Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

Title: The Orphan Master’s Son
Author: Adam Johnson

Genre: Fiction (North Korea / Kidnapping / Propaganda / Military Dictatorship / Romance / Impersonation)
Publisher/Publication Date: Random House Trade Paperbacks (8/7/2012)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked to love.
Did I finish?: I did -- I couldn't stop!
One-sentence summary: The story of a Korean man -- a model citizen -- who goes from kidnapper for the state to traitor when he falls in love.
Reading Challenges: E-books, NetGalley

Do I like the cover?: I adore it -- I love seeing the male figure on the cover (he's kind of cute!, sorry to objectify), and the box-in-a-box image with, I presume, Pyongyang at the bottom. Very eye-catching.

First line: Citizens, gather 'round your loudspeakers, for we bring important updates!

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy if you like dark, ironic, lovely stories of love, loss, national identity, and violence.

Why did I get this book?: The unusual setting and the fact that I was struck by the hardcover design.

Review: From the first page of this incredible book, I was sucked in, and a bit like rubber-necking a car accident, no matter how awful the story got, I couldn't stop. It's hard to say one likes a novel like this -- its unrelenting in depicting torture, pain, unhappiness, deprivation -- and yet, I couldn't stop reading this book and I couldn't put it down. I found Jun Do to be a wonderful protagonist, despite his flaws and the horrifying things he did, and I had to finish the story.

There's a sort of ludicrousness to the plot -- when I recounted it to my wife, I found myself couching each plot change with a 'it works, really!' because saying it aloud, it does sound silly so much happens to one person -- but I think it works as it echoes the ludicrousness of North Korea: the heroic operas, the heroic national narrative, the horrible fantasy-land where kidnapped people become happy residents.

I can't decide what was more central to the story for me: the writing style or the characters.  Johnson uses an arch, comedic tone in some passages, as he shares the national myth of what is happening in the story ('Citizens, gather 'round your loudspeakers! It is time for the final installment of this year's Best North Korean Story, though it might as well be titled the Greatest North Korean Story of All Time!') interspersed between following Jun Do or, as happens later in the book, Jun Do's interrogators. Jun Do was a wonderful character, a creature of his upbringing, brutally abused, surviving -- thriving! -- in a country of intense contradictions -- a contradiction himself. Even though he sees the grim reality of the regime, he is still won over by the fantasies spun.

I've read a ton of buzz about this novel, much of it praise for Johnson's articulation of North Korea, and certainly, he paints the picture of a place that is laughable and frightening. (I'm reminded of the 30 Rock episode where it comes out that Tracy Morgan's character starred in propaganda action films with Kim Jong Il -- hilarious and yet deeply depressing.) Not being an expert on North Korea, I can't say one way or the other whether it is true or not, but certainly, it sounded like what I've read about North Korea -- and offered me some uncomfortable comparisons with US national myth-making (while reading, I thought immediately of the Jason Bourne film franchise, our own assassins-with-hearts-of-gold).

At 480 pages, this is a hefty read, but I found the narrative was rather zippy. I've read some reviews that said the first half was hard to get into but I was immediately immersed (however uncomfortably) in the world Johnson created (in fact, the narrative transition in Part Two threw me for a loop to begin with but I eventually caught on). While this novel has a kind of nontraditional writing style, I think those who aren't wild about experimental fiction might dig this one because the juxtaposition of horror and fantasy makes both elements stand out. It's a book that makes one feel kind of artsy and brainy but isn't weighted down with philosophical ruminations or long dreamy sequences. At the heart of this book is a story of belonging, love, and sacrifice.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Orphan Master’s Son to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 8/24. For another entry, be sure to check out my interview with Adam Johnson.

32 comments:

  1. Interesting - I didn't even see the guy on the cover till I read why you liked it! LOL

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    1. I noticed him immediately because I feel like I never see male figures on the covers of the books I usually read -- he practically flashed neon at me! ;)

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  2. I was so excited about this book when it came out but I had a lot of trouble with it. Maybe it was the ludicrousness of the plot that just had me going "what?!?" LOL. I do like this cover though.

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    1. Yeah, I think my wife would be like you -- she likes things gritty and realistic but she's not always wild about satire, and I feel like there's a satirical note to the novel that could work/not work depending on the reader's mood.

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  3. I haven't read anything about North Korea, so it sounds fascinating to me. And if you say those ludicrous plot elements work, I'll take your word for it. :)

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    1. Anna -- it is a crazy plot and if I were to recount blow-by-blow, you'd totally think this book wouldn't work -- but I think it really fits. If you give it a try, I'd love to know your thoughts!

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  4. I have this book on audio, and from what you've said in your review, it seems that this is a book that I could love. Very appealing and very intriguing review today, Audra. A lot of reviewers didn't have such great things to say about the book, but I trust your opinion, so I will be listening and reporting back!

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    1. I hope you enjoy it -- I suspect it would make a great audio read -- with the broadcasts and the mythic arc -- can't wait to see what you think!

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  5. I liked this one too. As you said, some of the plot lines were so ridiculous but I was so interested in the main character, and what he'd do next, that I kept reading.

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    1. EXACTLY -- I had to know -- and I wanted to see if things got to the point where I'd stop buying it, but for me it worked.

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  6. Oh, and the broadcasts made it seem so Big Brother'ish. I loved them.

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    1. Yes -- they were deliciously creepy and depressingly perfect.

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  7. I find books like that compelling. They're horrifying yet you can't stop reading. Thanks for a great review!

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    1. I'm pretty squeamish too but I just had to continue with this one because the story was so good.

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  8. Great review! Here I am again, entering another one of your giveaways. Thanks for the opportunity....great books.

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  9. Sorry to say I don't agree with your review at all. What you forget to mention is that the woman he falls in love with is a movie star he's never even met. This book is full of ridiculous things like that. Another example, Jun Do's trip to Texas. Ya, sure. And the wife of the senator gives him a puppy to take back to North Korea, where it is well known they don't love dogs except to eat. I could go on and on.

    And I hated the writing style. It was choppy and left too much unsaid, left too much for the reader to figure out.

    I, too, love your giveaways, and thanks for them. I just disagree with this and thought you might appreciate the argument.

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    1. The plot twists are totally insane but as the world Johnson paints is so insane, it worked for me -- Jun Do's story is as bizarre as the way real tragedies are transformed into North Korean victories. Still, I can see how it might strike some as wrong -- like I said, my wife was totally rolling her eyes as I was recounting this book to her -- but for me, it didn't seem too unbelievable (or any more unbelievable than what had happened before).

      I'm glad you posted even though you disagreed -- it's always fun seeing what readers think of books like this -- and this one will provoke those kinds of feelings in folks -- either like or dislike.

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  10. I have an obsession with any book that takes place in Asia. Those countries and their people are just filled with so many new ideas, different cultures, and fresh story lines. Plus, the Hubs is from Taiwan and I like positioning him amongst the fiction/non-fiction I read - at least in geographical origination. But no other country fascinates me like North Korea. I needed to read this book like yesterday!

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    1. I agree -- it's a wonderfully different world (and world-view) than the one I normally spend time with -- and this one is interesting. It's written by a non-Korean American so I'd be curious to see if those who are ethnically Korean or familiar with North Korea are as captivated, but I understand Johnson did a metric ton of research to capture the flavor of N Korea.

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  11. This one makes me curios even though the reviews seem mixed. Thanks for sharing your thoughts --glad it worked for u.

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    1. Diane -- often the book's that so provoke people are the most fun to read -- if you get to this one, let me know what you think!

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  12. Interesting to see the mixed perspectives on this one. It looks like something that I'd like to pick up, despite others' reservations. Thanks for the review!

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  13. Again i agree with you audra! This book was such a rockin' ride. Absurdity reigns but also great humanity. Xxooo to you and all your readers with their awesome and interesting view points.

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    1. YES -- 'rockin' ride' is a perfect way to describe this book -- I loved the mix of humanity and absurdity - you nailed it. I too love everyone for sharing their opinions -- it makes me so gleeful!

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  14. I love books that are set in foreign countries!

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  15. I LOVED this book -- read it back in January. Since then I've bought copies for friends, sent a copy or two around my neighborhood and it's going to be September's read for my book group. Super review!

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    1. As time goes by, my opinion of it grows -- it has really stuck with me -- what a surprisingly fabu novel.

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  16. Our book club brought up this title as a possible choice for selection last night. After reading your review, I'm all the more interested! Thanks for the opportunity to win, Audra.

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    1. It'd make a great book club selection -- as you can see, it has really split people -- can't wait to see what you think if you do get to it!

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