Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Orphan Master's Son

by Adam Johnson

Johnson wrote this book after a visit to North Korea and extensive research on the country, with the intention of relaying the story of a nation built on propaganda. To the North Koreans, it doesn't matter that the foundation is fictitious, "every citizen is forced to become a character whose motivations, desires and fears are dictated by the script." Johnson shares the miserable living conditions, the violence, the torture and the attitudes of the citizens in a way that seems unbelievable, even when you know it is true. 

The story is written in two parts, meeting Jun Do and the confessions of General Ga, however, these two men are so intertwined as to become one. Jun Do's story reflects the life of an average comrade, who works in the mines, conducts diplomatic missions and spends time in the work camps. General Ga realtes the life of the privileged, those who are in the upper ranks of Kim Jong Il's regime. He receives better rations, lives in a mansion in a secluded neighborhood and is elevated above the mainstream.

The information presented in The Orphan Master's Son was interesting, astonishing and horrifying all at once. The nature of this story was so dystopian that it wasn't a book I was naturally drawn to reading even though it was well written. Perhaps if I hadn't just been on a spell of reading several in that genre, I might have digested this account better. This is a lengthy story and gets confusing at times, particularly in the second half. I also got a bit tired of the interrogator's narrative. But, if you are interested in learning about North Korea and don't want a history, I would recommend this book. I realize even though this is fiction, much of it is a reality for those living in NK. My life is just so far removed from this lifestyle I can't imagine how people would succumb to that totalitarian regime.

Thursday, July 12, 2012


by Mary Doria Russell

If you're looking for a dramatized story of the gunfight at the OK Corral you'll need to find another book, as the point of this one is to paint a picture of Dodge City in 1878, the people and politics that ruled the day and the relationship that grew between Doc Holliday, Kate Horony and the Wyatt brothers prior to that notorious event. Although Ms. Russell clearly did a lot of research and dedicated significant space to feature each character, her slant on them might cause a true historian to question this account.  The discrepancy isn't necessarily in details as in her desire to present John Henry Holliday in a sympathetic light, which is diametrically opposed to any other rendition I've heard. Keeping in mind that the majority of my western cowboy information was gleaned from the playground and the movies, I understood Doc Holliday, the Earp's and the rest of that crowd to be a bunch of cheating, drunken, philandering hustlers. But after reading Doc I learned a few other things.

I didn't know Doc was classically educated, spoke several languages, was a pianist and lived most of his life dying of consumption (tuberculosis). I didn't know he was born with a cleft palate, his mother died when he was 15 after which his father quickly remarried and sent John off to live with an aunt. I didn't know he would rather have made his living as a dentist than as a gambler. Didn't know Kate Horony grew up in a wealthy home but was orphaned when she was 15 then sexually assaulted by the foster father. Didn't know the Earp's father was physically abusive. So if you can ignore the hot tempers and altercations and run-ins with the law, the gambling and drinking and prostitution, these make out to be pretty good guys.

Throughout the book, Ms. Russell comments on the western era media's over exaggeration of this group and these events in order to make best-selling dime-store novels; I assume in a effort to give credibility to her version. Which brings me back to a quote from Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending, "That's one of the central problems with history, isn't it sir? That question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us."

Regardless, Doc was interesting and well written. If you like historical fiction this would be a good summer read.