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Books this week: On Dear Leader and a capricious God

January 13, 2012 |  1:45 pm

  Adam Johnson near the Pohyon Temple in North Korea.

Adam Johnson teaches creative writing at Stanford University and he describes himself as “probably the most un-Korean person in the world.” But that wasn’t the largest obstacle to Johnson in writing “The Orphan Master’s Son,” his new novel on that most closed of societies, North Korea, and the cult of personality around its now late -- but fully-alive in the book -- leader Kim Jong Il. Times staff writer Reed Johnson, no relation to the author, profiles Adam Johnson and his book, which is getting  lot  of attention, in a piece that starts on Sunday’s Arts & Books cover. He writes: “Possibly Johnson’s greatest challenge was trying to infiltrate the inner lives of characters in a country where self-censorship and blending in with the anonymous throng are essential for survival.” Adam Johnson, who will be at Vroman’s in Pasadena on Tuesday night, visited North Korea in 2007 to gain insight after spending years researching his novel, working from a handful of books by escaped dissidents. He also cited Times staff writer Barbara Demick’s book “Nothing to Envy:   Ordinary Lives in North Korea" as being particularly helpful “because she was always focused on the human dimension.”

Shalom Auslander also writes about the human dimension, but as David L. Ulin, our book critic, notes in a review of  his new novel “Hope: A Tragedy,” Auslander’s  great subject is “God’s capriciousness,” which can be challenging to frame.  Ulin notes that what Auslander brings to the task is "willfully outrageous, [he’s] a black humorist with an Old Testament moralist’s heart." This is Auslander’s first novel after the 2005 short story collection “Beware of God,” and his 2007 memoir “Foreskin’s Lament.”

As I was reading Scott Martelle’s review of “The Partnership:  Five Cold Warriors and Their Quest to Ban the Bomb," I was lamenting the lost value of bipartisanship in dealing with some of the nation’s difficult issues. The book, by former New York Times staffer Philip Taubman, records the efforts of four officials — Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Sam Nunn and William Perry — and Sidney Drell, a Stanford physicist and nuclear expert, to curb nuclear weapons around the world. Martelle calls it a “complex book about complex subjects” but note that “Taubman does a clean job of reducing the elements to layman’s terms.”  

In her review of “The Odditorium,” a collection of stories by Melissa Pritchard,  Carolyn Kellogg notes that the “literary landscape is jammed with short stories.” They are a “glut” on the market, Kellogg writes, but she also notes that few of the authors working that parcel of the literary landscape “rise above to be seen as truly excellent.” She notes that “at her best,  Melissa Pritchard belongs in that number.”

Kenneth Turan takes a little break from the film critic’s beat to reflect on P.D. James' latest, “Death Comes to Pemberley,” which couples the formidable talents of the 91-year-old James with the Jane Austen set for murder and mayhem at the ancestral estate of Mr. Darcy of “Pride and Prejudice” fame. Fans of James and Austen seem happy with the marriage: The book is  No. 3 on this week's L.A. Times best-seller list for fiction.

The subject of suicide is not easy in the young adult market, and surviving suicide perhaps even less so. But Susan Carpenter writes that Jennifer R. Hubbard’s new book for ages 14 and up,  “Try Not to Breathe,” is a compelling and compassionate look into the motivations and rationales of teen suicide and the aftermath when it fails.”

Busy week? If so, you may have missed Patt Morrison's fine review of Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch;" Bob Drogin's take on Michael Hasting's provocative "The Operators:  The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan" and Kerry Luft's review of  "The Obamas."  And mark your calendar for Feb. 7 to see which critic will receive the Hatchet Job of the Year Award." Carolyn Kellogg  fills us in on the contestants. For you Stephen King fans, think for a moment about King Lear and then take a look at David Ulin's Reading Life  piece on King.

As always, thanks for reading.

-- Jon Thurber, book editor

Photo: Adam Johnson in North Korea near the Pohyon Temple. Credit: Adam Johnson