My sister emailed me the other day with a book suggestion.  Her local book discussion group in Largo, Florida, had just read The Ginseng Hunter by Jeff Talarigo.  She thought it was a book I would like because I made a trip to China with ALA in 2006 and the trip was a fond memory.

Doesn’t my sister know I read crime fiction?  Doesn’t my sister know I am too busy reading books for my own book clubs?  Doesn’t my sister know I am a librarian?

As it turns out, I had just been invited to a private party of librarians who have been to China.  You would not think in Milwaukee that this would need a support group but there were four of us invited.  Part of the suggested preparation for the evening of food, talk and slides was reading a book on China and preparing a book talk. 

Thanks, sis.

The Ginseng Hunter is a quiet book.  It sneaks up on you, one of those books you think about days afterward.  The basic story tells the tale of an unnamed Chinese ginseng hunter who is carrying on the centuries old traditions while around him the world has changed.  He is able to distance the fact that he hunts on the border with North Korea until his monthly trips to town put him in contact with a North Korean prostitute who has crossed the border to work in China.  Through her, we hear the horrific stories of her mother’s struggles to survive across the border in North Korea.  The prostitute rekindles the hunter’s memories and reminds the hunter that he is part Korean.  She makes the ginseng hunter cross borders, both physical and spiritual, and slowly his life changes.  Not in a dramatic fashion like a thriller but rather in a subtle literary way that makes the reader really work at finding the truth just as the hunter must really struggle to find the right root.

Book discussion groups should, like my sister’s, find plenty to discuss despite the fact that the book is only 176 pages long.  Surveys usually show that recommendations from friends and relatives are one of the most common ways that readers get book recommendations.  This experience reinforced the notion that I should take some time each book discussion to let the members make some recommendations to the group. 




About the Author:

Gary Niebuhr is the author of Make Mine a Mystery (2003), Caught up in Crime (2009), and other readers' guides to mystery and detective fiction. He was a Booklist contributor from 2008-2014.

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