WITHOUT YOU, THERE IS NO US: My Time With the Sons of North Korea’s Elite
By Suki Kim
Crown, 304 pp., $24
A South Korean immigrant in the United States, Suki Kim grew up with stories of the devastating rupture with the North; “the unrequited heartbreak of those separations” rocked her own family. In this daring new memoir, Kim describes traveling to North Korea to teach at PUST, Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, a school staffed by Christian missionaries from outside North Korea. Kim must pretend that she is one of them, while they collectively pretend to the North Koreans that they are there only to teach English (despite the school’s name, this seems to be the only subject taught).
Kim’s students, always dressed in military uniforms, are young and sweet — they grow fond of her and she, along with her fellow teachers, is charmed by their eagerness to please. Yet their lifelong diet of totalitarian delusion has left them, she writes, members of a nation “whose ego was so fragile that they refused to acknowledge the rest of the world.” At times, reading another raft of student essays praising their “Great Leader” for his imaginary triumphs, she despairs: “How was I to explain the entire world to them?” Unable to confide in her fellow teachers, knowing her e-mail is monitored, Kim finds that paranoia is contagious — and can become chillingly routine. “My little soldiers were also little robots,” she writes before departing, mourning not only that she must leave, but that they must stay.
PENELOPE FITZGERALD: A Life
By Hermione Lee
Knopf, 512 pp., $35
Born during World War I, Penelope Fitzgerald grew up in comfort; both grandfathers were bishops, and the family was full of brilliant and interesting characters. She excelled at Oxford’s Somerville College (for women) and worked at the BBC while German bombs rained on London in World War II. Sounds like the makings of a typical biography of a noted novelist — except when you learn, through Hermione Lee’s sweeping new book, about Fitzgerald’s slide into poverty, her husband’s alcoholism and legal troubles, her own stoical perseverance (she taught school while raising her daughters on a barge in the Thames — after it sank, they lived in a homeless shelter).
Fitzgerald’s late-blooming literary success (her first book debuted when she was 58) is both a curiosity and an inspiration; in Lee’s capable hands it reads like a novel. It helps that Fitzgerald herself was endearingly odd, relentlessly honest, and funny: “terrible to see so many writers in one place,” she complained about having to attend a PEN event. Clear-eyed and compassionate, she was “drawn to failures and lost causes” in her work. In a late letter to a friend, Fitzgerald wrote, “I feel sorry for my heart which has made such an effort for so long.” Readers might feel that line, and others, in their own.
THE IMMORTAL EVENING: A Legendary Dinner With Keats, Wordsworth, and Lamb
By Stanley Plumly
Norton, 368 pp., $26.95
What makes one dinner party worthy of an entire book? Here, a memorable 1817 meal shared by William Wordsworth, John Keats, Charles Lamb, and their host, the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon, acts as a launching pad for a meditation on creativity, aesthetics, religious faith, and friendship. It is slow going at first: Readers with less than exhaustive knowledge of the English Regency era will find themselves stopping often to look things up. But once author Plumly has introduced the cast of characters and the ideas animating their work, this highly original book takes on an almost delirious richness, as heady as the wine that led Lamb to get “excessively merry” at dinner, as Haydon would note in his diary.
We already know so much about Wordsworth and Keats, but Plumly, a poet himself, makes sharp case studies of Lamb and especially the host, Haydon, “a personality of contradiction, narcissism, and surpassing energy.” He had gathered the poets for dinner in part to see his half-finished “Christ’s Entry Into Jerusalem,” a monumental canvas that reveals all its artist’s weaknesses, including his determination “to paint as if from a higher calling,” which left him nearly paralyzed in trying to render a convincing Christ. Had he been less driven to be a famous painter, Plumly suggests, Haydon might have been a decent writer: While his pictures are stiff, his pages thrum with “his enthusiasms, his sufferings, his recoveries, his pleadings, his prayers.”
GROUP F.64: Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, and the Community of Artists who Revolutionized American Photography
By Mary Street Alinder
Bloomsbury, 416 pp., $35
“The name of this Group is derived from a diaphragm number of the photographic lens. It signifies to a large extent the qualities of clearness and definition of the photographic image,” begins the artists’ 1932 manifesto announcing that they are making a new kind of photograph. The f.64 group included Adams, Weston, and Cunningham, as well as Dorothea Lange and Willard Van Dyke. Revolutionary in more than just its aesthetic, it was also “one of the first art movements in which women and men were equal members,” writes Mary Street Alinder in this comprehensive and loving group biography.
Alinder, a former assistant to Adams, writes with authority born of personal experience and a deep grounding in the art and science of photography. She also pays careful attention to the artists’ lives, their love affairs, and disappointments. Above all, she writes with deep feeling about how these artists, all of them hailing from the West Coast, “found the landscape central to their identities and a portal to the divine.”Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at email@example.com.