A funny, iconoclastic Korean-American journalist and author turns her skewering lens on her own culture.
Hong (Kept: A Comedy of Sex and Manners, 2006, etc.) has a mischievous sense of humor when it comes to culture clashes, so it’s a pleasure to see her turn her wicked talents on “Hallyu.” It’s a broad term that describes the proliferation of South Korean pop content into the world’s culture-scape. Along the way, Hong gives a thoughtful, self-deprecating and sly analysis of the movement that brought us not only the unescapable rapper Psy, but also brilliant filmmakers like Park Chan-Wook (Oldboy), culinary superstar Hooni Kim and game developers Blizzard Entertainment (the Starcraft and Warcraft franchises). The book’s opening stories give nice insight into the author’s odd place between two worlds: A fully Americanized Korean-American girl often mistaken for Chinese, her parents moved her back to Korea, specifically the district of Gangnam. “Korea was not cool in 1985,” she bemoans in her opening line. Through the exploration of various cultural tropes, government enterprises, and social and economic changes, Hong shows how Korea got cool in the past decade or so, almost by accident. One of the more interesting chapters looks at “Han,” a sociological meme involving oppression against impossible odds and the eternal thirst for vengeance. Hong levies a lot of different factors into the reasons behind what politicians like to call the “Korean Wave,” among them a technology- and economy-based sophistication that birthed a new sense of irony, as well as a deliberate investment by the government in the creation and export of Hallyu. However, the author also believes that the wealth of addictive soap operas, video games and pop hits doesn’t represent lightning in a bottle, arguing that this brave new world is uniquely Korean.
A pleasing mix of Margaret Cho, Sarah Vowell and a pinch of Cory Doctorow.
Deeply satisfying finale to the best-selling fantasy trilogy (The Magicians, 2009; The Magician King, 2011).
After being dethroned and exiled from the magical kingdom of Fillory for helping his friend Julia become a demigoddess, Quentin returns to Earth to teach at his alma mater, Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. But when his student Plum stumbles across the school’s resident malevolent demon, which Quentin refuses to kill because it was once his lover Alice, they’re both thrown out and forced to take a risky freelance magic job. This involves stealing a suitcase that once belonged to Plum’s great-grandfather Rupert, one of the five Chatwin siblings whose adventures in Fillory were the subject of best-selling books Plum thinks are fictional—until she opens the suitcase to find Rupert’s memoirs. They fill in some blanks about what really happened to the Chatwins in Fillory and provide clues that will help Quentin’s old comrades Eliot and Janet, still ruling over Fillory, who have been warned by the ram-god Ember that the land is slowly dying. As in the previous novels, Grossman captures the magic of fantasy books cherished in youth and repurposes it to decidedly adult ends. He slyly alludes to the Harry Potter series and owes a clear debt to J.K. Rowling’s great action scenes, though his characters’ magical battles have a bravura all their own. But his deepest engagement remains with C.S. Lewis, as Narnia is the obvious prototype for Fillory; the philosophical conclusion Grossman draws from his land’s narrowly averted apocalypse is the exact opposite of that offered in Lewis’ overbearing Christian allegory. Human emotions and desires balance unearthly powers, especially in the drama of Alice’s painful return. A beautiful scene in Fillory’s Drowned Garden reconnects Quentin with the innocent, dreaming boy he once was yet affirms the value of the chastened grown-up he has become.
The essence of being a magician, as Quentin learns to define it, could easily serve as a thumbnail description of Grossman’s art: “the power to enchant the world.”
A man separated from his family for years reckons with his isolation in Manko’s debut, a superb study of statelessness.
In 1920, Austin (born Ustin) Voronkov was a Russian immigrant working as an engineer in Connecticut, married to an American woman and preparing to raise a family. But the Russian Revolution prompted a wave of red-menace paranoia in the United States, and Austin is deported after he’s bullied into saying he’s an anarchist. By 1948, when much of this novel is set, he’s living alone in Mexico City and scraping out a living doing odd-job repairs for the locals. His wife and three children, whom he hasn’t seen in 14 years, are back in the States, while Austin is all but drowning in the paperwork he believes will secure him passage out of Mexico: letters to ambassadors and legislators and patent applications for inventions he’s only dimly aware are outdated. A story framed around so much waiting and bureaucratic listlessness ought to feel drab and slow, but Manko brings plenty of energy to this tale. That’s partly due to the fact that she cannily shifts back and forth in time, recalling the fleeting moments of joy and togetherness Austin had, particularly a brief stint in Mazatlan running a lighthouse. (A bit metaphorically unsubtle, perhaps, but Manko uses light and glass metaphors in rich and complicated ways throughout the book.) Just as important, Manko is a tremendous stylist, using clipped, simple sentences to capture Austin’s mindset as his confidence in escape erodes but never entirely fades; Manko’s shift in perspective toward the end of the book reveals just how much the years of exile have weathered him. She deeply explores two complicated questions: What is the impact of years of lacking a country? And how much does this lack reside in our imaginations?
A top-notch debut, at once sober and lively and provocative.
Hoping to “celebrate the breadth of human-dog relationships in contemporary life,” journalist Denizet-Lewis (Writing and Publishing/Emerson Coll.; American Voyeur: Dispatches from the Far Reaches of Modern Life, 2010, etc.) chronicles a four-month trip with his Labrador mix, Casey. In a small RV, the two traveled from Provincetown, Rhode Island, to Florida, across the South, through the Midwest to California and back. Along the way, Denizet-Lewis met show dogs and strays, police dogs and pampered pets, and he visited with dog rescuers, trainers, groomers, whisperers, masseurs, photographers and healers. He talked with people suffering from cynophobia (fear of dogs) and others who claimed they could communicate with dogs and translate their messages to humans. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, the author visited with dog-loving writer Amy Hempel, who advocates for shelter dogs and pit bulls, which are rarely adopted. Shelter workers tell him that black dogs, also, are hard to place. “Many people subconsciously overlook them,” one shelter worker told Denizet-Lewis, a phenomenon she calls Black Dog Syndrome. The author’s saddest encounter with dogs occurred on a Navajo reservation, where strays abound, and teenagers run over dogs just for sport. From there, Denizet-Lewis left with a new companion, whom he named Rezzy. In North Carolina, he met Rob, an owner of wolfdogs, a combination of wolf and, in this case, Husky. Rob told him that wolves “are shy and misunderstood,” “independent” and “smart as hell,” although they are not affectionate. Unconditional love, though, is what most dog owners desire. The author discovered that whether dogs are capable of love is a subject of much controversy. Some neuroscientists argue that canines do feel love; others think dogs are interested more in treats than in human companionship.
With Americans owning more dogs than any other country in the world, this sprightly, entertaining travelogue should find a delighted readership.
One of America’s most gifted novelists projects dark and daring speculations upon the incredible-but-true 19th-century story of a child piano prodigy who was blind, autistic and a slave.
In the waning years of antebellum slavery, a rapidly fracturing America was introduced to a stunning musical phenomenon: Thomas Wiggins, a young black slave from Georgia known only as “Blind Tom,” who “sounded out” his first piano composition at age 5 and, five years later, was famous enough to play before President James Buchanan at the White House. What made Tom even more remarkable was that he was both blind and autistic, thus compounding audiences’ astonishment at his extraordinary ability to not only perform classical works, but to spontaneously weave startling variations on American folk ditties into original musical tapestries. Because most of the details of Wiggins' story have been lost to history, there are many blank, enigmatic spaces to fill. Chicago-born Allen (Holding Pattern, 2008, etc.) assumes the imaginative writer’s task of improvising shape and depth where elusive or missing facts should be. What results from his effort is an absorbing, haunting narrative that begins a year after the Civil War ends when Tom, a teenager, and his white guardian, Eliza Bethune, arrive in a nameless northern city (presumably New York), where they are contacted by a black man who intends to reunite Tom with his newly liberated mother. The story rebounds back to Tom’s childhood, during which he struggles to feel his surroundings despite his compromised senses and finds his only warmth (literally) beneath the piano belonging to Eliza’s slaveholding family. Allen’s psychological insight and evocative language vividly bring to life all the black and white people in Tom’s life who, in seeking to understand or exploit Tom’s unholy gifts, are both transformed and transfixed by his inscrutable, resolutely self-contained personality.
If there’s any justice, Allen’s visionary work, as startlingly inventive as one of his subject’s performances, should propel him to the front rank of American novelists.
King (Father of the Rain, 2010, etc.) changes the names (and the outcome) in this atmospheric romantic fiction set in New Guinea and clearly based on anthropologist Margaret Mead’s relationship with her second and third husbands, R.F. Fortune and Gregory Bateson—neither a slouch in his own right.
In the early 1930s, Nell and Fen are married anthropologists in New Guinea. American Nell has already published a controversial best-seller about Samoan child-rearing while Australian Fen has published only a monograph on Dobu island sorcery. Their marriage is in trouble: Nell holds Fen responsible for her recent miscarriage; he resents her fame and financial success. Shortly after leaving the Mumbanyo tribe they have been studying (and which Nell has grown to abhor), they run into British anthropologist Bankson, who is researching another tribal village, the Nengai, along the Sepik River. Deeply depressed—he's recently attempted suicide—Bankson is haunted by the deaths of his older brothers and his scientist father’s disappointment in him for practicing what is considered a soft science. Also deeply lonely, Bankson offers to find Nell and Fen an interesting tribe to study to keep them nearby. Soon the couple is happily ensconced with the Tam, whose women surprise Nell with their assertiveness. While the attraction, both physical and intellectual, between Bankson and Nell is obvious, Fen also offers Bankson tender care, which threatens to go beyond friendship, when Bankson falls ill. At first, the three-way connection is uniting and stimulating. But as Nell’s and Bankson’s feelings for each other develop, sexual tensions grow. So do the differences between Fen’s and Nell’s views on the anthropologist’s role. While Bankson increasingly shares Nell’s empathetic approach, Fen plots to retrieve an artifact from the Mumbanyo to cement his career. King does not shy from showing the uncomfortable relationship among all three anthropologists and those they study. Particularly upsetting is the portrait of a Tam who returns “civilized” after working in a copper mine.
Stalwart Israeli agent Gabriel Allon goes in pursuit of stolen art and uncovers billions of dollars purloined by the Butcher of Damascus in this latest by master spycrafter Silva (The English Girl, 2013, etc.).
Allon—part-time art restorer, full-time agent for "the Office," Israel's supersecret spy shop—is working on a Venice restoration project and awaiting the birth of twins with his wife, Chiara. Silva’s setup won’t confuse new readers. As a bonus, he incorporates a precis on classic art, particularly Caravaggio. Soon appears Gen. Ferrari, a policeman tracking art thefts. Ferrari’s a solidly Silva character, not above extorting Allon. A former English diplomat named Bradshaw has been murdered at his Lake Como villa. Ferrari threatens to pin the killing on Allon’s friend Isherwood, the art dealer who discovered the body, unless Allon finds the real killer. Rumor has it that Bradshaw, actually a cashiered spy, may have been in possession of Caravaggio’s priceless "Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence," missing for decades. Sketching complicated logistics and technical details about nefarious art dealings, Silva finagles the left-turn plot twist that makes him a best-seller: Allon discovers stolen art is being used to hide money for Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator. Allon steals Van Gogh’s "Sunflowers" to lure the Butcher’s buyer. Next, Allon heads home to Israel, where Office teammates join the fray, complicated by a few "internecine battles." There’s growing resentment over Allon being slotted as the next Office chief. With stolen art spotted and the source of the buying spree laid to the Alawite rulers, art geeks take a back seat to computer nerds as the team descends on a private bank in Linz, Austria, to pry loose the Butcher’s billions. In erudition, action and temperament, Silva has made Allon the modern-day covert warrior extraordinaire.
With "a fallen British spy, a one-eyed Italian policeman, a master art thief, [and] a professional assassin from the island of Corsica," Allon’s 14th caper is a fun read.
The witch Diana’s and the vampire Matthew’s quests to discover their origins and confront the threats to their star-crossed union tie up as neatly as one of Diana’s magical weaver’s knots.
In the resolution of the All Souls trilogy, Diana’s impossible pregnancy with Matthew’s twins advances as various forces seek the couple’s separation, their destruction or both, mainly due to the covenant against liaisons across supernatural species lines. While Matthew searches for genetic answers to how he and Diana could be cross-fertile and what that will mean for their children, Diana seeks magical revelations from the missing Ashmole 782 manuscript, the fabled Book of Life. Figures from their pasts also resurface, injecting additional danger and urgency into their search. The novel lacks the sweep of the previous book (Shadow of Night, 2012), which offered a vivid immersion into the daily life and court intrigue of late 16th-century London and Prague. But, as in the previous two installments, there are healthy doses of action, colorful magic, angst-y romance and emotional epiphany, plus mansion-hopping across the globe, historical tidbits and name-dropping of famous artworks and manuscripts.
There are few surprises, but it’s still satisfying to travel with these characters toward their more-than-well-earned happy ending.
In her second pseudonymous outing as Galbraith, J.K. Rowling continues her examination of fame—those who want it, those who avoid it, those who profit from it.
Cormoran Strike, Rowling’s hard-living private eye, isn’t as close to the edge as he was in his first appearance, The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013). His success at proving supermodel Lula Landry was murdered has brought him more clients than he can handle—mostly businessmen who think their lovers are straying and divorcing wives looking for their husbands’ assets—and he’s even rented a small apartment above his office near Charing Cross Road. His accidental temp–turned-assistant, Robin Ellacott, is dying to stretch her investigative muscles, but she has to deal with her fiance, Matthew, who still wishes she’d taken that better-paying job in human resources. Then odd sad-sack Leonora Quine comes in asking Strike to find her missing husband, Owen, a fading enfant terrible novelist. Strike soon discovers that Owen had written a baroque fantasy novel in which he exposed the secrets of everyone he knows—including his editor, publisher and a famous writer with whom he had a falling out years earlier—and his agent had just sent it out for consideration. Rowling has great fun with the book industry: Editors, agents and publishers all want to meet the detective, but only over lunches at fancy restaurants where he’s expected to foot the bill. It’s no big surprise when Strike finds the writer’s dead body—though it’s certainly gruesome, as someone killed him in the same extravagantly macabre way he disposed of the villain of his unpublished book. As Strike tries to figure out who murdered Owen, the writer is splashed across the front pages of the tabloids in a way he would have loved when he was alive, while the detective tries to play down his own growing fame.
Rowling proves once again that she’s a master of plotting over the course of a series; you can see her planting seeds, especially when it comes to Robin, which can be expected to bear narrative fruit down the line. It will be a pleasure to watch what happens.