by Bradley K. Martin

You gotta love the title. I mentioned it to my dad and he said, “Sounds like something from North Korea” — which in fact it is. Martin’s huge-as-heck book is his take on the history of the North Korean state, as much as anyone can attempt to tell it. All the stereotypes one can think of apply to the place, and the fact that American reactions cover everything from intense and weird diplomatic dances to Team America: World Police perhaps says something.

This is an enjoyable read, the more so because it’s not entirely formal — in fact its informality allows it to be both more varied than a straightforward take and in its own way more informative. Martin’s journalistic experience with North Korea stretches back to the 1970s and his interactions with the regime and country range from being at the center of tightly organized guided tours to numerous interviews with defectors and escapees; his essentially chronologically organized book takes various diversions as it goes, steps ahead and back as necessary, feels chatty and indulges in quick blasts of humor (perhaps all the more necessary for the truly bleak and horrifying aspects of the country’s history, which he reports with an eye both concerned and removed).

Still, it’s a bit unwieldy in the end, a compelling read that drags, if that doesn’t sound too strange. The amount of detail can be a bit much, and his habit of occasionally going to straight transcripts of lengthy interviews in the core of his text breaks the flow and leads to a fair amount of unavoidable repetition — not every defector’s story is the same, but the general circumstances play out again and again. In part that’s the point but I have to think that the future will mean publications where websites act as repositories for full interviews of that kind while the core ‘text,’ in whatever shape it takes, will draw from them as needed.

One of the best history books about something in our day and age out there, though, also serving as a good study of the people on either side of the border. At the least, good food for thought at a time when the world’s political attention is focused on the opposite side of Asia.