“The Orphan Master’s Son” by Adam Johnson

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What’s it about?

Heartbreaking, beautifully crafted and surprisingly funny, this novel tells the story of everyman Pak Jun Do’s life in North Korea. Split into two parts, the first section focuses on Jun Do’s formative years and is an adventure through the underclass of North Korea. The novel begins with Jun Do’s story as an orphan and follows him through various adventures as he fails upwards from one career to the next, from military training and fighting in dark combat tunnels, to undercover missions to kidnap Japanese beachgoers and translating intercepted radio transmissions aboard a fishing vessel. The book certainly takes a few bizarre turns but it is never short of entertaining. The second part focuses in on the capital Pyongyang with the life of our protagonist taking an interesting twist, he gets up close with North Korea’s only actress, the military elite and even Dear Leader himself.

Worth reading because:

A crazy mix of a dystopian future, coming of age drama, eclectic thriller and undying love story, this original novel is told partly (and amusingly) through the loud speakers of the North Korean regime and it was the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner for Fiction. It’s an absolute page-turner and at 464 pages is no slim feat, but I barely noticed all those pages racing by as I devoured it word by delicious word.

Any other books by this author worth reading?

I haven’t read any other books by Adam Johnson but for those fascinated by North Korea and perhaps wanting to sift through what is and isn’t fictionalised in The Orphan Master’s Son, The Guardian suggests a few non-fiction works such as The Aquariums of Pyongyang, about a nine-year-old boy sent to a camp or Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick which tells the stories of six residents of Chongjin, I’ll be reading the latter very soon.

Choice Cuts:

When the dogs returned, the Senator gave them treats from his pocket, and Jun Do understood that in communism, you’d threaten a dog into compliance, while in capitalism, obedience is obtained through bribes.

The loudspeakers called the famine an Arduous March, but that voice was piped in from Pyongyang. Jun Do had never heard anyone in Chongjin call it that. What was happening to them didn’t need a name-it was everything, every fingernail you chewed and swallowed, every lift of an eyelid, every trip to the latrine where you tried to shit out wads of balled sawdust.

Real stories like this, human ones, could get you sent to prison, and it didn’t matter what they were about. It didn’t matter if the story was about an old woman or a squid attack—if it diverted emotion from the Dear Leader, it was dangerous.

Delicious.

What did you think of The Orphan Master’s Son?

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“Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe

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When I chose to read this book I knew nothing about it and had never heard of it. I found it one day when browsing through The Book Cover Archive and loved the artwork above and the title which is taken from a Yeats poem, so I  judged this book by it’s cover and decided to read it. Subsequently, blind reading like this has become one of my favourite ways to read a book, I rarely read the blubs first or know much about them, I love just diving into a big black and white, text filled hole and allowing the author to surprise and transport me. This can be a fairly safe bet when reading a classic or something from a top 100 list but a bit scary when reading a new author or the latest publisher push, so my hot tip is to download the free sample to your Kindle, you get about 30 minutes worth of reading of the book, then you can choose whether to purchase it and continue reading or just delete it if it’s not enticing you.

What’s it about?

This is a novel about the collision between colonialism, christianity and traditional cultures. It is set in the late nineteenth century in a fictional village in Nigeria, and follows the life of Okonkwo, a well-respected member of his clan. It describes his family, customs, society and history culminating in the inevitable influence of the British Colonialists and their Christian Missionaries.

Worth reading because:

It’s an absolute classic of fiction for both African and 20th Century literature and it is one of the first novels about Nigeria written by a Nigerian to recieve worldwide critical acclaim. It’s interesting and sad and lovely and thought provoking. You’ll eat it up because it’s an easy read and you’ll feel something in the process. It’s the kind of book that once you finish reading, you’ll be calling your friends to tell them to read it.

Any other books by this author worth reading?

I read this many years ago and so I am ashamed to say that I haven’t read anything else by Chinua Achebe yet, but there is a sequel to Things Fall Apart called No Longer At Ease, so I plan to sink my teeth into that soon and then follow on with many of his other fiction and non-fiction works.

Choice Cuts:

The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.

 If you don’t like my story,write your own

It always surprised him when he thought of it later that he did not sink under the load of despair.

Delicious.

Did you enjoy reading Things Fall Apart?