Monthly Archives: February 2013

Adam Johnson Goes to Bad Korea, Lives to Write About It, Insult Me

Adam Johnson Reading from The Orphan Master’s Son @ PowerHouse Arena

Adam Johnson Orphan Master's Son

Who besides the guy in line behind me could know the correct spelling of stupefying?

Something about Adam Johnson struck me as instantly likeable. I’d tiptoed late into PowerHouse Arena, maybe halfway through the audience Q&A, and quietly purchased a copy of “The Orphan Master’s Son.” Set my dainty ass on the concrete slabs, peered out from behind my thick glasses to my first visit to PowerHouse Arena.

Standing behind a podium or, later, sitting at a table, Adam’s height was striking –- an attribute that likely turned heads in Korea. I pulled out my notebook and began taking notes as Adam continued reminiscing about the citizens of the most secluded country in the world. Overall, his assessment was of a people fully aware of the life they lived, no “people’s paradise,” despite the ban on any outside media or the 24-7 barrage of propaganda.

His government-appointed tour guide, or “minder,” as he put it, accompanied him nearly everywhere he went in North Korea. The sips of information we receive via home videos released to the internet largely corroborate Adam’s summation: a crippled, sad country whose so-paranoid-it’d-be-funny-if-it-weren’t-real government is determined to put on a rosy picture for what few Westerners make it across their border.

But that’s one of many problems in finding the truth about what really goes on behind the desperately cheerful “minders” and frowning soldiers – so much of what we hear about North Korea is an anecdote, a story, a rumor. Adam used the example of in-home propaganda, a hardwired speaker or low-fi radio found in every home, ostensibly installed to protect against an American air raid. Though nearly every emigrant confirmed their existence, there’s no video, no picture, no “official” confirmation.

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Joyce Carol Oates Is (Still) Too Nice to Insult Me

Joyce Carol Oates @ Mysterious Bookshop

Joyce Carol Oates reading

Heart-shaped knocks

Dawn. I detested dawn. The grass always looked like it’d been out all night. I woke early with an all-percussion symphony playing in my head led by the empty bottle of scotch underneath my bed. Outside, the police sirens joined in with the garbage trucks to form a backup chorus that wouldn’t quit. Only a special dame could rouse these tired clichés from my cold, stiff fingers, and that dame was Joyce Carol Oates.

This wasn’t to be my first rodeo with Mrs. Oates. Almost two years ago, about the time I began this blog, Mrs. Oates was to sign books (no reading) in a back room of The Mysterious Bookshop. Because I couldn’t ask her myself, I approached the ridiculously accommodating Mysterious Bookshop employees about asking Mrs. Oates to insult me. After a quick explanation, they agreed. I was (and still am) incredibly grateful for their willingness to help a fellow book-nut in his pursuits.

I returned later that week, hopes high — they’d already helped me land an insult from a big fish like David Mitchell. And if David Mitchell liked the idea, I figured this insult idea must’ve been the best thing since mixed metaphors. Alack, it was not to be. While she laughed at the request, they later reported, insulting a stranger was something she couldn’t do.

Shocking! An author with novels like Rape: a Love Story was almost demure in real life. Rather than an insult, she drew a nice heart for my inscription, the most cheerful rejection I’d received.

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