June 2, 2013

Reading the wide world

Only one of the books in this post is set in Britain, and that was written in the 1920’s and takes place in a number of earlier times. None are set in either the United States or New Zealand.

I read How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid because a friend in London heard him speak and was impressed. I'm glad she told me about him as the next week I saw it in the "bestseller" section at my library and brought it home. It's is an unusual book, based I think in Pakistan, written in the second person; the reader is addressed as "you" throughout and given advice even in the chapter headings such as "Move to the City" or Work for Yourself." There is a narrative, the story of the person who I guess is the protagonist. It's a beautifully written book and I loved it.

Re-reading Orlando for a reading group, I was surprised at the dense, lyrical writing, which I had forgotten. I kept thinking about Cezanne's paintings. Virginia Woolf had such a great understanding of sexual politics and what being a woman meant at different times. Orlando's consciousness of her self in different periods without any demonstration of surprise is fun. And I especially like the way the three hundred years it covers start and finish under the same tree.

Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize, which is why I read it. It's a grim story set in North Korea when Leader Kim Jong il was a young man. The story is told through a number of means—in the first person, via official stories piped into every workplace and home and street, via stories extracted through torture, and all sorts. The human to human cruelty is immense. The plot is complicated. It’s a great, if grim, read. Pak Jun Do, the son of the title, listens while he’s at sea on a fishing boat, to the broadcast of a young American woman rowing around the world.

"What was it about English speakers that allowed them to talk into transmitters as if the sky were a diary? If Koreans spoke this way, maybe they’d make more sense to Jun Do. Maybe he’d understand why some people accepted their fates while others didn’t. He might know why people scoured all the orphanages looking for one particular child when any child would do, these were perfectly good children." (page 41)

The story of Jesus’s life from four different points of view, all of them involving “lies” makes up Naomi Alderman’s The Liars’ Gospel. This book is really interesting to read as picture of the lives of the times, which were often grim and gruesome. People’s capacity to do dreadful things to each other has been around for a very long time. I guess it’s na├»ve of me to think we are any better “now.”