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Thursday, November 19, 2015

What I'm Reading: 2015 National Book Award Winner-- Fortune Smiles

As I was watching the live stream of the National Book Awards last night, I was hoping for one of the two books I had read to win, fully prepared to post a review of that book today.

And....Fortune Smiles, the new short story collection by Adam Johnson won! I think everyone thought it was a 2 horse race between Fates and Furies (the other book I read and will have a review of very soon) and A Little Life.  I am wondering if those two books ended up splitting the vote leading to Johnson's win.

But I would also not be surprised if that theory is completely wrong because I was completely enchanted and amazed by Fortune Smiles when I read it last month. This is one of the best story collection I have ever read because of its technical genius and the fact that each story, while emotionally difficult, was an "entertaining" read. Each captivated me into its world while I was reading it. None are connected at all either, in fact they are all very different, which makes it even more amazing how well each grabbed ahold of me on its own merit-- and so quickly.

I am getting ahead of myself though. Let's step back a tiny bit with some basic details. There are 6 stories here. Since the book is over 300 pages, that makes each hefty enough to read like a mini novella more than a short story.

You can click here for summaries of each story and some background information in Ron Charles' Washington Post review. I am going to write about three in more details for particular appeal reasons, as well as offer general appeal statements about the entire collection to help you to book talk it to the numerous interested patrons who will be coming in to ask for it today.

Let me go to the last, and title story first. "Fortune Smiles," is set in South Korea and follows 3 North Korean defectors. This story shares a lot in common with Johnson's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Orphan Master's Son (which I LOVED when I listened to it). I think it was a great idea to put this story last. As a reader who knew nothing about Johnson besides his N. Korean set novel, I loved that I had 5 stories to appreciate how amazing a writer he truly is before I was taken back to the familiar themes and settings of his novel. I don't know who was responsible for this restraint [was it Johnson, or his editor, or the publisher (probably not the publisher)?], but it would have been very easy to put the title story first. It was daring to save it for the end from a marketing standpoint.  Whoever made this choice, I thank them. I appreciated the other stories and his technical skills much more for this reason.

The overall appeal of Johnson as a writer goes way beyond the North Korea frame. All of these stories were surprisingly powerful and brutally honest. They were tragic but not depressing.  The people all have extraordinary experiences yet the way Johnson writes, the characters still feel relatable and ordinary. These are stories that "stick to" you more than they "stick with" you. You cannot escape the characters, the ideas, the events. You will turn them over in your head for days after finishing the stories. You will want a hologram of an assassinated President to help you sort through the ideas and feelings these stories bring up (see the story in this collection "Nirvana" to get the reference.)

Here are two more examples from my two favorite stories.

"Interesting Facts;" blew me away. Johnson writes a VERY personal story of a woman, married to a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist who wrote a book about North Korea, who is dying of breast cancer.  It is from her perspective as she slips away. It is full of love for her family but also anger, frustration, and confusion.  How brave of him to write a story from his own wife's perspective (she is a cancer survivor), yes, but this story was also honest and believable. I am a wife and mother and if I didn't know a man wrote this, I would have sworn it was a woman writer. I have told many people to read this story. Anyone who is in a loving relationship will find much of themselves in this tender yet brutally honest story. But, beware, if you are not self aware, this story and its honesty may bother you.

My absolute favorite story was "George Orwell Was A Friend of Mine." This story is narrated by an unapologetic, retired East German prison warden at a notoriously awful prison. He still lives nearby and walks his dog on the prison grounds every day. It is current day and the prison has become a memorial to its victims. The guard is estranged from his wife and daughter. He talks to visitors who come to the museum now, trying to explain why the prison was fine and did not do anything that didn't need to be done.  It is heart breaking how he lives in denial. We know he is wrong, yet Johnson subtly fills the character with so much humanity that we do not hate him. We should, but we do not.  If that wasn't enough the second half of the story takes off in a surprising and emotional direction. You will not be able to turn away. Johnson will challenge you to, but you won't be able to do it. Talk about a jumble of confused emotions.

Please read this collection whether you liked The Orphan Master's Son or not.  That book was definitely hard to follow for many (worth it for me, but not everyone I suggested it to). Fortune Smiles has everything that made his novel great, but in smaller packages.

I am so happy that many more will read it now that it has won The National Book Award.

Three Words That Describe This Book: thought provoking, engaging narration, brutally honest

Readalikes: You will need suggestion today for Fortune Smiles because someone has already come and checked it out this morning, and more people are coming through the door to ask for it.

The first place to go here is to suggest story collections that are BOTH thought provoking AND entertaining. All of these will be owned by most libraries:

Tenth of December by George Saunders
Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
Thunderstruck and Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

But what about some novels? Here are some shorter novels (under 300 pages) that are also powerful, thought provoking, engaging, and brutally honest. Links are to my reviews where possible:

Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement
The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez
Anything by Marilynne Robinson [I read Housekeeping, pre blog]
The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Let me know if you run out of titles and need more suggestions.

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