North Korea and Canada between covers: A pair of mini book reviews

One of the best things about finishing grad school is getting to read for pleasure again. I recently finished one novel – “The Orphan Master’s Son” by Adam Johnson, and am currently about halfway through “All My Puny Sorrows” by Miriam Toews.

My Facebook pal Chase recommended the Johnson book in the wake of the Sony hack. Here’s his post:

“Re-recommending one of the best books I have read the last decade, in light of the focus on North Korea; if you want to understand their society, read The Orphan Master’s Son.”

I’ve never met Chase in person (he’s a friend of a friend and we connected that way). But I trust his taste. Also, when I was the editor of The Key Newspaper, a publication for new adult readers, I discovered the DPRK News Agency site  and it remains among my favorite internet recreational reading destinations to this very day. (Check the calendar for today’s date – 22 January, 2015) and look for this article – “U.S., Germany Urged to Give Up at Once Screening of Anti-DPRK Movie: DPRK FM Spokesman” if you’d like to get the North Korean perspective on “The Interview” straight from an approved government source.)

Anyway, the book. Which received the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. That was the year I moved my mother across six states while trying to work and go to graduate school. So it’s not surprising that I missed the news of its existence.

I’m not usually so good with violence in literature, but I can handle it if it makes sense within the context of the story. And here, it makes lots of sense. It helps, too, that Johnson plays it straight. Much of what happens in the book is deeply upsetting for a reader experiencing – albeit vicariously – North Korean culture for the first time. But horrors and small daily normalcies of life in the DPRK are just facts of life for his narrators.

Johnson’s ability to pick out details that make us, as US readers, look at ourselves in ways we might not be entirely comfortable, was one of my favorite parts of this book. Here’s an example:

“This was a signal that breakfast was over, but the still the boy had one last question to ask. ‘Do dogs really have their own food in America, a kind that comes in cans?”’

The idea was shocking to Ga, a cannery dedicated to dogs. ‘Not that I saw,’ he said.”

General Ga is the star of the second half of the book. Jun Do Park, the son of the book’s title, narrates the first. There’s another narrator in the second, a creative soul whose main goal is to record truth for posterity.

I really want to talk about this book with someone, so I’ve made it my book group pick for next time I host. Sadly, it’s not until September. I plan to serve edible flowers, peaches and ice cream, all of which play roles in the story.

The Toews was recommended by two people – my friend Shauna (who read it as a judge for Canada’s Giller Prize) and our mutual pal Dan, who owns Boswell Books, my favorite independent bookstore. He doesn’t usually tell me, “You have to buy this one.”

But he did. So I did. It’s the story of a pair of sisters, Yolandi and Elfrieda. The big thread in their Canadian Mennonite family is suicide, and the story is centered around Elf’s determination to end her life.

It sounds depressing, but it isn’t. By ordinary reckoning, Elf has plenty to live for – a devoted partner and a great career as a concert pianist. Yoli, six years younger, is at the tail end of her second divorce – from the father of the younger of her two children – and carrying around a manuscript of her novel in a plastic grocery bag.

Toews has structured the novel to move forward and back in time, but not in the jarring way that too many less accomplished writers do. I’d like to tell you more about it, but I’m going to stop here so I’m not late for work.

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