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The Ginseng Hunter: A Novel by Jeff Talarigo
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The Ginseng Hunter: A Novel (2008)

by Jeff Talarigo

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17013103,627 (3.71)27

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I liked the story about a Chinese-Korean farmer/ginseng hunter who lives along the Tumen River that borders N Korea as a tale. But I found the protagonist's thoughts and those of the N Koreans "westernized"; I did not "believe" they were Chinese nor Koreans.

While set in an exotic locale and in spite of ecstatic descriptions of nature and the seasons, I never felt the surroundings to be distinctively China. The horrific descriptions of life in N Korea aligned with the impressions I'd gleaned from having read Adam Johnson's superb Pulitzer winning novel The Orphan Master's Son. In fact, I wondered if Johnson had read Talarigo's earlier published novel and found perverse inspiration there.

Talarigo explores the theme of the fragile strength of compassion in the face of inhumane brutality, but we feel no victory here except the ironic peace that comes to the brutalized in death. We're not even sure of the farmer's commitment to helping his fellow man, since he turns the refugees who seek shelter at his farm over to another person whose intentions are totally ambiguous, and he receives money from that person for doing so.

I'd call the novel a literary writers' camp project -- artful, restrained, dramatic, poetic, and heavily thematic but not as good as it should have been because it was impossible to suspend disbelief. ( )
  Limelite | Jul 27, 2015 |
The language is poetic, elegant, and sparse. The plot is simple, the mood bleak. Sometimes the elliptical narration style, combined with the fact that most of the characters aren't given names, leads to confusion. This book is an eye-opening look at life inside North Korea and life on the North Korean-Chinese border, but like many books written by individuals not native to the country they write about, the characters seem more like emblems rather than real people. Even though the main character undergoes psychologically intense inner conflict, I do not see in him the psychological complexity I would expect in a portrayal written by a native of the culture. While not perfect, it is still a worthwhile read. ( )
  jennie_c | Oct 24, 2012 |
Rating: 3* of five

The Book Report: A short, poetic novel of the Cultural Revolution era as seen from the viewpoint of a man whose life has been defined by following his family's tradition of gathering ginseng root in the wild. He narrates for us the events of that uneventful life, with a wistful, elegiac tone. The book illuminates a life and a folkway that this half-Korean, half-Chinese man is so deeply enmeshed into that the metaphors he uses in his head to explain the world to himself are all tied, in the end, to the natural world of his ginseng hunting.

Intertwined with his first-person narrative is a third-person narrative of a much younger North Korean woman, a prostitute with a daughter to support in a country where there is next to nothing material available to its citizens. She meets the ginseng hunter in the course of business, as he traverses the border between the two countries freely. He pursues a peculiar, sort-kinda relationship with her, and as the North Korean regime turns more insane than ever, lives are lost (to put it mildly) and the ginseng hunter's petite amie is at serious risk.

The novel's resolution of these strands...unworldly man must decide the fate of worldly woman...is succinct and played out like Chinese opera: Gesturally, accompanied by the bare minimum of speech needed, and set against the most gorgeous, lavish scenery imaginable.

My Review: I want to kill the lousy, incompetent, damnfool idiot editor and copy editor of this book. Dead. I'll be merciful and say it can be quick. But the truly lovely récit that is in this awkward short novel, the beautiful sparkling gem that could have been cut from the rock here, is lost.

What earthly use was there, I wondered as I cruised through this, in putting in the third-person narrative of the prostitute's dreary life? Did it do anything for the arc of the story? Not that I could see, it didn't. It jarred against the ginseng hunter's flowing narrative of his world and its widening circles in an unnecessary way. If the récit form had been followed, the young woman's dreadful plight, and his decision as to how he'd resolve it, would have been just as powerful. The ginseng hunter is the heart and soul and point of the book, or if he's not, the young prostitute is too poorly developed to play her role effectively.

But that's the book the editor created, and I assume she (specifically named in the author's acknowledgments) intended to create. That it isn't the book I'd've made out of the material at hand is just too damn bad for me, eh what?

Fair enough point. But in reading a book, is the reader not expected, indeed almost required, to participate in the creation of the story as the writer and the editor (and the copy editor, more on that anon) unfold it before him (in my case)? That is, in the act of reading, isn't the reader's job to allow the words to create emotional responses, to call up sense memories, to paint on the mind's canvas images of things known and unknown? And therefore, isn't it also incumbent on the reader to look carefully at those images, analyze those sense memories, and determine which ones are successfully evoked and which are wanting? Then comes the “why” of it...why did this not work for me? What was the author aiming at, and did I get there with him?

As my answers to all the above are “yes,” I'm willing to use my review, my opinion, informed by a long lifetime of reading and a career in publishing's outer groves, to offer informed conclusions as to what went right and what went wrong in a given text.

What went right in this story was all the ginseng hunter's viewpoint, and what went wrong was the awkward intersection between the prostitute's viewpoint and the ginseng hunter's viewpoint. Less can indeed be more, but more was needed to stitch these two narratives together and make a successful novel out of them. Less of what was given would have turned this into a beautiful récit. As it was, the beautiful bits earned the book three stars, which is more than I'd normally give a Frankenbook.

Lastly, I want to comment in terms most censorious upon the job done by the copy editor. By page 23, I was so angry that I followed my punkin pie around the house reading howlers and snarling about them, and then called a friend of mine and made HER listen to me rant about them. A person hired to copy edit a book who allows the non-word “clinged” to be typeset, printed, bound, and offered for sale in the United States of America should be subject to legal sanctions. I'll stop there, because I can feel my blood pressure rising, but there are other errors, not mere infelicities, that caused me severe pain. Copyediting is a serious job. How words are presented on a page is a very important part of how a book is perceived by readers. The purpose of the job is to make the author's words transparent vehicles for communicating the ideas they carry. It is jolting, jarring, to have to stop and say to one's self, “wha...? what was that again?” in the process of reading. That is what poor, or no, copyediting leads to, and why editors and copy editors are such crucial (if invisible to most readers) parts of the reading process.

Rant over. For today. Read the book, the ideas are wonderful and even mediocre presentation of them can't make them unpleasant enough to avoid. ( )
2 vote richardderus | Mar 25, 2012 |
A man in China, near the border of North Korea, a ginseng hunter lives a life of nearly absolute solitude. One day each month he travels into the nearest city to sell his ginseng, buy supplies if needed, and spends a night with one of Miss Wong's prostitutes. Living such a reclusive lifestyle he lives blissfully unaware of current events, but that quickly changes when he witnesses dead bodies floating in the river near his home and a North Korean prostitute informs him of the horrors happening in her country. Our narrator's secluded world comes crashing down as he is forced to come to terms with what is happening all around him.

I loved this book, as I seem to love every book written in this style. Sparse, aimless, not about what's going to happen next but what's happening right now. There isn't much of a plot, and so there isn't much of an ending, but this method as always lead to memorable books for me. This one fails to disprove that theory, as I loved it just as much as every other similar book I have ever read. ( )
  Ape | Mar 15, 2012 |
Just read this book for the second time. I must have been completely distracted through mt first reading because I caught the essence of the story without picking up on the more subtle aspects. It is a beautiful book about a Chinese ginseng hunter who lives near the Tumen River, a boarder between China and North Korea. There is a line in the book that states: "When it comes to rivers, those that serve as boundaries are the most burdened of all." Such phenomenal language fills every sentence of this book.

Some people may see the unnamed narrator as indifferent or possibly inexpressive, but Western readers should take into account the way the man has been raised and the fact that he is more closely related to the forest that he might be to the human race. In that way, the story is an awakening for the narrator; a return to human connection that he seemed to have cut off so long ago. With that in mind, I take away the thought that you can not avoid life or the lives of others no matter how much simpler we think life might be.

I will also mention (not to brag) that I am a MFA Creative writing student of Mr. Talarigo's. Does that make me biased? Maybe. But it honestly it makes me feel that I am being guided by a truly talented person whose work I not only respect, but thoroughly enjoy. ( )
1 vote JosephJ | Nov 7, 2011 |
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But we all have moments when we must listen in tears to the silence of the swarming path inside ourselves. -- Kim Myong-In
Dedication
For those who have made it across,

And for those who haven't.

And for my family of women,

And for Aya and Bella, so much a part of it.
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The river begins in a single country, and then crosses into another.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0385517394, Hardcover)

Set at the turn of the twenty-first century in China along the Tumen River, which separates northeast China and North Korea, The Ginseng Hunter is an unforgettable portrait of life along a fragile border.

A Chinese ginseng hunter lives alone in the valley and spends his days up in the mountains looking for ginseng and preparing for winter. He is scarcely aware of the larger world until shadowy figures hiding in the fields, bodies floating in the river, and rumors of thievery and murder begin to intrude on his cherished solitude. On one of his monthly trips to Yanji, where he buys supplies and visits a brothel, he meets a young North Korean prostitute. Through her vivid tales, the tragedy occurring across the river unfolds, and over the course of the year the hunter unnervingly discovers that the fates of the young woman and four others rest in his hands.

Spare, intimate, and strikingly atmospheric, The Ginseng Hunter takes us into the little-understood lives of North Koreans and confirms Jeff Talarigo's immense gift for storytelling.

The Ginseng Hunter is based on actual events that are happening today in North Korea, also known as the DPRK, and along the Northeast border of China, to where many North Korean refugees flee.

In response to this humanitarian crisis, Liberty in North Korea, or LiNK, an international NGO, maintains programs in refugee protection and resettlement, leadership development for North Korean defectors, advocacy to stakeholders in the North Korean crisis, and the empowerment of citizens to make a difference with effective action. To learn more, please visit www.LiNKglobal.org .

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:09:14 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"A Chinese ginseng hunter lives alone in the valley and spends his days up in the mountains looking for ginseng and preparing for winter. He is scarcely aware of the larger world until shadowy figures hiding in the fields, bodies floating in the river, and rumors of thievery and murder begin to intrude on his cherished solitude. On one of his monthly trips to Yanji, where he buys supplies and visits a brothel, he meets a young North Korean prostitute. Through her vivid tales, the tragedy occurring across the river unfolds, and over the course of the year the hunter unnervingly discovers that the fates of the young woman and four others rest in his hands." "Spare, intimate, and strikingly atmospheric, The Ginseng Hunter takes us into the little understood lives of North Koreans."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

» see all 3 descriptions

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