The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
Building Stories by Chris Ware
The first semi-final round was judged by Davy Rothbart who is the creator of Found Magazine and author of a book of personal essays, My Heart Is an Idiot, and a collection of stories, The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas.
He does have a connection to Chris Ware, they were acquaintances for awhile though he hasn't seen him in 7 years. He admits this at the beginning but it does make me slightly skeptical on how you can judge without bias if you know or have known one of the authors.
Unusually for this review, the judge utilized his friends and booksellers, to help him decide so I've included their comments in this review.
At first, I was, 'isn't that cheating?', but then I realised, this is supposed to be about the best books of 2012 and who better to judge that than all readers out there.
'How does The Orphan Master’s Son stack up against Chris Ware’s Building Stories?
To compare two books so different in subject matter, style, and execution is a strange and difficult undertaking. How was I to pick a winner between two books I deeply admired?
After swearing them to absolute secrecy to preserve the sanctity of the Rooster, I shared my conundrum with a few trusted advisers.
First, I decided to consult some of my bookseller friends. The crucial, enduring role that indie booksellers play in literary culture cannot be overstated. When I want to know what book to read next, I turn to folks like Kevin Awakuni at Skylight Books in Los Angeles; Kevin Sampsell at Powell’s in Portland, Ore.; Ward Tefft at Chop Suey Books in Richmond, Va.; Benn, Rachel, and Maggie at Atomic Books in Baltimore; or any number of other amazing booksellers who are equally passionate and knowledgeable about the books they set out on their shelves.
And here are some of the comments he got back on each book:
Paul Blaschko at Boswell Books in Milwaukee:
'I recommend Building Stories like a maniac when people come into the store. My wife and I felt that we’d developed genuine relationships with the characters. While this in itself is not too odd (this happens a lot to us with fictitious characters), the odd part is that it felt like we were “meeting” and “interacting” with them in such a true-to-life sort of way. It was like we’d both met these people, and together, we were trying to piece together the stories of their lives.'
Erin Haire of Hub City Books in Spartanburg, SC:
'For me, this is no contest. I loved, LOVED The Orphan Master’s Son. Like, I wanna be it for Halloween. I thought that it was so original, it was a story that I had never heard, and the author’s voice was so sure. The image that sticks with me is from an early chapter, when the main character is sent on that fishing boat to do radio surveillance. He describes how the fishermen butcher the fish onboard and then dump the chum into the ocean. He describes how giant squid come up from the depths to feed on this chum, and his description was just incredible. I think Ware’s work is very cool and deserves props for quality and definitely originality, but as far as actual literary achievement, The Orphan Master’s Son is it for me.'
Isaac Fitzgerald, managing editor of The Rumpus:
'The Orphan Master’s Son was hands-down my favorite read of 2012. A fantastical love story based in a horrifying reality. Reads like poetry, punches like a heavyweight.'
Hayley Imerman, Toronto (in regard to Building Stories):
'beautiful and heartbreaking.'
'After a week of sloppy communion with Ware’s book, I'm ready to declare it one of the most important pieces of art I have ever experienced.'
Dan Lewis, Minneapolis:
'When I go to sleep after reading Chris Ware, my heart aches. Who hasn't slept alone and longed for someone or slept with someone and longed to be alone? They say people who lie convincingly to themselves are happier in the long run. I believe Ware examines life and presents what it is like for those of us who can’t or choose not to lie about reality.'
Davy's personal opinion on each book is that Chris' 'interconnected stories are both exquisite and crushing'.
As for Orphan Master's Son, he found the book 'terrifying, darkly funny, and vividly imagined—despite its heaviness, I enjoyed Adam Johnson’s writing'.
This is how he, eventually, chose a winner out of these two completely different books.
'At a loss for how to select a winner, I decided to pick one favorite page from each book and read them over and over again to see which I liked better, a kind of prose cage match.
From The Orphan Master’s Son, I picked a page in which Jun Do scoops rotted toes from the empty boots of a dying prisoner in a forced labor camp, unaware how close he is to undergoing a similar fate—it’s an absolutely vivid, lacerating, hopeless passage that won’t be easy to exile from my mind.
From Building Stories, I chose a gorgeous spread in which the building that houses the book’s characters actually begins to narrate for a moment:
'Who hasn’t tried, when passing by a building or a home at night, to peer past half-closed shades and blinds hoping to catch a glimpse into the private lives of its inhabitants? Anything… the briefest blossom of movement… maybe a head, bobbing up… a bit of hair… a mysterious shadow… or a flash of flesh… seems somehow more revealing than any generous greeting or calculated cordiality (say, if the tenants were to suddenly be born unto the porch and welcome the voyeur, hands increasingly outstretched) … the disappointing diffusion of a sheer curtain can suggest the most colorful bouquet of unspeakable secrets.'
This passage speaks so profoundly to our innate curiosity about the people we share the world with, the natural voyeurism that motivates us to read books in the first place, that it’s ultimately what has won this bout for Chris Ware. The Orphan Master’s Son has masterfully pulled back the curtain on life in North Korea—and, as Dennis Rodman’s recent unexpected visit seems to indicate, we may soon begin to learn much more about our planet’s most mysterious country—but Building Stories has pulled a curtain back on what it means to be human.'