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on October 26, 2004
COUNTRY OF ORIGIIN was a great read: a beautifully written story with considerable color of place and intriguing tension turns. I'm assigning it for my fiction writing class, it's that good. A rare find: one of those packages you get from Amazon.com that offer you a stimulating week--no stop reading once I started.
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on January 5, 2006
I thought this was a great read, though not quite worth five stars. A reviewer below describes the writing style as poor, but I disagree--I think Lee writes very well, very efficiently, without getting in the way of a story that kept me interested at all times. Having read his earlier story collection, Yellow, which is full of surprising characters and situations (and just as well written), I was somewhat taken aback here by the familiar "mystery" storyline. The plot felt a little mechanical, but for the most part, the mystery did keep me going, and the bringing-together of many disparate characters near the end was smooth and convincing.

I also thought most of the characters were fascinating people. The bumbling Japanese detective was especially compelling, a combination of TV's Columbo and Monk whose essential honesty and humanity wins out in the end. The identity issues, and the success some characters have at escaping their former identities and growing into more appropriate or comfortable ones, were also convincing, even inspiring. A reviewer below finds the setting confusing--why 1980 instead of now? Well for one thing, the Iranian hostage crisis was dragging on and on at that time. The idea of a "hostage" symbolizes the identity struggles of many of the characters.

The many details about Tokyo are also fascinating, though at times the piling up of "quirky Japan" examples ("weird" sex bars and love hotels, fetishistic Japanese men, bizzare TV shows, etc.) got to be a bit much. Those able to direct the Western gaze toward Japan should give it credit for more than its "weirdness," which people in the West already tend to know about. Fortunately, the multidimensional Japanese characters offered by Lee balance out those times where he pauses for yet another cultural oddity. Finally, the description of other details of Japanese behavior and thought, such as an underlying expectation that life will consist mostly of sadness, also help to give a fuller sense of Japan. So I think readers should be careful about accepting the novel's accuracy in this regard. As Lee says in an appended author's note, "this novel should not be considered an accurate representation of Japan. Dramatic licenses were freely taken." Overall, a gripping book that I very much recommend.
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This novel works on all levels-as a mystery, as a literary novel, and as a sharp examination of late-20th-century Japan. Don Lee has written a terrific, engrossing story which will be enjoyed by anyone who loves a good book.
In 1980, graduate student Lisa Countryman goes to Japan to work on her doctoral thesis. She's half Japanese, half-black, a Berkeley grad who hopes to learn more about her own background through her research. This path turns risky, and at the opening of the novel, Lisa has already disappeared.
The US Embassy official assigned to Lisa's case is on shaky ground himself. Tom Hurley is on his own risky path, hiding his own mixed heritage as he pursues an affair with the wife of a CIA official. A man of such compromised morals wants nothing to do with a disappearance of another bi-racial American, especially one who may have been involved in the Japanese sex underground. Lisa's case falls to Kenzo Ota, a Tokyo detective with so many neuroses that he commands no respect. He gets Lisa's case because in the eyes of his co-workers, the disappearance of such a person is of no consequence whatsoever.
Don Lee weaves Lisa's story through Ota's search for her with fluidity and skill. His pointed look at Japanese society in 1980 is intelligent and interesting, with the additional intriguing reflection on the US reaction to bi-racial Americans. "Country of Origin" is completely satisfying and I look forward to Don Lee's next novel.
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on January 4, 2013
Very well written, read it on vacation, a very good read. But compared to Don Lee's other novel, I didn't love the plot as much. Still, I am a Don Lee fan which means I really wanted to read his canon and see the evolution of his craft. And I have. I do not regret reading his work. It just means that I prefer some books (The Collective) to others, and it means he keeps getting better and better.
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on June 23, 2015
How do bi-racial people fare in Japan? What is the sex club scene like there? What was the life like for expats around 1980? You'll learn about all these things in Country of Origin, which follows many people of various ethnic backgrounds (Korean-American, Koreans born in Japan, Afro-Asians, and more), and also several other unusual people who just don't fit into Japanese society,

Well-written and well-plotted, this book is a quick read, and more like a romp than serious literature. There is a murder mystery-sort-of theme, which unravels skillfully.

Perhaps this book was written for a younger audience. I usually enjoy literary fiction set in other countries. But I could not relate to most of the characters in this novel. The night life (sleazier side) wasn't exactly my cup of tea. And I don't know Japanese, so a lot of the terms confused me. The immaturity of embassy staff members made me a bit embarrassed. All in all, this wasn't my favorite book.
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Set in 1980 Tokyo, this debut novel preoccupies itself with the theme of identity born of mixed heritage. At the the plot level, it's a fairly effective mystery about an American woman who goes missing and the sad sack Japanese detective who's assigned her case. The woman is Lisa Countryman, who is ostensibly in Tokyo to research the sex economy for her PhD thesis. She was born in Japan, but was adopted as a baby by a black U.S. military family, and the real impetus for her trip is to locate her birth mother. When her sister in the U.S. eventually calls the embassy for help in locating her, the case is assigned to Tom Hurley. He's a somewhat dissolute 30something consular officer who's mostly interested in bedding the wife of a CIA officer, but is also conflicted about his own mixed heritage. Hurley passes the case on to Kenzo Ota, a lonely, ineffectual, middle-aged police detective invisible to his peers and society in general.

For Ota, the case is an opportunity to get away from his window office (a position of shame in the Japanese workplace at the time) and win some respect from his colleagues. Ota's investigation alternates with flashbacks to Lisa's arrival in Japan, as she drifts from research into bar hostessing, and hires a detective of her own to track down her mother. Meanwhile, a third subplot revolves around Hurley's affair with the CIA wife, Julia, who has somehow heard about the missing Lisa and takes a mysterious interest in the case. There's also a running subplot about Ota's personal life, which includes an encounter with his ex-wife and her son (who may be his), and a budding romance. This is a lot of plot to juggle, and Lee mostly pulls it off, although the book probably could have been much improved by excising or greatly diminishing the Hurley material. The best parts of the book are those that follow Lisa as she navigates the world of fly-by-night English schools and various levels of hostess bars, and those showing the forlorn Ota struggling for redemption. He's the embodiment of one aspect of the Japanese national psyche, the sense that life is suffering and sorrow, and that moments of happiness are the exception rather than the rule.

What's also quite good about the book is the portrait of Japan, although one has to remember that it is set some 25 years in the past (the Iran hostage crisis is a running background element). It's a time when foreigners were present in Tokyo in much lesser numbers than now but Western cultural influence is starting to assert itself. Against all this, the central theme of identity is brought ought through the Japanese preoccupation with racial distinctions and the conflicts deep within many of the characters about themselves. Lee's prose is quite fluid and if the book is guilty of anything, it's of trying to cram in a bit too much. Still, I will certainly keep an eye out for his next book.
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VINE VOICEon July 28, 2006
Lisa Countryman is the adopted asian/black daughter of a black US Serviceman and his wife. She was brought back to the States at the age of four. She has no memory of her life there or her mother. After the loss of her adoptive parents she decides to return to Japan to look for her birth mother. She does so under the pretext of doing her PhD thesis on the Japanese sex trade.

She becomes a hostess in a gaijan (foreigner) bar that's frequented by upper management japanese. Her job is to entertain only, she is not allowed to go on a dohan (date) with the clients, though she is allowed to accept gifts from them. Her job is very much like that of a true geisha, to entertain her clients but not to have sex with them; unlike the american idea of a geisha, she is not now nor ever was a prostitute.

In Japan, the most racially homogenous country in the world, to be non-japanese and especially to be of mixed race (and especially to be part black) is considered a mark that cannot be overcome. You are not a citizen, cannot be a citizen and therefore are condemned to the lowest level of respect and economic means.

It is 1980, and Tom Hurley (who is half-korean) is working at the US embassy in Tokyo when he is asked by Lisa Countryman's sister to find out where she is so that she can settle some legal issues the two sisters have. Tom is having an affair with the wife of Vincent Kitamaru/David Saito/Bob Sasaki, who is a CIA operative at the embassy. Kitamaru is part of a group who go to Lisa's bar and call themselves Mojo, Larry and Curley.

Tom Hurley has met with a Tokyo detective named Kenzo Ota, who is part of the 'window squad' (a group that has been exiled to window desks because they have nothing else to do but look out the window all day). Kenzo becomes intrigued by Lisa and her disappearance, and even though he's told to lay off by his superiors, he continues to plug away. What he finds in the end makes this a detective story. But what he finds out on the way is a great discussion of the cultural difficulties/racial slurs/ everyday indignities that non-full blooded japanese suffer from in their own country.
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on September 5, 2004
Where in the world is Lisa Countryman? Lisa, a twenty-something American woman of mixed-heritage seems to have disappeared after a trip to Japan. As the plot unfolds in "Country of Origin," we learn that Lisa is a Ph.D. candidate looking to write about Japan's matriarchal society. Her research (and need for money) leads her down the dark path of the country's underground sex world in the early eighties, where men pay wads of cash for female companionship. Is it the reason for her disappearance? That's what Kenza Ota would like to know.

Ota, a bumbling detective, is given the task of finding the whereabouts of Countryman. But his lack of skill either leads him to dead ends or two steps behind. Though Ota suffers from the humiliation of being a terrible detective, he takes the Countryman case very seriously since it could redeem him. Meanwhile, Ota deals with the crisis in his personal life, including a divorce that occurred fourteen years ago that left him single and celibate. When his ex shows up in Japan with her teenage son, he is convinced that he is the boy's father. He follows the boy while working up the nerve to speak to him.

Then there's Tom Hurley. Tom, an embassy service officer, gets involved in the case when Lisa's sister contacts him from America. When Tom begins an affair with Julia Tinsley, the wife of a CIA agent, Lisa Countryman's case becomes the highlight of their conversations. Once he learns this, he digs deeper into the case, not because he truly cares but because he wants to keep Julia interested.

This book is not only about the mysterious vanishing of Lisa Countryman, it is also about race, gender, sex, and Japanese culture. The underlying theme of the Japanese's obsession with racial homogeneity is eye-opening and mind-boggling. The underground sex world is described in titillating detail. Author Don Lee, who also wrote "Yellow," is a gifted writer who is best when taking a subject and rolling with it like in this passage:

"Kenzo had always been rail-thin, as was Yumiko, but Simon was fat. Roly-poly, flesh-bobbing fat. Trundling, waddling fat. Wheezing, heaving, lard-ass fat. American fat. What had they been feeding him over there in Atlanta, Georgia? Kenzo could only imagine. Mounded, gelatinous meals, like chicken-fried steak, mashed potatoes, white biscuit gravy."

Though some of the material may be considered offensive (Africans look like monkeys, Caucasians stink of dairy products, and lighter skin in considered better than a darker hue), it does not take away from the fact that this is an intriguing read. Reading "Country of Origin" is like riding a time machine to Japan's underworld in the late seventies and early eighties. "Country of Origin" is worth the read.

Emanuel Carpenter
Author of "Where is the Love?"
emanuelcarpenter dot com
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VINE VOICEon January 30, 2011
Lisa Countryman is abducted in Tokyo, possibly taken by someone related to the Tokyo sex industry. When her sister reports her missing, people in the U.S. embasy dont' seem bothered by her disappearance.

Tom Hurley is a bored diplomat. He's assigned to the case but seems lazy and unambitious; more interested in his daily swims at the embasy pool and his affair with the wife of a C.I.A. officer.

The Japanese police officer assigned to assist with the search is Kenzo Otto. He's a self conscious person who is also preoccupied with other things. He's upset with the noise in his apartment and worried that he won't be able to sleep at night. He's also nervous around his landlord, who takes advantage of him. In addition, he is looked down upon by his peers. We see him bungle his way from place to place as he attempts a half hearted investigation.

Lisa is half Japanese and half African American. Besides wanting to work on her thesis, which was the subservient life of bar girl's in Japan, she was also in search of her family history.

The country of origin of the book's title seems to indicate that Lisa is not of any one race. With being half-Asian American and half African American, she doesn't feel a part of any one race and has no place to belong. In addition, Tom Hurley is half white and half Korean. He tries to hide his identity by telling people that he's Hawaiian.

The novel seemed more of a study of Lisa's attempts to find her way in life. We see her mistakes with the Japanese traditions and the view that Japanese men have toward women and, in particular, women of mixed race.

This novel won the American Book Award and the Edgar Award.
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on April 26, 2010
This was a wonderfully written literary thriller by a Korean-American author. He seems to come at it from the world of literary, as opposed to genre, writing. This definitely straddles the line between mystery and literature, and altho it contains elements of both, it ends up being an original and difficult-to-categorize creation. There is virtually no violence or crime, but the plot turns on a young woman's disappearance and the efforts of a detective to track her down. It is too full of unusual characters, humor, and social observation to be a typical mystery, and it is too addictive and enjoyable to be a ponderous work of literature. It works also as a discussion of race and identity, since most of the main characters come from some sort of mixed background, whether culturally or racially, and find themselves in a land in which this is not a prized quality.

Country of Origin most certainly is a novel of Japanese life from an outsider's perspective, and the picture it paints is not very flattering. Here is a Japan that is colorful, bizarre, and eccentric, a world of sex clubs, quirky cultural simulacrums, awkward, chauvinistic men, and manipulative women. There are cafes where the waitresses do not wear panties, odd love hotels, huge fake indoor beaches with rolling waves, and quiet, super-expensive little restaurants. It is a world that is both stuffily traditional and openly hedonistic. Lee sets his story in 1981, perhaps in part to parry any assertion that it is supposed to represent the Japan of the 2000s, but it is hard to miss this author's strong feelings about and fascination with the country.

The plot concerns the intrigues of a number of characters, mostly centered around the U.S. embassy. A young woman named Lisa Countryman has disappeared, and her sister has contacted the authorities and urged them to look for her. A callow, amoral young Korean-American Foreign Service officer named Tom Hurley begins looking into it, and on the Japanese side, a shy, dorky police detective named Kenzo Ota is assigned the case. I very much liked the structure of the novel, as it then begins to skip back and forth between the past (Lisa's misadventures) and the present (the investigation into her disappearance, and the personal lives of Hurley and Ota). The book is packed with noir-ready, bitchy female characters - sexy, smart-mouthed babes who are more than willing to cause a little trouble. The unpleasant character of Lisa is portrayed with a fair amount of sympathy and exploration of her past.

Tom gets into a very steamy affair with Julia Tinsley, the sharp-tongued wife of a Japanese-American undercover CIA officer. To say that this move is ill-advised is a massive understatement, but Tom goes all out and falls madly in love. Detective Ota gets involved with Miss Saotome, a young woman who is his landlady, but he is so clueless about women and romance that their friendship and courtship are mostly comical. He enlists her support in researching the world of sex clubs, mistakenly thinking that she is a sex worker of some kind. Much of the story is told with both a dry wit and a dash of sentiment that is ultimately very appealing. The ending is both realistic and surprising. This was a very enjoyable and intriguing book (as well as an enjoyable book of intrigue). Give it a try.
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