Johnson’s novel The Orphan Master’s Son deserves placement on a short list of contemporary masterpieces that may include such memorable works, to name...moreJohnson’s novel The Orphan Master’s Son deserves placement on a short list of contemporary masterpieces that may include such memorable works, to name a few, as Morrison’s Beloved, McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Robinson’s Gilead, and Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The measure of great literature, for me, is its ability to be life-affirming. By challenging our intellectual foundation and unseating our moral capacity, Johnson offers us a terrifying glimpse of life inside North Korea that alters our understanding about the extent of human atrocities and the power of the human heart.
In an unbelievable story, told primarily through the experiences of the remarkable character of Pak Jun Do, Johnson allows us to feel the horror and violence of, quite possibly, the world’s most maniacal regime. Jun Do’s life leaves you stunned and full of the deepest compassion for his pain and suffering. But even while your heartstrings are wrenched, your pulse will not stop racing as you take the plight with Jun Do into the darkest machinations of the North Korean government. Johnson’s narrative is mind-bending with its bizarre circumstances and shifting voices. It is equally thrilling in wanting to find out what will happen next. Whether ranging from stylistic elements of satire, adventure, survival, or even romance, the novel’s many layers and dimensions only contribute to its greatness.
When cruelty and sorrow seem certain to crush Jun Do, his perseverance and courage flourish to provide hope. With the rangy sophistication of its plotlines and with its central focus on the disturbing and traumatic experiences of Jun Do, Johnson’s novel demands a lot. If the reader is prepared to handle it, the rewards are immense. The Orphan Master’s Son is a feat of literary imagination at the highest rank.(less)
The book jacket description of Prayers for the Stolen hits you with an overwhelming compulsion to want to read this novel about the lives of young gir...moreThe book jacket description of Prayers for the Stolen hits you with an overwhelming compulsion to want to read this novel about the lives of young girls abducted by the Mexican drug cartels. At the outset of the narrative, the plot is a tad slow in developing and also jumpy in its chronology. However, you can detect something alarmingly powerful pushing through the sketchiness of the early chapters. Once the characters are established and the story reveals enough information to understand the privations of the small mountain town of Guerrero, the narrative becomes entirely mesmerizing and gains unstoppable momentum that does not free you from the page.
Ladydi Garcia Martinez, the novel’s remarkable narrator and heroine, along with the other unfortunate girls and their families, face terrifying hardships in a story that delivers on all levels of humanity. The realism of how their lives are altered, and completely destroyed, by the organized crime of the cartels is harrowing and sorrowful. As this novel continues to unleash its power, the sparseness of the prose slowly begins to embellish and become outright profound with its imagery, insight, and beauty. What compassion the story generates with its examination of mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, and family and friends. Even with all the pain and horror the story confronts, it ultimately is a book about survival and hope. You will hardly experience a reality that is more jarring and eye-opening than the one Jennifer Clement allows us to enter in Prayers for the Stolen.(less)
Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya's novel provides a harrowing account of modern war from inside a remote U.S. military base in Afghanistan. Focusing on multip...moreJoydeep Roy-Bhattacharya's novel provides a harrowing account of modern war from inside a remote U.S. military base in Afghanistan. Focusing on multiple perspectives from soldiers of different rank, he offers a profound examination of courage, fear, sorrow, and humanity. The novel is unique in that it is as much about morality and philosophy as it is about the lives and experiences of the men on the base. The plot spotlights two critical events: the bravery of the soldiers during a terrifying firefight and afterwards their dealings with an Afghan woman insistent on retrieving the body of her killed brother. From the many voices of the soldiers on the base, Roy-Bhattacharya generates an emotional depth and compassion that is heartbreaking. He brilliantly depicts how the stark, puzzling circumstances of war have devastating effects, allowing no one to escape unscathed. A penetrating mood of eeriness keeps you gripped with alertness to the narrative. In addition, the imagistic descriptions are both beautiful and solemn in making you feel the isolation and dread of the desert landscape. Even as the novel felt a little compressed and the characters are somewhat hard to differentiate, The Watch moved me with its haunting realism, its spot-on accuracy, and its range of ideas.(less)
Rita Marley offers up an honest and revealing memoir about her relationship with the iconic Bob Marley. She was only nineteen and he twenty-one when t...moreRita Marley offers up an honest and revealing memoir about her relationship with the iconic Bob Marley. She was only nineteen and he twenty-one when they married in 1966. From that time onward, Rita remained his wife until Bob’s passing in 1981. Early on in their relationship, Rita explains how she cared for Bod in a “sisterly” way. He reciprocated her care by showing concern for her daughter from another father. Their romance commenced primarily due to each of them fueling off the other’s love of music and their shared ambition to succeed. Bob’s determination and strong-willed spirit mirrored that of Rita’s. She states that their bond strengthened as a result of their wanting and seeing a "need" in each other. However, maintaining a normal marriage became an increasingly difficult challenge caused by Bob’s eventual ascension to a music icon, which led to unending business responsibilities and eventual chronic infidelities. Still, Rita viewed their marriage as “unbreakable” and as something not to opt out of. She stayed committed to him for life, a vow for better or worse, as she resigned to them remaining friends no matter what.
Rita’s resignation to a status as friend and sister to her famous husband is both admirable and understandable. She depicts Bob as kind-hearted, generous, and ultimately passionate. She highlights his lifelong support of their many children and his understanding that she was his shoulder to lean on and cry on when all was not right. She contends that she was his pain and that she remained the home that he could always go back to. In addition, her memoir discusses her Rastafarian beliefs in peace and justice. Her insights into the repressive demands of the music business are equally revealing. She does not hold back in exposing and confronting those who brought havoc on Bob’s personal and professional lives. She also touches on the frightening political violence of 1976 when both she and Bob almost lost their lives. Overall, Rita Marley’s memoir is a testament to her belief that events did not happen on their own, but that a series of events catapulted her and Bob forward with a purpose. She attests to how her contributions and unwavering support were instrumental in helping Bob rise and succeed. (less)
Dirda has compiled a splendid hodgepodge of quotations, mini-essays, and reflections that revel over his love of books. He demonstrates his passionate...moreDirda has compiled a splendid hodgepodge of quotations, mini-essays, and reflections that revel over his love of books. He demonstrates his passionate commitment to knowledge and learning, which, he points out, serve as the basis for developing the essential human qualities of tolerance, understanding, and decency. Dirda investigates the role books play in shaping human lives and communicating our deepest desires and inquires about the fate of the world and our unique experiences. He shows humility with his own capacious intelligence by giving homage to the multitude of writers, thinkers, and great minds that he quotes from and alludes to on nearly every page throughout this meditative little book. He pays testament to the power of language and ideas as providing sustenance and goodwill to enrich our lives. Readers who spend even an hour perusing the wise and lovely passages and carefully-chosen lists of quotations and titles that Dirda assembles will come away feeling enchanted, enlightened, and engaged with life. Dirda’s book is a tiny treasure of immense reward.(less)
Shani Boianjiu’s outstanding debut novel entrances you with its vision and understanding of modern war. The central story chronicles the lives of thre...moreShani Boianjiu’s outstanding debut novel entrances you with its vision and understanding of modern war. The central story chronicles the lives of three teenage Israeli girls—Yael, Avishag, and Lea—all of them seniors in high school and soon to be conscripted into the army. Brilliantly paced and structured, the novel allows for each of the girl’s distinctive perspectives to emerge. Oftentimes transitioning between the visceral and the surreal, the layering of stories within stories and the interconnectedness among characters over time, place, and events make for an exhilarating narrative that stuns and shocks with the unveiling of each of the girls’ experiences. Boianjiu addresses the fear and uncertainty of the girls and relates how their teetering despair fuels rebellion against their confusion and loneliness. As challenges surface throughout their two years of military service and beyond, their need to feel alive and meaningful in the world becomes obsessive. This need simmers with urgency and gathers into a searing force to confront the outrage of injustice and inhumanity and to achieve the desire to be independent. The People of Forever Are Not Afraid is a stellar literary work, full of energy, aplomb, and humor. It is fierce, enthralling, eye-opening, and ultimately life-affirming as it charts the lives of the three girls on the cusp of womanhood and a future for themselves yearning for direction.(less)
Melanie Benjamin has done a formidable job at researching and exploring the intricacies of the emotionally intense and oftentimes difficult marriage o...moreMelanie Benjamin has done a formidable job at researching and exploring the intricacies of the emotionally intense and oftentimes difficult marriage of Anne and Charles Lindbergh. Her narrative, told entirely from the first person perspective of Anne, is passionate, honest, and cerebral. Anne reveals tender details and also exposes her frustration and anger over Charles’s domineering personality. With storytelling that employs the intimacy of journal writing, Anne’s voice unloads her heart’s innermost secrets and keeps the reader sympathetic of her struggles. Benjamin has constructed an impressive novel to examine the inside story of the Lindberghs. Her smooth, fluid prose makes for a pleasurable reading experience.(less)
Stephen Dunn is a fine poet, one of America’s most revered, but this new collection does not match the level of artistry representative of his earlier...moreStephen Dunn is a fine poet, one of America’s most revered, but this new collection does not match the level of artistry representative of his earlier work. The majority of the poems in Lines of Defense are lazy and uninspiring. They almost seem a resignation, as though Dunn knows his best work may be behind him? These verses dabble and meander on the surface, oftentimes serving up trivial musings, but never breaking ground to probe for deeper insights. They feel like Dunn has, perhaps, raked through old journal entries and decided to create poems from mere ramblings by inserting line breaks in sentences. Although most of this volume is unimpressive, one piece titled “Cleaning Up” resonated as vintage Dunn. This poem is contemplative and playful, yet piercingly honest in its wisdom, the qualities that make him a great poet. He reflects, “Trying to learn after all these years/ to be gracious, sorrow-freed,/ at least a decade beyond the old rut/ of needless suffering . . .” If you want to appreciate Dunn at his best, search out one of his earlier volumes, such as Loosestrife or Different Hours. You will experience a truly gifted poet in these collections.(less)