Looking back, my fiction reading for May seems quite dark:
1. The Orphan Master's Son - Adam Johnson. It's to Johnson's credit as a writer that I felt as if I were going crazy in a claustrophobic world as I read about Pak Jun Do, the orphan master's son, who everyone assumes is an orphan. I think it was the government public-service announcements that did it. North Korea is a bizarre place. Whatever Johnson has created can't be too far off the mark. I'm pleased that he won the Pulitzer for fiction this year.
2. Finn - Jon Clinch. Ever since I saw Neville Brand as Pap Finn in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1960), I've been frightened and disturbed by this lowlife presence. Jon Clinch doesn't do anything to improve on Finn's (readers only know him by his surname; his first name is alluded to but never revealed) reputation, although he provides some surprises. I'm relieved that he didn't decide to imitate Mark Twain's style or use of dialect. Actually, the mood of the novel made me think of Jim Thompson. The prose is dark, twisted and yet strangely beautiful.
3. Your Republic Is Calling You - Young-Ha Kim. Ki-Yong is a 42-year-old foreign film importer who lives in Seoul with his wife and teenaged daughter. Exactly half his life ago, at the age of 21, he was dropped as a sleeper agent from North Korea into the neighboring South. He assumes that the North has forgotten about him, then one day, he gets a coded email telling him that it's time for him to return. I liked the premise of the novel and found Ki-Yong and his situation intriguing, but was less gripped by the back stories of his wife, daughter, lover, and a plethora of other minor characters. Even so, I was entertained because the novel takes place in locales around Seoul that are fairly familiar to me. Young-Ha Kim is often compared to Haruki Murakami. I actually think he's better.
4. The Game - Jack London. An early novella of London's about a young boxer's last match, on the eve of his wedding. Primitive but effective.
5. Where the Lilies Bloom - Vera and Bill Cleaver. A YA novel set in Appalachia. 14-year-old Mary Call's dying father and remaining parent extracts from her an ungodly amount of unrealistic deathbed promises that she strives to fulfill. This novel has a wonderful regional flavor and it's slyly humorous in many places. With her steely determination and sometimes prim use of language, Mary Call reminds me a lot of Mattie Ross from True Grit. There was a movie based on this book that was also very well done. Whatever happened to Vera and Bill Cleaver? Their books were excellent, but they seem to be forgotten 40 years later.
6. Doc - Mary Doria Russell. John Henry "Doc" Holliday's life story, concentrating primarily on the time when he was in Dodge City with the Earp brothers and Big-Nose Kate. As I read, I could see Val Kilmer so clearly in my mind's eye. That is a very, very good thing. Mary Doria Russell feels compelled at times to introduce a 21st century sensibility to the story, but her touch is fairly light. I'll be seeking out more of her books.
7. Germinal - Emile Zola. This is one of the stronger novels in the Rougon-Macquart series, based on an actual coal miner's strike in northern France in the 1860s. Zola must have done an extensive amount of research to have written so convincingly and compellingly about the dangerous and squalid conditions in which the miners and their families were forced to live and work, generation after generation. Not a cheerful book by any stretch of the imagination, but pungent, powerful and a great read. I'm not sure what to read next in this series. I might revisit Nana.