Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Orphan Master's Son

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson (2012)

After his mother was kidnapped and taken to Pyongyang, Pak Jun Do grew up in an orphanage called Long Tomorrows. In turn he became a tunnel soldier, a kidnapper, a transcriber aboard a fishing vessel, and another person entirely. In Adam Johnson's version of North Korea, Jun Do has almost no control over his life, but must constantly adapt to changes thrown his way in an effort to survive, until he eventually finds a way to take matters into his own hands. And all the while, the loudspeakers address citizens with news from around the nation, and world news from countries they consider oppressive, like South Korea, Japan, and the United States. Also broadcast is a reading of the year's Best North Korea Story, a story about the actress Sun Moon and her husband Commander Ga, which may not be fiction at all, but the story of Jun Do's reality.

In a country built upon propaganda and lies it's hard to know what to believe, and the same goes for this story. It is both bleak and absurd, a combination that reminds me of many Russian novels I've read. Also similar is the fear and paranoia that everyone lives with. An unnamed narrator who works as an interrogator lives with his elderly parents, who even in their own home speak only in stock government-approved phrases. Such is the fear of prison and death which permeates the lives of everyone in the book. Even those who work high up in the government aren't immune. Anybody's life could change in an instant, with no warning and no explanation.

Jun Do maintains that he was not an orphan like the other kids at Long Tomorrows. He thinks his mother is still alive out there somewhere and says that the Orphan Master, the man who ran the orphanage, is actually his father. Throughout the book I doubted whether this was true, but he didn't ever revisit the issue - I don't think he ever even thought about the man who was supposed to be his father, though he wondered about his mother's fate now and then. One of Johnson's major themes is the way that lives change and people just need to keep going in their new story without looking back. The apparent ease with which everyone accepted their separations from one another was a bit heartbreaking.

The North Koreans view their country as democratic and consider themselves very well off compared to other nations. When a group of Texans came to visit, the Koreans planned to give them food aid, as so many Americans are starving. The statistic they quoted, by the way - that 1 of 6 Americans goes hungry every day - is accurate, which just goes to show you how thin the line between propaganda and the truth. Meanwhile, of course, North Korean citizens were keeping themselves fed with bark from trees, and other things I just don't want to even think about. I'm a little upset at Adam Johnson for even putting some of these images in my head.

There's actually a lot of graphic imagery throughout the story. In addition to the aforementioned desperate measures of starving people, we get a pretty close-up look at North Korean methods of interrogation. These scenes aren't especially frequent, but they're pretty horrifying, so if that sort of thing upsets you, you may want to steer clear. But I suppose anyone who only wants to read about pleasant things isn't going to pick up a book about North Korea.

I was intrigued by The Orphan Master's Son since I first read reviews upon its publication. Little is written about North Korea, and I wondered how this American author did his research. It turns out that he spent some time in North Korea as part of his extensive research, a trip I'd really like to hear more about. The only other book I've ever read that was about North Korea was Escape From Camp 14 which only made me want to learn more about this mysterious country. The two books were remarkably similar in the blurring of lines between fact and fiction, despite one of them being fiction and the other non-fiction.

When The Orphan Master's Son won the Pulitzer, I actually became a bit wary of it, fearing that it might be dense and unreadable as many literary novels are. But I was pleasantly surprised. Not only has Johnson taken us inside a fascinating world - and one you only want to visit for a brief time - but he's populated it with people you really want to take with you when you leave. I wanted nothing more than to get Jun Do out of there. I wished it wasn't so long, but it was gripping enough to hold my attention throughout, and in the end it was absolutely worth it.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (1970)

It's probably been close to twenty years since I first read Maya Angelou's memoir about growing up in the South in the 1930s, so I was happy to revisit her story. I imagine a lot of people have read this book recently since Angelou's death a few months ago, and it inspired a couple of people to recommend it for my library's next community read, which is why I've just read it now.

As a child, Angelou's parents divorced and sent her, along with her brother, off to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. The kids move around a few times during their childhoods, to St. Louis, back to Stamps, and to California. Angelou recounts what it was like to be a young black girl in that time period, and how she grew to be a confident young woman in spite of it.

It was the Depression, but when you're poor and marginalized already, it's barely noticeable. The most traumatic incident of her childhood was being sexually assaulted by an adult she trusted. But, I think even more oppressive were the million tiny little ways she was slighted because of her skin color. The incident that stands out to me the most was the time that she had a couple of cavities that got pretty out of control and she was in a tremendous amount of pain. The local dentist only treated white people, but Maya's grandmother went to him anyway, claiming he owed her a favor. Still, they were turned away. By now Maya had been in pain for days, but it had to be prolonged even more while they boarded a Greyhound for a trip to a dentist who would treat her. And they just did it. They didn't raise a ruckus or anything because it wouldn't have gotten them anywhere, and honestly, who has the energy to fight back at every single indignity when they come so frequently?

Maya Angelou's experiences are not something I will ever understand fully. As a white American, how could I? But I can definitely tell you that I would not want to be treated the way she and her family and friends were treated. Which of course is why it's so important to read about experiences different from our own. There are so many little discriminations that take place every day and may not be obvious to someone not experiencing it (and I think most women can understand this to a certain limited extent) so reading this was a great reminder.

Of course it took place many decades ago, but as current events prove, we still have far to go as a society to achieve equality for everyone. If you're interested in the experience of African-Americans in U.S. history, or just want a good coming-of-age story, you won't go wrong with this classic.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sunday Knitting

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why we swatch.

What the hell is this? Is it a sweater dress?
It is not supposed to be a sweater dress.

I think I mentioned that I didn't swatch for this, but despite my poor planning it was going fine. Honestly. It actually fit pretty well when I finished it and tried it on.

Then I washed it and blocked it. Which is why we not only make a gauge swatch, but we also wash it and block it. So we know how the finished garment may change when it, too, is washed and blocked. So there are no unfortunate surprises.

Never have I ever had a sweater grow lengthwise. They always, if anything, get wider and shorter. Oh, if only I could add some of this length to some of my too-short sweaters.

Because this, this is not flattering.

Hello, here is my enormous butt!

LESSON LEARNED.

But do you want to hear the good news? This sweater was knit from the top down, which means I can actually undo it from the bottom and rip out several inches of butt-enhancing fabric and get this craziness under control. It's a little more work, sure, but it's not the catastrophe it could have been.

Wish me luck.

Friday, August 22, 2014

How to Be a Woman

How to Be a Woman by Caitlyn Moran (2011)

How to Be a Woman was recommended by my coworker Jenny who, among her many fine qualities, is always up for a good feminist rant. This is an uncommon trait these days and one for which I am very grateful. I also know that any book about feminism she recommends is going to be worth reading.

A cover blurb from Vanity Fair calls it "The British version of Tina Fey's Bossypants" and it is quite similar, at least in spirit. Moran describes her experiences growing up in a society where women are too frequently judged by their looks and made to feel uncomfortable when they don't conform to cultural beauty standards. She recounts the awkwardness of puberty, self-deprecatingly reveals her love life, and describes the sometimes graphic physicalities of womanhood such as menstruation, childbirth, and abortion. All with her sharp sense of humor and a great deal of swearing. This is where it begins to differ from Fey's book.

This book is not for the faint of heart. Moran does not shy away from using her words, and includes a whole section in which she lists and examines all the possible names for ladyparts. One of the funniest passages - and please, look away if graphic things bother you - is in the chapter "I Become Furry!" which is all about pubic hair.

"Watch any porn made after, say, 1988, and it's all hairless down there: close-ups are like watching Daddy Warbucks, with no eyes, eating a very large, fidgety sausage."

Oh my god! I love it!

(I think it was around here, still early in the book, when I remembered that the aforementioned Jenny had picked this for a book discussion group at the library. You know, the one attended almost exclusively by 60-something ladies. I had not realized until now just how brave a choice that was.)

Another of my favorite passages - this one with less disturbing visuals - is from chapter 4, "I Am a Feminist!" Moran urges her readers to stand on a chair and shout "I AM A FEMINIST!" and does not exempt boys from this directive:

"A male feminist is one of the most glorious end-products of evolution. A male feminist should ABSOLUTELY be on the chair-- so we ladies may all toast you, in champagne, before coveting your body wildly. And maybe get you to change that lightbulb, while you're up there. We cannot do it ourselves. There is a big spiderweb on the socket."

Okay, just one more. In "I Get into Fashion!" she recounts how her quest for an investment handbag only reaffirmed that she is part of the underclass.

"If I'm honest, the handbag I would probably like most is a big hollowed-out potato with handles on it. A giant King Edward with satchel straps. Then, in times of crisis, I could bake and eat the handbag and survive the winter. That is the way of my people."

Amen, sister.

Despite how I'm presenting it, How to Be a Woman isn't just one hilarious anecdote after another. Real issues are tackled and examined. But it helps that her thoughtful commentary about the patriarchy, abortion, and role models are illustrated by real-life stories about the difficulty of buying underwear, the unwearability of high heels, and that time she got drunk with Lady Gaga. They make her points relatable as well as entertaining.

There were so many passages I wanted to remember and go back to that I have bookmarked and dog-eared this thing to death, which I'm sorry to say since it's a library book. Reading this made me feel like I was 20 again and discovering feminism for the first time, a feeling which was only heightened by attending a Tori Amos concert mid-book. It was all enough to make me want to get together with a group of my closest female friends and burn some bras while shouting "Down with patriarchy!"

In summary, if you are a woman, or love/support/appreciate women, like humor, and aren't offended easily then you should probably read this book. It will have you standing on chairs declaring to startled passersby "I AM A FEMINIST!"

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Wordy Shipmates

The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell (2008)

For those of us weak in matters of US history, mention of the Puritans conjures up a mix of images consisting of elementary school plays about Thanksgiving and scenes from The Crucible. Sarah Vowell is here to set us all straight about the early days of our nation and the people who shaped it, in an accessible style laced with wry humor.

The Wordy Shipmates is not so much a story as a really long essay, and I'll admit I struggled a bit with the format. There are no chapters (though there are breaks in the text), and I felt a bit unmoored by lack of clear organization. I like my nonfiction to be subdivided and ordered in a way that's easy for me to see where I've started and where I'm going. Here, it felt a bit like I was just drifting with the tide.

Still, for a book about Puritan thought and 17th century religious rifts, it was remarkably painless. Vowell's writing style is largely the reason why. In teaching about the political and religious views of John Winthrop, Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, and other important figures in early America she manages to invoke comparisons with the likes of Fonzie from Happy Days and Samantha from Bewitched. This is a language I can understand. Her tongue-in-cheek commentary on current society also hits home:

"Check out those barbarian idiots with their cockamamie farce of a legal system, locking people up for fishy reasons and putting their criminals to death. Good thing Americans put an end to all that nonsense long ago."

Vowell restricts herself to a pretty short period - between 1620 and 1692 - the period of the settlement of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. It's not an era with which I was familiar, and not one of extreme drama, like the Salem witch trials. But it encompasses some important discussions and disagreements that shaped the founding of America, and the philosophical rifts between many of the English settlers. Because it's so specific, it's also a manageable 250 pages.

Although I may not rush out to read another book by Sarah Vowell, I'll definitely keep them in mind. A couple of her others are more interesting to me subject-wise, such as Unfamiliar Fishes, and if I decide that I want to finally sit down and learn about the US annexation of Hawaii, Guam, and Puerto Rico, it would be most enjoyable with her brand of humor. My interest in history is not enough to get me through a dense, dry, nutritious book, but I can learn from one with a conversational tone and some humor, and do so enjoyably.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Painted Girls

The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan (2013)

Taking inspiration from the famous Degas statue The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer, Cathy Marie Buchanan tells a fictional story of the real van Goethem sisters, weaving it in with a notorious murder trial of that same period. Antoinette, Marie, and Charlotte have lost their father, and their mother is a laundress who spends most of her meager wages on absinthe. Antoinette has danced at the Paris Opera for a while, and recently found work as an extra in an Emile Zola play. Their mother decides to enroll Marie and Charlotte in the dance school as well, to earn a bit more money. Marie finds success right away and has soon been hired as a model by Edgar Degas. But the family's fortunes do not turn so easily, and as one star appears to be rising, Antoinette turns her attention away from her work and devotes herself to a boy who is soon arrested for murder.

There is something decadently Parisian about the very idea of impoverished young girls earning money through ballet. Granted, it's not much money, but usually the meager wages of the poor are from dirty jobs, like their mother's job at the laundry. Of course, there is definite unpleasantness involved in dancing, when Marie is elevated to the second quadrille and has to quit her second job at the bakery. How will she pay for her dancing supplies and extra meat now? The other girls have abonnes, older men who will shower them with gifts and money, but of course there is a price. It's enough to drive a girl to drink, which is exactly what happens to Marie.

It was difficult to watch Antoinette fall under the spell of Emile Abadie. It's an old story, though - he wooed her and made many promises, but then he was cruel, especially in front of his friends. Antoinette, as many young women before and since, ignored these cruelties and kept believing that he was just in love with her as she was with him. When he was arrested for murder, she maintained his innocence and sacrificed her job to visit him at the prison.

I was completely engrossed from this story from the very beginning. Refreshingly linear, it starts at the beginning and ends at the end, which seems a strange thing to comment on, but it's also very rare. In many cases, it works well to go back and forth in time, or rely heavily on flashbacks, but it's so overused. The only part of Buchanan's writing I found a bit odd was her expression of possessives. It was usually "the nose of Charlotte" rather than "Charlotte's nose" and I'm not sure why she chose this phrasing. It sounded very formal. Otherwise, I found the writing very descriptive and engaging. I just wanted to sit and read all day every day.

Monday, August 11, 2014

When You Reach Me

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (2009), narrated by Cynthia Holloway

It's the late 1970s and 12-year-old Miranda is receiving mysterious notes from a stranger which make no sense to her. But a lot things are mystifying her these days. Like why her friend Sal was punched by some kid right out of the blue, and then shut her out even though they've been friends their whole lives. And why someone would steal the key to her apartment and go inside, but leave all the valuables untouched. Miranda begins to realize that the notes are related to the strange things that have been happening and, stranger still, the person writing them seems to know about things that haven't happened yet.

When You Reach Me is somewhat of an homage to A Wrinkle In Time, which happens to be Miranda's favorite book. She refers to it usually just as "my book" but gives enough detail that it's obvious which book she's talking about, and eventually she does mention the title. I'm not a huge fan of A Wrinkle In Time and maybe wouldn't have read this had I realized the connection. But I'm glad I did - it's a clever story in many ways, especially in the connection to the L'Engle novel.

One of my favorite aspects of the book was the time period. There is something just a bit magical about books taking place in the late 1970s, that last bit of time when kids still had freedom. Not that Miranda and her friends were going out and having amazing adventures, but even taking a job at a sketchy sandwich shop during their school lunch breaks is something they wouldn't be able to do today.

And of course there's the $20,000 Pyramid. For those of you too young to remember, this was a game show hosted by Dick Clark, the man who didn't age. Miranda's mother will be competing on the show, and through much of the book the family is practicing at home for the big day. They are really counting on winning this money. As an added touch, the chapters take their titles from categories on the game show, like "Things That Bounce" and "Things You Keep Secret."

Middle school is, of course, a time of great drama and Miranda has her share of a typical 12-year-old's troubles. She befriends a girl who has had a falling out with her best friend, which puts her in the middle of a tense situation and means that she's now the focus of great disdain from a worldly mean girl named Julia. She also finds herself getting closer to a boy named Marcus, the very same kid who punched her friend Sal. Awkward. One of my favorite conversations was the one in which Marcus and Julia tried to explain time travel and Miranda just couldn't grasp it. (I feel your pain, Miranda. I never quite understood Back to the Future.)

I listened to the audiobook version, which was narrated by Cynthia Holloway. She sounded pretty young and did a good job with voices of various characters of all ages, though a couple of times it sounded like she briefly slipped into another character's voice. Occasionally her tone sounded a bit too lofty for our narrator, but that was just a minor, and fleeting, annoyance.

When You Reach Me has been on my to read list for a while, and in fact the only reason I finally got to it is because I chose it for the TBR Pile Challenge. While not a favorite, I enjoyed this short, clever book and the childhood nostalgia it evoked.