oversized images of Kim Jong-il posted throughout town. One in particular can be seen through their apartment window, reminding him of a legendary beast who punishes misbehaving children. Here, the normal trials of parenting collide with the pervasive demands to conform to society. After Gyeong-hee repeatedly draws her curtains to salve her son’s episodes from the public, she is reprimanded and warned for not keeping her window presentation in unison with the rest of the building. The overarching aspects of everyday life in a terrorist regime are on full display. Like an x-ray examining her thoughts, the government plumbs her business and plies it against her at will. It’s a slow burn that crushes her soul. Again and again, the party informers threaten Gyeong-hee, until her family is banished from the capital city, and a woman who seemed strong enough to persevere anything is psychologically broken.

Some intellects of free nations overemphasize their country’s imperfections, demanding greater control of a centralized government as a curative measure. This is a fear-driven philosophy that, as Bandi so aptly documents, results in fear throughout the land. Each of these misguided intellects either misinterprets or purposely skirts the central debate of individual liberty vs. authoritarian control, ignoring the endgame. Suppressing independent thought and action, so that the least equipped among us are safer, historically leads to diminished rights, self-expression, and prosperity. It in fact reverses the progress of civilization, not enhances it as some might claim. It does, however, empower and enrich the ruling class—albeit a military dictatorship, a communist regime, or an elected hierarchy that has become a corrupt and isolated faction apart from the people. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Liberty brings potentially dangerous paths en route to creativity, success, and fulfillment. Authoritarianism delivers a stifling cocoon and a guaranteed dead end of personal misery. Bandi approaches this result in each of his stories. Acts that we take for granted in a free society will place his characters in peril.

Man’s inhumanity against man has been the overarching sin of the centuries, and Bandi reveals this abomination, resulting when one small group dominates the masses. Handwritten between 1989 and 1995 in native hangul, his stories are delivered in a simple style, but neither time nor translation lessen their impact. Although a brief afterword sketches the genesis of this book, one can only imagine what it took to both compose these stories and then smuggle them outside the country. Bandi has no doubt risked his life many times in the process. Let’s hope he’s still alive and continues to shed light on the many sins that his country’s tormentor badly wishes to hide.

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The Book

by Julius Freedman
Old Stone Press

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“Books, I tell my students, are objects with stories both over and secret.”

It’s been a decade since an art book has taken the grand prize for the Eric Hoffer Book Award, but this beauty kept rising to the top of our judges’ scoring cards. Have you ever seen a book after it becomes wet and dries? It screams, with a puffed chest of curling pages like the arms of a roiling sea monster. Julius Freedman shows us this and more, as he takes on the book as both physical and symbolic object. In a sequence of building images, The Book begins with a book as art in its purest form—its complex leather bindings, the embedded tabs of a dictionary, the pages of sophisticated rag or weave. Then books begin to take flight, with pages misshapen, eventually cracking and splitting from their spines, the print itself escaping, until we enter the realm of collage, yet always tethered to the concept of a book itself.

Is a book a mere extension of our memories, or does it go deeper than its byproduct overlap with our brains? If Gabriel Garcia Marquez created a book to fit his prose, it might result in one of Freedman’s constructions. The organization, as well as thoughtful commentary by Pico Iyer and Jill Gage, strike the right balance with the art presentation. Unique, whimsy, thought-provoking, this beautiful coffee table edition is worthy of any collection. but it is so much more. It envelopes the very concept of the book itself. Bravo.

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Selected Poems: 1968-2014

by Paul Muldoon
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“A corduroy road on the quag kept me on the straight and narrow.”

In a collection that spans a lifetime, Paul Muldoon’s selected works reveals the evolution of a poet who achieved multiple honors including the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. While many poets lock themselves into a particular style or gradual, organic ascent, Muldoon is known for major shifts in approach between collections, spanning a deft if not eclectic combinations of technique and form. While thoroughly a modern poet, his work anchors in the past, covering family origin, landscape, language, and bygone eras of society and the mind. In the reading, it is clearly Muldoon throughout the years in his charm and understated wit that flies so low on the radar it could be missed, more likely absorbed in reflection.

This book is organized by metered selections from his published collections and presented in chronological order. This is key to understanding the poet. Never before could his readers so clearly mark the years of his life in presentation and content. From “Cuba”…

With the world at war, if not at an end.’
My father was pounding the breakfast-table.

to “The Sonogram”…

Only a few weeks ago the sonogram of Jean’s womb
resembled nothing so much
as a satellite map of Ireland.

through the Pulitzer-prizewinning “Redknots”…

The day our son is due is the very day
the redknots are meant to touch down
on their long haul
from Chile to the Arctic Circle

and touching down for awhile in “A Hare at Aldergrove”…

A hare standing up at least on his own two feet
in the blasted grass by the runway may trace his lineage to the great
assembly of hares that, in the face of what might well have looked like defeat,
would, in 1963 or so, migrate
here from the abandoned airfield at Nutt’s Corner, not long after Marilyn Monroe
overflowed from her body stocking
in Something’s Got to Give…

and again as a way of final example in “Cuba (2)”…

The Riviera’s pool is shaped like a coffin.
So much has been submerged since the Bay of Pigs.
Maybe that’s why the buildings are wrinkled?
Maybe that’s why the cars have fins?

…his prose changes from inward reflection to an outward understanding of the world, and its structure expands to semi-epic proportion.

At times, the poet is accused of archaic or confounding world selection. Sure enough his lines deliver necessary pause. In the noise of today’s megalomaniacal output of information and predominantly tripe, we struggle to hear the authentic voices of our philosophers and poets. Muldoon asks us to slow down and hear the story. He is a generational poet of importance, at times reflecting the nonsensical thinking of our times, but he delivers significance with inspiring insight that comes upon you slowly in the way that you remember what is being said.

Kudos goes to the editor, who might be the poet himself, operating as a sort of curator for this retrospective. But let’s not bury Muldoon just yet. I’m sure he’s busy game-changing his prose in a new collection for the senses and thought.

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How We’ll Live on Mars

by Stephen L. Petranek
Simon & Schuster

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“There are some wildcards in terraforming Mars, including the possibility of reawakening ancient life-forms.”

President Nixon’s legacy, and resulting long shadow over history, rests with two monumental blunders unknown to most people. He took the US dollar off the gold standard, resulting in a global currency destabilization that may soon come home to roost. In addition, he canceled the Saturn V rocket—the largest rocket ever assembled by mankind, the rocket that would have launched astronauts to Mars. Without either of those decisions, the US space program might have already colonized the red planet and would have the money to accomplish it.

After a fifty-year malaise, NASA lacks both the funding and the technological will to get the job done. Although it appears to be catching up for lost time, it has purposefully suffered from a presidential lack of vision leading from Nixon to Obama. In short, the US is decades behind where it should be. Make no mistake about it; going as far back as the Mercury Program days and beyond, Mars has always been the goal. Its similarity to Earth and its close proximity to the mineral-rich asteroid belt make it the ultimate target within our solar system.

Petranek covers the basics of a potential trip to and the colonization of Mars in what appears to be a reprint of a TED lecture rather than any in-depth discussion on the topic. Still, he covers the necessary points regarding why, how, and then what happens next. Achieving Mars will be complicated. If cutting-edge engine technology doesn’t pan out, the trip will be a minimum of six to ten months, all the while exposing humans to an unprecedented level of radiation that doesn’t cease once they reach the planet. On the surface, humans must immediately tend to the basics of food, water, oxygen, and shelter. Temperatures range from 80 degrees to -225 degrees Fahrenheit, and the atmosphere is toxic. Luckily but not easily, Mars has water frozen at the poles, in regolith rock, and perhaps below the surface, and if you can reclaim water, you can make all the oxygen you require.

The author sticks with the theory that travelers to Mars will never return to Earth. This opposes a more ambitious plan for a Mars cycler commuting between planets while carrying passengers and cargo. Regardless of the approach, early arrivals to Mars will need to bring everything they need to survive, but to establish a colony, they’ll need to generate all vital staples on-site, including growing plants to eat and creating parts for repair and construction. Eventually they’ll go about the process of terraforming the surface to sustain life. A few theories regarding this latter transformation are kicked around in this book as well.

At times, the author pays too much homage to private enterprise players such as Elon Musk, but given NASA’s slowed pace and funding, it’s logical that humans aren’t going to reach Mars without the commercial interests of partners. Virtually no great human migration has been accomplished on idealism alone. For example, Christopher Columbus, like the Vikings before him, traveled to the New World in search of treasure for his homeland. Later on, the Pilgrims arrived via private funding with the hope of establishing a regular income stream for their investors.

Mars is the New World, and like the explorers that preceded them on Earth, travelers to Mars will go to change their lives, discover new frontiers for the species, and harvest the planet’s riches. Before long, our descendants will not return to Earth, but become Martians for future generations. This book provides an overview of how that might happen.

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Don’t Suck, Don’t Die: Giving Up Vic Chesnutt

by Kristin Hersh
University of Texas Press

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“Hope’ has always stuck in my head. You hated hope, said it was misguided.”

If your introduction to Vic Chesnutt was the benefit album Sweet Relief II, you quickly moved past the great celebrity performances and asked: Who is this songwriter and why haven’t I heard of him before? If you still haven’t heard of Chesnutt—or the author of this book for that matter—you’d better go record shopping this afternoon before someone spots your musical blind spot. Regardless, in this haunting, poetic, musical road show memoir, singer/songwriter Kristin Hersh takes us inside her friendship with Chesnutt. Her experience is as insightful to a musician’s life as it is to the human existence—constantly probing and reevaluating self-understanding along with her footing on the planet.

Chesnutt, paralyzed since eighteen years of age, is a songwriter’s songwriter, whose catalogue has been rerecorded and admired for decades. He passed away on Christmas 2009 after an apparent self-induced overdose. He would likely find the sentimentality of that date to be nauseating. There was very little he wouldn’t poke fun of, including himself. He came across as somewhat twisted by life’s cruel blows and ironies, but he was beautiful as well, like a modern sculpture that acknowledges the past but rearranges it in a compelling way. As Hersh says, “he was broken in all the right places.” Listening to his songs, you had the feeling that you were always hearing the real Vic Chesnutt.

Much of this book covers a shared tour when Chesnutt was a decade or more into a brilliant career launch and Hersh was composing one of her best solo albums. You’ll understand Hersh’s must-have Sunny Border Blue better after reading this book. The line between Chesnutt’s everyday discourse and songs will be blurred. From town to town and stop to stop, as their vigilant spouses watch and occasionally mop up after them, Chesnutt and Hersh bounce off each other intellectually and emotionally, achieving spare equilibrium in one of the truly unique musical relationships.

The ending is the curtain fall you expected, although the author fights hard to meter her words while the songwriter fights just as hard to mute her sound regarding the event. Grief doesn’t get processed in a minute, a day, a year. Grief puts a new song in your head, one you never wanted to hear. Hersh sketches the loss, that song.

While a smidge more orientation would have been appreciated in general, this narrative isn’t about place and time. The writing is a lot like Hersh’s songs—focusing on moments, reflections, and the stray-dog objects that compose life. There are lines you’ll never forget, and you can’t help but love the adorable, self-sabotaging, curmudgeon Chesnutt revealed in these pages. You’ll wish you’d been there to absorb his flak backstage or in the southern sun. On balance, this book stands as a testament to the sincerity of his songwriting.

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Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space

by Janna Levin
Knopf

“We see evidence of black holes destroying neighboring stars. We see evidence of super black holes in centers of galaxies… But we have never really seen a black hole, which only adds to the thrill of the prospect of hearing them.”

Astronauts returning on the space shuttle once told this former satellite designer and space program physicist: “You have no idea how much gravity is pulling down on all of us.” Home from the sheer joy of weightlessness in space, the dynamics of gravity were suddenly made real, pulling their shoulders and compressing their spines closer to Earth. It was a reminder of one of the universe’s illusive mysteries—gravity. We can measure and explain it, but we cannot see or hear it… yet. Physicist and writer Janna Levin takes us on the journey to detect, listen for, gravitational waves as the byproduct of a gigantic collision between black holes.

In simple terms, black holes form an incredibly dense mass. For scientists, this is where the fun begins. Since mass is an essential component of gravity, the extreme density of black holes will crush atoms and even bend light under its own weight. Yes, light has weight, and therefore one cannot really see a black hole, because light becomes trapped inside of it.

Decades ago, the movie Black Hole depicted a spacecraft passing through a black hole. This is science-fantasy. Anything with mass in close proximity to a black hole will not pass through it. Instead, the atoms of the spacecraft and the crew inside will become so densely packed that the result will no longer be visible to the naked eye, not to mention eliminating the viability of the spacecraft and its occupants. A black hole generates pressure of astronomical proportions. In a world of unnecessary hyperbole, it’s literally appropriate to apply the description “astronomical proportions” to a black hole.

For the purposes of Levin’s book, as two of these monster black holes draw near, anomalies in gravity will create waves that ring through space, but by the time they reach the Earth, they will be so slight that they will not be felt or heard by even the knowing. So what device will be needed to detect this phenomenon? By the mid-twentieth century, planning for and construction of full scale gravitational wave listening devices began on several international fronts. The devices needed to be big. The largest, called the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), is run by Caltech and spans four square kilometers at two separate locations. Within its vacuum environment, LIGO waits for disturbances in a reflected laser beam as a means of sensing and measuring the dragon itself—gravity in the form of waves. It’s an enormous undertaking of scope, time, and funding.

With crisp storytelling, Levin tracks the creators of LIGO as it moves from thought to reality. Decades in the making, the success of this device is yet to be seen and, as some might say, hardly the point. It is another step in unlocking the mysteries of the universe. The geniuses of science will continue to tweak their experiments, conjure new frontiers to explore, and draw us closer to understanding. The field of scientists pursuing gravitational wave detection come from all corners of the world, and they are uplifted and hindered by their personalities. Humanity is the factor in the equation that’s impossible to measure. Beyond anticipated brilliance, we find professional paranoia, backbiting, and of course politics. However, the work proceeds with the relentless dedication of a monk, the ambition of a CEO, and at times the ruthlessness of a pirate.

Levin sketches the story with impressive color, while providing Polaroid-like narratives of the people and places along this scientific frontier. She is the type of science writer who can explain complex topics in understandable terms. In relating the beloved wizards and weirdos of the laboratories, she has brought the high-minded down to earth. That feat is as rare as hearing gravity, and it reveals the genuine process of discovery. History often documents invention as brilliant strokes of insight wrought to fruition, but Levin shows its plodding pace that spans decades, as well as its inevitable wrong turns into blind alleys and heartbreaking miscues that destroy careers. No doubt, her students at Barnard love to sit in on each lecture—scientists and laymen alike. If we had a device that measured passion, Levin would ring the meters and sound the alarms.

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Killing the Rising Sun by Bill O’Reilly & Martin Dugard

by Bill O’Reilly & Martin Dugard
Henry Holt

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“But some men don’t move—they can’t. Dead or mortally wounded, their bodies lie still, soaking the sand with blood.”

History is shaped by time and memory, allowing some facts to take prominence and others to fade away. As a result, Nazi Germany is remembered as the worst offender during World War II, while the U.S. decision to use the atomic bomb is given, by some factions, the moral equivalence of a brutal war crime. Typically, these misconceptions arise through ignorance, although sometimes it’s a deliberate rewriting of history for a political agenda. Regardless of the reason, news commentator Bill O’Reilly and coauthor Martin Dugard refresh the record in their latest installment of the “Killing” series.

To be clear, the atrocities of the Holocaust were a horrific stain on humanity, but at the same time, Imperial Japan conquered Asia in a brutal campaign that had no rival. Prisoners as well as civilians were tortured and killed without conscience. Women were pressed into prostitution. Nations were starved into submission. And yes, the Japanese conducted lethal human medical experiments within their infamous Unit 731.

The striking distinction about Japan was a core belief that they were superior to all others on the planet and that it would be ultimately shameful to surrender to the American “barbarians.” The indoctrination of this belief extended from the hubris of Japan’s 124th Emperor, Shōwa, commonly known as Hirohito. For Imperial Japan, negotiation of peace was not an option, and its people believed this wholeheartedly. Their soldiers proudly fought to the death. On the home front, every man, woman, and child was prepared to fight to the end in order to protect their emperor from shame.

Killing the Rising Sun is more than a discourse about the atomic bomb. It reveals its necessity by plotting the course of history during the Pacific campaign. Years after the devastation of Pearl Harbor and the U.S. retreat from the Philippines—not to mention a hard fought victory against Germany in Europe—the Americans under General MacArthur’s command were slowly regaining ground on the western front and creeping toward the ultimate showdown with Japan. As each island was recaptured, casualties were high. On both sides of the campaign, tens of thousands of soldiers died in what was becoming a regular repeat of the Normandy Invasion in blood and loss. Even though MacArthur longed for the dignity of combat and surrender, it became obvious that as many as a million or more soldiers and civilians were going to die before Japan would even consider ending their aggression. The extinguishing of Japan itself might even be necessary. The atomic bomb, as destructive as it was intended, became a viable solution for sparing lives in the long run.

Some historians theorize that Japan was only days from surrender when the first a-bomb was dropped, but this is wishful thinking. As O’Reilly and Dugard reveal in detail, Japan was dug in, and its people were willing to sacrifice to the last soul. They looked to Hirohito, high above Tokyo in the Imperial Palace, to harden their resolve. Even after the first atomic bomb struck Hiroshima, vaporizing thousands and debilitating even more citizens, the emperor refused to surrender. It’s important to remember that an American retreat would leave Asia under brutal control of Imperial Japan, much like eastern Europe was during Stalin’s reign. Therefore, a second, larger a-bomb descended upon the crucial industrial port of Nagasaki. Even off-target, it struck a devastating blow, which finally awakened Hirohito and his close advisors within their bunker beneath the palace. They soon surrendered, and the war was over. Again, make no mistake about it; the second atomic bomb was necessary. The emperor and his people by extension were that transfixed on war.

Another rumor that persists through time is that President Roosevelt lacked the will to use the atomic bomb, but nothing is further from the truth. Like most people, Roosevelt was tired of the bloodshed, but he died before the Manhattan Project produced a workable device. Shortly after Truman assumed power, one of the most secret scientific research projects fell into his lap. He had no idea that an a-bomb was being attempted, but now the power of the atom had been unleashed. Truman’s practicality soon won over, and he quickly moved to deploy the a-bomb, thereby changing the world forever. With either president at the helm, the a-bomb would have fallen on the nation of the rising sun. It was Japan’s rigidity and arrogance, just as much as American ingenuity and valor, that made this action inevitable.

While the American apologists will never stop twisting history to suit their ideology, Killing the Rising Sun is an honest and sober reiteration of the facts. It makes the case for dropping the atomic bomb without politicizing or deviating from the truth. With engaging prose and a gripping narrative, the authors humanize the Pacific conflict on both sides of the ocean by introducing individual tales from generals to foot soldiers, from scientists to civilians, from legends to the defeated. There is no mythology here. Certainly giant egos and even larger heroes traipse through each chapter, but these are real men struggling through Homeric moments in time. You’ll find yourself unable to put down the book until the end, and you’ll conclude that the decision to employ the a-bomb was more black and white than it appears through the muddled lens of time.

The book is an easy read, yet still contains the requisite footnotes and index to make it a suitable reference. It ends with a sentimental eulogy for O’Reilly’s father who was a veteran of the Pacific campaign. In addition, each living U.S. President was asked if using the a-bomb was the correct decision, and except for the sitting president, their thoughtful responses are included—and their conclusion is unanimous. As a work on the Pacific campaign, this book would make a better reference than many classroom texts. At the very least, it’s a must-tell story for a new generation.

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