My Holiday in North Korea: The Funniest/Worst Place on Earth, by Wendy Simmons

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Four stars, read in January 2018.

I almost didn’t take this home, irritated with it for seeming flippant about a subject that is not in any way amusing (particularly after I’d just finished accounts by Jang Jin-sung and Suki Kim that were emotional and difficult to read). I flipped through to see the photos, of which there are many, and ended up checking it out just in case.

I’m glad I did. Thankfully, Wendy Simmons deserves more credit than I was giving her; while there is humor in the book, it’s the dark kind that we employ when we need help accepting an unacceptable situation. Her memoir uses Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland as a framework, and the quotes that accompany each chapter and photo are surprisingly, upsettingly appropriate. It’s an excellent, detailed personal account of what an American tourist experiences in North Korea.

Here’s the weirdest thing about reading this book when I did: Having lived in the United States for the past two years, I was already familiar with the experience Simmons underwent. Not that of having been to North Korea, and obviously that situation is many times more concentrated than our own. But that of reality unraveling, words being used regardless of their meaning, things being called “facts” that are one hundred percent not factual, people denying things they said only moments before, on video. Looking around, reading the news, hearing people speak, and having to repeatedly question whether something that can clearly not be happening, but is in fact happening, is actually happening. We have had only two years of it, but there are more coming, and in reading this book I was seeing where this could go if we don’t stop it. It’s pretty fucking unsettling.

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