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Orphan Masters Son by Adam Johnson

Orphan Masters Son (original 2012; edition 2012)

by Adam Johnson

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,4201615,321 (4.05)225
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)

2012 (23) 2013 (21) 21st century (10) American literature (11) ARC (10) Asia (11) audiobook (10) book club (11) contemporary fiction (13) ebook (19) fiction (229) historical fiction (23) Kindle (21) Korea (22) literary fiction (10) literature (11) North Korea (178) novel (38) orphans (13) own (9) propaganda (12) Pulitzer (31) Pulitzer Prize (28) read (17) read in 2012 (9) read in 2013 (17) signed (14) to-read (100) torture (12) wishlist (13)
  1. 50
    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
    Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (aethercowboy)
  5. 00
    Sons of Heaven by Terrence Cheng (booklove2)
    booklove2: Main characters have similar personalities, also they both battle regimes.
  6. 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).
  7. 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.

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Showing 1-5 of 161 (next | show all)
Fantastic story, a whirlwind tour of the entire North Korean infrastructure. The reader is escorted from peasantry through the elite cadre of Pyongyang, in this expository fiction that humanizes the oppressed people of the Hermit Kingdom. Lavish prose and humbling, grounding moments make it easy to connect with this story, set in the isolated empire that thrives off of opacity and misdirection. The author truly dedicated himself to serious, well-rounded research and it shows in this insane and frighteningly accurate portrayal of the DPRK. ( )
  sxoidmal | Jul 9, 2014 |
Wow! ( )
  Jolynne | Jul 4, 2014 |
It's hard to explain how a book so bleak in subject matter and setting -- North Korea under Kim Jung il -- can be so full of heart, humanity and even humor, but it is. It worked for me both as a "good read," meaning a compulsively readable page turner focused on one young man's life, and as a serious, thought provoking book raising issues about, well, just about everything important: individual identity and society, torture, good and evil, family, love, survival. The portion of the book where our hero is at sea has lovely, haunting moments, and the interlude in Texas provides some comic relief ("you do know the south won?"). ( )
  Hanneri | Jul 1, 2014 |
The Orphan Master's Son is an uncanny peek behind the North Korean curtain. It centers around an orphan, Jun Do, who starts out dutifully following a series of military and then intelligence tasks. But his encounters with foreign cultures, and particularly America, turn him more independent. In the second part of the novel, he reappears under the identify of Commander Ga--and a series of overlapping versions told through the loudspeaker's run by North Korean state media, a torturer in the secret police, and Jun Do/Ga's perspective itself--fill in his ordeal in the prison camp, escape, and life in paranoid and psychotic Pyongyang.

The depictions of arbitrary despotism, torture and imprisonment are brutal--and remind me somewhat of Mario Vargas Llosa's Feast of the Goat and other novels. But The Orphan Master's Son is also very humorous, especially its parodies of North Korean grandiosity ("the longest grained rice in the world!") and paranoia about the rest of the world. And it features a tender love story as well.

Given how little is known about North Korea, a novel written by someone who put a lot of effort into talking to defectors and even visiting the country feels like a reasonable way to get even a tiny insight of a guess into what life is like there. And it is also an entertaining story as well. ( )
  nosajeel | Jun 21, 2014 |
Summary: Jun Do grew up in an orphanage in North Korea, the son of a famous singer who left him to go to Pyongyang and a father who runs the orphanage. As part of the orphans' work gang, Jun Do learns to fight in the tunnels, and then rises through the ranks to become a kidnapper, and ultimately learns English in order to intercept and interpret foreign radio broadcasts. Ultimately, in a strange twist of fate, Jun Do finds himself forced to on another man's identity - and with it, his wife, the national actress Sun Moon. But surviving in the dictatorship of North Korea is a tricky business, when the government holds absolute authority over your life and death, and you must comply with the whims of those in charge or risk terrible punishments for yourself and those around you.

Review: This was very much not my usual fare, and I probably never would have picked it up if not for my book club (and really, isn't that what book clubs are for?), but I wound up… not exactly enjoying it, but certainly finding it extremely interesting. Johnson paints a very vivid image of what life might be like for an average person inside North Korea, something I'd never really considered in any great detail before. (I say "might be like" rather than "is" because I'm still not entirely sure how much of this book is factual. Johnson has traveled in North Korea, albeit only with government-approved guides, and this book is based on that and on the tales of defectors… but I'm unsure how much his Western perspective really colored the story. I guess we'll have to wait until we start getting novels by North Korean novelists in order to find out for sure.) I think when we hear stories out of North Korea, we tend to think things like "how can people live like that? Don't they know any better?", and this book was an interesting explanation of how - and why - people live in these kind of totalitarian dictatorships, and how they retain some semblance of humanity and identity - or not. Fascinating stuff to think about.

The story itself was… odd. It was hard to really get to know Jun Do, much less any of the other characters, but that's sort of the point: he's our everyman, our John Doe, and he's not in a situation that's conducive to individuality or self-expression. The story was also really episodic - he's an orphan, he's a kidnapper, he's on a fishing boat, he's in Texas, he's in prison, he's impersonating a military commander. Part of that was also surely intentional, to point up the arbitrariness of the rules under which he exists, but there were some transitional steps, particularly early on (the tunnels and the language school, in particular), that were glossed over or only mentioned in passing, which made the beginning a little uneven and difficult to follow. All of the arbitrariness also had the effect of making some parts seem almost farcical - and I did find this book quite funny in places, in a very black humor kind of way - but there's always this awful undercurrent of paranoia and very real danger running under everything that makes things less amusing and more tense and distressing. So, overall, while I can't exactly say that I enjoyed this book, it was definitely a worthwhile read, a glimpse into a world we don't normally get to see, and one filled with some really vivid imagery that I think will stick with me for a long time. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: If you like books that give you a doorway into someone else's life, someone else's world, that is nothing at all like your life or your world, this should definitely be on your list. ( )
1 vote fyrefly98 | Jun 12, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 161 (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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Powers, RichardAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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my sun,
my moon,
my star and,
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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 Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:55:18 -0400)

(see all 7 descriptions)

Pak Jun Do is the haunted son of a lost mother--a singer "stolen" to Pyongyang--and an influential father who runs a work camp for orphans. Superiors in the state soon recognize the boy's loyalty and keen instincts. Considering himself "a humble citizen of the greatest nation in the world," Jun Do rises in the ranks. He becomes a professional kidnapper who must navigate the shifting rules, arbitrary violence, and baffling demands of his Korean overlords in order to stay alive.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

» see all 7 descriptions

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