Roach is a very entertaining, efficient science writer -- funny and clear and a font of well-researched oddities. This book, all about the dead, is...Roach is a very entertaining, efficient science writer -- funny and clear and a font of well-researched oddities. This book, all about the dead, is...lively.
She has a good sense of when not to try too hard to be funny, which so many other would-be comic writers don't have. I especially appreciate her understatement: after several pages of describing various efforts to transplant dog (and other) heads onto other dog (or other) bodies, she drops a "Here is where it begins to get strange" (209). Begins?
This book is full of strange: experiments, theories, people, facts. The first three chapters, about medical training on cadavers ("A Head Is a Terrible Thing to Waste") and body-snatchers and a visit to the decay-fields where forensic science gets its data, and the last two, about alternate concepts for burial and the self-explanatory "Remains of the Author", are my favorites here. I was less impressed by "Eat Me", about "medical cannibalism and the case of the human dumplings", mainly because of a digressive segment that I wanted to end. But it's all well written and fun. If discussion of decomposition is fun. I think it can be. If you don't, this is probably not the book for you.
Check your squeamishness, and check out the body-snatchers and the crash-test dummies!...more
After I complained -- lightly, because I find Child's Reacher novels consistently mesmerizing -- that I was looking for a Reacher that was as good atAfter I complained -- lightly, because I find Child's Reacher novels consistently mesmerizing -- that I was looking for a Reacher that was as good at the end as it was through its first half, my buddy gave me this one. It's a great choice, but maybe not for the reason he picked it.
This has all the features of the Reacher formula: the pace, the character, the tension, the mystery, the action, the expertise, the hardboiled dialogue, the American loner. It adds a brilliantly believable look at the Secret Service in its story of the efforts to protect the vice president-elect from an assassin; in this, I think this book became my favorite in the series, although I still have a soft spot for The Affair.
But the slowing into the denouement (logical though it undeniably was) still gnawed at me, and the ending -- although better than the over-the-top apocalypse that ends Make Me, for example -- still jabbed at my suspension-of-disbelief organs. Without Fail drew my attention to the classic Child sentence, "Reacher said nothing" and its mate, "[insert proper noun or group pronoun here] said nothing," which I appreciated until it became a case of going-to-the-well-too-often.
I quibble. It took me three days to read this only because I forced myself to slow down. Another great book from the master of the beach read. Take several Jack Reachers on vacation; each one won't last you long....more
From early on, it became clear that this book was less subtle than its daringly named predecessor, On Bullshit. The two are linked, of course, and FraFrom early on, it became clear that this book was less subtle than its daringly named predecessor, On Bullshit. The two are linked, of course, and Frankfurt works his way into a discussion of why we should care about Truth through its famous/infamous cousin topic, Bullshit. It is not until the last two chapters, however -- especially the clever commentary about Shakespeare's Sonnet 138, "My love swears that she is made of truth", and its deceiving/accepting lovers -- that this volume rises to the compelling level of its cousin volume.
Frankfurt is a good writer who is interested in using plain language to address weighty philosophical issues, but this book doesn't go as far as the other one to get its reader to enjoy the philosophical weight....more
A solid Spenser, with his fullest articulation of The Code (so far) at the end. Boston does love the Sawx, so this baseball-based story to be done welA solid Spenser, with his fullest articulation of The Code (so far) at the end. Boston does love the Sawx, so this baseball-based story to be done well, and it is....more
While I suppose that a novel about North Korea by an American could be sneered at as cultural appropriation, it is hard to feel anything but admiration for this daring, challenging novel and its headlong plunge into the human condition. Anyway, I tend to find Kim Jong-un's* book reviews to be turgid and pedantic.
Johnson apparently spent six years researching North Korea, and he seems to be an extremely adept researcher. His North Korea is richly detailed, thoroughly believable (down to "Speed Battle", the name for the "#7 haircut"), and eminently terrifying. But the story is more than a mere evocation of North Korean characters in the North Korean state. Consider, for example, this scene, which takes place when the everyman protagonist, Jun Do (clever Koreanization of "John Doe"), is on a plane to the U.S. with two comrades, on a mission to confront a Texas senator:
When Buc was gone, Dr. Song turned to Jun Do. "Where we are from," he said, "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 a story are in conflict, it is the man who must change." Here, Dr. Song took a sip of juice, and the finger he lifted trembled slightly. "But in America, people's stories change all the time. In America, it is the man that matters. Perhaps they will believe your story and perhaps not, but you, Jun Do, they will believe you." (121-122)
At first, this commentary seems to be a simple critique of the dictatorship's propaganda, but in context, it is much more than that. Jun Do, who grew up in an orphanage -- always insisting that he was not an orphan but the orphan master's son, unrecognized as such for a variety of reasons beyond his control -- takes on a life very different from the one that he had been leading, having been launched into almost unparalleled opportunity and risk. It is the American Dream, North Korea-style, and its distortions and illusion resound. He's a Gatsby, an impostor who is more real than the rest.
There is nothing indifferent about this patient "revelation" of a North Korean dystopia so real that it could only be fiction. The idea of story, and of the conflict between personal and the state, arises many times, always embedded in rich loam of story. The captain of the fishing boat on which Jun Do serves says bluntly, "They [the state] only care about the story we're going to tell, and that story will be useful to them or it won't" (63), and they proceed to try to design an escape from the doom that the ominous "won't" casts upon the scene. In Texas, when Jun Do is cared for by the Senator's wife and Wanda, an American agent/contractor, asks him "Do you feel free? Do you know what free feels like?" He thinks,
How to explain his country to her, he wondered. How to explain that leaving its confines to sail upon the Sea of Japan--that was being free. Or that as a boy, sneaking from the smelter floor for an hour to run with other boys int he slag heaps, even though there were guards everywhere, because there were guards everywhere--that was the purest freedom. How to make someone understand that the scorch-water they made from the rice burned to the bottom of the pot tasted better than any Texas lemonade? (154)
The interlacing of Jun Do's story with that of Sun Moon, the actress with her own tragedies to endure, gives Johnson range in which to leverage the ideas of scripting and identity-blurring. After a conversation about her new script, about which she laments, "There is no twist. The plot is the same as all the others. I endure and endure and the movie ends," he tells her that he finds her movies "inspiring. And your acting shows people that good can come from suffering, that it can be noble. That's better than the truth" (285). In this, and in cases like when Dr. Song unironically reminds the Texans of the old North Korean proverb Ask not what the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea can do for you; ask what you can do for Democratic People's Republic of North Korea (132), we are first tempted to laugh at the gullibility and the propaganda before we sink into the contemplation of the sincerity and urgency -- and the desperate need.
There are also interludes in other voices, which throw the narrative out of sequence, to considerable effect. Best among these are the usually short ones in the voice of a disembodied state propagandist. Again, these are funny in their intensity and clipped jargon while also enhancing the portrayal of the characters in the third-person narratives that focus on Jun Do. One in particular earned my plaudits: probably the funniest sex scene I've ever encountered in a book, all the better because it is all couched in propagandist metaphor (292)...and because a previous chapter had alerted us with clunky authenticity to the fact that we should be alert to the fact that this risky scene was coming.
Funny as it can be, this is a very serious novel. When Dear Leader Kim Jong-il considers how to activate Stockholm Syndrome to get a kidnapped American to fall in love with him -- but do it very quickly -- it is simultaneously ridiculous and menacingly dark. The fact that the funny and the serious come so neatly paired is testimony to Johnson's ability. When "Commander Ga's" wife screams and weeps histrionically and Buc asks Ga "What happened?" he replies "I told her the truth about something." "You've got to stop doing that," replies his friend. "It's bad for people's health" (301).
Indeed, this novel is a profound examination of humanity and freedom and individualism and ownership and connection and especially identity much more than it has anything meaningful to say about North Korea or the U.S., and that's a very good thing.
* The central antagonist of this novel, Kim's father Kim Jong-il, died around the same time that the novel was released -- good publicity for Johnson! I'm sure Kim Jong-il would have found it horrifying, and that he would certainly expect his son to take over the task as chief propagandist against any disparagement, real or imagined, of the People's Democratic Republic of Korea....more
In 2012, when the Pulitzer committee refused to grant a Prize (very readable two-part commentary by juror Michael Cunningham here), my interest in theIn 2012, when the Pulitzer committee refused to grant a Prize (very readable two-part commentary by juror Michael Cunningham here), my interest in the conflict between literary merit and popularity intensified. When I recorded my thoughts about that year's finalist, Swamplandia!, I agreed that female coming-of-age stories were needed, but that the Russell novel wasn't an exquisite enough effort, despite (or perhaps because of) trying very hard. Karen Thompson Walker's Age of Miracles comes closer.
Like 2015 Pulitzer winner All the Light You Cannot See and Station Eleven and 2011 winner A Visit from the Goon Squad, Walker's book starts with something that any truly great one should have: broadly accessible readability. One need not know anything about literature to enjoy this novel, which clicks along mesmerizingly, like the aforementioned trio.
Also like those three -- and perhaps most like Goon Squad -- the novel plays deftly with time, in a literal (obviously) but also a thematic way. Earth's day lengthens, and peri-apocalypse California life seems to drift not frantically but as through a liquid suspension. (Note to self: finish reading The Flame Alphabet, which this reminded me of in several ways.) "But doesn't every previous era feel like fiction once it's gone?" (89) muses Julia, the then-tween who reflects back on that off-kilter era as narrator. And soon thereafter, as her world spins out of control:
One thing that strikes me when I recall that period of time is just how rapidly we adjusted. What had been familiar once became less and less so. How extraordinary it would seem to us eventually that our sun once set as predictably as clockwork. And how miraculous it would soon seem that I was once a happier girl, less lonely and less shy.
But I guess every bygone era takes on a shade of myth. (102)
Thompson's writing is more mature than in the typical good YA novel I half-expected this to be. This is not a YA novel, although a sharp, thoughtful middle-schooler might well love it. Thompson's mode is pensive and understated, and it seems fitting at every turn. The promotional phrase "coming-of-age novel" has come to be a warning for me; this was one of the recent ones I most enjoyed. Indeed, I can see it earning a spot as a high-school summer read staple before long. The narrator's penchant for bald foreshadowing (that's not even the right word -- more like "signposting") jabbed at me a bit, but in the final accounting it made sense. This also felt like something around which teachers (note to self: be one of those teachers) could construct an excellent interdisciplinary literature/science course.
My highest praise for the novel is this: every time I put it dowm after a bout of reading, time felt vertiginously out of joint in my world, just as I was reading about in Julia's. Thompson has unpretentiously done something slightly magical. Only slightly, but (a) that was her aim and (b) that in itself is vanishingly rare.
Yes, this is, at last, a high quality work of both seriousness and page-turning comfort. It wasn't the best novel of 2012-13, so I don't mind that it didn't earn Pulitzer cachet, but something tells me it will be around for a long time....more
The clothing is outrageous -- who the hell told 1974 it could wear that stuff? -- but the dialogue is snappy, the book clips along, and we get to meetThe clothing is outrageous -- who the hell told 1974 it could wear that stuff? -- but the dialogue is snappy, the book clips along, and we get to meet Susan Silverman for the first time. Great Boston-iana for the Hub-lovers out there, too....more