Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson: Impressions

I meant to post this earlier today but work and travel have thwarted my efforts!

THE ORPHAN MASTER'S SON by Adam Johnson tells the sweeping tale of Jun Do, an unlikely orphan turned unlikelier heroic figure in North Korea. Jun Do believes his father is the cold, cruel orphan master, hardened from losing his beautiful mother, a singer whisked away to the capital before Jun Do can remember. He endures the pains of the orphanage only to be trained in fighting in pitch darkness, (after suffering through extensive pain endurance training) so that might lead his team in exploration of the tunnels under the DMZ. Fighting through the darkness and enduring pain are exactly the skills one would need to survive life, if you can call it life, in Johnson's rendering of North Korea (i.e. the Democratic People's Republic of Korea).

The key to fighting in the dark was no different: you had to perceive your opponent, sense him, and never use your imagination. The darkness inside your head is something your imagination fills with stories that have nothing to do with the real darkness around you.

Jun Do is requisitioned to kidnap opera singers in Japan, taught English so that he might listen and translate radio transmissions while aboard a fishing boat, fatefully tattooed with the face of a North Korean movie star, made to endure shark bites to make a concocted story believable, and sent to America to aid on a strange diplomatic mission involving a Texan Senator. In America he learns from Dr. Song:

"Where we are from," he said, "stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he'd be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change...But in America, people's stories change all the time. In America, it is the man who matters. Perhaps they will believe your story and perhaps not, but you, Jun Do, they will believe you."

Jun Do is mistaken for an important North Korean figure, which later he uses to his advantage. Just as stories matter more than people, Jun Do falls in love with the story of the actress tattooed on his chest, and becomes a much better version of the man he was mistaken to be.

THE ORPHAN MASTER'S SON is a highly engrossing read, though the horrors of life in that mysterious country are hard to stomach. The patriotic messages on the loudspeakers are humorous in their complete juxtaposition of reality, spouting lies to keep their citizens obedient. ("Jun Do understood that in communism, you'd threaten a dog into compliance, while in capitalism, obedience is obtained through bribes.") Johnson's North Korea is vividly imagined, making one wonder how he came to construct such a convincingly awful reality. The story culminates in a satisfying, bittersweetly triumphant conclusion, and is well worth reading sooner rather than later.

*I read this book courtesy of TLC Book Tours, Random House, and my local public library.

Sunday, August 19, 2012


After a long hiatus this summer, I'm hoping the scarcity of posts will be replaced with a wee bit more regularity. The triple digit heat that plagued the midwest, sapping the energy out of me with sumo wrestler insistance, seems to have broken, finally, and I can stay awake to read again, and occasionally even write about what I've read.

We've spent a fair amount of time at the botanical gardens (pictured above) including the Chinese lantern festival.

It was lovely to participate in Rachel's 24 in 48 readathon - though I didn't quite make the 24 hours mark, I did read a book and a half, which is much more than I normally manage to read in a weekend. It's the perfect readathon for readers with lives that just can't be put on hold, as well as readers that cherish their sleep. Hopefully this becomes a regular occurrence.

Coming up in the next weeks, I'll have a couple reviews for TLC Book Tours (The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson and The Forgetting Tree by Tatjana Soli), hopefully some reviews of things I've read this year and never got around to discussing (Banana Yoshimoto's Kitchen, Barbara Kinsglover's The Poisonwood Bible, and Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake) and a giveaway of one of my favorite reads this year, A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer duBois.

PS: Oh dear. Just returned from the in-laws with a crazy amount of discarded ARCs from the radio station. What! Danger!

How is everyone else's summer going?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer duBois: Impressions

Let's just start with: I adored this book. It's going on my list of all-time favorites. It was beautifully written, with hilarity and sarcasm etched in to take the sting out of the overall sadness of the characters' situations and the painful, ridiculous decisions made along the way. To be honest, I decided to read A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer duBois because I loved the title and I loved the cover, and the description sounded unique and interesting. I'm obviously glad I did. 

The story is told in chapters which alternate between the perspectives of two main characters: Aleksandr Bezetov, a world champion chess player turned political activist (who must be based in part on Garry Kasparov), and Irina Ellison, a 30-year-old English lecturer with Huntington's disease and a passive interest in chess. I know, I know: sounds fairly dreary, but it's not! More, poignant and sagacious, with artful yet casual wordsmithery and humor tinged with sadness. 

The novel begins with a description of Aleksandr's move to St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) back in 1978 to hone his chess skills, and admittedly, it takes a chapter or so to get pulled into the story, though we get a glimpse of the main theme - and Aleksandr's latent political leanings - right away: 

He didn't care for the billboards and didn't believe in the slogans, but nobody else did, either. He regarded Communism as a kind of collective benign lie, like the universal agreement among human beings to rarely discuss the fact that everybody would one day die.

Here we have the basic themes - Russia's stifled political landscape, the harsher realities of life we pretend to ignore in polite company. And once we meet Irina, with her fatalistic "practicality" dripping with sarcasm and her oh-cut-out-your-whining Harvard Square chess opponent Lars, the story picks right up. Irina admits her faults openly: 

I liked the bitter cold the best; it narrowed the meandering, self-indulgent courses of my mind into a focused dissatisfaction with what was right in front of me. This, I'll be the first to admit, was an improvement. 

Irina's chapters are told in the first person; she is the messier, more relatable character in the book. We get Aleksandr's story in the third person, and he remains somewhat cold, calculating and distant (which makes sense, since he's surrounded and defined by chess, cold Russian winters, and political conspiracies), though eventually shows more humanity by the end of the novel. They are both dealing with their own fallibility, meeting after Irina determines that her father's letter to the chess player, asking him how to fail with dignity, has not been adequately addressed or answered. 

I'm not doing this book justice, but suffice it to say, you should read it, unless dealing with issues of mortality and consequence makes you squeamish. I can't wait to see what duBois comes up with next - it's hard to believe this is her first novel. Also: it's out in paperback next Tuesday, if that puts you over the edge! 

*I read this book courtesy of NetGalley - and my local public library, after my digital ARC expired!

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Forrests by Emily Perkins: Impressions

The Forrests by Emily Perkins is a novel told in a series of gymnastically articulated snapshots, each chapter vividly reflecting a different point in the lives of two sisters, Dorothy and Eve Forrest, who move from New York City to Auckland, New Zealand when they are around 7-8 years old. Though their parents come from money, they have wasted their trust funds, forcing the family to lead stressful and haphazard lives. Dorothy and Eve have two other siblings, Michael and Ruth, that reside on their periphery, but never quite fully engage with the other two.

Admittedly, I had a hard time getting into this book, the first chapter seeming to jump all over in time within a paragraph or two. (I have an obsession with fitting events into a sequentially accurate timeline - I'm fine with jumping around in time, as long as I can place where in time I am.) But by the second chapter or so, the novel began to hit its stride: Perkins' colorful descriptions bringing to life each vignette in a different way. She could precisely capture those moments between childhood and adulthood where everyone else's lives seem shinier than yours:
Eve refused to be the one to bring it up. To ask the question would only make real the ice field between them, the blank that she was left standing in, alone. This was the worst of it - this plunging sense that everyone had got something she had not.
She also manages to capture those bits in which we learn to put on those shiny, everything's-totally-fine appearances (or at least, we believe we're fooling those to whom we're talking):
Flickered with adrenalin, caught out as always at the mention of his name, she told Mike that the last she heard he'd gotten married. Adulthood was like this - your voice calm, your face normal, while inside, turmoil, your heart still seven, or twelve, or fifteen.
Perkins' prose is enchanting, her descriptions uniquely acute. But what the novel gives us in pointed clarity it lacks in depth of field. It's as if in each snapshot, we're given one point of hyperfocus with everything else blurred in the background, darkening at the edges. I never felt I really got a sense of either Dorothy or Eve's separate characters, and their lives seem to be missing a certain fullness that they beg to portray.

Despite a few of its shortcomings, The Forrests pulled me into its glimpses of these women's ordinary but not-so-ordinary lives. Dorothy (and Eve, to an extent) survive but never escape their strange family and upbringing, but manage to find small bits of happiness along the way despite themselves. I'm happy I was given the chance to read the novel, courtesy of Bloomsbury USA, NetGalley, and TLC Book Tours. Check out what other reviewers had to say about the novel here.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

24 in 48 Readathon!

24 in 48 is hosted by Rachel at A Home Between the Pages. Rachel had a lovely idea for what I randomly hashtagged as #readerswithlives: a 24 hour readathon over an entire weekend! (Hence #24in48!) Basically, it's the perfect readathon for those of us who like sleep and also have lives that refuse to be ignored for 24 hours straight no matter how great the book is.

Rachel is starting with Ender's Game, which is a fantastic readathon book, though I haven't read it in years. I have to finish The Forrests by Emily Perkins for a review set to go up on Monday for TLC Book Tours, so this is the perfect weekend for such a readathon. I'm not sure what's on the docket straightaway after that, if/when I finish in time to start another book, but I have 100s of options!

Fortunately for me and my reading time, the coconspirator is working all day long, so he won't be sad that I'm ignoring him in favor of a book.  Unfortunately, I'm on call for 2 long shifts for my volunteer life as well this weekend, so I'm hoping everyone behaves themselves & no trips to ERs are necessary. Also, that will allow for more reading time. But: If I disappear, that's likely where I've disappeared to, unless I've gotten lost in a book.

Either way, check back here (or better yet on twitter) for updates on progress! (I'll most likely just update this particular post.)

Update: finish

Total pages read: 425ish
Total books read: 1.5
Total book reviews written: 1

Though I didn't manage to read for 24 hours (it was just way too nice out), I did manage to read a lot more than I normally do! All in all, great readathon!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Wife 22 by Melanie Gideon: Impressions

Wife 22 by Melanie Gideon has been compared to Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones Diary and it's easy to see why. Of my own small reading repertoire, I'd say it's a cross between Bridget Jones and Domestic Violets, a story about a middle-aged copywriter wannabe writer going through an early mid-life crisis.

Wife 22 is a modern-day story of middle-age, fraught with family and marital tensions, told in humorous and insightful anecdotes varying in structure from traditional prose and dialogue to mini-plays to google searches to email correspondence to facebook status updates and chats. Alice is 44 with a cranky, self-righteous teenage daughter and near-teen son she suspects is gay, married for 20 years to distant William. She teaches drama part-time at a local elementary school; William is a creative director at an ad agency. There worlds no longer seem to overlap much at all, and unhappy Alice signs up for a study of 21st century marriage that she finds in her spam folder, which assigns her the code name wife22. Researcher 101 is her contact, and he feeds her a few questions a week from the survey. 

Alice finds that the anonymity of the survey lends itself to greater honesty, and she relates intimate details of her life with a humor, frankness, and attention to detail that has been missing in her present. She feels guilty for keeping her marriage survey participation from her husband, and, after her communications with Researcher 101 start to go beyond harmless flirtation, eventually confesses to 2 of her closest friends, who both tell her to cut if off before she does something rash. 

The novel is full of exchanges like: 

"Can we tell people?" asks Peter.
"What people?" I say.
"Zoe's not people. She's family," I say.
"No, she's people. We lost her to the people some time ago," says William.

as well as witty advice such as: 

"Humiliation is a choice. Don't choose it."

Though I found the format a little trying and gimmicky at first, it ultimately worked for me as Alice grew on me. Is Alice imperfect? Of course. Selfish? Definitely - but aren't we all? Trying to figure out how to navigate life with all the gadgetry and online-connectedness we're supposed to be experiencing? Absolutely. But Alice is a very relatable character, even if she makes much different choices than I might make (or think I might make - she has higher meanness tolerance levels than I do). She's goofy and funny and frazzled but not to the point of ridiculousness (like the Bridget Jones in the movie version). She survives her crisis and manages to circle back to herself - the end is satisfying in it's slightly unpredictable obviousness (even if one could see it coming halfway through the book... it's the how that's fun). 

One thing to note, as I was reading the ebook version: The questions to the survey are in the appendix at the end. While reading, it just seemed that the reader was supposed to guess the question, which often was possible, but sometimes annoying. I'm not sure if knowing about the questions would have enhanced or detracted from my reading experience, but there is.

Either way, reading Wife 22 was a pure delight and I'd recommend it to anyone looking for a light summer read with a little bit of depth to it.

*I received this book compliments of Ballantine Books via NetGalley.
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