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Country Of Origin [Hardcover]

Don Lee
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

July 12 2004
When a young American woman goes missing in 1980 Tokyo's sexual underworld, a young U.S. Embassy official considers his prospects for finding her and enlists the help of a neurotic and unpopular Japanese police officer.

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From Publishers Weekly

Ploughshares editor Lee uses the racial homogeneity of Japan as a stark backdrop to this elegant first novel, a follow-up to his story collection, Yellow. Set in Tokyo in 1980, the book centers on the disappearance of Lisa Countryman, a half-Japanese, half-black Berkeley graduate student who goes to Japan to research the "sad, brutal reign of conformity" for her dissertation and, perhaps more importantly, embark on an identity quest. Her mixed-race background gives her an exotic beauty, and after a teaching job falls through, it lands her a job as a hostess girl at a Tokyo men's club. Echoes of Countryman's identity crisis ring through the lives of all the characters affected by her disappearance. When she vanishes, it is first brought to the attention of Tom Hurley, a vain and careless junior diplomat at the U.S. Embassy who tells people he's Hawaiian, though he's really half-Korean and half-white. The case is turned over to Kenzo Ota, a glum, divorced police inspector, who spent three hard years of his adolescence in Missouri. Convinced that Countryman's case could be just what he needs to put his career back on track, Ota resolves to find out what happened to her. The story of Countryman's time in Japan and her efforts to learn who she is unfolds parallel to Ota's efforts to learn her fate. Through the interlocking stories of Ota, Countryman and Hurley, Lee discourses on race, identity, the Japanese sex trade, social conventions and law. Sharply observed, at turns trenchantly funny and heartbreakingly sad, this novel could be the breakout book for Lee.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* It's 1980, a hard-fought election year in which the Iranian hostage crisis plays an increasingly critical role. But that intrigue exists a world away from Foreign Service junior officer Tom Hurley, a cipher hiding a cowardly episode of treachery in his past. He's coasting through a dull-but-cushy appointment to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo and targeting a CIA operative's wife for a bit of dangerous fun. She blipped onto Hurley's radar screen by asking him about the seemingly routine case of Lisa Countryman, a U.S. tourist who disappeared after ditching an under-the-table job at a fly-by-night English language school. The ensuing investigation takes Hurley and clueless police detective Kenzo Ota into Tokyo's seediest corners. It also forces both men to confront their many human failings, and possibly even overcome them. Issues of race, class, and national identity drive this clear-eyed story of closure, redemption, and carving out a place in the world. Lee expertly weaves a tiny new pleasure into every page, from fascinating forays into Japanese culture to wry lines in the vein of "People don't have affairs to get out of their marriages. They have them to prolong them." As satisfying as it is unsettling, this quiet literary triumph eschews plot pyrotechnics for fully realized, deeply felt characters who bumble and struggle their way toward grace much like the rest of us. Frank Sennett
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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TOM HURLEY dove into the embassy pool, slipping into the hush and cool of the water. Read the first page
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5.0 out of 5 stars Super July 14 2004
Format:Hardcover
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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3.0 out of 5 stars (3.5) Lost souls in 1980�s Tokyo July 8 2004
Format:Hardcover
A young American woman is missing in 1980's Tokyo, set against the political backdrop of the Iran hostage crisis and the upcoming presidential election in America. The author positions his characters in a city filled with foreigners and entrepreneurs. That each of the important protagonists has identity issues to deal with adds a racial element to the plot.
Although Lisa is of mixed heritage, she appears white and is viewed as a gaijin. Like many other young women, she has come to Tokyo to earn enough money to solve her financial problems, with or without the appropriate papers. From the first, Lisa runs into problems, each step of her journey more difficult and dangerous, she is unable to make friends or hold a job.
Countryman's case is assigned to the US Embassy, specifically to Tom Hurley, of mixed lineage himself. Hurley pursues a life of few commitments, not too interested in the American's disappearance, other than as a way to maintain contact with his affair of the moment, a woman married to a CIA operative working undercover at the American Embassy. Hurley's contact with his liaison in the Tokyo police department introduces the most likeable character in Country of Origin, Kenzo Ota. The detective is divorced, a bit paranoid and insecure, his career on a fast track to nowhere. Using the few leads supplied by Hurley, Ito eventually blunders into solving the mystery behind Lisa's disappearance, changing the direction of the story.
The characters interact in an international, complex society, a city filled with energetic pursuit of enterprise.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 3.7 out of 5 stars  16 reviews
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of best reads for literary-mystery fiction Oct. 26 2004
By Donal Heffernan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
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.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A good read! Jan. 5 2006
By Fred Zappa - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
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.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Super July 14 2004
By Candace Siegle, Greedy Reader - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
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.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Promising Tokyo-Set Debut Aug. 31 2006
By A. Ross - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
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.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Marvelous discussion of mixed race in homogenous Japan plus a great mystery July 28 2006
By Grey Wolffe - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
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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