ALL MONSTERS MUST DIE: AN EXCURSION TO NORTH KOREA
By Magnus Bärtås and Fredrik Ekman, translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel. (Anansi, 288 pages, $16.95.)
Swedish writers Magnus Bärtås and Fredrik Ekman took a guided tour of North Korea in 2008, the year that isolated and weird country celebrated its 60th anniversary. The men and their tour group traveled beyond the capital of Pyongyang (where tourists are usually restricted to) into the mountains of the north.
Their account of this trip, "All Monsters Must Die," starts out telling us stuff we mostly know — how repressive the regime is, how strict the supervision of visitors, how beaten-down the citizens, how nasty the gulags.
But as the visitors venture farther and farther north, the book grows more fascinating, the trip more bizarre, the other members of the tour group odder and odder, the tour guides more beleaguered.
The book weaves the tale of this strange journey with the true story of the 1978 kidnapping of a South Korean film star and her film director ex-husband — a story also recounted in Paul Fischer's 2015 book "A Kim Jong-Il Production." The actress and the director were held in North Korea for years, where they were given everything they needed for moviemaking — everything, that is, except their freedom.
The two narratives fit together nicely as the Swedish writers mesh the Korean leaders' odd passion for movies with the heavily scripted world their visitors are allowed to see.
Napoleon: Soldier of Destiny
By Michael Broers. (Pegasus, 585 pages, $35.)
The improbable rise of Napoleon Bonaparte to rule the Western world continues to inspire biographers, and Michael Broers has written a half-dozen. But he has found something new to say, thanks to the Napoléon Foundation's recent release of personal correspondence. Broers uses Napoleon's voice to help connect the dots from his birth in obscurity on the tiny Mediterranean island of Corsica to his spectacular rise and fall.
Broers' expansive analysis depicts Napoleon as a shrewd soldier who could size up a battlefield and the fractious French political system with equal ease. He delivered his beleaguered countrymen some long awaited military victories, a bit of world peace and a functioning system of government — in return for a shot at total world domination.
This is the first of two volumes. In this episode, we see Napoleon navigate the chaos of the French Revolution. We see him strategize quietly while others pave the way for his ascent. We see some fascinating family politics involving his brothers and his wife, Josephine. We read his plans for getting the pope to bless him — but not crown him — emperor of the French. As it ends, he is 36 and leading his Grande Armée into Austria.
Broers' undertaking calls to mind Robert Caro, the historian who has devoted decades to a biography of former President Lyndon Johnson.
Like Caro, Broers explores how his subject wielded power, cajoling and coercing his colleagues into line. Also like Caro, the details, foreshadowings and rewinds can make for a tough read in places. But overall, Broers delivers a well-told story full of action and insight, with the added power of Napoleon's own words.
MAUREEN MCCARTHY, Team leader