Whoops. It looks like, between our early September travels and the various changes I made to the site last month, I never posted my list of August books. My bad. Here they are, to be followed shortly by my September list.
30 – VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave – Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman, Alan Hunter, and Martha Quinn with Gavin Edwards.
I knew before reading this, from the reviews, that it wasn’t considered to be nearly as good as I Want My MTV, the oral history of the glory days of MTV I read last year. But that didn’t mean I was going to skip this oral history of and by four of the five the original MTV VJ’s.1
It’s not nearly as complete as I Want My MTV, is a much quicker read, and at times comes across as self-serving. But there’s plenty of good trivia and anecdotes in it. Summer’s over, but this would be a fine book for a 40-something to think of next summer when the pools are open again.
31 – NOS4A2 – Joe Hill.
I’ve read no author more in my life than Stephen King2. A quick glance tells me I’ve read at least 26 of his books over the years. Despite my love for King’s work, I’ve never sampled the output of the rest of his family. His wife Tabitha and his sons Owen King and Joe Hill are each novelists. Nothing about their work ever drew me to it. Until I heard the buzz for Hill’s novel NOS4A2 over the summer. The word on the street was that Hill captured the spirit of some of his dad’s classic works, so I jumped in.
Good move. NOS4A2 indeed resembles some of Papa King’s most creepy novels. There are the kids with special powers. There are portals to parallel worlds, or at least through time to different places in our world. There are incidents of gory violence. And it all gets combined into a quest. Oh, and it’s a big, fat book that will keep you turning pages.
But Hill does all this without ripping his dad off. There are certainly elements of his writing that feel familiar. But the voice is just different enough, tweaked slightly from his father’s, that Hill can stand on his own. He’s not as polished as his dad, but the book is quite good.
The thing that really struck me about the book was reading it as a parent. I read most of King’s creepier books back when I was in college, or shortly thereafter. The creepy characters who preyed on kids were just creepy. But reading that kind of story as a father is a different experience. It was tough to make it through some sections without thinking about it being my girls who were threatened rather than some abstract, imaginary characters. Unsettling to be sure, but I think that’s kind of the point of horror writing: to sneak up behind you, yell “BOO!” and scare you a bit.
32 – The Orphan Master’s Son – Adam Johnson.
Each time I open a new book, whether it came recommended by someone else, I read glowing reviews of it online, or I just skimmed the back cover and it seemed interesting, I’m hoping I’ll be diving into an unforgettable book. One that I will love as I’m reading it, not want to end, and recall fondly after I’m done with it. Being entertained is the primary goal. But I always want it to be a classic.
And here we have a classic. It is a book that, in many, many ways, reminded me of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, one of my all-time favorites. Like Kavaier and Clay it is sprawling, both in time and in the range of its main character’s life. It centers on Pak Jun Do, a North Korean boy who believes that, unlike the other boys at his orphanage, he has a father, the master of the orphanage. That belief gives him the power to escape the home that grinds up so many of the boys he grows up with until they die.
Through talent, circumstance, luck, and simple twist of fate, he zig-zags through life, graduating from the orphanage to digging tunnels to South Korea. Then, he is recruited to kidnap unsuspecting civilians from isolated Japanese beaches. Next, he moves on to work as an intelligence officer, monitoring the world’s radio bands from a fishing trawler. After earning Hero of the State status on the boat, he joins a diplomatic mission to the United States, where he meets with CIA operatives and a US Senator. When that mission fails to bring home what Dear Leader Kim Jong Il requires, he is sent to North Korea’s most notorious labor camp. But there he bests Kim Jong Il’s chief rival in combat, escapes, and takes his vanquished’s identity, wife and children as his own. Finally, he sacrifices his own freedom and life so that others can be free.
There’s nothing small about the book. But as Michael Chabon did with Kavalier and Clay, Johnson makes every bit of The Orphan Master’s Son engaging and memorable. It’s brilliantly written. Setting the story in a closed society is both a blessing and a curse. Johnson is free to make his North Korea however he wishes, since we know next to nothing about what goes on there. But the highly militarized, regimented, and pathetically poor society also makes it difficult to go too big when creating the fictional North Korea. I love Johnson’s choices, though. Much of the book has a lightness which was unexpected. And the characters don’t talk like stilted, stereotypical Asians. They talk just as we Westerners do. These are normal people who are sarcastic, cynical, understand the world they live in, and full of life. And I love the three narrator approach, especially the one which is a serialization of key elements of our story that are being broadcast to every North Korean.
This is a beautiful, funny, heart-breaking, and absolutely brilliant book. It is no wonder that it won the Pulitzer Price for best fiction. It’s now in my pantheon of favorite books.