Category Books

Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town

[Book Review] Crotchety old Theroux is at the top of his game in Dark Star Safari – his acerbic comments on NGOs and aid workers are alone worth the price of admission.

At the heart of the story is Theroux’s return to Africa, specifically Malawi, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1960s. His previous experience makes his comments on current aid workers, and the state of Africa then and now, especially pointed and poignant.

Not just Malawi, the book covers Africa north to south, from Egypt to South Africa, with all manner of travel in between. Armchair travelers of the, “I was moved to the utter core of my soul by the inner beauty and simple customs of the entrancing natives” crowd will not like this book, or Theroux. More experienced expats however, should find much to like.


What Is the What

[Book Review] I’m normally not much for fiction, real life is powerful enough, but I got this book for Christmas and loved it, devouring it in nearly one sitting.

Based on a true story, but labeled a novel due to one author’s professed difficulty recalling long-ago events, the book was a face slap about events in southern Sudan and nearby areas over the past 20 years. The story traces the life of a single boy, forced to band together with other children into what would become known as the ‘Lost Boys’, as Arab raiders and the Sudanese government wage genocide on southern, Christian tribes. The boys flee the onslaught, their numbers ebbing and flowing as starvation and wild animals take their toll, and further raids add to the number of homeless children on the run.

A relentless, powerful book that lasts long after the cover is closed. For my fellow Korea-specialists reading this page, I would say it compares well with Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag.


Inside the Red Box: North Korea’s Post-totalitarian Politics

[Book Review] Though it starts out feeling like an odd combination of political science dissertation and basic intro to North Korea, with a theory that initially seems to amount to, “different factions exist in the North Korean government and Kim Jong-il plays them against one another” (um, duh), Inside the Red Box turns out to be a convincing examination of Pyongyang’s government.

I admit to having doubts when I saw the author works for the State Department, which left me expecting thick layers of bureaucratese, but the writing is quite clear and concise. The central thesis is that the party lost power in the transition from Kim Il-sung to Kim Jong-il, shrinking from the center of power through which the government and country were run, to one of three factions (along with the military and cabinet) competing for ascendancy on a given issue. The author outlines a history of the three factions competing to have their agenda gain the imprimatur of Kim Jong-il, examining changes in North Korean policy through the lens of comments made by media related to each of the three groups.

The author’s case is convincing and a very welcome change from the “They’re just crazy/illogical/unknowable,” and the equally problematic “Kim Jong-il rules all,” lines of North Korean scholarship. With the exception of B.R. Myers’s The Cleanest Race, this is some of the best scholarship on North Korea in years.

The study even touches on my own favorite area of North Korean research, how access to international phones by the North Korean public can be used as a tool to gain information from inside the country and as a stick to compel changes in North Korea behavior. A stick that, “is more likely to impact one important basis of the regime’s claim to legitimacy than economic or financial sanctions […].” [pg. 233]


Driving Past Natanz, Home of Iran’s Nuclear Program (Book Excerpt)

With all of the recent news on Iran, including a possible Israeli strike on the Iranian nuclear site near the town of Natanz, here’s an excerpt from Axis of Evil Tour on my brief trip through the area.

Today was to be nuke day – our short drive north from Esfahan to Kashan was going to take us right by Natanz, the home of the Iranian nuclear program. While many news reports from Iran cite Esfahan as the home, the actual nuke facilities are about 60 miles away, near the small city of Natanz.

We drove quickly north, seemingly the only people on the smooth new expressway, minus a couple of checkpoints. Leaving Esfahan we stopped for directions and found that checkpoints had become such a fixed part of the landscape they were even used for navigating, “drive down this road for a while until you come to the police checkpoint [not the other ones], then turn right.”

Driving by, Natanz is just another exit on the highway, with the city visible in the distance. The nuclear site is not something mentioned by the local road signs. Professor saw me scanning the area, but told me not to bother.

Just past Natanz to the northwest is an isolated little village nestled in the mountains called Abyaneh. We wanted to visit, but finding the right highway exit proved a problem – Professor was used to traveling with large tour groups on buses that included drivers. This was the first time in several years he’d driven himself, so he was occasionally unsure of which way to go when we got into off-the-beaten-path areas.

As I studied the map, I realized we’d zoomed past our exit and were rapidly approaching Kashan, the day’s final destination. For a moment we debated just giving up and heading on, especially given all the snow we could see in the mountains that might close the roads.
The debate was short-lived however, and we were soon looking for an exit to use to turn around. Of course, we found none in the vast stretch of emptiness. That is, until we popped over a little rise and went flying past it.

Professor quickly slowed and pulled over to take a look. We could turn around, but we’d have to back up along the shoulder.

Just then, not 30 seconds after we’d come to a stop, came the sound of a motorcycle pulling up next to us, then a sudden tapping on Professor’s window. Two soldiers, an AK-47 swung over the shoulder of the passenger, had appeared out of nowhere. We were still within 15-20 miles of the nuke facilities and security was trigger-finger tight.


River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze

[Book Review] A great example of the ‘expat experience’ genre of travel writing. River Town tells the story of Peter Hessler, currently the Beijing correspondent for The New Yorker, during his two-year Peace Corps stint in Sichuan, China.

For anyone who has struggled to learn a language overseas from an unforgiving local, Hessler’s description of Chinese study with ‘Teacher Liao’ will bring back memories: the initial frustration, the first glimpses of competence, and finally, actual human conversation.

Having visited Peace Corps sites to stay with friends, including in Sichuan, Hessler’s story rings true to the conditions, stresses, and way of life. An interesting read for anyone, a valuable read for those going to China to teach, whether with the Peace Corps or another organization.


Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?: A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics, and Professional Hedonism

[Book Review] Hilarious. One of the funniest travel (in the ‘hedonism on tour’ genre) books you’ll ever read. The story of the author’s travails, and then successes, while traveling around Brazil putting together the Lonely Planet Brazil guidebook.

As a nice side benefit, Kohnstamm’s book confirms all of your worst suspicions about how little time, resources, and care publishers, even well-off ones like Lonely Planet, take when assembling guidebooks. Having suffered through a fair share of Lonely Planet books (still, for all of their problems, the least worst guidebooks on the market), I confess to a very pleasant round of schadenfreude while reading the book and imagining Lonely Planet’s reaction.

Many thanks to Kohnstamm for sacrificing his chances of writing future guidebooks in order to publish this one.


Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights into North Korea

[Book Review] Less a book to curl up with and read than a research treatise to consult. As always, Noland and Haggard provide a solid work of North Korean scholarship useful for anyone studying or writing on the North.

Aside from the valuable quantitative data covering refugee/defector opinion, the conclusion is the most readable, least dense section.

Essentially, just reading the conclusion, and then consulting the rest of the study as needed, will make the book worthwhile and allow the most efficient investment of your time.


Kindle vs. Nook vs. iBook – My Experience with Ebook Publishing

UPDATE (19 FEB 2012): It’s been a year, including a holiday season, since I first put the book on Kindle and six months since the Nook and iTunes versions went live. In that time, I’ve found Nook sales to be very underwhelming, iTunes to be decent, and Amazon to far exceed expectations.

As I write a couple more books, including one using Apple’s new iBooks Author program, some lessons learned include making Nook my lowest priority, that the new iBooks Author program is heaven-sent for formatting and layout (though with the drawback of availability limited to only iPad owners, at least for now), that program updates (i.e. Pages for Mac) have made it easier to save to the .epub format, and that Amazon is currently the utter key to sales success in online publishing. Thanks for your time, please feel free to post your thoughts below.

[ORIGINAL POST] Finally! After eight months of on-again, off-again work, the print version of my ‘Axis of Evil’ travel book is available in versions for Kindle, iTunes/iBook, and Nook. I did the process myself (I’ve done both self and traditionally published books, and the more experience I get, the more I prefer self-publishing), which required time to figure out the various formatting and submission requirements but provided some insights. I’ll highlight my lessons learned, for both readers and writers, below.


Axis of Evil World Tour – An American’s Travels in Iran, Iraq and North Korea

A book on my travels in Bush’s three Axis of Evil countries. Excerpts from the book are available in the Iraq, Iran, and North Korea sections of this blog, with additional photos on the book’s website at:

My goal in writing the book is to present the countries as I saw them, without adhering to any particular branch of U.S. politics or foreign policy – if you are a diehard Democratic or Republican ideologue, I’m not your guy. For more on the book, please check out my interview with Chicago NPR station, WBEZ.

The link to the left is for the Kindle version of the book. The paperback is available from Amazon or Barnes and Noble. The book is also available as a Nook download.

The paperback version of the book was published in December 2006, and the e-book version (updated and with more photos than the paperback) was first published in January 2011.

UPDATE (27 August): Apple finally gave approval for the book to be sold through iTunes. You can find it by searching in iTunes/iBooks, or through Apple’s website.


New Books Category

I’ve added a new section featuring book reviews, some taken from my previous writings on, but most written here for the first time. To keep all of the new reviews from flooding the front page, I’m back-dating most of them. To see the entire list, click on the “Books” category, above.