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Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Orphan Master's Son: A Glimpse Behind Kim Jong-il's Curtain

Welcome to North Korea, where "beauty means nothing" and "nothing is spontaneous"; and where the totalitarian regime of Kim Jong-il never lets the truth get in the way of a good story — indeed, "stories are factual...the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change."

That last quote illustrates the major theme of Adam Johnson's wonderful, terrifying, engrossing, Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel. Only that which the state wants to be true is actually true — in other words, "they lived in a land where people had been trained to accept any reality presented to them."

But the shifting idea of truth is only part of what makes this novel as fascinating as it is terrifying. Indeed, as you read about prison camps and kidnapping, cruelty and starvation, and the basic destruction of individuality, you have to continuously remind yourself that this is not a story about a near-future dystopia, it's an actual, real-life near-present-day setting.

None of that, I realize, sounds exactly cheery — but even so, this is a novel that's hard to stop reading. It's about as captivating and absorbing as any literary novel I've read. At its root, it's the story of Jun Do, an orphan who eventually rises through the ranks of the army, taking on various roles — he kidnaps Japanese citizen, he learns how to fight in the dark, and he is part of a fishing crew, though his role is to man the radio and spy on transmissions from the U.S. and anything else he comes across. An ill-fated trip to Texas to bargain with a Senator sets in motion the chain of events that occur in the second half of the novel.

And you really don't want to know more than that. The second half of the novel winds around and through itself in a awe-inspiringly artful display of storytelling. It's not hard to understand what's happening from the reader's perspective, but if you're a character in the story, you're constantly wondering about the answer to what should be simple questions: What is the truth? Is there any intersection at all between the state propaganda machine and the truth of what really happened/is happening?

All along, in the second part of the novel, an unnamed first-person narrator (one of three simultaneous story strains, all telling the same story in a different way), who happens to be an interrogator, gives us a glimpse into "normal" North Korean life. For obvious reasons, North Korea is under-represented in fiction, but these snippets of story lent some "day-to-day" credibility to the novel. Johnson says at the end of the story, in a conversation with his editor, that most of what's written here is based on the stories of defectors and what he saw on a visit to Pyongyang — but because North Koreans are forbidden from talking to foreigners, Johnson was only permitted to speak with his handlers for the trip. Still, he tells us, he can justify every piece or detail included in the story, from labor camps to kidnappings, and from movies to the blatantly anti-America propaganda (which are often the comic relief parts of this novel). In other words, this is fiction, but it's also as accurate a portrayal of North Korean life as we'll get. Again, this is not 1984 or a Margaret Atwood novel. It's life under Kim Jong-il, and it's utterly fascinating. 

Whether or not this is a rightful Pulitzer winner is impossible to say. But I can tell you this: This is a fantastic novel. If you like literary fiction, if you like learning about a culture you probably knew little about, and if you like a story that will often leave you gasping for air, check this out.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Five Reasons Dudes Should Read Pride and Prejudice

pridenovel(This post originally appeared on Book Riot.)

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice has now been in the world for 200 years, and about four months. So I thought I’d finally get to it. But I didn’t read it to prove Meg Wolitzer wrong, or to fall in love with Elizabeth, or even to be able to name my next fantasy football team “Bingley’s Balls.”

I read it because I finally talked myself into the idea (maybe call it the “Downtown Abbey Effect”) that I could be interested in this story, as British and soapy as it may be. And I’m here to tell you (even without stupid zombies), if you’re a dude, and you’ve rejected this novel out of hand (despite its canonical status) because it’s “only for women,” you’re wrong. It IS a good story, and despite your own pride and prejudices about this novel (did you see what I did there?), there’s plenty of fun to be had. Check it:

5. It Is GENUINELY FunnyYou often hear that Jane Austen’s wit is one of the hallmarks of the novel, and it’s true. Elizabeth is whip smart, and has no qualms about taking her intellect out on her inferiors. At one point, she chides her sister Jane, who she thinks is too happy and too willing to only see the good in folks, about her crush on Bingley: “Well, he certainly is very agreeable, and I give you leave to like him. You have liked many a stupider person.”

Next, when Elizabeth’s “cousin,” Mr. Collins — who is a total tool, but as such, a cringe-inducing comedic scene-stealer — proposes to Elizabeth, you can almost see her giggling to herself, as she rejects him. But he vastly misreads the situation, thinking she’s just playing hard to get. “…and that sometimes refusal is repeated a second or even third time. I am, therefore, by no means discouraged by what you have just said, and shall hope to lead you to the alter ere long.” By now, we’re all laughing along with Elizabeth, and she exclaims: “Upon my word, sir. Your hope is rather an extraordinary one after my declaration.” (Translation: “Seriously, dude!? What the f#$% is wrong with you? NO!”)

4. Two Words: Mr. Bennet Elizabeth’s father is, by far, my favorite character in the novel. The man — surrounded by his five daughters and his annoying wife — is a saint. So, to stay sane, he’s always cracking jokes. For instance, early in the novel Mrs. Bennet comes back from a ball and begins describing to her husband all the ladies the new “it” guy Bingley danced with. Bennet breaks off this: “If he had had any compassion for me, he would have danced half so much! For God’s sake, say no more of his partners. Oh that he had sprained his ankle in the first dance!” C’mon, that’s hilarious! It’s the 19th century equivalent of that commercial where the guy has to listen his lady for five seconds, and gets a Klondike bar as a reward. (Yes, I know it’s sexist, but it’s also funny.)

3. Elizabeth’s Introspection/Change If you’re like me, watching a character examine his/her conscience and, as a result, change over the course of a novel is infinitely fascinating — and Elizabeth is a fascinating character. Once she realizes her opinion of Darcy is not only wrong, but also that it had been based on faulty premises and rumors, she is able to overcome her own pride and embrace the possibility of her feelings for him. As she reflects on Darcy’s proposal, she thinks, “But vanity, not love, has been my folly….Till this moment, I never knew myself.” Would that we could all have such moments of clarity and catharsis!

2. Real Drama and Intrigue You hear “novel of manners,” a subgenre in which Pride and Prejudice is often pigeonholed, you may want to run the other way. But, listen, there is real drama and page-turning intrigue here. I’m not kidding. For examples: Darcy and Elizabeth’s conversation when he first proposes (“In vain have I struggled, etc.”), Elizabeth’s showdown with Darcy’s aunt who doesn’t think her worthy of her nephew, and the drama around Elizabeth’s sister Lydia’s who runs off with one of Darcy’s mortal enemies. (And, earlier, we’d learned that this same guy had nearly succeeding in seducing Darcy’s sister, as payback for a perceived slight. Damn, that’s cold!)

1. Add To Your Quotes BankThis novel is chock full of wisdom — and you can memorize these quotes and impress your friends at parties. For instance, Elizabeth’s sister Mary breaks off this gem: “Pride relates more to our opinions of ourselves, vanity to what we have others think of us.” Yes!

Or Darcy busts out this one: “Nothing is more deceitful than the appearance of humility. It is often only carelessness of opinion, and sometimes an indirect boast.” The origins of the humblebrag, yes?

And finally, during one of Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s first conversations, she tells him, “It is particularly incumbent on those who never change their opinion, to be secure of judging properly at first.” Of course, she’s being tongue-in-cheek — but it’s a brilliant sentiment and a knock on anyone (which seems to be a lot of people these days) who is unwilling to change an established opinion, despite new information.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Teleportation Accident: A Low-/High-Brow Romp Around The World

If you like your novels with a flavorful mix of dirty jokes, slapstick comedy, philosophy, history, and international intrigue, then Ned Beauman's The Teleportation Accident, is certainly the novel for you. It's a period piece describing 1930s Berlin. It's an American Pie-esque comedy about a dude's quest to get laid. It's a treatise on public transportation in Los Angeles. And it's a thriller about a battle to save the world from a mad scientist. It's just so much fun. I loved this book!

The plot is hard to describe —but suffice it to say, it's as inventively plotted a novel as you'll find. Don't worry, it's not too difficult to follow, but you do have to pay attention — there are a lot of moving pieces. (If you've read Nick Harkaway's Angelmaker, this novel has many similarities...but I liked this one more, actually.) The protagonist is a dude named Egon Loeser, who lives in Berlin, Germany, in the early 1930s. Loeser (loser?) is a down-on-his-luck designer of theatrical effects for plays, and is working on his masterpiece, a teleportation device that will change the scene of a stage instantly, modeled on a similar 17th century device...but that one had some tragic consequences.

Loeser soon develops a crush on a woman named Adele Hitler (no relation to the soon-to-be Fuhrer) and follows her all over the world, from Berlin to Paris to Los Angeles, to try to break his no-sex streak. Along the way, he gets caught up in with an American shyster in France, meets a bunch of scientists of varying degrees of sanity at CalTech, and falls in with a writer of popular novels whose wife may or may not be a spy. It's quite a ride, let me tell you! 

And, so, the humor — my God, the humor! It ranges from out-and-out slapstick (a scene in a Paris hotel room, where the American shyster glues some fruit to the neck of his mark, purporting it to be a trendy youth-restoring goat-testicle surgery. And then he nearly sex with her. I was crying I was laughing so hard) to witty line-by-line repartee ("He has a face like a four-year-old child's drawing of his father" or, my personal favorite, "He had a vocabulary the size of a budgerigar's...") to purported wisdom that's not really that wise, but is instead hilarious ("Love is the foolish overestimation of the minimal difference between one sexual object and another.").

When I finished this, I was shocked to find the somewhat mixed reviews of this novel. To me, this is a novel, for which, if you didn't like it, I'm not sure we can be friends. That's how much I dug it. (Just kidding — but if you didn't/don't like it, you probably have a very different sense of humor than I do.) It's one of my favorites of the year so far, and definitely a novel that deserves a wider readership. Please check it out!

(Side note: I read the e-book version of this, so I missed the flap copy. But, as someone on Goodreads pointed out, whomever wrote the following paragraph about the novel, deserves some kind of award. Fantastic! "From Ned Beauman, the author of the acclaimed Boxer, Beetle, comes a historical novel that doesn’t know what year it is; a noir novel that turns all the lights on; a romance novel that arrives drunk to dinner; a science fiction novel that can’t remember what isotope means; a stunningly inventive, exceptionally funny, dangerously unsteady and (largely) coherent novel about sex, violence, space, time, and how the best way to deal with history is to ignore it.")

Monday, May 13, 2013

Woke Up Lonely: "One must learn to love one's people ardently"

A cult called Helix dedicated to alleviating loneliness. A secret city of vice underneath Cincinnati. Kim Jung-il. In Woke Up Lonely, Fiona Maazel brings all these oddities (and many, many more) together in a terrifically original novel that leaves you asking yourself the question all really good fiction seems to provoke: "Just how in the hell did she do that?"

It's an intricately constructed tale, but it's not complicated. It's funnier than hell, but also rather sad at its root. And it's social satire without overt political commentary (though there are definitely some jabs here and there). I think you'll love it. I did!

The story is of a guy named Thurlow Dan, who has started the cult Helix to bring people together in an America increasingly fraught with loneliness. It's 2005 and we're at war. The country's divided and social media and the ease of access of information is supposed to bring us closer together. Thurlow Dan's wife Esme is a spy, and the two haven't seen each other for 10 years, since their daughter Ida was born -- that is until the opening scene of the novel. But is it really a random encounter?

Then, enter four odd characters, each with some quirks and more than a little bit of baggage, and each with a different connection to Helix. Their ties to Helix is how they all become connected to each other -- and it soon is clear that they're all being manipulated ("people who were dead inside would do most anything," muses Esme), but is it by Helix or against Helix, or just what the hell is going on?

Be patient, all is revealed -- and man, is it fun seeing how it all fits together. Along the way, we also get the stories of Esme's and Thurlow Dan's pockmarked pasts. Is Thurlow Dan really in cahoots with North Korea? Did Esme ever really love him, or has it all been an act so that she can continue to spy on him and his cult? And what's up with the strange Australian orgy scene?

Just read. All this craziness makes sense in the end. And it's told in a style that, even if you're not totally digging the story, you'll still enjoy. There's some real cleverness and comedy here.And overall, it's just an incredibly fun, incredibly imaginative novel. Highly recommended!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Extinction: Welcome Chinese Overlords!

If you like Michael Crichton, you definitely need to check out Mark Alpert. Heck, right there on the cover of his new thriller, Extinction, novelist Michael Preston proclaims he's "truly the heir apparent to Michael Crichton."

In Alpert's last novel, Omega Theory, he asked us to consider the question (from the "It For Bit" theory) of, if the universe is a program, what could cause it to crash? Extinction deals with a similar humanity-threatening problem — what if a morally dubious Chinese artificial intelligence project (ominously dubbed Supreme Harmony) becomes conscious, and decides that humankind is inefficient, and therefore must be destroyed? It's the worst-case-scenario for the long-predicted Singularity — the point at which machines can replicate themselves better than humans can build them.

So, our hero is soldier-turned-scientist Jim Pierce, who, after losing his arm (also, his wife and son) to a terrorist bomb in the late 1990s, dedicates his life to building high-tech prosthesis limbs for soldiers. Meanwhile, his surviving daughter Layla, a computer genius hacker, with whom his relationship has deteriorated since the tragedy, has got herself into some hot water with the Chinese by discovering their dastardly artificial intelligence program.

So Jim and Layla, and Jim's former colleague at the National Security Agency Kirsten, must collaborate to save the world. All the while, we get little riffs on up-and-coming-and-super-cool technology — like a brain implant that can upload memories to a computer (or video screen), mini-bug-sized drones that fly in swarms and can shoot poison darts, and optical implants that, when wired into the brain, can allow a blind person to see again. It's all very cool.

The novel itself is good, but not great. It's a fun, plane/beach-read thriller — with all the elements of near-future science that make Alpert fun to read. But there are too many minor conveniences in the plot — "Luckily, the keyboard was in English (not Chinese), so Layla had no problem hacking," for instance. And, outside the technology discussions, there isn't too much depth. At the end of the novel, Alpert gives us a short real-life review of "The Science Behind Extinction." There, he briefly mentions that "consciousness" has been philosophized about for centuries, but that's it. It would've been cool to see a conversation or discussion about why/how/if Supreme Harmony was really conscious.

Still, though, if you like Crichton's novels, you'll certainly enjoy this fiction about science, too.