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A Free Life (Vintage International) Paperback – 2 Mar 2009
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"Exquisite and resonant...Jin has fashioned a ruminative, capacious, covertly ironic and quietly revealing tale of one family's pursuit of the American Dream."
--Los Angeles Times
"Striking. . . . Jin's language has ripened into something extraordinary."
--The Washington Post Book World
"[A Free Life] transforms the genre.... The narrative unfolds on such an intimate, domestic scale...that it takes a while to realize that this is also an epic."
--Robert Pinsky, Slate
"A leisurely, generous tale....As vast and unbounded as the brave and overwhelming new world it describes."
About the Author
Ha Jin left his native China in 1985 to attend Brandeis University. He is the author of the internationally bestselling novel Waiting, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award and the National Book Award, and War Trash, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, and was a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize; the story collections The Bridegroom, which won the Asian American Literary Award, Under the Red Flag, which won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, and Ocean of Words, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award; the novels The Crazed and In the Pond; and three books of poetry. His latest novel, A Free Life is his first novel set in the United States. He lives in the Boston area and is a professor of English at Boston University.War Trash, The Crazed, The Bridegroom, Waiting, In the Pond, and Ocean of Words are available in paperback from Vintage Books.
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Dan's voice is fragile and transparent -- which makes it unsuitable for some of the odd leaps and twists & turns to which his unusual melodic lines subject it -- but that adds to the integrity and sincerity of his songwriting, IMHO. No mass vocal harmonizing and triple-tracking here; the production is sparse and delicate throughout.
Also, I applaud Dan Wilson because his songs (both solo and Semisonic) ACTUALLY HAVE ENDINGS. Wow. Think about it.....most pop & rock songs fade out at the end, which is, frankly a big cop-out. Dan's songs tell their stories and then reach a definite conclusion. This is so pervasive with his recordings (the Semisonic songs "Bed" & "Secret Smile" are the only ones I can think of that fade out) that it must be deliberate. Good decision, Dan.
What's out there to which I can compare "Free Life?" I hear some James Blunt (surprisingly) and Dar Williams (not so surprisingly) in here, as well as folks like Paul Simon and Cat Stevens, a little Nick Drake, plus any number of introspective singer/songwriters as well as The Beatles (of course). If you enjoy any of the above you'll find a lot to enjoy on "Free Life."
My only serious criticism about the album is the peculiar track ordering. The album opens, strangely, with a very moody, down tempo song ("All Kinds"). I actually thought my CD player was accidentally set to random when I first listened to this disc. IMHO a much better choice for the album opener would have been "Against History," a dramatic toe-tapper featuring the catchy piano riff I mentioned earlier. I would have chosen this as the single, too, instead of "Cry." Set your device to play this album with "Against History" first, then "Cry", then the album as it's laid out on the disc, and see if you don't agree. To my ears, "All Kinds" is much more appealing as a slow palate-cleanser to follow AH & Cry. Just the aural opinion of one musician and his ears.
Finally, if you were directed to this album because you're a Semisonic fanatic, you'll be very pleased that both John Munson and Jacob Slichter appear - Slichter in a triple role as drummer, keyboardist, and string arranger, as he did with Semisonic. A nice understated reunion of sorts, and very reminiscent of some of my favorite Semisonic songs such as "In Another Life," "DND," "Gone To The Movies," and "Follow." If you like those tracks you'll find a lot to enjoy inside of "Free Life."
And if you don't know anything at all about Semisonic but already enjoy "Free Life," you have a lot of exploring to do. Enjoy.
NOTE: the edition of this album that I bought (from a small independent chain via their website) came with a very attractive large-format lyric booklet that was separate from the CD itself. Since the CD's liner notes already come with all of the lyrics, I'm not sure why the record label decided to do this, but it's a nice collectible. Since DW signed it, it was probably a limited edition of some kind.
1. There is really no dramatic story here. It reads like a journal describing every little thought and action including his little fights with his wife and son, everyday relationship with fellow workers, friends, poets. etc.
2. It's very description of the conservative and simple life of the regular Chinese people, those loyal to the old ways of Mao and those trying to flee from the country to start a new life in America and other places. They are willing to put in the long hours, are fiscally very very conservative, worried about every penny and investment. You understand that life is looked at from a different perspective, a perspective that you aren't entitled or worthy when you are born. You are here to work and earn enough money to pay the bills.
3. You can tell that the book is written by an intelligent, educated foreigner. It works well, flows well, is easy to understand and enjoy, but it is almost too straight forward, honest and lacks any poetry or beautiful writing. It seems like you are reading from a personal journal where comments about reactions to life's most mundane things are made. But this is part of what makes it worth reading. You comprehend the frustrations, fears, and real life of very good and devoted people. You can tell that everything that is said is from the heart and ruthfully honest. It takes him a long time to really accept and return the love his hard working devoted wife gives him from day one. He is honest about his fantasies about a girl he was once in love with and how this fantasy affects his life.
4. He opens our eyes to the evolution of China and the thoughts and desires of the Chinese people, how the older generation is still loyal to the old communist government and how the country and younger generation is becoming more and more devoted to capitalism. In a certain way, there is nostalgia for the old Chinese way of life.
5. By the end of the book, it is clear that he has become an American Citizen in all ways and living a conservative, frugal version of the American way of life. He loves it and respects it, but it is very realistically stated.
It is a long and touching story, sometimes a bit boring and slow, but always worth moving ahead. It is well worth the read and it gave me a lot of insight into these people and the sacrifices they make. Driving by Chinese restaurants run by hard working Chinese people feels different now. I want to talk to them and make friends with them and I really do respect them more now that I've had a chance to walk in one of their brother's shoes.