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Orphan Masters Son by Adam Johnson

Orphan Masters Son (original 2012; edition 2012)

by Adam Johnson

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2,0321993,293 (4.04)282
Title:Orphan Masters Son
Authors:Adam Johnson
Info:Random House Export (2012), Paperback, 416 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:North Korea, Pak Jun Do, defection, orphan

Work details

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

  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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Showing 1-5 of 195 (next | show all)
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 |
“And don’t forget citizens: the ban on stargazing is still in effect.”

In the powerful non-fiction book [b:Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea|6178648|Nothing to Envy Ordinary Lives in North Korea|Barbara Demick|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1320449375s/6178648.jpg|6358552], a satellite photo shows South Korea heavily lit up, but North Korea in almost complete blackness.
A scene in this book is a riff on that photo, as imagined by a North Korean: “The American citizen, however, is wide awake. You should see a satellite photo of that confused nation at night—it’s one grand swath of light, glaring with the sum of their idle, indolent evenings. Lazy and unmotivated, Americans stay up late, engaging in television, homosexuality, and even religion, anything to fill their selfish appetites.”

The terrifying fear of the government dictated how lives were lived, yet the absolute rule meant that they knew only a life under the Dear Leader, and didn’t know that other possibilities existed. This book is the fictional counterpart to “Nothing to Envy”, and imagines some of the weird world inhabited by the minions of Kim Jong Il.

The course of Jun Do’s life seems arbitrary, subject only to the bizarre and often cruel whims of those who lord power over him. For a few years, he works as a kidnapper for the Korean government (well, everyone is working for the government. The Leader is their Father. They are working for the Glory of their country.) He is part of a team that trawls the coast of Japan, snatching unwary people off beaches and piers, and spiriting them to Korea. It is so bizarre, yet this is actually based on fact. There was a period of a few years in the 90s when this happened.
Their navy base houses missiles which apparently get better treatment than the soldiers: “There was no doctor. The infirmary was just a place where sick soldiers were housed until it was clear they wouldn’t recover. If the young soldier hadn’t improved by morning, the MPs would hook up a blood line and drain four units from him. Jun Do had seen it before, and as far as he could tell, it was the best way to go. It only took a couple of minutes—first they got sleepy, then a little dreamy looking, and if there was a last little panic at the end, it didn’t matter because they couldn’t talk anymore, and finally, before lights out, they looked pleasantly confused, like a cricket with its feelers pulled off.”

In one phase, he somehow ends up being a translator for a small governmental envoy that travels to Texas. They are hosted by a powerful senator who is determined to show them good ole American hospitality. It is here that Jun Do begins to understand his own oppression. “When the dogs returned, the Senator gave them treats from his pocket, and Jun Do understood that in communism, you’d threaten a dog into compliance, while in capitalism, obedience is obtained through bribes.”

The cruelty of the regime is unimaginable. To survive means to become part of the regime, and to conform. Jun Do works for a while in a prison camp -- the inmates are photographed on entry, and photographed again in the act of dying as their blood is drained into bags.

Some horrors are likely culture-based. They do not regard dogs as pets, they are just another animal. “A group of stage mothers from the Children’s Palace Theater was enlisted to make the gift baskets. While calfskin could not be found for the making of gloves, the most supple replacement—puppy—was chosen.” This wouldn’t have seemed so repugnant if the word ‘kidskin’ instead of ‘puppy’ was used.

These horrors are described secondarily, to provide context for the story, which is about a boy who becomes a man, and eventually decides he will create choice, and find his way to his love.

Jun Do gets the chance to choose one DVD to take back with him to North Korea. It is “Casablanca”. Later sequences in the book are like distorted surreal scenes from Casablanca. Claude Rains says “Round up the usual suspects." The Korean says, “Detain all the citizens, confirm their IDs.” Of course, we can’t help but think, “We’ll always have Paris…” and wonder if that's how it will turn out. ( )
  TheBookJunky | Apr 22, 2016 |
Watch the PBS interview, then read the book and wonder at the world Johnson created. He somehow went to North Korea and incorporated some of what he glimpsed. Although the country is a mystery to us, perhaps this book sheds light through the power of fiction. ( )
  sydsavvy | Apr 8, 2016 |
A very timely read after the recent UN report on human rights atrocities in North Korea. This is a fascinating story based on the author's visits to the country plus the first hand accounts of those who have managed to escape the regime so it doesn't pretend to be an accurate picture of life in North Korea. In fact, it often verges more on a kind of magical realism in its style than a documentary. Even so, it's fascinating and develops strong believable characters and an almost thriller-like tension towards the end. ( )
  stephengoldenberg | Apr 6, 2016 |
The Orphan Master's Son has been in my TBR pile for quite some time. The book recommended by another book group I am in, and it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the author graduated from ASU (my daughter just graduated this past year from ASU - Go Devils) and the book has been on many blogs that I follow.

I read and listened to the audio of this book at the same time, and I would highly recommend the audio version the narration by three different voices is fantastic, plus the author speaks about his research and the time he took to put this story together.

This is one of those books that just stays with you; it is harsh, and you have a character you loathe through the majority of the book until he begins to develop a conscience. Johnson is brilliant in the way he not only draws you in with the horrific conditions of such a dystopian lifestyle, but he adds glimpses of beauty in cold, sanitized and heartless conditions.

I can clearly see why the book and author won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In this uncertain time in our world, a book like this can spur you to learn how much of the fiction could become based on facts. I did find articles; books and documentaries to explore further the non-fiction side based on the limited access and our history with the country.

As I write this review, the North Koreans are firing rockets towards the Pope's plane who is on his way to South Korea.

I will update this review after our book club discussion. ( )
  yvonne.sevignykaiser | Apr 2, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 195 (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 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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