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Ecstasies and Orphans

I've managed to read 2 books so far this year, The Ecstasy of Influence by Jonathan Lethem and The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson. Before I talk about the books, I thought I'd talk about my book goals for 2012. I've joined the Books on the Nightstand 12 in '12 Challenge for the year; my 12 for the year will be books from 2011 that I didn't get around to reading last year. In addition, I've also set a goal of 52 books on the year, which works out to one a week. Obviously, I'm already behind that pace...but it's also early in the game.

Lethem's The Ecstasy of Influence collects a wide variety of his work, mainly non-fiction in nature, though there are some scattered pieces of fiction throughout. He talks about his brief days at Bennington and short friendships with Donna Tartt and Bret Easton Ellis, an interview he did with Bob Dylan, his thoughts on the book critic James Wood, Philip K. Dick, book reviews, super-heroes, movies, and so much more. One particularly interesting piece is the title track, as it were, in which he takes on the idea of copyright and decides that creators get to hold onto their copyrights for much too long. While I liked some pieces better than others, I found the book very entertaining. Lethem knows how to write, which is why I became a fan after reading Motherless Brooklyn just over a decade ago. Reading this also reminds me I still need to go back and read most of his novels before Motherless Brooklyn - maybe I'll add that to my reading year.

I've been waiting for something new from Adam Johnson for years. I read his debut story collection (Emporium) and debut novel (Parasites Like Us) back in 2003 and really liked both. Since then I would periodically do a search on Amazon to see if he had something new coming up. I guess it had been a while since I even did that because I read about The Orphan Master's Son on a book website in December. Luckily, the new novel was worth that wait. It's set in North Korea and (the late) Kim Jong Il is a major character in the book, not only appearing in the pages but in how he shapes the psyche and landscape of the country. Our main character is an orphan but not really an orphan who works in the darkness of tunnels, becomes part of a ship crew, travels to Texas on a diplomatic missions of sorts, goes to prison, and comes out of prison as another man. That's a simplification of a book that includes the greatest North Korean actress, Sun Moon, and another nameless man who works as an interrogator but is concerned with writing the biographies of his cases instead. It is a book of identity, story, power, and love. It is fantastic and a candidate for one of my favorite books of the year even at this early stage.


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