Find it at your library!

I shelled out cash for this book even though I could have waited on a library copy because I saw one too many white male reviewer say, “Do we really need another Handmaid’s Tale?” and that is the kind of crap I feel compelled to answer with my wallet.

Because the answer to that supposedly rhetorical question is an emphatic YES. We do need more books like The Handmaid’s Tale. Because news flash, whiny white guys, none of the stuff that Margaret Atwood was writing about and rebelling against back in 1985 has been fixed. So until that beautiful, blessed day finally arrives, I hope and pray that talented, gorgeous writers like Louise Erdrich will continue to churn out books that make us all confront the reality of the world we live in.

Also, are we really only allowed one heavy-hitting dystopian feminist novel? Is that a one and done situation? Because if that’s how publishing works, we are WAY over our quota of self-indulgent, navel-gazing novels by privileged white dudes. I think you guys can spot us one every 32 years.

And here’s something else to think about: Atwood has been criticized (rightly, in my opinion) for inadequately addressing race in The Handmaid’s Tale. So can we admit it is possible that Erdrich, as a woman of color, might have something to add to the conversation around women’s rights that hasn’t already been said by a white woman?

I don’t think Future Home of the Living God is a perfect novel. Some key plot points are glossed over in a couple of lines, while multiple pages are spent dwelling on seemingly minor or irrelevant detail. It leaves a lot of loose ends lying around, which is uncomfortable in a book about so bleak a future. But the last two pages knocked me senseless with their stark beauty. This is absolutely a book worth reading, and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise.

Find it at your library!

Without You, There is No Us had been on my radar for a while thanks to my interest in the secretive, seemingly dystopian culture of North Korea, but what prodded me to move it up my burgeoning to-read list was a recent NPR interview with its author, Suki Kim, in which she claimed that her publisher disingenuously marketed it as a memoir instead of investigative journalism.

Some people might shrug at that—how big a difference can it be, really? But Kim argues that, while she respects the art of memoir, classifying her book as such degrades its value, and by extension minimizes the risk and sacrifice she personally undertook to get the story. And after reading her book, I have to agree with her.

It’s not like Kim was on an exotic extended vacation or participating in a study abroad program. She posed as a Christian missionary in order to secure a position as an English teacher at an elite university for young men. The missionaries themselves at the school were posing as well, as Christianity isn’t openly practiced in North Korea and they weren’t allowed to proselytize to students. So Kim was not only undercover among her students, but also among her colleagues. There was literally no one she could trust with her real agenda—getting a rare inside look at North Korea’s privileged class, and taking as many notes as she could so that she could one day write a book about this most opaque of countries. Imagine her dismay upon discovering on the eve of the book’s release that it was to be marketed as a memoir, a book of her feelings and reflections, and not the journalistic expose she thought she had written.

Kim does frequently mention a “lover” back in Brooklyn, who becomes something of an embodiment of everything she missed about the US during her time away. I have to admit, I found it a strange choice to feature him so prominently, especially when she doesn’t give enough detail about the man for him to have much impact on the narrative (and she freely admits they weren’t very serious about each other). Take out those asides (and the cringey term “lover”) and Kim would have an airtight case for reclassifying her book on store shelves.

Lover or no lover, Kim’s book is a good companion to Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy, which is sourced mainly from interviews with North Korean defectors. Kim was definitely “managed” while she was in the country, and what she was allowed to see was always carefully curated by her minders, but she was still “inside” in a way that other writers haven’t been. And because she is a native Korean speaker, she was viewed differently by her students than the white American teachers were. Her book and Demick’s provide two different but equally fascinating windows into the strange, hyper-controlling dictatorship and its citizens.