Review: The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

Like everyone else, I read through the surge in articles after Kim Jong Il’s death to learn more about his cult of personality with morbid fascination. The North Korean propaganda machine perpetuates such myths as Kim Jong Il being a demi-god able to control the weather with his mood, or North Korea being the envy of the world for its prosperity and efficiency. It does not mention North Korea’s grotesque human rights violations or painfully tight media or how these deficiencies cast it in a terrible light to the rest of the world (naturally). What makes this novel difficult is that the reader cannot evaluate what is culturally accurate and what is creative license due to the dearth of information on daily life in North Korea. The best writers fit fictional events seamlessly into actual locations, but North Korea is not an unremarkable backdrop — it steals the scene as much as any character. Adam Johnson, an American associate professor at Stanford, visited North Korea in 2007 (an interview about this visit’s impact on the novel can be found here). read more

Review: Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

If you have read Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, you’ve read a book enormously similar to her more recent Shanghai Girls. In Shanghai Girls, the girls are natural sisters instead of close friends; the horrifying foot-binding is swapped for a horrifying gang rape; and the two girls talk out their gross misunderstanding amidst much carnage at the novel’s close. From this, you’d probably think I didn’t like this book and you’d be half right. It’s an absorbing read, but an ugly one. I recommended Perfume in spite of its ugliness, but this is a different sort of ugliness. It’s an accumulation of unpleasant events rather than a thorough investigation of an unpleasant character. Pearl and May (the two sisters) hit a run of serious bad luck and there is one event in their chain of bad luck that pushes it over the edge into ‘too much’ because it feels out of character for the participants. Picture Oliver Twist if it had ended when Bill Sykes caned Nancy: an oppressive downer. read more

Review: Look At Me by Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan is exceptionally talented. As much carping as I’ve done about poorly written books, you’d think I’d curl up with the words of a brilliant author in a ball of contentment. But this book fails in execution; the best example is to compare it to the movie 300: the slow-mo battle sequences are bad@$$ and necessary (how else would you be able to discern every nuance of Leonidas’ awesomeness?), but too many lesser scenes in slo-mo dilute the overall effect. By the time the viewer sees the Queen walking in slo-mo (again) and dipping her hands in a fountain, they cease to be transfixed and begin to ponder that eternal question of the modern cinematic age: how long would 300 be without slo-mo? read more