Monday, September 16, 2013


by Colum McCann

Transatlantic is a beautifully composed book, one that I feel like I didn't devote my full attention to (I sometimes read too many books at once, and one inevitably gets neglected) and should read again.

In this sweeping narrative, McCann weaves together intergenerational and intercontinental relationships. The novel jumps around chronologically, from Frederick Douglass' visit to Ireland in 1845, to the present, illustrating how decisions, chance occurrences, and conflict (namely the violence in Northern Ireland, but also the American Civil War and WWI) resonate through the generations. At the center of the novel is Lily Duggan and her lineage, creating a history that stretches between Britain and North America. 

I do feel the book lags a little during the chapter about the US senator and the peace negotiations in Northern Ireland during the 1990s. The book is somewhat slow in general, but this chapter drags its feet, somewhat appropriately mirroring the age and exhaustion of its central character and the negotiation process itself. I almost think this chapter could have been excluded because it strays a little from the family's story, but I understand it's inclusion. Maybe it could have been shorter, though.

Aside from that small issue, this is a really lovely book. The story, across the generations, is twinged with nostalgia and melancholy, without being overly sentimental. McCann writes with a focus on language rather than plot, so if you are looking for lyricism and poetry in prose, I highly recommend this elegant novel.

Staff Pick!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Tom Perrotta

Yesterday Tom Perrotta read from his new story collection, Nine Inches, at the bookstore. I am such a fan of his writing (and I was going to link to my posts about his novels, except I just realized I've never written anything about them. How is that possible?! But I haven't. So I will take this opportunity to briefly say that Perrotta is one of my favorite contemporary American writers, along with Richard Russo and John Irving. I love the way he writes about suburban American life and the little everyday, personal tragedies (as well as not-so-little personal tragedies). He writes with wit and compassion. I liked The Abstinence Teacher, I really enjoyed Little Children, and I loved The Leftovers.). It was great to hear him read, the event was fun, and I managed to ask a coherent, somewhat interesting question. Plus I met him and he signed my book, without me embarrassing myself or being a total fangirl. I was still super excited, though. 

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Orphan Master's Son

by Adam Johnson

This book is a commitment.  This is the first book I've read in a while of which I really felt the length. After only 100 pages or so I felt that Pak Jun Do had already lived a lifetime. Johnson tried to put too much into this book, too much plot.

Pak Jun Do lives a life no one would ask for. The course of his life is one hardship after the next. As a citizen of North Korea, Pak Jun Do's life is largely decided for him, by people and forces he does not know. Growing up as an orphan (although technically not an orphan), Pak Jun Do is essentially loaned out as property of the state. As an adult, he lives under the constant threat of what The Dear Leader and his minions could do to him. When Pak Jun Do is finally able to take control of his life, the outcomes are less than desirable. 

This expansive novel is about quest for understanding. A desire for personal identity. What Pak Jun Do wants more than anything is to know who he is, know what his purpose is, and to know love. 

The first section of this book is a novel in itself: The Many Lives of Pak Jun Do. But it is in the second section that things really get interesting. This is when the reader gets a picture of the real underbelly of North Korea and its politics: prison camps, interrogations, manipulations, and mutilations. It is in the second section of the book where the state's control and manipulation becomes most evident, and Johnson's characters have to decide if they want to become a cog in the machine of North Kora, or find a way to break free. In a world where found defectors are tortured, this is not a decision to take lightly. 

Johnson's novel is a lot to digest. Ultimately, The ideas behind the novel are better than their execution. However, the story is a compelling one, despite Pak Jun Do's life having more permutations than seems plausible.