Friday, May 31, 2013

Feature Film Friday: "VoiceOver"

Extended metaphors can be hard to pull off. To illustrate this, I thought I’d share this short film that tries, and tries, and tries to come up with just the right metaphor for… well, you’ll see.  It's pretty good. Enjoy!

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Nabokov's Tree Test

There is a famous account, perhaps apocryphal, of a visit made by a student to Vladimir Nabokov’s office at Cornell. The student declares to the writer his  great desire to be a writer, too, at which point:
Nabokov looks up from his reading he points to a tree outside his office window.
'What kind of tree is that?' he asks the student.
'What is the name of that tree?' asks Nabokov. 'The one outside my window.'
'I don't know,'says the student.
'You'll never be a writer.' says Nabokov.
The Nabokov test was born. This conversation, whether or not it actually took place, came to mind the other night as I read this passage from Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety :
“A dirt road, the road I walked this morning, burrows along the hillside under overhanging trees—sugar maple and red maple, hemlock, white birch and yellow birch and gray birch, beech, black spruce and red spruce, balsam fir, wild cherry, white ash, basswood, ironwood, tamarack, elm, poplar, here and there a young white pine.”

It would appear that, despite any other failings he has as a writer, Mr. Stegner passes the Nabokov test with flying colors.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

From the Pen of Wallace Stegner

At the suggestion of the one and only Tucker McCann, I am working my way through Wallace Stegner’s last novel, Crossing to Safety .  And, as happened the last time I picked up a Stegnerian opus, I am loving the pants off his writing style. Here are a handful of highlights from the first hundred pages or so. All emphasis is mine—they’re just the lines and phrases that really buttered my toast:
“Cataract sufferers must see like this when the bandages are removed after the operation: every detail as sharp as if seen for the first time, yet familiar, too, known from before the time of blindness, the remembered and the seen coalescing as in a stereoscope.”
“Dew has soaked everything. I could wash my hands in the ferns, and when I pick a leaf off a maple branch I get a shower on my head and shoulders.”
“I am sitting with my back to the window. On the bed table is a tumbler of water that I set there for Sally last night. The sun, coming in flat, knocks a prismatic oval out of the tumbler and lays it on the ceiling.”
“The wind moves the silver maple over our heads, and some leaves rustle down. Offshore a boat comes about with wooden knockings, watery slappings, a pop of canvas.”
“Our last impression of her as she turned the corner was that smile, flung backward like a handful of flowers.”
“Between the taking of a cinnamon toast and tea she let drop bits of information that my mind scurried to gather up and plaster against the wall for future use, like a Bengali woman gathering wet cow dung for fuel.”
“Vigorous, vital, temperate, and hence not hung over, they flush us out of our culvert of duty.”
“The view is spreading, bronzed, conventionalized like a Grant Wood landscape. The air smells of cured grass, cured leaves, distance, the other sides of hills.”

—"Near Sundown", by Grant Wood 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Review: Don Quixote Part II, by Miguel Cervantes

Why is this book getting two reviews? Well, because Parts I and II were originally published as two different novels, ten years apart. Also, because it’s Don  Freaking Quixote .

Now, in my review of Part I, I expressed my admiration for the brilliant satire, and for literature willing to poke some fun at itself. But I also kind of lamented Cervantes’ penchant for narrative wandering, for squeezing unrelated stories and novellas into his tale of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. I think I might have used the phrases “storyteller’s orgy” and “a Canterbury Tales  Smorgasbord of travellers’ yarns.”

Thankfully, Part II opens up with some frank admissions of the author’s prior lack of focus, and a commitment to stick to the main story in the second part. There are even times later on in the book when he is tempted to launch into something more, but restrains himself:
“Here the author depicts all the details of Don Diego’s house, portraying for us what the house of a wealthy gentleman farmer contains, but the translator of this history decided to pass over these and other similar minutiae in silence, because they did not accord with the principal purposed of the history, whose strength lies more in its truth than in cold digressions.”
But even with a greater focus on the core story of his famous knight errant, this book is a long one. And rather than apologize for his verbosity, Cervantes hangs a lantern on it and helps the reader appreciate the author’s attention to detail:
“Really and truly, all those who enjoy histories like this one ought to show their gratitude to Cide Hamete, its first author, for his care in telling us its smallest details and clearly bringing everything, no matter how trivial, to light. He depicts thoughts, reveals imaginations, responds to tacit questions, clarifies doubts, resolves arguments; in short, he expresses the smallest points that curiosity might ever desire to know. O celebrated author! O fortunate Don Quixote! O famous Dulcinea! O comical Sancho Panza! Together and separately may you live an infinite number of years, bringing pleasure and widespread diversion to the living.”
And what a pantload of awesome detail we get. I love how Cervantes takes the 17th century reader reaction to Part I, and makes it a plot driver in Part II. He’s interacting with his audience and blurring the lines between fiction and reality in a way that was lightyears ahead of its time. And he’s hilarious while doing it. Sancho is a veritable proverb-generating machine, and in a “didn’t-see-that-coming” plot turn, he also turns out to be a pretty competent governor. Don Quixote, too, is a fount of eternal wisdom in Part II—to the point where other characters are constantly asking themselves how such a well-spoken, reasonable man can be so completely off his rocker when it comes to knight errantry. Which brings me to Cervantes’ real piece-de-resistance: his turning the question of Quixote’s insanity completely on its head.

We’re absolutely convinced, when he descends into the Caves of Montesino and produces a fanciful tale of all the wonders he saw there, that the man is flat-out delusional. But after the knight and his squire are supposedly flown blindfolded through the sky on what is actually a stationary wooden horse in front of a mocking audience, and Sancho makes up a story every other character knows to be false, Quixote delivers an aside that made me question all my assumptions up to that point:
“Sancho, just as you want people to believe what you have seen in the sky, I want you to believe what I saw in the Cave of Montesinos. And that is all I have to say.”
By the end of the book the reader is forced to say, wait a second, who’s actually crazy here? The supposed lunatic? Or all the people who make fun of him, but who may in fact be falling for some masterful, rope-a-dope scheme by an old man trying to carve a little adventure out of his remaining years? I was leaning toward the latter, even before Cervantes gives us this passage:
“Cide Hamete goes on to say that in his opinion the deceivers are as mad as the deceived, and that the duke and duchess came very close to seeming like fools since they went to such lengths to deceive two fools…”
Part I, despite its faults, was entertaining. In Part II, we see Miguel Cervantes flat out kicking ass and taking names. Quixote finally earns some long-overdue victories (along with one crushing defeat), fiction melts into reality, the stupid turn out to be wise, and the crazy may not be who we think they are. Oh, and he absolutely eviscerates AlonsoFernandez de Avelleneda for infringement on his Intellectual Property. How this thing was written in the early 1600s absolutely blows my mind. I highly, highly recommend it.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Poet's Corner: Consolation, by Billy Collins

Not going to  battle the harried masses in a European capital this summer? Take heart, you ol' stick in the mud. Just remember how hot, crowded, and miserable it can be. Especially with a backpack and a Baby Bjorn hanging off of you. Or you can just read this poem:

By Billy Collins

How agreeable it is not to be touring Italy this summer,
wandering her cities and ascending her torrid hilltowns.
How much better to cruise these local, familiar streets,
fully grasping the meaning of every road sign and billboard
and all the sudden hand gestures of my compatriots.

There are no abbeys here, no crumbling frescoes or famous
domes and there is no need to memorize a succession
of kings or tour the dripping corners of a dungeon.
No need to stand around a sarcophagus, see Napoleon's
little bed on Elba, or view the bones of a saint under glass.

How much better to command the simple precinct of home
than be dwarfed by pillar, arch, and basilica.
Why hide my head in phrase books and wrinkled maps?
Why feed scenery into a hungry, one-eyed camera
eager to eat the world one monument at a time?

Instead of slouching in a café ignorant of the word for ice,
I will head down to the coffee shop and the waitress
known as Dot. I will slide into the flow of the morning
paper, all language barriers down,
rivers of idiom running freely, eggs over easy on the way.

And after breakfast, I will not have to find someone
willing to photograph me with my arm around the owner.
I will not puzzle over the bill or record in a journal
what I had to eat and how the sun came in the window.
It is enough to climb back into the car

as if it were the great car of English itself
and sounding my loud vernacular horn, speed off
down a road that will never lead to Rome, not even Bologna.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Happy Friday!

“Customers of Irish descent need not apply”

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Profusion of Proverbs from the great Sancho Panza

“That may be so,” replied Sancho, “but if you pay your debts, you don’t worry about guaranties, and it’s better to have God’s help than to get up early, and your belly leads your feet, not the other way around; I mean, if God helps me, and I do what I ought to with good intentions, I’ll be sure to govern in grand style. Just put a finger in my mouth and see if I bite or not!”
“God and all his saints curse you, wretched Sancho,” said Don Quixote, “as I have said so often, will the day ever some when I see you speak an ordinary coherent sentence without any proverbs? Senores, your highness should leave this fool alone, for he will grind your souls not between two but two thousand proverbs brought in as opportunely and appropriately as the health God gives him, or me if I wanted to listen to them.”
     A taste of the dialogue in Don Quixote , by Cervantes

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Author Look-alikes Vol. 14

Henry Miller and Jean Luc Picard. “Engage:”

Who can match Evelyn Waugh’s aristocratic airs? Lord Grantham, that’s who:

Swap the pince nez for regular specs and Anton Checkov isn’t that different from a goateed Robert Downey Jr:

Fyodor Doestoevsky wasn’t exactly handsome. In kind of the same way that Ron Howard’s brother isn’t handsome:

I wasn't sure this was really William Butler Yeats, and not a Steve Martin bit character. I'm still not completely convinced:

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Title Chase: The Red Badge of Courage

Yesterday we reviewed Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage , but said next to nothing about what the title actually means. Is it a military insignia? An honor bestowed by one’s superiors for valor on the field of battle? Not exactly. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 9, the one and only place the term is mentioned in the narrative:
“The youth fell back in the procession until the tattered soldier was not in sight. Then he started to walk on with the others.
“But he was amid wounds. The mob of men was bleeding. Because of the tattered soldier's question he now felt that his shame could be viewed. He was continually casting sidelong glances to see if the men were contemplating the letters of guilt he felt burned into his brow.
“At times he regarded the wounded soldiers in an envious way. He conceived persons with torn bodies to be peculiarly happy. He wished that he, too, had a wound, a red badge of courage.”

Monday, May 20, 2013

Review: The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane

My reading’s been all over the map this year, but since I hadn’t tackled any Civil War-era war stories, I didn’t see any reason to turn my nose up at Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage .

Truth is, I had no idea what I was about to read. If you asked me a week ago, I would have been hard-pressed to tell you the difference between Captains Courageous , Profiles in Courage , and The Red Badge of Courage . All reportedly great books, all on my mental To-Be-Read list for years, but all of them a confusing jumble of "courage" in my poorly-read head.

Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage , as it turns out, is not a daring rescue at sea or an examination of valiant senators, it is a fictionalized account of the Battle of Chancellorsville, and of the second bloodiest day of the American Civil War as told from the perspective of a “youth” who is seeing battle for the very first time. And while there’s lots of tactical blow-by-blow, that’s not what makes it great. What makes it great is Crane’s fascinating probing into the psyche of soldiers who are in fact scared spitless.

You see them wrestling with the same questions we would all probably face in their shoes: Will I run when it gets ugly? Or will I have what it takes to stand up and fight? And what’s great about it is that we get to follow a main character whose experience runs the gamut: over the course of a few days he turns tail and runs, he deserts wounded comrades, he finds his regiment again and then fights bravely, he picks up the flag when the color sergeant goes down- and through it all he doesn’t come to consider himself a coward or a hero, so much as he comes to truly know himself and grow through the experience. It’s a book that’ll make you think.

And the language is beautiful. Here’s the first paragraph:
“The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. As the landscape changed from brown to green, the army awakened, and began to tremble with eagerness at the noise of rumors. It cast its eyes upon the roads, which were growing from long troughs of liquid mud to proper thoroughfares. A river, amber-tinted in the shadow of its banks, purled at the army's feet; and at night, when the stream had become of a sorrowful blackness, one could see across it the red, eyelike gleam of hostile camp-fires set in the low brows of distant hills.”
Anyway, it’s short, and it’s sweet. You should do yourself the favor of checking it out.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Haiku-ption Contest #14

Shall we? Yes, let’s.  My haiku is below, add your own in the comments.

Cows are in estrus
Bulls are trumpeting their aims
Time for a new tack

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Shakespeare & Co.: Know Before You Go

A few days ago we shared a documentary on the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore on Paris’s left bank. Here, just for the heck of it, is a map showing the locations of all three iterations of the famous bookshop (plus some links to the current Google Street views for each).

The first, opened by Sylvia Beach at 8 Rue Dupuytren, is basically just across the street from the Odeon metro stop. And if you want to, you can get your hair cut there. It is now the location of “Easy Cut.”

The second, larger location is just a stone’s throw away, at 12 Rue de l’Odeon. If you want, you can complement your new haircut with duds from "Moi Cani" the small shop that has taken over the space or browse in the tiny French boostore next door at no. 10. 

The third and current location, originally opened by George Whitman as “Le Mistral” in 1951, and re-named Shakespeare & Co. in 1964 after Sylvia Beach’s death, is just a short walk across the river from Notre Dame Cathedral at 37 Rue de la Bucherie- not on  the river, but one small street beyond it.

The current proprietor? George’s daughter: Sylvia Beach Whitman. Naturally!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The (literal) Snows of Kilimanjaro

One of my all-time favorite Hemingway stories is “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” You may recall this image from the story, from which its title is drawn:
“Then they began to climb and they were going to the East it seemed, and then it darkened and they were in a storm, the rain so thick it seemed like flying through a waterfall, and then they were out and Compie turned his head and grinned and pointed and there, ahead, all he could see, as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro. And then he knew that there was where he was going.”
I stumbled across Google’s satellite time-lapse Earth Engine   the other day, and thought it would be interesting to train the lens on those famous snows of Kilimanjaro. Go here, to see how they’ve evolved from 1984 to today. Hem's metaphor could be lost before long...

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

DFW's "This is Water"

It’s commencement season, and David Foster Wallace’s somewhat famous commencement address to Kenyon College grads in 2005 has received a YouTube makeover. But it’s not just for recent college graduates or fans of Mr. Wallace. It’s for anyone who’s ever had to deal with “repulsive, stupid, cowlike, dead-eyed and non-human” people, or boring jobs, or any of the other crap that real life hands you. Enjoy:

-H/T, a whole bunch of people.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Another Month in the Can

Over the weekend our staff worked to diligently put another month into the Shelf Actualization archives. Above are the authors covered in the past 30 days, and below are our 5 most popular posts from that period:

Finally, the nutty search terms that brought readers this way:

  • Edward Hirsch  >>  A basketball poem for tourney time.
  • Delta Wedding  >>  The review, or the Paul Simon lyrics
  • How to write like Kerouac  >>  Easier than you would think
  • White whale metaphor  >>  And a little Three Amigos for good measure
  • Significance of the dog in vast hell  >>  Search me. But the story was good.
  • Arthur miller and Eudora welty  >>  Was there a connection? Hmmm.
  • How are they alike Grapes of Wrath and Cry the Beloved Country  >>  It's the intercalary chapters, stupid.
  • Fictional geography  >>  That didn't end up being fictional
  • Map of don quixote’s travels  >>  Ours are as good as anything out there.
  • Is being unathletic bad?   >>  Well, it worked for Joyce.

Thanks for stopping by! You’re always welcome back.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Feature Film Friday: Portrait of a Bookstore as an Old Man

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Paris twice, but for whatever reason, neither visit included a stop by the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore. <cue the sad trombones>

Thankfully we can all take a virtual visit to this fabled bookshop by watching the documentary below, “Portrait of a Bookstore as an Old Man,” which takes a look at George Whitman’s re-incarnation of Sylvia Beach’s left bank book boutique, including the Tumbleweed Hotel, where travelers can overnight amidst the stacks in return for a little day-time labor and the promise of plowing through some good books while a guest. Here’s part 1:

Thursday, May 9, 2013

What They Were Reading: Haruki Murakami

"When someone asks, “Which three books have meant the most to you?” I can answer without having to think: The Great Gatsby , Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov , and Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye . All three have been indispensable to me (both as a reader and as a writer); yet if I were forced to select only one, I would unhesitatingly choose Gatsby. Had it not been for Fitzgerald’s novel, I would not be writing the kind of literature I am today (indeed, it is possible that I would not be writing at all, although that is neither here nor there).
"Whatever the case, you can sense the level of my infatuation with The Great Gatsby . It taught me so much and encouraged me so greatly in my own life. Though slender in size for a full-length work, it served as a standard and a fixed point, an axis around which I was able to organize the many coordinates that make up the world of the novel. I read Gatsby over and over, poking into every nook and cranny, until I had virtually memorized entire sections."

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

A 2013 Reading Check-Up

I’m baffled by this, but it’s already May, if you can believe it. I have yet to do a reading check-up to see how I’m doing on my resolutions for 2013, but now is as good a time as any. Here’s what I set out to do this year:
  • Read something old-school
  • Read something contemporary
  • Re-read a favorite
  • Finish (and most likely re-start) a “Did not finish”
  • And tackle at least one of the big boys

And here are the twelve and two-half volumes vanquished so far:

So, Read something old-school— I think both King Lear  and Don Quixote  qualify— check!

Read something contemporaryThe Orphan Master’s Son , The Paris Wife , Nemesis, and Leaving the Atocha Station  —I left nothing to chance on this one— check!

Re-read a favorite—Have not done this yet. Goose egg so far.  L

Finish (and most likely re-start) a “Did not finish”Babylon Revisited and Other Stories  got me over the line, but there will probably be others— check!

And tackle at least one of the big boys—If Quixote  doesn’t qualify, I don’t know what does. 640 Pages down, another 300 pages to go— almost  check.

Three and a half out of five aint bad for early May. How's your reading coming?

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Review: The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain

So when the title sounds like chick-lit, and the cover looks like chick-lit, you expect chick-lit, right? But I was actually pretty pleasantly surprised when I opened up Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife  a few weeks ago. It’s a view of Hemingway’s Paris years through the eyes of his first wife Hadley, and I’m happy to report that anyone with a predilection for the writer, and for Paris in the 20’s, will probably enjoy the book.

Now, I’ll admit that I didn’t read it like a novel, though the writing is fine and the story is certainly strong enough to carry the reader along. Rather, I read it like a Hemingway biography. Call me a pig, but that’s what I was interested in. And say what you will about McLain as a novelist, the woman did some pretty serious research to get the thing off the ground.

I was looking for fresh angles on familiar characters (the Fitzgeralds do not come off well, Joyce barely shows up at all), new tid-bits I’d never heard before (did you know it was almost Rome, and not Paris, for example?) and Hadley’s take on some of the bigger plot points (how would she handle the tragic loss all of Hemingway’s early work at the Gare de Lyon? Or the affair with Pauleen Pfeiffer?).

There were no huge surprises, but there were a few eyebrow raisers. I think we’re all fully prepared to see Hemingway revealed as a bit of an ass, but McLain makes Hadley out to be far more athletic, lythe and attractive than she really was. I mean, not to be mean, but we do have pictures after all. Here’s Pfeiffer, Hemingway and Hadley together in Pamplona:

At the same time, she portrays Hadley as such a weak, accepting, milquetoast of a character, who lets Pfeiffer walk all over her marriage and even right into her bed. (A diligent Googler will find some evidence of Hadley’s easy acquiescence, but no hard proof that the three ever shared the same bed— outside the plot of Hemingway’s posthumous novel The Garden of Eden , which contains a similar episode.)

Regardless of the Hemingway-McLain ‘he said-she said,’ you almost get the impression that you could read The Paris Wife  alongside A Moveable Feast , and between the two of them, start to arrive at some version of the unvarnished truth behind Hemingway’s first marriage. But it was an interesting read, and I’d recommend it to others who suffer from Hemingway "aficion."

Monday, May 6, 2013

Author Look-Alikes Vol. 13

Georges Perec and Daniel Stern: “All the great ones leave their mark. We’re the wet bandits.”

Someone get Honore de Balzac a perm and a luchador mask. He’d make as good a Nacho Libre as Jack Black:

Orhan Pamuk and Rick Steves aren’t an exact match, I’ll admit, but they have enough in common—the semi-shaggy “dad” haircut, the “don’t notice my glasses” glasses, the affable and harmless expression—for the one to remind me of the other.

George Eliot. Not exactly a looker, huh? Sadly, the closest match I could find for that schnoz was F. Murray Abraham:

The hair, the dramatic pose, the fact that she’s a little past her prime… alright Mr. DeMille, Katherine Anne Porter’s ready for her close-up.

Friday, May 3, 2013

(Fictional) First Line Friday: Chuck Stone spy novel, by Jay Pritchett and Manny Delgado

I’m a big fan of meta fiction. I love stories about writers and their stories. Movies like “Barton Fink” or books like Slaughterhouse Five  always seem to hit home. We’ve looked at fictional tidbits of fiction on Mad Men, and on Wednesday night’s episode of Modern Family (Career Day), Jay Pritchett and stepson Manny Delgado revealed their own dreams of penning the great American novel—or at least a compelling spy thriller—and we got a taste of what they came up with. Here are their first lines, in case you missed them:

Jay’s opener:
“Chuck Stone, six foot three inches of steely-eyed determination, sat at the interrogation table.”

Manny’s opener:
“Chuck Stone smiled and lit a cigarette as if he had all the time in the world, when, in fact, the world was about to end.”

And as a bonus, Manny’s final lines, which served as the episode-ending voiceover:
“We all weave a web of lies. Some we tell to try to help the ones we love, some we tell to try to fool ourselves, and some we tell because when you’re out of bullets and staring down the barrel of a Kalashnikov, the only weapon you’ve got left is guile.”

Love it.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Great Trimalchio?

So the premiere of the new Great Gatsby movie was held last night in New York. I’ve been wrestling with whether I want to re-read Gatsby before I see the flick, but I think I’ve landed on ‘no.’ That is, until I learned that Baz Luhrmann’s film may not be an adaptation of The Gatsby Gatsby , so much as it is an adaptation of an earlier, unpublished version of Gatsby called Trimalchio – that features a much darker James Gatz, who is more menacing and violent than the character moviegoers are probably expecting.
"'Trimalchio' was a tremendous resource," says Mr. Luhrmann, noting that Gatsby and Daisy's relationship is more fleshed out in that version. Several key bits of dialogue between Daisy and Gatsby were pulled from "Trimalchio." Mr. DiCaprio became obsessed with it, and carried a copy of "Trimalchio" with him at all times.

Full story here. Luckily for all of us, the Trimalchio  version has been published for purists and curiosity-seekers alike. I just may read this one before I see the film. You should, too:

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Review: The Orphan Master's Son, by Adam Johnson

It’s been a couple weeks since Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son  won the Morning News Tournament of Books, and about a week since it nabbed the Pulitzer Prize. So I know what you’re all wondering: “Well, MacEvoy, what do you  think of it?”

Sagely anticipating your question, I have undertaken the reading of it. Here are my thoughts.

First off, it is a really good book, and a very compelling read. For most readers, myself included, it’ll be the first peek you’ve ever gotten inside the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. And you will not be disappointed with the sweep of history, culture and color that Johnson supplies. Some of the vignettes, like a fishing vessel’s discovery of mysterious radio transmissions from the international space station or from a pair of female American rowers working their way across the Pacific, give you a fascinating window into what it must be like for North Koreans to encounter the real world outside their borders.

Now, I’ve never set foot in the DPRK. But while Johnson’s sensationalized portrayal of North Korea doesn’t strike me as completely  believable, I’m going to go ahead and assume he’s done far more research than I’ve ever done on the subject. So, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt on the details.

Here’s what’s really wrong with the book: He’s taken his research into a half dozen unrelated facets of life under the Kim regime, and woven them into a single character’s experience. And for me it just doesn’t ring true.

Pak Jun Do is introduced as a tunnel soldier, trained for combat in the pitch darkness of passageways beneath the DMZ. But then he is recruited as a kidnapper, plucking people off the coast of Japan by boat. After that, he becomes an intelligence officer who monitors radio signals on a fishing boat in the Sea of Japan. He is beatified as a hero of the people, and is whisked off on some high-level diplomatic talks with an American Senator in Texas. Then he is thrown into a prison camp. Then he escapes and assumes the identity of a government minister. Etc., etc. It just got to be a little much to swallow.

If you’re asking me— and let’s be honest, nobody is—this book should have been written as a mosaic story, with multiple main characters whose intersecting plot lines are woven together at the end of the book (Think “Crash”, or the “Modern Family” pilot episode.) That would have fixed it for me. Told as it was, with a character who wears just about every possible hat, just so he could observe every possible North Korean atrocity, I half-expected him to be fine-tuning nuclear weapons or performing open-heart surgery on the Dear Leader just because some government goons roughed him up and told him, “Okay, you’re a scientist now” or “ Your next assignment is as a heart surgeon.” Heck, he’d been everything else by that point.

But the sentence-level writing is first class, beautiful stuff. And he brings references from early in the book full circle so that there are plenty of overarching themes for the reader to absorb. I would gladly pick up Johnson’s next book, and I’ll even gladly recommend this one, with the one caveat mentioned above. Check it out.