This month, Abby reaches back to the relatively recent past for two books you may have missed. And if you did, both are worth your attention!
THE ORPHAN MASTER’S SON
by Adam Johnson, 2012
There are many books I’ve loved, many writers I’ve admired, some whose talent has been awe-inspiring. But it’s not often that I read a novel wondering “how the hell did he/she do that?” This is one of those times. How did Adam Johnson imagine his way into the dystopia of Kim Jong-Il’s North Korea and create a world so real to the reader that when Americans show up, they seem oddly alien?
The book is darkly comic and desperately sad, always teetering on the brink of complete absurdity but true in its heartbreaking depiction of people just trying to survive the stories of their lives that the state has determined for them.
“Where we are from . . . stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.”
In the first part of the book, the protagonist, Pak Jun Do, is plucked from the orphanage run by his father and becomes a fighter in the tunnels under the demilitarized zone, then a kidnapper, a spy at sea intercepting radio transmissions, and, when a mission to Texas goes hilariously wrong, a prisoner in a mining camp. In part two, the picaresque gives way to intrigue and romance among the upper echelons and the Dear Leader himself as Jun Do evolves from a tool of the state to a man determined to fashion his own story.
This is a remarkable accomplishment, at once compellingly readable and scarily disorienting. It is every bit as good as its Pulitzer Prize (2012) would suggest.
THE GOOD LORD BIRD
by James McBride, 2013
James McBride walks a fine line in the National Book Award-winning (2013) The Good Lord Bird. Treating tragic and painful historical events with humor is risky business. His subject is John Brown and the failed raid on the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry in 1861. Brown was a zealot whose plan to free the slaves bordered on lunacy but McBride succeeds in humanizing him in a rollicking romp of a story that is both irreverent and historically astute.
The narrator is Henry Shackleford, a twelve-year-old slave mistaken for a girl and swept up by “the Captain” to become his good-luck charm in the war against slavery. Henry/Henrietta is a wonderful character who doesn’t understand John Brown’s religious zeal and doesn’t want any part of war but figures out how to survive both.
“I couldn’t make head nor tails of what he was saying, for I was to learn that Old John Brown could work the Lord into just about any aspect of his comings and goings in life, including using the privy. That’s one reason I weren’t a believer, having been raised by my Pa, who was a believer and a lunatic, and them things seemed to run together. But it weren’t my place to argue with a white man, especially one who was my kidnapper, so I kept my lips closed.”
Henry lives for a time in a whorehouse, falls in love twice, escapes the clutches of Frederick Douglass, meets Harriet Tubman, and plays a role in “hiving” (recruiting) Negroes to the cause. He comes to know Brown as a “good, kind lunatic,” a man as unique as the rare bird of the title – a bird “so pretty that when man sees it, he says ‘Good Lord.’” The portrayal of John Brown — both hero and fool – is a great accomplishment, as is this brilliantly entertaining amalgam of history and imagination.
A lifelong book nut, Abby retired from a forty-year computer software career in 2007 and ticked an item off her bucket list by going to work in a bookstore. She is a native New Yorker who moved to Boston recently to be among her people: family and Red Sox fans. She is a music lover, crossword puzzler, baseball fan, and political junkie who flunked Halloween costumes but can debug her daughter’s wifi.