Last week I read The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, and as you may have already figured out if you read my review of The Graveyard Book, I love his books. His newest work is no exception; I loved it.
I don’t want to talk about the plot too much because I feel like you should read it. And everything else he’s written too. My review instead is going to cover two topics: 1. Gaiman’s use of mythology and 2. the “moral” of the story.
First, if you’ve ever read anything written by Gaiman, you should easily recognize his grasp of mythology and the realms of magic. I think he knows everything about every type of mythology there is. Seriously, if you don’t understand what I’m talking about, read American Gods, and then read Anansi Boys, and then read the entire Sandman comic series. He uses myth in a way that is absolutely brilliant. He does the same with magic. The Ocean and the End of the Lane does not disappoint in this area.
Second, The Ocean at the End of the Lane has a bittersweet ending. I don’t want to tell you exactly what happened, but I feel like the “moral” of the story or the lesson the novel teaches is that as grown ups, we don’t see the magic in the world anymore, even when it’s right in front of us. That mad me sad. But at the same time, I get where Gaiman is coming from. Grown ups don’t explain things away using magic; instead, we rationalize. Personally, I think it would be great to live in a time again where I thought Santa and fairies were real.
So, the moral of this review, read The Ocean at the End of the Lane; it is both beautiful and sad.
The short review of this book is I found it rather ‘meh.’ It didn’t wow me and it wasn’t terrible.
I don’t read many mystery novels because I find them terribly predictable and I can usually solve the case within a few chapters. (Though, that is not true of all mystery books. I find some of the older mysteries quite thrilling – i.e. Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers).
This particular book has two plots: a story set in our time about the missing Doyle diary and a story about what Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was up to during the period of the missing diary. Of the two plots, I found the tale of Dr. Doyle the more interesting and entertaining. The plot set in our time was very, very predictable and very, very slow for a mystery novel.
I realize that mysteries employ a set of standard plot devices – red herrings, twists, etc. – but this book didn’t even use those elements in a surprising way. That being said, there was a redeeming factor in this book for me, and that was the second plot about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
The plot set in Victorian London involved the murder of several young women, and Dr. Doyle is the only man who seems capable of solving the crime. What I enjoyed most about this part of the novel was the way that Dr. Doyle was portrayed. Part of the novel involves him dealing with the aftermath of having killed off Sherlock Holmes. People act as if he has killed an actual person. As a writer, he struggles with how attached to his character fans have become. He also explains why he loathes the character of Sherlock Holmes. However, by the end of the novel, Doyle does solve the murder and he has decided to bring Holmes back to life. I thought this plot was a clever way to explain the writing choices of Doyle.
In addition to the character of Doyle, Bram Stoker also makes an appearance as Doyle’s trusty sidekick. The character of Stoker is also entertaining. The novel explains Stoker’s personal struggles with writing and what Stoker had to as his day job. His friendship with Doyle is also a very important element of the novel.
I am going to keep this review fairly short. A friend of mine who also posts book reviews on her blog has joked at writing one word book reviews. So my one word for this book: haveyoueverwonderedwhatwouldhappenifachildwasraisedinacemetary?
Have you heard the expression “it takes a village to raise a child?” Well, this book is a case study for the expression “it takes a cemetery to raise a child.”
I don’t want to write too much about this book because I think you should read it. It’s a great little story, if a bit odd. I enjoyed reading it and had a hard time putting it down. I haven’t read everything ever written by Gaiman like some people I know, but everything I’ve read by him I have really loved. This book was no exception. Of course, if you haven’t read American Gods by Gaiman, read that instead (one of the best books I have EVER read, no joke).
Like I said, I don’t want to get into the plot, but I will say this about Gaiman’s work. He has a knack for creating tales that are intricately woven together. When I read his work, I feel like if one small bit of it was missing, the tale wouldn’t hold together, and for some reason I think that’s what makes him so brilliant.
So, I can’t write a one-word review, but I can pretty much sum it up in one sentence…
I picked this book up because I saw it in the library and recognized the author’s name from a presentation I gave in graduate school. I think I set myself up for failure because I thought the book would be great because it was an author we discussed in my Harlem Renaissance class. However, I didn’t enjoy reading this book and I actually feel bad for saying that. For whatever reason, I thought this book was kind of boring.
I feel bad about that because I think this book qualifies as Literature (note the capital L). I am willing to admit that everything that is considered Literature I don’t necessarily like, or even understand why others might like it. As with any form of Art, it is not going to appeal to everyone.
I can, however, appreciate this book for what it is trying to do, which is implementing some very complex literary elements.
One literary element that this book employs is stream of consciousness. The first time I read a book written this way, I was very confused, but after reading several books over the years written in this style, I have learned to enjoy it. In fact, I think some of the books written this way would be horrible written in another style. If you want to read good examples of stories that benefit from a stream of consciousness narrative mode, read Mrs. Dalloway or The Hours. That being said, I don’t see how the story in See Now Then benefited from this mode.
A second literary device that this novel employed was screwing with the timeline. Typically this sort of thing accompanies novels written in stream of consciousness narratives, but again I don’t see how the story benefited from it. I think this was partly because the story didn’t grab me the way some stories do.
Even though I didn’t ultimately enjoy this book, I do think the author has done something challenging. The novel itself reads more like a poem than a typical novel. Kincaid employs repetition of the phrase “See Now Then” throughout the entire novel, and this adds a lyrical quality to the overall work.
The story is about a family that is not happy. The father doesn’t love the mother, if he ever did. The mother is lost in her own world, and the children are one dimensional creations named Hercules and Persephone. I found the character development lacking. I kept thinking there has to be more to this story. I read till the end though because I refuse to not finish a book if I start it (with one exception, but I’m not telling what book it is).
Let me start by saying I’m so glad a winner was chosen this year. Last year, whoever makes this decision decided to not pick a book. I admit I was a little irritated. I actually make it a point to read whatever novel wins the Pulitzer Prize for fiction each year and usually (but not always) it is one of the best books I read each year.
Last year when a book wasn’t chosen, I read about part of the process that goes into choosing this award. I don’t remember 100% how it all worked, but I will say this, if I were one of the people who read / skimmed 300 plus novels to make nominations, I would have been very annoyed that one was ultimately not chosen, especially because it seemed from what I read that many agreed on what book should have won.
As another side note before I review the actual winner from this year, let me also say that I am amazed sometimes at the books that are picked for this and other awards. I tell people (my students, family, friends, and sometimes anyone who will listen) that Literature with a capital “L” should leave a distinct taste in your head while and when you’re done reading it. To me, a Pulitzer Prize winning novel should do that, and I am willing to admit that some of the ones I’ve read don’t leave me with that distinct Literature flavor.
(Let me add at this point, that I believe there is merit to writing that isn’t Literature, but I do believe there is a difference between thought provoking Literature and stories written to entertain. Most novels are read because they’re entertaining, but Literature should also teach you something. Anything. But definitely something.)
And so without any other digressions, my thoughts on The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson…
SPOILER ALERT: This book is written in two parts. The first part tells the story of a young man, Pak Jun Do, who begins his life as the son of a man who runs an orphanage in North Korea. The second part tells the story of a prisoner who kills a commander and takes his place as one of Kim Jong Il’s trusted men.
The first part of this novel sets the stage for the second part, which I felt was the more poignant part of the tale. Before I gush and rave about the second half, let me provide a general feel of the first part. The story quickly moves through Pak Jun Do’s childhood and into his military career; following this, the story moves quickly into his career as a kidnapper and then takes readers into his time aboard a fishing vessel. He is not on the boat as a fisherman; instead, he is there to intercept as many radio transmissions as possible to report back to the authorities. Pak Jun Do’s time aboard the ship is some of the most formative time in his life. I don’t want to give away the whole story, but one very important event happens to him while at sea — he gets a tattoo of Sun Moon, an actress who Kim Jong Il views as his own personal treasure. Many other life altering events occur for Pak Jun Do in part 1, but I don’t want to give away too much of the superbly complex and masterfully woven together narrative of Pak Jun Do’s life.
Setting is the most important element of this novel. Being set in North Korea makes a story that would be completely unbelievable possible. You will have to read it to truly understand why I say that. Think 1984 (which if you haven’t read, you should. Now. Go to the library or buy it for your kindle.)
The society Pak Jun Do is born into doesn’t care about an individual. Loudspeakers are in every home, and daily everyone is told ridiculous and fantastical propaganda that they accept as truth. Every second of every day of their lives is dictated for them, and only fear of being sent to a prison camp keeps most people in line.
Despite the control exerted over individuals, some, like Pak Jun Do, learn to think for themselves. His ability to see opportunity and think on his feet leads to Pak Jun Do assuming the life of Commander Ga. In any other type of society, this plot wouldn’t work, but because his identity isn’t important to the government, they don’t care that he’s an imposter pretending to be one of the top military leaders.
The second half begins as Pak Jun Do steals the life of Commander Ga…
And, the second half of this novel is what makes this story absolutely amazing. The second half of this novel is beautifully constructed. The first part of the novel is told in a rather straight forward linear fashion. Whereas, the second part is separated by distinct shifts in narrator and point of view. The second half juxtaposes the story as told by Pak Jun Do, who is now posing as Commander Ga, the story as told over the loud speakers as propaganda, and a version of events told from the view point of an interrogator. You might be thinking, how does any of that make sense? I assure you, the various viewpoints of this second half are brilliant.
Pak Jun Do manages to pull off the most unthinkable plot — he takes Sun Moon away from Kim Jong Il forever. I don’t want to get into the plot, especially of the second part, because you should read this book (I mean it), but I will say that this novel addresses some wide ranging themes — personal identity in a nation that sees people as expendable, freedom, and true love. All of this and more is intermingled throughout the tale of Pak Jun Do’s personal struggle for freedom in a nation where no one is ever free.
Ultimately, this book is an important read for our time. Our current political tensions with North Korea make this book worth reading. Even though it is a work of fiction, it provides insight about a culture many Americans will never understand.