Summary and book reviews of Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson

Fortune Smiles

Stories

by Adam Johnson

Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson
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    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Aug 2015, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2016, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Elena Spagnolie

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About this Book

Book Summary

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his acclaimed and bestselling novel The Orphan Master's Son, Adam Johnson is one of America's most provocative and powerful authors. In Fortune Smiles - his first book since Orphan Master - he continues to give voice to characters rarely heard from, while offering something we all seek from fiction: a new way of looking at our world.

In six masterly stories, Johnson delves deep into love and loss, natural disasters, the influence of technology, and how the political shapes the personal. "George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine" follows a former warden of a Stasi prison in East Germany who vehemently denies his past, even as pieces of it are delivered in packages to his door. "Nirvana," which won the prestigious Sunday Times short story prize, portrays a programmer whose wife has a rare disease finding solace in a digital simulacrum of the president of the United States. In "Hurricanes Anonymous" - first included in the Best American Short Stories anthology - a young man searches for the mother of his son in a Louisiana devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. And in the unforgettable title story, Johnson returns to his signature subject, North Korea, depicting two defectors from Pyongyang who are trying to adapt to their new lives in Seoul, while one cannot forget the woman he left behind.

Unnerving, riveting, and written with a timeless quality, these stories confirm Johnson as one of America's greatest writers and an indispensable guide to our new century.

Excerpt
Fortune Smiles

It's late, and I can't sleep. I raise a window for some spring Palo Alto air, but it doesn't help. In bed, eyes open, I hear whispers, which makes me think of the president, because we often talk in whispers. I know the whispering sound is really just my wife, Charlotte, who listens to Nirvana on her head- phones all night and tends to sleep-mumble the lyrics. Charlotte has her own bed, a mechanical one.

My sleep problem is this: when I close my eyes, I keep visualizing my wife killing herself. More like the ways she might try to kill herself, since she's paralyzed from the shoulders down. The paralysis is quite temporary, though good luck trying to convince Charlotte of that. She slept on her side today, to fight the bedsores, and there was something about the way she stared at the safety rail at the edge of the mattress. The bed is voice-activated, so if she could somehow get her head between the bars of the safety rail, "incline" is ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. How would you describe the elements that these six stories have in common? Are there themes that recur?
  2. Discuss the importance of place in these stories, which range from Louisiana post-­Katrina to a former prison camp in East Germany to North Korea. To what extent are these stories that could only take place in these locations? To what extent are the experiences of their characters universal?
  3. In "Nirvana," why do you feel the narrator has created a holograph of the president? What purpose do his conversations with the president serve? How do you think Charlotte feels about this?
  4. Describe the father-­son relationship in "Hurricanes Anonymous," and how you understand Nonc'...
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    National Book Awards
    2015

Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Overall, Johnson's storytelling is exceptional, both in subject and style. His writing is audacious and he knows how to use difficult subjects as a way of exposing life's complexities, rather than for cheap shock value. I highly recommend Fortune Smiles to readers who appreciate multifaceted characters and strong, emotive writing that crackles with creativity, though not to the faint of heart.   (Reviewed by Elena Spagnolie).

Full Review (724 words).

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Media Reviews

The Washington Post

Masterful . . . Each [story] is a miniature demonstration of why his remarkable novel The Orphan Master’s Son won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

San Francisco Chronicle

Just as audacious [as The Orphan Master’s Son] . . . These six long, fearless stories explore dangerous territories, both personal and political.

Entertainment Weekly

Every one [of Johnson’s stories] carves out its own little corner of weird, indelible humanity.

The New York Times Book Review

[Johnson] is always perceptive and brave; his lines always sing and strut and sizzle and hush and wash and blaze over the reader.

The Huffington Post

Remarkable . . . Fortune Smiles is the best short story collection since Tenth of December. . . . Adam Johnson is one of America’s greatest living writers.

San Jose Mercury News

Adam Johnson returns with this riveting collection of short stories, each reflecting the darkly imagined, slightly surreal point of view that animated his Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, The Orphan Master’s Son. . . . He’s a compelling writer, in any form.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Often funny, even when they're wrenchingly sad, the stories provide one of the truest satisfactions of reading: the opportunity to sink into worlds we otherwise would know little or nothing about, ones we might even cross the street to avoid.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. A half-dozen sometimes Carver-esque yarns that find more-or-less ordinary people facing extraordinary challenges and somehow holding up ... Bittersweet, elegant, full of hard-won wisdom: this is no ordinary book, either.

The Boston Globe

[Johnson’s fiction will leave you] entertained and moved and terrified all at once. . . . Fortune Smiles [blends] exotic scenarios, morally compromised characters, high-wire action, rigorously limber prose, dense thickets of emotion, and, most critically, our current techno-moment. In the six almost-novellas contained in the book, a reader bears witness to a highly literary writer willing to take risk after risk after risk.

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Beyond the Book

Kurt Cobain

In "Nirvana," the opening story in Adam Johnson's Fortune Smiles, the main character's wife, Charlotte, is paralyzed from the shoulders down. She lies in bed and listens to the rock band Nirvana, as if the band's frontman, Kurt Cobain, was the only person who could understand her despair.

"It's not you," she says. "I just need my music. Just put [the headphones] on me." "Why do you need Nirvana? What is it to you?" She closes her eyes and shakes her head. "What is it with this Kurt Cobain?" I say. "What's your deal with him?" ...I turn on a computer and download one of these Nirvana albums. I play the whole thing, just sitting there in the dark. The guy, Kurt Cobain, sings about being stupid and dumb and unwanted. ...He has a ...

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