Friday, March 8, 2013

Tournament of Books: Johnson vs. Semple

This is my first day weighing in on the daily rounds of the Tournament of Books from The Morning News.  The pre-tournament play-in I didn't have anything to say because I'd only read one book of the three.  It ended up being the book selected to move forward, so that was a lucky pick on my part!  You can go back and read what I thought of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk back in November.

Yesterday's round, between The Round House and The Fault in Our Stars - that was too hard for me to make a call on.  I call it a draw.  I just wasn't that impressed with either of them, despite reading rave review after rave review for each of them.  

Today, however, I find I have a little to say.  This round is between The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson and Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple.  I read The Orphan Master's Son last June and the Semple just a few weeks ago. 


I am almost certain that I will pick a different book from most people in this round.  Where'd You Go Bernadette has a cool factor to it, and I think that will decide it for most people.  Maria Semple is a well-known screenwriter for shows like Arrested Development.  One of the characters on Bunheads carried this book with her on an audition.  (Bunheads is the latest show from the Gilmore Girls creators, don't worry, you aren't missing anything.  It's terrible but I keep watching because I want it to be good.  But I digress.)

There were elements of the Semple that I loved.  The storytelling style in the first half, with fragmented e-mails, letters, reports, etc. - it was so fun to read!  But then it is as if the author doesn't trust her own storytelling, and starts interspersing these elements with narrative from various perspectives, or commentary from the daughter. I found this unnecessary and redundant and not in the same spirit as the rest of the novel. I think she didn't have quite enough faith in the readers to follow the story she was telling!  While I was energized by the first 100 pages or so, the ending left me feeling ambivalent.  The twists in the end were kind of bizarre too, which took away from the formerly successful realism of the book.

On the other hand, The Orphan Master's Son took a long time to warm to.  It was dense and confusing, as the author rarely tells you what is actually happening; he uses the very unreliable narrator of Jun Do to tell the story.  The reader has to work hard to read between the lines of the orphan turned kidnapper turned spy to know what is going on.  We know more than Jun Do does about the situation he lives in, and the author knows we know.  Jun Do may even know, but is forced to accept crazy lies on a daily basis to survive living in North Korea. 

Maybe it is my great love of dystopia and chaos, but so many of the stories we hear from North Korea are bizarre, and this book attempts to explain some of them (in a sometimes humorous way). In fact, humor is an important element throughout The Orphan Master's Son, but more in the sense that you have to laugh or you'll cry. Oppression is ridiculous insanity.

Just for clarity, I'd pick The Orphan Master's Son to win! I feel like reading it again, to untangle more of the layers in my head.  Too bad I sent it off to a friend to read.

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