Thursday, February 07, 2013

The Month That Was - January 2013

The Month That Was - January 2013: Things that happened this month include the first running of the snow blower, the completion of the painting of my kitchen along with the maturation of my painting ability such that I don't need tape, the starting and subsequent abandoning of the classic sci-fi novel The Mote in God's Eye (I gave it my best, but as good as it is, I'm just not cut out for hard sci-fi), ongoing work on what will be the final draft of my latest writing project, and perhaps most importantly, the accepting of an offer on my condo -- on the market less than a week before a full price offer came in.

So, yeah, lots going on.

[Books] Book Look: Nothing to Envy
[TV] Toob Notes
[Good Links] Link Slam

[Books] Book Look: Nothing to Envy

Book Look: Nothing to Envy, by Barbara Demick: What stands out about North Korea is not really ideological. There have been plenty of communist dictatorships in the last century, all based on fear and propaganda, but there has never been anything like the total mind control efforts of North Korea. In North Korea a starving man can be told that his belly is full and he gets the gulag if he disagrees. Even without the threat of punishment, the North Korean approach to the world is almost comically false. The only way to visit is with an organized tour, during which you are monitored the entire time by a minimum of two handlers (so they can also keep an eye on each other) and every single person, place, and thing you encounter is carefully orchestrated to create an impression of normalcy. This, even though every visitor knows it is a lie, and every North Korean knows that every visitor knows that it is a lie. It's like a surreal, cinematic Orwellian dystopia come to life.

Of course, we can gawk, but people have to live (and frequently die) in it. In Nothing to Envy, Barbara Demick provides a truly remarkable look into living and dying in North Korea through deeply personal accounts of the lives of six defectors. All six started as loyal North Koreans (of varying passion) devoted to the image of North Korea as a communist paradise gifted to them by Kim il-Sung, who took on a godlike image. It's important to note that North Korea is not a garden variety communist state of the sort that was rather common in the second half of the 20th century. It is a place under complete lock-down. There is no (legal) source of information other than the word of the leadership, so there is no possibility for a non-conforming view. They could, and effectively do, say that beyond the borders there be dragons and no one has any reason to dispute that.

Of course there are always ways to get information, and desperate people will try ever more desperate ways. In the '50s and early '60s North Korea was actually ahead of South Korea in development. As market forces pushed South Korea ahead, the North still hung in there thanks to supportive assistance from the Soviet Union. The Wall falling was the demarcation point. The fall of the Soviet Union meant an end to aid to North Korea and the beginning of a terrible famine which, arguably, still continues today although the ongoing devastation is less dramatic than it was through the '90s. Desperation drove people across the Tumen River into China in far greater numbers than before. (It is estimated that less than a thousand people had defected from North Korea in the three-plus decades prior to the famine. Since then there are twice that many every year.)

Each of the defectors in this book has a different tale but they are variations on the theme that things got to a point where they could not stomach the charade anymore. For most it was the government's mortal demand that they believe in they were in a workers paradise in the face of all the devastation surrounding them. It is easy to accept a lie when you don't know any better. You can still convince yourself to believe if the consequences of skepticism are dire. But when things can't get any worse, when you are eating grass and tree bark, when everyone you know is dying or dead, faith can't stand.

Demick has woven a terrific narrative from years of interviews with these defectors. Their stories of life in the North and assimilation in the South are varied but uniformly compelling and utterly human. There is storybook romance of sorts -- two of defectors were young lovers in the North who eventually were reacquainted in the South. There is exultation and suffering; redemption and regret. All mixed in with societal background info in the just the right volume. It is an extremely well constructed book.

Should you read Nothing to Envy? Yes, absolutely. Parts are horrific, but told without excess bombast. The prose is clear as a bell and the pace is correct for the subject matter. I cannot imagine anyone not being both affected and fascinated by this book.

Related: Background from a recent trip to North Korea from Sophie Schmidt, who went with her father Eric as part of a delegation from Google. About what you'd expect. And this story from a former diplomat who got perhaps a less controlled, but still extremely limited, view of North Korea. I've read a few accounts such as these and in all cases I think it's good idea to be on guard against gawking and ironic thoughts. This is a truly nasty place, and any sense of entertainment should be tempered.

[TV] Toob Roundup

Toob Roundup: With January comes the return of some of my favorite shows. Three of them stand out as much for the way they sound as anything else. That is very encouraging. It has been a rarity in the past that dialogue would amount to anything other than utilitarian speech intended to push the plot along. These three shows have as much to offer the ears as the eyes.

Spartacus -- Possibly the most misunderstood show on television, but they have no one to blame but themselves. This show is shot through with soft-core pornography and snuff-film violence -- really, to the point where they should be ashamed of themselves. It is cynical pandering to the basest instincts for ratings. And's amazing. In between all that nonsense is solid historical drama (loosely based, and so forth) and, more interestingly, some seriously beautiful quasi-poetic dialog -- a kind of invented language, sounding almost like a cross between Elizabethan English and the awkward dialog of old gladiator films, which I think was meant to sound like translated Latin. It nearly has a meter to it and it impresses as quite literate. I'm sure it puts most people off but then we get back to sex and gore before they change the channel.

Essentially, there is no middle ground. It both the lowest and highest concept with nothing in between. A no fiddling about either. The entire series will run 3.5 seasons. The production is assured and confident -- in fact, it is the only show I can think of that ever lost its lead actor and simply replaced him with another without missing a beat. Sort of makes it the AC/DC of TV shows. A unique and compelling achievement all around.

Justified -- Speaking of poetic dialog, I could spend an entire hour listening to some these guys jawbone joustin' in their hillbilly drawls. Terrifically vivid characters. Really captures the spirit of Elmore Leonard, especially this season wherein there is a central underlying mystery that we've gotten little dribs and drabs of in the standalone episodes so far, but will (in all likelihood) gather steam as the season goes on and as all these characters converge on it from some direction or other.

That's not to say there aren't flaws. You can get some Deus Ex Machina manipulations, the exposition isn't always well disguised, and there is the odd glaring plot hole now and then. But generally, it hangs together well, and for the rough parts, well, as they say, you can just ignore the story and enjoy the music.

Archer -- Easily the funniest show on TV. By a mile. The slam bang timing of it all is the secret and it's doubtful you can give the actors credit because a) it's animated and b) the actors record their conversations separately, according to recent interviews with creator Adam Reed, and then the editors painstakingly stitch together the dialogue for perfect pacing. However the process goes, it works beautifully. Linked dialogue, throwaway background gags, arcane and archaic pop culture references -- it all adds up to the sort of aural onslaught that I spoke of last month when describing Firesign Theatre's Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers. Just masterful.

It's good to see a trend for developing a show to have a good audio as well as visual style. The capability to affect the ears as well as the eyes been an advantage of motion pictures since the talkies came along, but mostly all that has amounted to is setting tone with music. It's good to see folks stretching the boundaries a bit and forcing us to appreciate our ears a little more.

Related: A critical evaluation of Breaking Bad, which is all wrong. And I say that based on the observation that it disagrees with me. The take is a essentially a socio-political one, a celebration of the series seemingly adopting a proper moral conclusion. I don't really have a take on the validity of that, I just believe that blatantly taking the correct moral stand has diminished the drama. The question, the central conflict, of whether it is better to be a "good" doormat or an "evil" protagonist, along with all the shading in between, is closed as the series rushes to conclusion.

Also related: Like Dustin, I'm still pissed off about Luck.

[Good Links] Link Slam

Link Slam: Odds and sods from aimless trolling of the web when I should have been writing.
  • Paul Theroux on his travel wish list:
    Nothing to me has more excitement in it than the experience of rising early in the morning in my own house and getting into my car and driving away on a long, meandering trip through North America. Not much on earth can beat it in travel for a sense of freedom - no pat-down, no passport, no airport muddle, just revving an engine and then 'Eat my dust.'

    Places I have not been, that I would love to go to in my car include a trip north, starting in Cape Cod and taking in Quebec, and continuing until I run out of road, then turning west, seeing the rest of Canada, land of my fathers. I have seen only a small bit of it, but the rest of it beckons, the very names: Great Slave Lake, Yellowknife, Moose Jaw, down through Alaska - months of it, maybe a year, and why not?
  • I suppose I am something of an outlier with respect to high school. I don't think my experience was all that different than others -- the usual mix of bullies, muddle-headed education, and awkward adolescence -- but I don't seem to be regularly dwelling on it. In fact, I rarely give high school a second thought. College was a much more formative time for me. (Maybe I'm just a slow developer.) In any event, this article on the persistence of high school's influence over the course of one's life is truly one of the best written articles I have ever read. It comes to the obvious conclusion that High School is a horrendous experience, even for the cool kids, but just when you are expecting a banal condemnation and a call for change you get something like this:
    Today, we also live in an age when our reputation is at the mercy of people we barely know, just as it was back in high school, for the simple reason that we lead much more public, interconnected lives. The prospect of sudden humiliation once again trails us, now in the form of unflattering photographs of ourselves or unwanted gossip, virally reproduced. The whole world has become a box of interacting strangers. Maybe, perversely, we should be grateful that high school prepares us for this life. The isolation, the shame, the aggression from those years-all of it readies us to cope.

    [Later, at her high school reunion] We'd all grown more gracious; many of us had bloomed; and it was strangely moving to be among people who all shared this shameful, grim, and wild common bond. I found myself imagining how much nicer it'd have been to see all those faces if we hadn't spent our time together in that red brick, linoleum-tiled perdition. Then again, if we hadn't-if we'd been somewhere more benign-I probably wouldn't have cared.
    No cathartic howling, no black-and-white answers, which is what you have gotten from 99.83% of typical journalists. Nicely done.
  • Reason #936 why I have given up on being political.
  • And reason #937
  • And for that matter, why bother with opinions at all?
  • If all that is not enough reading for you, here's a list of the best non-fiction web writing of 2012. Some of these you have seen here before.