Saturday, May 25, 2013

As Near to Heaven By Sea: A History of Newfoundland and Labrador

Last summer I visited Newfoundland and had such an enjoyable time exploring the Avalon peninsula and Cape Bonavista. I would love to go back and see more of this vast island. Almost a year after this memorable trip I chose to read As Near to Heaven By Sea: A History of Newfoundland and Labrador by Kevin Major. This 498-page history was published in 2001. From the geological prehistory of the formation of the eastern Canadian land mass to the dawn of the twenty-first century, Major has written almost five hundred pages that kept me engrossed for hours on end. I could not put As Near to Heaven By Sea down, and Major made each time I opened the book feel like a fun, yet still serious history class.  
Major covers the history from both parts of the province, the island of Newfoundland as well as the mainland of Labrador. Often the mainland is forgotten or given short shrift in provincial histories. Major has written about both parts of the province and treats each as an equal. The first few chapters were about Norse exploration and the settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows by Leif Ericson at the turn of the second millennium. Major also discussed several other pre-Columbian exploration theories. The Island and Labrador were both inhabited by native peoples before the arrival of Europeans, and we learn about these peoples' migrations across the east coast. The chapter entitled "Where Once They Stood" was a sad account of the extinction by decimation of some First Nations, such as the Beothuk.

St. John's is the oldest city in North America, and typical of Major's writing was his injection of humour into his history. I would sometimes burst out laughing at his asides or parenthetical opinions:

"At the beginning of the [eighteenth] century King William's Act had let it be known that 'all the inhabitants shall strictly keep every Lords Day.' And that 'none keeping taverns shall sell wine &c. on that day,' as if everyone would pay attention to laws governing their intake of alcohol once the navy vessels set sail for England in the fall."


"By day the fishermen caught cod from small boats, then salted and sometimes dried their catch. They slept aboard ship or in temporary dwellings on shore. At the end of the summer, their holds full, they headed back home, often with a stop in St. John's Harbour on the way.
"The eventual capital city of the Island had its beginnings as a place for a little rest and relaxation, and the occasional brawl--an international port city in the making."

In regards to modern St. John's, Major has no affection for the city's Atlantic Place shopping and parking complex:

"Even in the mid-twentieth century the downtown looked as if it could be out of the nineteenth. Not content to let well enough alone (where such a visage could only be a magnet for sightseers), the business vulgarians brought in the wrecking balls and raised something they called 'Atlantic Place.' With the profile of a brick box and a personality to match, it's a blight at harbourside, only to be redeemed with the return of the wrecking ball. Such architectural idiocy along Water Street is not now without competition, of course (the prerequisite mirrored tower of Scotia Bank its stiffest rival). City councillors (and no city has had a more curious lot of these) seem forever prone to err on the side of commerce. St. John's claims to be the oldest city in North America. At times it has looked bent on destroying all evidence to support that claim."


"Visitors entering the harbour (and able to turn a blind eye to Atlantic Place) will look skyward to see the two forces that have most shaped our society--the fishery and the Church."
For centuries, the Island's fishing grounds were fought over between the English and French. In 1702, English Rear-Admiral John Graydon was given orders to battle the French settlement at Plaisance. When he met with his captains, they "whined about the thick fog shrouding the bay. In the end the attack was called off 'since it might tend to the dishonour of Her Majesty's arms.'"

They were all obviously strangers in a strange land to make complaints about the fog of all things:

"Graydon was either displaying a streak of cowardice or acting on lame advice. Word of the strength of the garrison at Plaisance was no more than rumour. And in Placentia Bay no one puts off the business at hand because of fog. If they did they'd be hard pressed to ever get much accomplished."

Newfoundland and Labrador were the targets of pirates and many shady characters in the first few centuries after colonization. Fishing vessels or other ships full of cargo from the new world were vulnerable on the return voyage:

"Legend has it that from 1740 to 1760 Sandy Point in Bay St. George was home to the notorious husband-and-wife pirating duo of Eric and Marie Cobham. It is said they attacked ships heading out of the St. Lawrence, and were especially keen on any bearing cargoes of furs from New France. They were known for massacring all on board and then scuttling the vessels, with Marie often taking the lead in the heinous goings-on. 'She poisoned one ship's crew, had others sewn into sacks and thrown overboard alive, still others tied up and used for pistol practice,' says one modern account. Newfoundland seems to have brought out the worst in her."

Since the island of Newfoundland was first settled on the east coast by Europeans, Major puts forth a valid question if settlement had occurred first on the west by the Gulf of St. Lawrence:

"This was a very different picture of Newfoundland. And leads one to speculate on just how prosperous the Island might have become had its settlement evolved from the more fertile west coast, rather than the barren headlands to the east. Had population growth centred on Bay St. George rather than St. John's, we would most likely have become a part of Canada with its Confederation of 1867. Labrador would certainly have felt more closely tied to the rest of the province. And by now there might well have been a bridge between it and the Island, connecting the Canadian mainland to the west coast, to a million or so people..."

In the late 1800's to the first few decades of the twentieth century, the Island became the focus of international importance in the field of communications. The chapter entitled "Communications Central" told the stories about the laying of the first trans-Atlantic cables, Marconi's experiments with wireless technology and Amelia Earhart's trans-Atlantic flights. The development of the international airport in Gander in northeastern Newfoundland both as a refuelling stop, as well as for military purposes in World War II, made it one of the most interesting chapters.

Newfoundland didn't join Confederation until 1949, when it became Canada's tenth province after securing 52% of the vote in a referendum. The campaign to join Canada was led by Joey Smallwood, a bespectacled bow tie-wearing orator schooled in American evangelism. Much of the Island's outports, as well as virtually the entire of Labrador, were inaccessible by road. What led to a victory for Confederation were the endless road trips led by Smallwood to every remote fishing village or Labrador coastal community. These small places, some of barely a hundred residents, had never been visited by anyone in government before, much less the man who would eventually become the new province's first premier. He had this audience all to himself, and promised them Canadian wealth and a more prosperous life. How could they say no?

"Smallwood went where politicians rarely pitched before. If there were roads he eagerly suffered the mud and potholes for a few minutes with a loudspeaker. Where there were none (by far, most of the country) he descended in a decrepit seaplane, shook every hand while proclaiming deliverance into the guarantee of Canada's social programs."

As Near to Heaven By Sea ends with a political history after Smallwood left office and covers all the premiers who succeeded him. A lengthy bibliography is included which guarantees I will be seeking more titles. Some of the books Major mentions in his bibliography I even purchased during my trip last summer. Newfoundland and Labrador has a fascinating history and I am so glad that my first lengthy read on the topic was As Near to Heaven By Sea.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Lips Unsealed: A Memoir

Belinda Carlisle wrote Lips Unsealed: A Memoir after five years of sobriety. It doesn't read like a written memoir and resembles a transcribed interview. Carlisle's story was a burning page-turner for the first half of the book, as she recounted the punk scene in Los Angeles which led to the formation of the Go-Go's.

Carlisle was stoned on cocaine and booze for the first 47 years of her life. Her cocaine addiction was no secret to her fans (I count myself as a strong Go-Go's and Belinda Carlisle fan) who knew of her drug addiction over twenty-five years ago. What was surprising to discover were the countless times Carlisle fell off the wagon, only to sober up again then fall deeper and deeper into a coked-up Hell. Unfortunately Lips Unsealed suffers in its second half because Carlisle tells the same story over and over again. The last twenty years of her life were about going on tour, sniffing out coke dealers as soon as she was in a new town, then going onstage blasted out of her mind and partying for days afterward. It got pretty tiring to read the same story over and over again.

Belinda must have been sober during the making of the Go-Go's' and her own solo albums, because the accounts of her studio session time and the dynamics that were involved in songwriting and production were extremely interesting. Carlisle's later solo albums did not do well at all in North America, yet they were consistent Top Tens in Europe. I found it very interesting to read about her experiences making these lesser-known albums (such as Live Your Life Be Free and her French-only album, spelled mistakenly without the accent grave, Voila) since the local press all but ignored them.

After having a coked-up epiphany when she realized that if she snorted one more line she would die, Carlisle sobered up through AA and by adopting a healthy lifestyle of exercise and yoga. As far as I'm concerned, after reading her life story, Carlisle seems fragile enough to go off the wagon again any second, yet I will be the first to admit that a former addict is always an addict and will always have these demons looking over her shoulders.

I was glad to read that Carlisle and the four other Go-Go's, Charlotte Caffey, Jane Wiedlin, Gina Schock and Kathy Valentine long ago built bridges, forgave each other and put all their bickering behind them. They certainly took a proactive role in the inevitable post-breakup record company reissue of hits packages. Instead of letting the record company release these compilations on its own, they decided to reform, give all their input, and tour to promote these new albums.

However, since I read this book when it first came out in the summer of 2010, the Go-Go's have burned those bridges and will be touring without bassist Kathy Valentine, citing the parting of ways due to "irreconcilable differences".

Monday, May 13, 2013

The ADD Myth: How to Cultivate the Unique Gifts of Intense Personalities

I do not find any mental diagnosis to be as controversial as that of attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. To me, ADD is this generation's buzz of an affliction. The medical community is divided whether or not such a disorder even exists, and I have my own prejudices about this alleged condition. The ADD Myth: How to Cultivate the Unique Gifts of Intense Personalities by Martha Burge attempts to explain ADD and devotes most of its pages to analyzing the ADD patient's brain in a different light and to developing programs to nurture this different brain.

The first chapter, entitled "There Is No Such Thing as ADHD", grabbed my interest immediately. For those who doubt the existence of ADD, this is the most important chapter in the book. Its subsections had such headings as "Why Schools and Parents Seek Diagnosis", "Not All Distress or Difference Is Mental Disorder", "Too Common to Be a Disorder", "There is No Proof of Disorder" and "If Not Disorder, Then What?" which clearly revealed the author's intentions. Burge states, on page one no less:

"I know I have very few standing beside me in my stance that there is no such thing as ADHD."

Before however we become acquainted with Burge's work, we are greeted by a foreword written by Allen Frances, MD and Chair of the DSM-IV Task Force, who writes:

"Burge describes ADD as harmful 'myth.' I see it more as an overdone fad. We both agree that ADD is currently being wildly overdiagnosed, but Burge would get rid of it altogether, while I endorse ADD as a useful diagnosis when cautiously and correctly applied to the small percentage of people at the far extreme of the Bell curve in their hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention."

Frances is not as convinced as Burge is in regards to the mythical existence of ADD, yet he does agree to its transitory state in medical history. It is one fad that will be supplanted by another come the next generation. In the meantime, Burge as well as Frances are trying (I believe in vain) to put the brakes on the ADD bandwagon. ADD diagnoses are increasing among young children year after year. Why is there an ADD epidemic?

People want answers. Parents and teachers want a simple explanation for their children's or students' increased states of restlessness and inattention. Find the reason Johnny can't sit still because it's not his fault. An explanation is not enough, for once parents find the reason for their child's zero attention span, they then want someone to do something about it. This is a phenomenon of our times, where no one takes responsibility for life's bad news and everyone believes anything can be cured by a magic pill:

"I'm not one of those antidrug advocates. I believe in better living through chemistry; it's just that this should be done with a solid understanding of the risks. Drugs should be used only when there are no other options. To prescribe such strong psychotropic drugs to children for an illness that cannot be proven seems irresponsible, particularly if the intent of the prescription is only to improve performance in school."

Popping pills is apparently easier than finding the source of the problem. According to Burge, at least 5% of young children are taking some kind of prescription drug (like Ritalin) for their ADD, and a higher percentage among boys:

"Once there was a description of ADHD as a mental disorder and a pharmaceutical treatment option available, the disorder seemed to go in search of patients."

Burge spends the remaining fifteen chapters of The ADD Myth talking about different kinds of intensities, or ways of perception. ADD is not a neurological disorder, she says, but merely a state of relative intensity. Those diagnosed with ADD are more intense in feeling, in absorbing information and in expressing themselves. They do not need drugs, psychiatric counselling or faddish excuses of diagnosis. ADD itself may be misdiagnosed based on sexism:

"Although I believe 100 percent of the ADHD diagnoses to be misdiagnoses, I think the reason that boys are diagnosed more than twice as often as girls is that girls are more likely to express 'hyperactivity' vocally."

Thus while girls may be just as hyperactive as boys, they tend to manifest this hyperactivity in the form of stereotypical loquaciousness. While excessive talkativeness is an intense behaviour in itself such that it causes disruption and reveals the speaker's distraction and inattention, it is not viewed in as negative a light as restlessness or loud complaining, which is more typical of the behaviour of boys. This is one of the subjective and spurious characteristics of ADD, having one trait for girls and one for boys.

Burge has done her research and finds no consistency on standard ADD testing. All such testing is based on subjective modelling, which leads to erroneous diagnoses of ADD and a convenient deus ex machina for parents who want a cure in the form of a pill named Ritalin:

"Treatment options for these 'disorders.' which may be nothing more than intensity, are medication and therapy. If you've been down this road, you have probably found the treatment to be less than ideal. Years can be spent on a path that cannot provide much help because the underlying condition isn't understood. If intensity is treated like a mental disorder, the outcome is a sensitive person who now believes herself to be disordered. Instead of understanding and taking advantage of the growth possibilities this condition affords, she changes her self-image to fit that of a person with a disorder."

After the profound claims Burge makes in chapter one, she spends the rest of the book outlining exercises to train the brain by managing one's intensity. She teaches how to take in and process information and how to express oneself and live as a healthy individual. There are many exercises in meditation and imagination, as well as instructions in self-talk and in keeping a journal of one's dreams. I had wanted to read The ADD Myth mainly for its first chapter, so it is ironic that I found the rest of the book, on Burge's often new-agey methods for dealing with one's own personal level of intensity, to be rather boring. However if anyone knows me as a book reviewer, I read every book to the end, no matter how spacy or boring it becomes.

Burge did not discuss a cause that I attribute to the epidemic of ADD diagnoses among children: that of our click-happy on-line world, where nothing can happen fast enough. We expect things to happen as soon as we think of them, and grow impatient if whatever we click on takes more than one second to load. Children do not have to wait as long for information as those of my generation. When I was a child, we had to change channels by getting up and walking to the TV. To make a phone call, we had to be at home or stay at home to await a call. Then we had to use a dial; we didn't have a push-button phone till I was twenty years old. If we needed to find out information, we had to pull out the books or make a trip to the library. Today's generation of young people have their television, their telephone, their encyclopaedia, their camera and every conceivable game in the palm of their hand. It does not surprise me that children have decreased attention spans if they grow up never having to wait for anything. Their brains are not evolving as fast as technology is, thus creating a neurological "lag" that leads to attention deficit, hyperactivity and restlessness. I would be very interested in finding out the prevalence of ADD among children in societies that are not as technologically progressive. Would Amish children show traits often attributed to ADD? Would poor rural households, those without the money to pay for their child's cellphone or high-speed Internet, be less likely to produced ADD-afflicted children?

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Outliers: the Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

Little, Brown and Co., 2008

For me, Gladwell makes two main points in Outliers, and the remainder of the book is populated with engaging, interesting, and thought provoking anecdotes and examples to help illustrate these points.  The first is that people become experts in their fields only through the application of 10,000 hours of dedicated practice.  This is a good opportunity to do some math - how long is 10,000 hours anyways?  If you practice something weekly - say 3 hours per week, it would take you around 64 years to reach 10,000 hours.  On the other hand, if you practice 3 hours per day 365/year, it would take around 9 years.

The second point is that people who become outliers (a term Gladwell uses to identify the super-successful people - those who jump way ahead of the pack), can only do so if they happen to be situated in a context that will allow them to thrive - such as being a specific kind of person born in a specific time and place.  So these given outliers would invariably have been in the right place at the right time to be able to practice their 10,000 hours in a meaningful way, and then be in a position to capitalize on it when it matters.  By extension, the outlier would necessarily need to be an expert in their field at the exact time and place when someone in that field is in high demand by society.  One does not become an outlier if no one cares about your field of expertise, or if you have no opportunity to declare to the world that you are the expert they need.

You will note that nothing in the above indicates that one must be a genius, or have exceptional personal qualities beyond the capacity to diligently put in the grueling 10,000 hours of practice. Gladwell makes the point that the person just needs to be "good enough!"   This immediately makes me think of what I could potentially become an expert in if I put in the practice.

So in all a very fascinating read.  Malcolm Gladwell writes in a very accessible style about topics that he makes the reader interested in, regardless of what they may have thought before.

About his work Gladwell writes, "nothing frustrates me more than someone who reads something… and says… 'I don’t buy it.' …Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade.  Not the kind of writing that you’ll find in [my books], anyway.   It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else’s head."

I find the book convincing, but even if you have some doubts about his thesis, the book is always engaging, and it is certainly thought provoking.

Discussion Questions

  1. The book contains many examples of luck - social conditions and situations lining up just right, so that well-positioned people can become uber-successful and become "outliers."  What do you think of this notion of luck?  Is there such a thing as destiny?
  2. What do you think of the idea of "accumulative advantage?" 
  3. What is an advantage that you have benefited from? 
  4. What is the role of community in a person's life?  What does community mean?
  5. Do you see any cultural legacies being played out in society?
  6. Do the privileges and advantages Gladwell cites seem as decisive as he claims?
  7. How big a role does individual merit play in someone’s success?
  8. Have you done 10,000 hours of practice in any field? 
  9. What do you consider fulfilling work?  Does this match with Gladwell’s ideas? 
  10. "To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success… with a society that provides opportunities for all."  Do you agree with this statement? Could/should society be changed as Gladwell suggests?

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future

I have read many books about the Democratic People's Republic of Korea yet The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future by Victor Cha does the best at explaining why the country behaves the way it does. Unlike many authors about the DPRK, Cha is authoritative and unbiased without pandering to sensationalism. Cha is the former Director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council where he served as an adviser to President George W. Bush from 2004 to 2007. The Impossible State was a solid 530 pages of text printed with narrow margins and heavily supplemented with 38 pages of endnotes. It took me almost three weeks to finish this book, which I consider essential reading for anyone wanting to understand North Korea, the impossible state.
How can the DPRK survive today? How does such a belligerent nation do what it does without fear of getting bombed into oblivion? The DPRK is a grade-school bully who has no friends yet whose parents still make him go to class. What would happen, however, if the People's Republic of China, North Korea's "mom and dad", decided to disown their bully son?

"The problem today is that China is both omnipotent and impotent in North Korea. It has great material influence as the North's only patron. Yet, as the sole patron, if Beijing shut down its assistance to punish Pyongyang for its bad behavior even temporarily, it could precipitate an unraveling of the regime, which would be even more threatening to China. Beijing has no metric by which to gauge how much pressure is enough to punish versus too much pressure that could lead to collapse. In the end, this dilemma typifies the mutual-hostage relationship: Beijing needs to keep the regime afloat, even though it hates the rigid ideology and costs to China's international reputation of being seen as a patron. Yet it cannot use its leverage, for fear of collapsing the regime like a house of cards. North Korea knows this, and therefore uses its vulnerability and unpredictability to get what it wants from China. It hates China's predator economic policies, but has little choice in the matter because it needs the hard currency."
The DPRK thus has its sole lifeline--the most populous and among the most powerful nations on Earth--wrapped around its finger and knows just how to control it. The way to do this is to flash the nuclear card. The North has the world's attention whenever it threatens to launch a missile or conduct an underground nuclear test. Nothing makes its greatest enemy, the United States, or its mainland Chinese benefactor know who's boss than to have both of them quivering at the thought of North Korea having the bomb. At the time I publish this book review, the news has been less intense in its reporting of DPRK nuclear threats. Why has the DPRK left the front-page headlines all of a sudden? I fully believe that the DPRK toned down or otherwise ended its threats once it realized that the USA suddenly had a much more newsworthy--and tragic--story: that of the Boston Marathon bombings. When the Boston story hit the wire, it was almost as if the American media felt that the DPRK ceased to be worth writing about.
During the time that the DPRK held us all captive by its threats to turn Seoul into a sea of fire, political pundits on TV and in the press wondered about the Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un's sanity. Was he a boy playing not with toy guns, but the real things? Were his advisers suicidal nutcases, "saving face" in the eyes of their citizens by getting themselves bombed off the map? In all of this talk, this rhetorical fire-breathing, there isn't a doubt in my mind that the North knows that it is just spouting empty threats. The DPRK is not ruled by a child with an overeager trigger finger and his sycophantic yes-men. Yet the question of the leader's sanity and rationality persist. Cha writes:
"In particular, there are two things that worry me. The first is North Korean rationality. I don't mean this in the sense that they are crazy. On the contrary, though the caricatures of Kim Jong-il as the 'plutonium madman' color the public commentary of North Korea, I believe the leadership, whether it was Kim Jong-il or today, centered around Kim Jong-un, is eminently rational. They may be misinformed about the outside world, but they are rational. The fact that conventional deterrence has held indeed offers evidence of a degree of rationality in Pyongyang. But what is concerning is that sometimes even rational actors, when they become especially stressed, can do dangerous things. That is, countries, when pushed into a corner, have a tendency to lash out rather than whither away. This does not mean they experience a bout of insanity; rather, it becomes perfectly rational to contemplate a desperate action."
I however do not believe that the DPRK will lash out--ever--for lashing out would be suicide. They have pushed the envelope over and over again though, sinking South Korean submarines and fishing vessels and shelling Yeonpyeong Island. Why does the DPRK do this? Aren't they afraid that the South or the US would retaliate?
"Why do these provocations happen despite the fact that deterrence against DPRK aggression has held since 1953? What worries me in this instance is not the failure of conventional deterrence but that the North, once again, may have made the rational calculation that violence pays."
The formula is quite simple. Is our country starving and freezing? Yes. Fire off a missile. Promise to stop if we get food and fuel. Repeat.
This has been the North's strategy since day one, and for the first time, The PR of China is getting antsy. It alone has the power to slap Kim's hand and make him stop.
If mainland China threatens the DPRK with economic sanctions (and means it), or cuts off shipments of food and fuel, the DPRK will collapse. The country simply cannot sustain itself. It will starve and freeze to death. Another scenario that will lead to the dissolution of the DPRK is reunification. In the North, reunification is championed as the destiny of the Korean people, where everyone will join together across the peninsula living once again as one people. The only thing they don't tell you is that reunification is fine, provided it's under their rule. A reunified Korea under Kim Jong Un will never happen and the North knows it. Thus maintaining the antagonistic status quo is their entire raison-d'être. Cha feels that the reunification of the Korean peninsula will come as soon as the next American presidential administration:
"The final discourse on unification that I describe above is not naive. It harbors no false expectations that unification somehow has become an easier task. I believe all Koreans understand how difficult the task will be. It is not likely to come gradually, as Sunshine Policy advocates wish. It is probably more likely to come suddenly."
Cha is to be commended for his balanced analysis of DPRK political machinery. Most other accounts I have read count down the seconds to when the North will self-immolate. Cha expresses some trepidation but is not convinced that the DPRK will blow itself up in order to deprive its enemies of doing it themselves. The Impossible State was a slow but careful read because I analyzed every statement and claim Cha made. Since I had visited the DPRK myself I could compare my experiences with Cha's. I maintain that The Impossible State is a must-read for any in-depth analysis of the DPRK and its internal and foreign policies, yet it was not bereft of errors. Aside from the rare grammatical error not caught in proofreading, like having a "that" for a "than", I noted several genuine mistakes:
The Eternal President and Great Leader Marshal Kim Il Sung was born in 1912. Cha's statement below leads one to believe that he was born in 1902:
"Here is the real story. Kim Il-sung was born as Kim Sŏng-ju. He was a Christian, not a Communist. What is significant about his birth date (aside from being the same day that the Titanic sunk) is that this was only twenty years after the 1882 treaty of amity and commerce with the United States, which paved the way for Western missionaries to come to the peninsula."
The North Korean calendar was re-created after the death of Kim Il Sung. Doing away with the Christian system of numbering years since Christ's birth, the DPRK recalibrated the method of counting years, starting anew from the birth year of the late President:

"After a period of mourning, Kim Jong-il passed an amendment to the Constitution in 1998, declaring Kim Il-sung the "Eternal President" of North Korea. He built a massive mausoleum, in which Kim is entombed. He declared a new calendar, in which Year Zero is 1912, the birth year of Kim Il-sung (hence, 2012 is 100 after-the-birth-of-Kim), and April 15 is basically Christmas in North Korea (except the kids don't get presents).

Cha is wrong here. In the Juche calendar, there is no Year Zero. 1912 became Year 1, thus 2011 became Juche Year 100. I have the DPRK store receipts to prove it (and one even conveniently marked with both year systems):

This receipt is dated 100 (2011) 9 [September] 7

This receipt is dated 100  9  18
In Cha's description of the Dear Leader Comrade General Kim Jong Il as a filmmaker, he compares the late general to Martin Scorsese, yet he misspells the director's surname as Scorcese.

Cha alternated using the terms half-brother and stepbrother to refer to Kim P'yong Il in his relation to Kim Jong Il. The fact is that the two men share the same father, Kim Il Sung, so they are half-brothers, not steps. This was most confusing, trying to keep all the Kims separate and all their remarriages and children born of them in order. Even the index has it wrong: Kim P'yong Il is listed as "step-brother of Kim Jong-il".

The North Korean city of Sinuiju borders Dandong, PR China across the Yalu River. Sinuiju is thus in the far west of the DPRK. Cha errs with this statement:

"Being unable to perform hard, physical labor, she was also tasked with taking care of pregnant women in the detention center in Sinŭiju in eastern North Korea."
While I believe that Cha wrote about the DPRK without wanting to put it down with insults at every opportunity, I found the following statement to be the only fly in the ointment of unbiased observation:

"Outside the city, farmers use old and diseased oxen to till the land; there is no mechanization visible. The paved roads, despite their infrequent use, are cracked and potholed to the point that they would even make riding a bicycle difficult."
Oxcarts to till the land? Definitely, as I myself saw, yet was prohibited from photographing (until one just happened to cross my path):
But old and diseased? Was that remark necessary? And as for the potholed roads, Cha is bang-on. Racing along in a bus as the only vehicle on the roads on the outskirts of Pyongyang was like riding a roller coaster without a safety harness. I had never experienced more badly-maintained paved roads than in the DPRK.
The Impossible State proved itself twofold: the DPRK is impossible in the sense that it should never have been allowed to exist this long after suffering its people for over six decades. Look at the former communist states of eastern Europe. Look at the Arab Spring. How is it that the DPRK has been able to survive a people's revolution? The DPRK is also impossible in the exasperated sense of coping with a belligerent and naughty child. Cha has written a valuable book that looks at North Korea under the helm of a young and inexperienced new leader, and I highly recommended it.