Kauai Community College professor Gregory Shepherd certainly knows how to get a book off to an engaging start.
“Raise you hand if you would like to die today.”
And he’s not an English or writing teacher. His fields are music and theater. His book is Sea of Fire, a novel about the hair-trigger confrontation that is North and South Korea.
Shepherd is primarily a Japan scholar and his biography says that while a research fellow there he traveled regularly to Seoul, where he smuggled democracy literature into the country to a group of Catholic nuns and priests who were actively seeking free and open elections in the South of the time.
His interest in Korea dates from that time, during which he says he learned through contacts that the situation north of the 38th parallel was actually far worse than in the yet-to-be-democratic south.
You know where his sympathies lie from this single statement — that the North is “an unimaginably bleak, brutal, sometimes quirky and always a captivating place.”
And about those opening words in his new book from Poplar Press: They’re from the tour guide on a bus trip to the DMZ who tells the group “I want to make it absolutely clear to all of you that your trip to the Joint Security Area of Panmunjom will entail entry into a hostile area as well as the possibility of injury or death as a result of enemy action.”
I’ve been there a couple of times and nobody told me I might be killed. But we were cautioned not to give the finger to the North Korean guards on their side of the armistice line. They’re said to have short tempers and itchy trigger fingers.
The book goes from that “you might die” start to the main, far-fetched but entertaining story of what the jacket sums up as the tale of “a lone wolf spy’s frantic race to prevent a nuclear war on the Korean peninsula while saving the love of his life from a North Korean prison.”
It’s not Hemingway, nor even Len Deighton. It is the exact same title as the Op-Center novel by Tom Clancy. But it’s an okay read for a quarantine period or if you wonder why Donald Trump’s best effort to woo the North added up to zero. The North is not normal government and the penalty there for any disloyalty like that of John Bolton is death — sometimes by anti-aircraft gunfire.
If you want better sourcing and better literature, you probably should choose Nothing To Envy:Ordinary Lives In North Korea for a scholarly overview, or The Orphan Master’s Son as by far the best fiction book about the Hermit Kingdom.
I can tell you this: author Shepherd is not going to be granted a visa to visit North Korea until all members of the Kim dynasty are dead or kicked out. And even then the CIA might object. It’s not treated very kindly in Sea Of Fire.
And then there’s the North Korean sniper attack to frighten off those of you planning to attend the Tokyo Olympics next year.
And maybe nuclear war!
Did I say this isn’t a feel-good book?