Sunday, 9 July 2017

Book review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Book review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee · Lisa Hjalt


Earlier this year, the novel Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, an American-Korean author, was published by Head of Zeus (Apollo). My review copy appeared on my № 8 reading list. It's a story about a Korean family in Japan, about their immigrant experience, their struggles and resilience, spanning eight decades in the 20th century. My feelings about the book are slightly mixed, mainly for its quick pace - its 490 pages read very fast - and the fault I found with the lack of character development. However, I think the book's message is important and historically valuable, for the author casts a light on a social problem I was unaware of: the treatment and oppression of Koreans in Japanese society for decades.

The title of the book, the word pachinko, needs explanation. It first appears halfway through the book. Pachinko is a pinball game and the pachinko parlors are a huge industry in Japan, with a larger export revenue than the car industry. The pachinko parlors were one of few places that would hire Koreans. What is more, the only housing solution for Koreans was a tiny shack in ethnic ghettos for no one wanted to rent out properties to them.

Pachinko tells the story of four generations, beginning in 1911, in a fishing village in the south-eastern part of the Korean peninsula, the year after Japan's annexation of the country. To fastforward slightly, a love affair with a married man leaves the fifteen-year-old Sunja pregnant. Her family is saved from ruin when Isak, a Christian minister from the north, offers to marry her and take her with him to Osaka, in Japan, where they arrive in April 1933.
Book review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee · Lisa Hjalt


At the start of their journey, around page 80, the story really takes off and becomes somewhat of a page-turner. The writing style is plain and because of conversations the pace is quick, which is also the book's main flaw. Instead of developing the characters, giving them more depth, and allowing the reader to stand still with them to gain a better insight, it feels as if the author is constantly moving the story along, perhaps to fit it into historical context. Min Jin Lee's story is certainly interesting but the storytelling lacks density.

She divides the book into three parts: The first two are mainly about the immigrant experience, about Sunja and her family's struggles in an ethnic ghetto, and on a farm during the war. The third part starts in April 1962 and mainly deals with her descendants. At that point the family is financially more stable, and the younger members later prosper with the help of the pachinko business. In my opinion, this is where the author derails; the third is the novel's weakest part. Min Jin Lee introduces a new set of characters - few of which I grew fond of - and leaves a gap by almost abandoning the older generation. Sunja and the older family members seem to fade into the background, as if they are no longer of much importance, when in fact it seems to me that so much if left untold of their story, especially of their feelings.

Sunja is a character that I grew to love and hoped to get to know better in the third part. About hundred pages in, finally, came this glimpse of insight into her mind: 'All her life, Sunja had heard this sentiment from other women, that they must suffer—suffer as a girl, suffer as a wife, suffer as a mother—die suffering. Go-saeng—the word made her sick. What else was there besides this? She had suffered to create a better life for Noa, and yet it was not enough' (p. 420). Alas, it was short-lived. The author took us straight into conversations and moved the story along.
Book review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee · Lisa Hjalt


Even though Pachinko isn't a literary masterpiece, one has to honour the author's effort. Part of me wants to root for the book because of its themes and its relevance to the times we live in: immigration and identity, and the treatment of immigrants and refugees. This is where I think Min Jin Lee is at her finest. There is scrutiny of Japan but she avoids feeding opinions to her readers and the pit of letting them see things in black and white. I completely trust her research for the book, of the Korean experience in Japanese society, and I believe she leaves it to the reader to pass judgement.

Readers who are only looking for a story will enjoy this book, enjoy its fast pace. But I'm afraid readers who turn to literature for the writing style, for sentences one wants to read again, and even write down, will be left a bit empty-handed.

Pachinko
By Min Jin Lee
Head of Zeus / Apollo
Hardcover, 490 pages
BUY HERE

Pachinko appeared on my № 8 reading list.


Sunday, 2 July 2017

№ 10 reading list: rediscovering Modiano

№ 10 reading list: Modiano, book stack, latte · Lisa Hjalt


Sunday morning, latte, book podcasts, and a new reading list. When the skies are grey this is a delightful way to start the day. There are nine books on the list, which to some may seem a lot, but many of these are short and I have already finished a few, e.g. that second Patrick Modiano, In the Café of Lost Youth. My new favourite author. [Update: I changed the title of this entry when I realised shortly after posting it that I had indeed read Modiano before, years ago. It was this German edition of Villa Triste. I still remember buying it, in a small bookshop in one of those narrow cobblestone streets in Zurich. I need to reread it; I don't remember the storyline.] He is a French novelist who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2014. Luckily, many of his books have been translated into English, and are available at my local library.

№ 10 reading list:
· The Ballad of the Sad Café  by Carson McCullers
· Pedigree  by Patrick Modiano
· In the Café of Lost Youth  by Patrick Modiano
· Invisible Cities  by Italo Calvino
· Stoner  by John Williams
· Point Omega  by Don DeLillo
· Jigsaw: An Unsentimental Education  by Sybille Bedford
· The Captain's Daughter  by Alexander Pushkin
· Dancing in the Dark: My Struggle 4  by Karl Ove Knausgård

It is time to continue with Knausgård's struggles; I was beginning to miss his voice. The only book in the stack that belongs to me is Bedford's Jigsaw, which is partly autobiographical. A fellow book lover on Instagram recommended it and something tells me I will soon be picking up her memoirs Quicksands.

I meant to include Arundhati Roy's new fiction, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, but I'm still waiting for the copy I ordered at the library. It will appear on the next list. Earlier this week she was a guest on the Guardian book podcast. Besides talking about the book, she also talked about her activism in India, which I found fascinating. The legal cases against her are many and ridiculous, but she has a wonderful sense of humour and doesn't hesitate to make fun of her opponents.

I have finished reading all the books on the Japanese reading list (№ 9), except The Tale of Genji (the one under my cup). It's long and I told you I would be reading it slowly. In case you were wondering, yes, I'm enjoying it very much. I still owe you two book reviews and some notes from my reading journal (right before sharing it, I accidentally deleted the draft of my Pachinko review! I sort of knew it by heart and I just have to finish typing it again). I hope July will be a good month for reading.


Wednesday, 21 June 2017

summertime 2017 | new books

summertime 2017 new books, peonies, coffee cup · Lisa Hjalt


The longest day of the year is upon us and on the west coast of Scotland we have clouds and some rain. The ideal weather for mentioning new books, don't you agree, and for inhaling the scent of the peonies on my desk. I ordered two of these titles from the local library and hope I can add them to my next reading list:

· The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (Hamish Hamilton). After twenty years, finally, a new fiction from Roy! Her novel The God of Small Things, winner of the Man Booker Prize in 1997, is one of the most memorable books I have ever read.
· Theft by Finding: Diaries: Volume One by David Sedaris (Little, Brown). Quite recently he was a guest on The NYT Book Review podcast, talking about and reading from it, and there I was in the kitchen laughing out loud. He is simply hilarious.
· House of Names by Colm Tóibín (Viking). An author I still haven't read. On my to-read list is his novel Brooklyn, which I wanted to read before seeing the film (2015), starring Saoirse Ronan. Couldn't wait and am so glad I didn't. It's a beautiful film that I can watch over and over again.
· The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich (Penguin). She received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015. This is the long-awaited English translation of her classic oral history of Soviet women's experiences during WWII. Published in July.
· Friend of My Youth by Amit Chaudhuri (Faber). About a man, interestingly named Amit Chaudhuri, who returns to Bombay, the city of his childhood. Published in August.