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The Birth of Korean Cool. (Photo: Picador)

Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

• July 25, 2014 • 10:00 AM

The Birth of Korean Cool. (Photo: Picador)

What you need to know about Bad Feminist, XL Love, and The Birth of Korean Cool.

This uneven essay collection takes on an admirably wide range of subjects relating to feminism, politics, and autobiography. To name a few: Robin Thicke, Tyler Perry, rape culture, Sweet Valley High, Scrabble, academia, and Twitter. Gay self-identifies as a “bad feminist,” meaning a feminist who doesn’t always resist gender stereotypes, and who sometimes grooves to music with lyrics she finds deplorable. The weaker essays feel motivated less by curiosity than by duty—call it cultural criticism by numbers. The stronger pieces hum with the energy of living thought. “Like most people, I’m full of contradictions,” she writes (and her book is rife with them), “but I also don’t want to be treated like shit for being a woman.”

Varney, a health journalist, is worried that as we get fatter, we are having less sex and enjoying it less. She alternates between piles of bleak-sounding (but often inconclusive) statistics about our rates of obesity and heartbreaking close-ups of sex lives thwarted by bodily loathing. The effects of fat vary from gender to gender and place to place. Varney knows this, but she persists in assuming that our bodies need to change, rather than our weight-obsessed culture and the ways it shapes our relationships to our food, ourselves, and each other.

“South Korea,” writes Hong, has “set its sights on becoming the world’s top exporter of popular culture.” The cultural products in question are not just K-pop—Korean pop music, of which “Gangnam Style” is merely the most ubiquitous example—but also soap operas, movies, video games, and junk food. They are often subsidized by the government, and they make money. But they also market “Korea the Brand,” especially in developing countries that U.S. companies don’t bother to target. In Hong’s fascinating account, this offensive is the soft power of a nation that, having tasted prosperity, is ferociously intent on preserving it.


This post originally appeared in the July/August 2014 print issue of Pacific Standard as “Shelf Help.” Subscribe to our bimonthly magazine for more coverage of the science of society.

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