Friday, May 31, 2013

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

The Orphan Master's Son is a story about stories--in this case the stories the people of modern North Korea must make themselves believe in order to survive, stories that the government propagates about the Dear Leader, about how lucky citizens are to live in the glorious DPRK, about the sad state of life in America, even stories about individual citizens. One character says, "Where we are from...stories are factual....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."

We get to know this closed-off, dystopian society through the story of the life of Pak Jun Do (John Doe), a kind of North Korean Everyman. In somewhat Forrest Gump style, he variously becomes a tunnel fighter under the DMZ, a government kidnapper of foreigners, an English-language government listener on board a fishing boat, a member of a diplomatic mission to Texas, a miner as a prisoner in a prison camp, an impersonator of a famous General, and a love rival of the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il. It is through his eyes and the eyes of his government interrogator that we see North Korea, as it is imagined (backed by research) by the author.

Even if the novel were not set in a country that is of particular interest to the U.S. right now, it would be riveting because Johnson is an extraordinary storyteller. In fact, if it had been set in an entirely imaginary place I might have enjoyed it more, because I kept being distracted from the story and its implications by wondering how close the details of life were to fact.

I am not so naive that I don't realize that America propagates its own stories about the glorious life in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave and about the sad state of life in other nations which don't choose to follow our example. Still, I agree with this book's continuation of the above quote: "But in America, people's stories change all the time. In America, it is the man who matters."

Johnson has given us a compulsively readable and suspenseful story filled with adventure, terrible scenes of torture, and touching scenes of love and sacrifice. In tone it is somewhat satirical (especially in its depiction of the Dear Leader). He won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize.

P.S.: I still think Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk should have won the Pulitzer.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer

First, as far as plot goes, nothing much happens here. Mehring is a rich, white industrialist in South Africa in the 1970s. His wife has left him, his son is filled with youthful rebellion against his father's way of life, his liberal-minded mistress has fled the country to avoid arrest, and he has bought a farm that he visits on the weekends, providing instructions for the black overseer, persuading himself that he is necessary for the success of the farm. No great and dramatic events occur--rather a series of small encounters and happenings which hint that his control is gradually slipping away.

However, it becomes apparent that the entirety of the novel is metaphorical, symbolic of the troubled state of South Africa under apartheid. When viewed in this light, every event, every detail becomes significant, beginning with the novel's title. Mehring is not a conservationist in the sense of preserving the land in its original state; he is rather a conservationist of the political and social status quo.

Gordimer's skill in conveying the metaphorical level of the novel is no less than brilliant. This is a book to read more than once, to catch all the nuances. A great many of the novel's events are related in Mehring's stream of consciousness thoughts, revealing a great deal about the perceptions and repressed unease of a member of a society's ruling class.

I was constantly reminded while reading this of the writings J.M. Coetzee, a fellow South African. He, too, addressed the problems of his country indirectly, particularly in The Life and Times of Michael K and Waiting for the Barbarians.

Even though the book is powerful when backed by a knowledge of an actual situation and the writing is flawless, I am not sure that a novel addressing such a specific time and place will remain pertinent as time passes and people forget. But perhaps books like this will help ensure that people don't forget.

This novel was a co-winner for England's Booker Prize and Gordimer has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Magnificence by Lydia Millet

When I ordered this book, I noticed that it was #3 of a trilogy, but the description assured me that it stood as a read-alone book, as well. I think they were mistaken.

For example, most of the actions of the protagonist seem inexplicable, with no logical motivation. Much of the plot concerns the caretaking and restoration of a vast collection of taxidermy, and this aspect must surely be metaphorical, but for the life of me I cannot imagine what the stuffed animals represent. The climax(?) is either one of the most anti-climactic ever or must depend for resonance on a knowledge of the previous books.

The novel starts with the death of Susan Lindley's husband at the hands of a mugger in a foreign country. She feels guilt because he left his home to look for her disappeared boss (whom he hardly knew) after becoming aware of her adultery with a co-worker (only the last in a long line of sexual indiscretions). As she begins the process of selling their house and starting life as a single woman, she inherits the estate of a great uncle, which includes a many-roomed mansion filled to the brim with taxidermied animals. Rather than clearing them out, she begins organizing and rehabilitating them. Later, she is (rather illogically) joined in her new home by a group of eccentric old women. And then she learns of a possible basement to the mansion.

I first became aware of this novel by reading an internet web site about possible contenders for the Pulitzer. Many people praised it. The Amazon web site included even more praise. My goodness, what I am I missing here? Although it is reasonably well written, the book seems to me to be flat and almost pointless. Perhaps if I read the first two parts of the trilogy? But this one so failed to impress me that I don't believe I will.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone

Here is yet another entry to my personal list of novels which, although they have won honors and/or have been praised by critics, I heartily dislike. I felt this way about Post Office by Charles Bukowski and Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion. And now this one.

The Dog Soldiers won the National Book Award in 1975 and has been included on Time's Top 100 Novels list. It has been compared to Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and I can see that Stone aims for that same theme and tone. But he misses it by a mile. Instead we have portraits of people who are aimless, without emotion, motivated by impulse, drug and alcohol addled, cynical and dead inside. Whereas Conrad's novel portrays dark universal traits in precise yet metaphorical prose, Stone's book features characters who are all petty and actually fairly naive, rather than being seduced by the black impulses of the human psyche. And the writing all sounds like a hip screen play. It is very much a novel of the '70s, with the frequent use of drug slang and the general cynicism of the late Vietnam War era, when the hippie dreams had failed.

The plot goes a little something like this: John Converse has been half-heartedly covering the Vietnam War as a journalist, when he decides to attempt a big heroine drug deal, though he is inexperienced in trafficking. He enlists the help of an old friend and of his stateside wife, only to have them disappear from sight when a corrupt Federal agent enters the picture. From here on the novel becomes pretty much a standard thriller, with the race on to see who ends up with the drugs.

Sometimes when I dislike a novel I realize that it's because my least favorite people in the world are those who are aimless and selfish and self-destructive and substance addicted and blame society for all their problems. I don't want to be around them and I don't want to read about them. That's the case here, I'm sure.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

Like the 1960s movie Cleopatra, which is included in the plot, this novel has a cast of thousands--well, not literally. But it does have a very large number of featured characters whose stories are told in intertwined, non-linear episodes. The players include a shy Italian hotel owner, a beautiful actress who believes she is dying of cancer, two would-be writers, an unscrupulous movie producer and his idealistic assistant, an addiction-haunted musician, and Richard Burton, THE Richard Burton. And many more.

The time period extends from World War II to "recently." The locations include Italy, Scotland, and Hollywood. The tone of the narrative encompasses romanticism, cynicism, social satire, and pathos. It is both tear-inducing and laughter-inducing. Sometimes the novel includes almost too much, but then it tells such a darn-good story that all is forgiven.

The central plot around which all else revolves concerns Pasquale, the hotel owner, and Dee, the actress. To recount the plot would almost require summarizing the entire book, but suffice it to say that it begins when the two meet and ends when they meet again 50 years later, with many unexpected twists and people in between.

What sold me on this book was its exploration of "the moment," that magical point in time when dreams seem possible, before messy reality intrudes. Pasquale says of his meeting with Dee that it was, "The moment that lasts forever." The question becomes, is it possible to recapture the promise of "the moment"? I well remember my "moment"--can't you?

I could name some shortcomings of Beautiful Ruins: it is sometimes difficult to follow as it jumps from character to character and time to time; the tone of some sections is jarring next to the tone of other sections; it is perhaps a bit too clever for its own good at times. But I liked it very much.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

This is a most unusual novel, if it can even be called a novel. Instead of telling a story through focusing on one or a few central characters, Otsuka tells her story of the hundreds of Japanese picture brides who came to America in the early 20th century through one or two short declarative sentences per character, describing the lives of the hundreds of women. She uses "we" to narrate, as if one picture bride were telling the story of all.

The book is divided into eight sections: the boat trip to America; the first night with new husbands, who were usually not at all as they had represented themselves; the interactions with new neighbors, particularly the white Americans; the births of the children; the growing up of the children, who often became ashamed by their Japanese heritage; World War II and Pearl Harbor, and the resulting American reaction to the Japanese; the removal of the California Japanese to internment camps; and (this section from a differing viewpoint) the reaction of white America to the sudden absence of the Japanese from their farms and communities.

This unusual style of storytelling brings focus to social and political issues--cultural misunderstanding; assimilation difficulties; racial bigotry; racial profiling; and the fear-induced abandonment of Constitutional rights by the government, culminating in the virtual imprisonment of thousands of people based solely on their racial heritage.

Unfortunately, this style does not lend itself at all to any emotional connection with the book. It seems to make of it more of a long essay rather than a novel.

I was much reminded of the beginning of the most excellent Vietnam war novel The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. His first section was structured in a similar way, with short sentences detailing what young soldiers carried to war, using "they" as his point of view. But then he progressed to individual stories, bringing about emotional connections. This does not happen in The Buddha in the Attic.

This book is very short (129 pages trade paperback), which is good in this instance, as so much "list-making" becomes tiresome.

For me, the primary attraction of the novel is the applications it has to today's political climate. Even though the WWII Japanese internment has been acknowledged by several US presidents as having been a shameful mistake and the internees have been paid reparations, once more our country has imprisoned people without due process of law, again out of fear. Even those who carp endlessly about Constitutional rights seem to think this is OK. My hope is that later on this, too, will be acknowledged as a mistake.

By the way, this book won the 2012 Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 2012.

Monday, May 6, 2013

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

This Victorian novel is an obvious rip-off of Jane Austin's marriage plot books, particularly Pride and Prejudice, combined with a very talky consideration of social and political issues in England at the time, particularly of the labor problems between workers and management. The two aspects don't always meld very well, and the entire book comes off as a bit strange in consequence.

The "north" and "south" of the title come from the south of England, which was largely rural and agrarian, and the north of England, which was developing as an urban manufacturing area. Our heroine, Margaret Hale, relocates from the south to the north when her father leaves the clergy of the Church of England as a dissenter and becomes a tutor. Thrown into a social situation entirely foreign to her, she comes to feel sympathy for the millworkers who are striking for higher wages, befriending one family in particular. Meanwhile, her father forms a friendship with one of his pupils, John Thornton, a mill owner. (This mill owner is taking time off from his business to be tutored in the classics. How unlikely is that?)

Margaret and the mill owner frequently verbally clash, as they discuss (at length) the situation of the strike. In addition, Margaret feels some class disdain for him and his ilk because they are involved in "trade." When he unexpectedly proposes, she rejects him as the last man she would ever choose. And yet, she cannot keep him out of her mind. Can't you imagine how this romance ends?

Perhaps not surprising, since the romance plot is predictable, the most interesting aspect of the novel is the discussion of the social and political issues. Gaskell uses the device of dialogues between her characters to advance her views, similar to a much later novelist, Ayn Rand. One is always tempted to skim-read these sections; however, in this case it is very interesting to see how similar the viewpoints of the workers and the owners in Victorian England are to those of today. Unions are particularly examined, with the good and bad aspects discussed, much of which would be pertinent now.

Also of interest is the depiction of class prejudice in England, which Gaskell is obviously criticizing. And yet, she displays her own prejudices, which are humorous to modern ears. For instance, of a family which behaves in an irresponsible and childish way, she has Margaret say as an explanation, "I should guess from their tones that they had Irish blood in them."

I found this book interesting, but it is easy to see why Gaskell is not considered as a member of the first tier of Victorian novelists.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

What a lovely and magical book this is! On the one hand, it is a realistic picture of the hardship involved in trying to farm in the harsh yet beautiful Alaskan wilderness. On the other hand, it is a book of magical realism, with its story basis being a Russian fairy tale. As one reviewer wrote, "If Willa Cather and Gabriel Garcia Marquez had collaborated on a book, The Snow Child would be it."

As the Russian story goes, a couple who have long yearned for a child build a girl out of snow. The next morning, the snow child is gone, but they see a young girl running through the woods. As with most folk tales, many variations and endings exist, some sorrowful and some joyful.

As the novel goes, Jack and Mabel are struggling to survive the hardships of Alaskan settlement in 1920 and their sorrow at the still-birth of their child. In a rare moment of joy, they build a snow girl and, as in the Russian tale, next morning they see a young girl running through the trees. Wild and fey, the girl eventually comes to trust the couple and they come to love her as if she were their own, even though she disappears each spring when the snow stops falling. They accept her for the mystery she is: as Mabel says, "You did not have to understand miracles to believe in them...."

But then a very real explanation for her existence and actions is discovered, so perhaps no miracle is involved at all. And yet....

This is a story of love and family and hope and beauty and the pain and joy of life.

The writing is absolutely perfect, as far as I am concerned. It pictures the Alaskan landscape so concretely that I could see it in my mind, without any of those self-consciously poetic metaphors so prevalent in many of today's novels. The magic and the realism are mixed perfectly, so that they flow through each other.

I see this quote as illustrating the theme of the book, "In my old age, I see that life itself is often more fantastic and terrible than the stories we believed in as children, and that perhaps there is no harm in finding magic among trees."

No harm, indeed.

This novel was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize. Most highly recommended.