Audiobook Review: The Orphan Master’s Son

Have you ever wondered, even a little bit, about the mysterious land of The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea? I mean, what is with all of that darkness? It is really necessary to have a designated demilitarized zone? What the heck was Kim Jung Ill’s problem? Is it REALLY the most Democratic country on EARTH?

I have been sitting here wracking my brain trying to figure out exactly what it was about this book that made it so enjoyable for me since it was actually filled with such oppression, sadness, and human rights violations that to say that I “enjoyed” it seems cruel– maybe FASCINATING is the better word to use! And story telling at its finest– I could not put it down. It tells of events and living conditions that fits in with some of the most “sad but true” stories out there. I realize that this is a work of fiction but it seems that Adam Johnson has done his research and much of this haunting story is based on fact. Bottom line: Communism is CREEPY and leaders with absolute and TOTAL carte blanche power cannot be anything but corrupt. Especially when his all encompassing influence it is being presented “for the good of the people” and as a means for the country’s own “self-reliance”.

The story takes place in 2 parts. The first part introduces you to Pak Jun-Do, a boy who lives in an orphanage with his father (The Orphan Master). Jun Do is constantly insisting that he is NOT an orphan, although he has an orphan’s name and lives an orphan’s life (in the DPRK this means going to work in the mines at a young age, being selected for “special assignments” for the military, learning “skills” such as pain tolerance, kidnapping and radio transmission interception). He lives a fairly sad and lonely life until he finds himself a makeshift family on a “fishing boat” where he eventually must sacrifice his arm to a shark to save face following an American Navy boarding that results in the removal of the mandatory portrait of “The Dear Leader”, Kim Jung Ill. His “heroism” leads to his involvement in a re-con mission to Texas which leads to a series of events that will further complicate his already complicated life. (Wow! lots of “quotations”– in the DPRK things are not always what they seem).

In the second part Jun-Do has assumed the identity of the Minister of Prison Mines, Commander Ga– a known adversary of “The Dear Leader” himself! He is allowed to step right into Commander Ga’s life, a strange world of tai-quan-do, forbidden American movies and a beautiful wife (North Korea’s own national actress, Sun-Moon). This part of the story tells of Jun-Do and his involvement with Sun-Moon and is told from 3 different perspectives– the first is Jun-Do (as Commander Ga)’s own recollection as he sits in a Pyongyang torture prison; the second is his interrogator/torturer’s version as he tries to put the pieces of Commander Ga’s story together (the interrogator believes that the time of torture lies in the past and prefers to think of himself as a “biographer” rather than a “torturer”); the third is the party rhetoric that plays from the propaganda spewing loud-speaker that tells “The Dear Leader’s” version of the events leading up to the disappearance of the people’s beloved actress, Sun-Moon (presented as North Korea’s most winningest story).

This book provides a glance into some of the dark human rights atrocities of the DPRK (replacement husbands, famine, torture, free blood for transfusions that are taken from prisoners as a means of execution, loud speakers installed in every home and public place which constantly blare propaganda about “The Dear Leader”‘s fatherly love, the price to pay for disloyalty, fear mongering by implying the possibility of American “sneak attacks”, random removal of citizens from city streets so that they can be transported to the country to harvest rice crops, orphan children assigned to do the most dangerous of jobs since no family will miss them anyways, the necessity of eating flowers and insects to prevent starvation in a country that proclaims self reliance, electric shock machines that force people to tell “the truth” (The Autopilot), the mandatory “retirement” of North Korea’s elderly, botulism suicides). The story of Jun Do, Sun-Moon, “The Dear Leader” and North Korea will be with you LONG after you have finished reading. A 5 star read for me!

“To me,” Jun Do said, “what everybody gets wrong about ghosts is the notion that they’re  dead. In my experience ghosts are made up only of the living. People you know are out there but are forever out of range.”

A note about the Audiobook: This was one of those audiobooks that was just wonderful in its presentation– there were 3 narrators, one for Jun Do’s stories in both sections, one for the interrogator’s investigation and one for the propaganda spewing loud-speaker. Kim Jung Ill was presented as the caricature that he was– ever the puppet master, fascinated but at the same time intimidated by Americans and their ways. It was the type of audiobook that made you take the long way home so that you could keep listening! There was also an interesting Afterward with the author where he explained a bit about his research into the weird world of the DPRK. So interesting!

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Review: Past Imperfect

Let me begin by saying that I love Downton Abbey.  Love it.  Can’t get enough.  My complete adoration for all things Downton was the reason I nearly tripped over myself in my local library when I came across this title.

A story about two ex-chums from University, one of whom is now massively wealthy and dying; the other is moderately successful and bitter….. and the first bloke summons the second bloke to locate his love child from decades prior, so he can make this unsuspecting offspring his sole heir?

Well, get me a cup of tea, cause I’m hunkering down for this!

50 pages in….

Hm.  This is a little dull.

120 pages in….

That’s odd.  The story seems to be meandering.

175 pages in….

I’m reading this book, but am thinking about what’s next on my to-read shelf.

210 pages in…..

”Google…… Julian Fellowes…… books published……”  Nope.  Same person.

250 pages in…..

I’m OVER the British debutantes, the pining for aristocracy, the missed opportunities, and the continuous teases for a massive, earth shattering spectacle.  (“Spectacle,” being the official day years back, when the friendship between these two men came to a screeching halt.  By this point, I’m thinking that one gent must have set the other on fire.)

320 pages in…..

Is skimming an option?

End of the book….

Staring at the last page, stunned, wondering what just happened.  That was it?

What grew particularly tiresome for me was the “imperfect” handling of women in this book.  The female characters were drawn so lightly that I couldn’t connect.  Their male counterparts were detached.   Combined, they were a group of trite socialites.

Very few Englishmen ever ask women anything about themselves.  They choose instead to lecture their dinner neighbors on a new and better route to the M5, or to praise their own professional achievements.  So if a man does express any curiosity about the woman sitting next to him, about her feelings, about the life she is leading, she will generally tell him anything he cares to know.

I’m afraid this perspective left me cold.

The book’s premise had great allure, and there’s no question that Fellowes can spin a delicious yarn.  His talent for writing is evident with Downton.  Past Imperfect, however, was a disappointment.  I’ve heard that his book Snobs was much more entertaining; perhaps I started with the wrong story.  I wish very much that I felt differently toward Past Imperfect, but alas….. the mere promise of a story can’t carry the weight of a dry read.

I do plan on reading Snobs, eventually.  It will be a short spell before I do, however, as I just need a little break from England’s upper class.  Sorry, Mr. Fellowes.

2 stars.

Review: The Lost Saints of Tennessee

If you want to read yourself some good ol’ southern literature, done just right like in Pat Conroy style, pick yourself up The Lost Saints of Tennessee.

This book took a hold of me from the very start with all that sorrow, sadness, and suffering, bitter betrayal, the stuff that is so “good” when it comes from the south. It’s a tale of two brothers that are so close it aches and how the other’s life crumbles to pieces when the other dies. It’s a book that delivers all that heart ache Conroy can wrench from you, and Ms. Franklin-Willis has achieved the same.

I added The Lost Saints of Tennessee to my To Be Read pile(s) and then found it sitting there in the “Look What’s New” section of the library. On the front cover was an endorsement by Pat Conroy himself:

A riveting, hardscrabble book on the rough hardscrabble south, which has rarely been written about with such grace and compassion.

I was sold that much more and scooped it up immediately. And sure enough, just as Conroy says, I too was riveted from the very beginning.

This story is about three people, it is narrated by two, Ezekiel and Lillian, but at the heart and soul of this story is Ezekiel’s twin brother, Carter. Oh your heart will break for Carter. Trust me there. Ezekiel and Lillian share narration starting in 1985 (present day) and going back to 1960 alternatively, with Ezekiel bearing the most of the narration or providing the largest point of view.

First of all, there is Carter to explain: Carter and Ezekiel were only toddlers when they contracted measles. Carter however suffered more and the end result was brain damage, rendering him with mental retardation. Carter dies from drowning in 1975.

Ezekiel:Ezekiel is Carter’s twin and had devoted his life to his care and well-being. He is completely unable to get over the death of his beloved twin ten years prior. His marriage has failed, his relationship with his mother has deteriorated to the point that it is irreparable. Ezekiel was the son with the most promise, a scholarship to the University of Virginia sees him separated from Carter and following a viscious incident, Lillian feels he must be institutionalized. “Throwing Carter away” is how Ezekiel describes it and this act is something he has never forgiven his mother for. In the month of the 10 year anniversary, Ezekiel decides to “run away” and attempts to repair his shattered life in the place he spent his short time in Virginia. You feel for Ezekiel, a lot, but those same questions keep coming from everyone: why can’t you love us? Why did you leave us? But he needs time, still, needs so much time to get over his grief over Carter.

Don’t you go off into that shut-down world of yours where nobody can go.

Lillian: a simple, yet very eloquent woman coming to terms with the end of her life and also the loss of her “life” as she wished it to be. She has cared for her son labelled “retarded” after surviving the measles at a very young age. Tired out, worn down and unable to cope with the additional care required for Carter, she makes the decision to institutionalize Carter and keep this decision from Ezekiel while he’s away at university. Now nearing the end of her life, she recounts her side of the story. It is brief, but it’s all good.

This is Franklin-Willis’ debut novel and I will definitely be looking forward to reading more from her! She invites you to poke around her website here.  Another awesome treat when visiting her site? She had a friend record 9 songs for her based on chapters, themes and characters in The Lost Saints of Tenneesee. You can listen to some here.

Franklin-Willis received an Emerging Writer Grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation to complete this novel (imagine that! Ms. George, as y’all know, is an amazing favourite of mine!). Elizabeth George has this to say about The Lost Saints of Tennessee and it echoes my feelings well:

The  Lost Saints of Tennessee is a joy—a wonderful,  heartbreaking, and  ultimately uplifting story about the unbreakable  bonds of brotherhood  and the human will to survive. I was deeply moved  by it and equally  impressed.  I loved this book.

This book definitely gets the Literary Hoarders stamp of approval. It will not disappoint!

Audiobook Review: The Weight of Water

Following my post for Sea Glass by Anita Shreve and where I made the comment this being my first Shreve book, a recommendation (thanks Mrs. P!) to read “The Weight of Water”  was made, for it was one of the best books she ever read.  Well, of course, we’re aren’t the type to turn down a recommendation like that! And lo and behold, our public library had it available in audiobook.

Anita Shreve’s writing is like a gift to us wouldn’t you say? Like poetry, her simple and sometimes brisk words can convey such emotion, detail and meaning so exquisitely. I almost fell in to a trance each day listening to this superb story.

The Weight of Water is actually an interwoven tale of two women, more than a century apart, each ultimately undone by their resentment and jealousy.

The contemporary story concerns Jean, she is on a photography assignment to sail to Smuttynose Island, off the coast of New Hampshire and Maine so she can photograph the scene of a murder that took place on that island 150 years earlier. Jean sails with her husband and daughter, sailing with his brother and the brother’s girlfriend. The tension in the close quarters of the people on the boat is revealed to the reader immediately through the description of the tight and cramped space and tight conversational exchanges. Jean suspects her husband is having an affair with his brother’s girlfriend. The point where Jean first clues in to this possibility is where I found Shreve’s beautiful ability to pinpoint with certainty the most believable emotion and tension. It was, perhaps, my favourite part during the contemporary part of the story. Jean is overcome by her jealousy of Adeline and in a moment during a fierce storm, her jealousy pushes her to an event which results in a devestating and life-altering mistake.

The historical story, (the best part of this story, in my opinion, and based on real events) is in regards to murders of two women on Smuttynose which occurred in 1873, and is revealed through the memoir of Maren Hontvet (the sole survivor) and also through trial transcripts. Jean becomes engrossed in this memoir, which has never been found before, and is written in Maren’s hand and provides a detailed account of how she came to leave Norway, leave her beloved brother and older sister and come to the Isles of Shoals with her new husband.  One night, while the men were fishing and couldn’t get home, two of the women in the house were murdered with an ax, one is found the next morning hiding in a cave. (The house is the only one on the island.)

Jean would take from the archives a file from the library’s unorganized archival collection–it is this file which contains the truth about the murders, as recounted by Maren. Here, Shreve does a marvelous job of capturing the essence and sparseness of Maren’s arrival and her new life in the 1870s, and of the immigrant experience upon first arrival to this island of rock. The story unfolds with Maren’s summary of her upbringing in Norway and her life on Smuttynose up to and ultimately including the night of the murders.

I must say you do begin to predict how it is going to end, this does not come as a shocking twist, but this is not the point of it, it is simply the flow and beauty of the language Shreve uses and the history and story as told by Maren that is exquisite and so filled with emotion. I enjoyed every moment of it. A very satisfying read. 4 stars.

You can read real accounts of the murders here and here.

The Hontvet House on Smuttynose Island