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Orphan Masters Son by Adam Johnson

Orphan Masters Son (original 2012; edition 2012)

by Adam Johnson

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2,1062033,121 (4.06)288
Title:Orphan Masters Son
Authors:Adam Johnson
Info:Random House Export (2012), Paperback, 416 pages
Collections:Your library, Autographed
Tags:2012 Read, Literary Fiction, North Korean Fiction

Work details

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson (2012)

Recently added byprivate library, MSZR, kruset, emilykdewitt, rebecajeanne, ErinLibsack, Katya, akresse, lisaross, mattsg
  1. 90
    Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick (kqueue)
    kqueue: A non-fiction account of people in North Korea. The hardships they endure at the hands of their government are jaw-dropping. It backs up everything in The Orphan Master's Son.
  2. 10
    The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters by B. R. Myers (bibliothequaire)
  3. 10
    Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle (Henrik_Madsen)
    Henrik_Madsen: Guy Delisle has based his graphic novel on his own experiences from North Korea - it is definitely also worth a read.
  4. 00
    Sons of Heaven by Terrence Cheng (booklove2)
    booklove2: Main characters have similar personalities, also they both battle regimes.
  5. 00
    The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell (Anonymous user)
  6. 00
    Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (aethercowboy)
  7. 01
    Number9Dream by David Mitchell (clfisha)
    clfisha: OK not really alike except in tone. A rollicking good adventure and playful narrative structure (Mitchell is more experimental).
  8. 13
    The Cider House Rules by John Irving (suniru)
    suniru: Although the settings are wildly different,the central figure in both books is the "head boy" in an orphanage. Also, "identity" is central to both books.

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» See also 288 mentions

English (199)  Danish (2)  German (2)  Dutch (2)  Norwegian (1)  Spanish (1)  Swedish (1)  Italian (1)  All languages (209)
Showing 1-5 of 199 (next | show all)
Entirely strange and unique. Different from A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Darkness at Noon which focus on the prison state, this book shows totalitarianism and what it takes to survive it across every level of society. ( )
  ltfitch1 | Jun 5, 2016 |
This book won the Pulitzer in 2013, deservedly so. This is a fascinating story that provides the reader a glimpse into the bizarro world of North Korea.

I think the story epitomizes the phrase "perception IS reality". The first part tells of the life of Jun Do, who grows up in the orphanage that his father runs. Everyone thinks he's an orphan, because why else would you live in an orphanage, if you weren't. He goes on to become a kidnapper for the state, abducting foreign nationals (mostly Japanese) at the request of DPRK officials (doctors, artists, etc). He then becomes a signal operator on a fishing boat, listening to whatever transmissions from the West he can pickup. Among them, transmissions from the ISS, that he thinks are coming from the bottom of the sea (he can't fathom anything flying above the earth). The end of the first part has him being sent to a prison mine because a diplomatic trip to Texas didn't go exactly the way officials wanted.

In the second part, Jun do is no more, he has now taken on the identity of Commander Ga, a national hero, whom he has no resemblance with. But because perception is reality, he is accepted as such. Except by his (or rather Ga's) wife, who is Korea's moth famous film star and the ingenue, of the Dear Leader; Kim Jong-Il

This was a twisted and delightful read. It brought to mind shades of Catch-22 and Dr. Strangelove, as well as a smattering of Walter Mitty. My favorite read so far this year.

Passages that stuck with me...

"The boys stopped at the harbor, it's dark waters ropey with corpses, thousands of them in the throes of the waves, looking like curds of sticky millet that start to flip and toss when the pan heats."

"How to tell the Second Mate that the only way to shake your ghosts, is to find them..."

"To survive in this world, you've got to be many times a coward buy at least once a hero... At least that's what a guy told me one time when I was beating shit out of him"


S: 5/7/16 - F: 5/22/16 ( 16 Days) ( )
2 vote mahsdad | Jun 4, 2016 |
This was a wonderful piece of literature. The struggle the protagonist finds himself in, living in a Surreal Country, is mind blowing. The values and outlook on life in his world is so strikingly different to my own experience, that it made me feel disoriented for a good part of the novel. The ending is beautiful. His only peace he finds is through his own strength and cunning to "beat the system" in his own private way.

I checked out "Escape from Camp 14" from the library after finishing this novel, to get an idea on how 'real' the characterization of the prison camp in the book was. Actually, life in the real concentration life seems much worse than is portrayed in fiction.
( )
  sandsjd | Jun 3, 2016 |
A ubiquitous but unseen voice makes the following proclamation:

“Citizens, gather ‘round your loudspeakers, for we bring important updates! In your kitchens, in your offices, on your factory floors—wherever your loudspeaker is located, turn up the volume!”

Thus begins The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson’s highly engaging, darkly humorous, and occasionally frightening look at life in North Korea under the sadistic rule of Kim Jong Il. The story is centered on Pak Jun Do, a man of humble origins who rises to a position of modest prominence in the ruling political party based on his willingness to do whatever it takes when executing orders. However, after a diplomatic assignment ends in failure, Jun Do lands in a prison mine where inmates are sent to basically work themselves to death. Improbably, he survives and assumes the identity of Commander Ga, a military hero who is Kim’s bitter rival, even to the point of moving in with Ga’s wife, the beautiful actress Sun Moon, and two children. His attempt to help the family flee to safety—using a scheme based on the plot of Casablanca, the only film that Jun Do has been allowed to see—represents the dramatic tension that drives the story to its conclusion.

So, is this novel a carefully researched work of historical fiction or an audacious and astounding feat of one man’s imagination? Given how little Western readers know about North Korea—its culture, its people, its social structures—it is probably impossible to know for sure. Still, in what might be the author’s most remarkable achievement, all of the words certainly seemed like the truth to me. By whatever means, Johnson has given us a compelling view of the day-to-day lives of people who are terrorized and repressed by their “Dear Leader” in much the same way that Graham Greene exposed the Duvalier regime in Haiti in The Comedians or Trujillo’s reign of terror in the Dominican Republic was laid bare in Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat. In fact, so complete and compelling is the portrait of state-sponsored brutality in this book that you will probably find yourself comparing it to George Orwell’s 1984, which is about the highest praise I can think to offer.

Beyond the inventive re-creation of North Korean society—from the abject poverty in its remote villages to the spare, relative splendor in the capital city of Pyongyang—what most impressed me about The Orphan Master’s Son was how fully realized all of the major characters were. At the top of that list, of course, is the author’s portrayal of Jun Do, who is both a kidnapper and a murderer but someone who you end up caring about and rooting for throughout the narrative. Additionally, the way in which Johnson brings the personality of Kim Jong Il to life is both very brave and very effective in the context of the tale. From start to finish, this was a first-rate piece of story-telling as well as one of the more enjoyable books that I have read in quite a while, despite the sometimes disturbing nature of the subject matter. Although it hardly needs my endorsement—it did win the Pulitzer Prize, after all—this is a novel that I can recommend both enthusiastically and without reservation. ( )
1 vote browner56 | Jun 1, 2016 |
The story is about a young man in North Korea who was raised in the orphanage his father ran. It follows his strange odyssey from an outcast mistaken for one of the orphans his father tends, into the army, and into the upper echelons of North Korean society. The story has a strong theme of identity, and it is terrifying, hilarious and poignant all at the same time. I am not sure if some the anecdotes here are based on truth, but much of this stuff is too bizarre to make up. I have read several other recent Pulitzer nominees, and Orphan Masters Son stands head and shoulders above them, it is in a league by itself. ( )
  Kkamm | May 7, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 199 (next | show all)
"Readers who enjoy a fast-paced political thriller will welcome this wild ride through the amazingly conflicted world that exists within the heavily guarded confines of North Korea. Highly recommended. "
added by Christa_Josh | editLibrary Journal, Susanne Wells (Nov 1, 2011)

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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Johnson, Adamprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Powers, RichardAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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my sun,
my moon,
my star and,
First words
Citizens, gather 'round your loudspeakers, for we bring important updates!
The darkness inside your head is something your imagination fills with stories that have nothing to do with the real darkness around you.
Compared to forgetting, did living really stand a chance?
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Book description
An epic novel and a thrilling literary discovery, The Orphan Master’s Son follows a young man’s journey through the icy waters, dark tunnels, and eerie spy chambers of the world’s most mysterious dictatorship, North Korea.

Pak Jun Do is the haunted son of a lost mother—a singer “stolen” to Pyongyang—and an influential father who runs Long Tomorrows, a work camp for orphans. There the boy is given his first taste of power, picking which orphans eat first and which will be lent out for manual labor. Recognized for his loyalty and keen instincts, Jun Do comes to the attention of superiors in the state, rises in the ranks, and starts on a road from which there will be no return.

Part breathless thriller, part story of innocence lost, part story of romantic love, The Orphan Master’s Son is also a riveting portrait of a world heretofore hidden from view: a North Korea rife with hunger, corruption, and casual cruelty but also camaraderie, stolen moments of beauty, and love. A towering literary achievement, The Orphan Master’s Son ushers Adam Johnson into the small group of today’s greatest writers.
Haiku summary
Disturbing account
Of North Korea under
Kim Jong-Il. Tough stuff.

Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0812992792, Hardcover)

An Amazon Best Book of the Month, January 2012

Adam Johnson on The Orphan Master's Son

When I arrived at Pyongyang's Sunan Airport a few years ago, my head was still spinning from a landing on a runway lined with cattle, electric fences and the fuselages of other jets whose landings hadn't gone so well. Even though I'd spent three years writing and researching The Orphan Master's Son, I was unprepared for what I was about to encounter in “the most glorious nation in the world.”

I'd started writing about North Korea because of a fascination with propaganda and the way it prescribes an official narrative to an entire people. In Pyongyang, that narrative begins with the founding of a glorious nation under the fatherly guidance of Kim Il Sung, is followed by years of industry and sacrifice among its citizenry, so that when Kim Jong Il comes to power, all is strength, happiness and prosperity. It didn't matter that the story was a complete fiction--every citizen was forced to become a character whose motivations, desires and fears were dictated by this script. The labor camps were filled with those who hadn't played their parts, who'd spoken of deprivation instead of plenitude and the purest democracy.

When I visited places like Pyongyang, Kaesong City, Panmunjom and Myohyangsan, I understood that a genuine interaction with a North Korean citizen was unlikely, since contact with foreigners was illegal. As I walked the streets, not one person would risk a glance, a smile, even a pause in their daily routine. In the Puhung Metro Station, I wondered what happened to personal desires when they came into conflict with a national story. Was it possible to retain a personal identity in such conditions, and under what circumstances would a person reveal his or her true nature? These mysteries--of subsumed selves, of hidden lives, of rewritten longings--are the fuel of novels, and I felt a powerful desire to help reveal what a dynastic dictatorship had forced these people to conceal.

Of course, I could only speculate on those lives, filling the voids with research and imagination. Back home, I continued to read books and seek out personal accounts. Testimonies of gulag survivors like Kang Chol Hwan proved invaluable. But I found that most scholarship on the DPRK was dedicated to military, political and economic theory. Fewer were the books that focused directly on the people who daily endured such circumstances. Rarer were the narratives that tallied the personal cost of hidden emotions, abandoned relationships, forgotten identities. These stories I felt a personal duty to tell. Traveling to North Korea filled me with a sense that every person there, from the lowliest laborer to military leaders, had to surrender a rich private life in order to enact one pre-written by the Party. To capture this on the page, I created characters across all levels of society, from the orphan soldier to the Party leaders. And since Kim Jong Il had written the script for all of North Korea, my novel didn't make sense without writing his role as well.

Featured Photographs

Anti-tank devices seen while traveling south from Pyongyang toward Panmunj
  DPRK soldier
  Air raid sirens
  Revelutionary Martyr's Cemetery on Mount Taesong

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:15 -0400)

(see all 7 descriptions)

The son of an influential father who runs an orphan work camp, Pak Jun Do rises to prominence using instinctive talents and eventually becomes a professional kidnapper and romantic rival to Kim Jong Il.

(summary from another edition)

» see all 7 descriptions

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