Pachinko

Unknown  Far into this saga of a Korean family in Japan, Min Jin Lee offers the reason for naming her book – Pachinko – for a popular Japanese pinball gambling game:

“Mozasu believed life was like this game where the player could adjust the dials yet also expect the uncertainty of factors he couldn’t control…something that looked fixed but which also left room for randomness and hope.”

Across four generations of Koreans, Min Jin Lee follows the history of Korea as it struggles through poverty, sublimation under Japanese rule, and the famous war dividing the country as it is today.  Nominated for the National Book Award, Pachinko captivates the reader with its characters while revealing their long and continuing effort for freedom and prosperity.

The timeline begins in Japanese-occupied Korea in the early 20th century, continues to Japan before World War II and finally to the late 1980s in Japan.. The novel opens with an arranged marriage in a fishing village in what would be South Korea today.  The one daughter from the marriage, Sunja, is the continuing fulcrum for the story of her progeny.  When Sunja falls in love with a prominent and older married mobster, Hansu,  she becomes pregnant.  After declining Hansu’s offer to be his Korean mistress, she accepts the offer of marriage from a local Presbyterian minister from the North visiting her parents’ boarding house.    She escapes her disgrace by marrying him and immigrating to his brother’s house in an ethnic Korean neighborhood in Osaka, Japan.  Throughout the novel, Hansu’s influence acts as a counterbalance.  His world of gambling seems innocuous until an incident reveals his cruelty and mobster power against anyone who crosses him.

Koreans in Japan were noncitizens, forced to change their names and regularly reapply for passports within a country where they might have been born.  Discrimination against them ranged from outright hostility to snobbish avoidance.  Sonja’s sons do not escape being ostracized; Noa, the son of the gangster and first in his family with a university education, yearns to be Japanese, his younger brother, Mozasu never seems to attain social status despite his wealth and connections.  Both sons eventually become pachinko house managers.

As time goes on, with each generation trying for a better life than their parents, the world changes but prejudicial attitudes seem to remain.  The last hope for equality among peers seems to be with Soloman, Sunja’s grandson, an American educated banker who has a promising career with a Japanese bank.  But not all is as it seems.   Sadly yet hopefully, Min Jin Lee ends the saga, true to her words:

“…life’s going to keep pushing you around, but you have to keep playing…”

The author successfully reveals the complicated state of Koreans in Japan, covering difficult topics from the yakuza, immigration, and real estate deals to personal views of expatriate life, religion, and, of course, the pachinko industry.    A book of substance and introspection, Pachinko is a story worth reading and discussing; this reader will never make the mistake of forgetting the history and individualism of Asians.

 

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What She Ate

512EKwsnRSL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_   Every day we make decisions about what food we will put into our mouths; Laura Shapiro’s What She Ate promised a glimpse into how five famous women in history survived.  From Dorothy Wordsworth, the frequent muse to her brother poet William, to Helen Gurley Brown, editor of Cosmopolitan, Shapiro offers her research on how circumstances reflected these women’s choices in food.  More an historical perspective than a prospectus of menus, Shapiro outlines portions of each woman’s life, offering delectable information but not always detailing the daily regimen of food items the title promised.

If you know the history of William Wordsworth’s long suffering spinster sister who loyally lived and cooked for him in Dove Cottage in the beautiful Lake Country until he married the capable Mary Hutchinson, you may remember her as the inspiration for the poem Daffodils.   Sadly, Dorothy’s energetic role declined into overweight chronic illness and dementia, reflected in Shapiro’s notes of Dorothy’s food choices changing from the thick gingerbread and delicate gooseberry pies to the awful blood pudding and finally porridge with more butter than grain.

The story of Rosa Lewis is more about how this self-educated Cockney woman became the most famous caterer in Edwardian England.  Shapiro’s references to Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion playing in the theater at the time grounded the timeline for me, but I couldn’t help comparing Rosa to the Downton Abbey cook who would have lived at the same time and also cooked for the Prince of Wales, later King.   With famous French Chef Escoffier as her model, Lewis cooked exquisite French food for the English aristocracy, preparing  elaborate ten course meals, including her local versions of quail pie and Yorkshire pudding.  After World War I, she too declined, as did her famous restaurant/hotel the Cavendish, going from roast duck to plover, but Shapiro concentrates more on what Lewis cooked and who she cooked it for – we can only guess she ate some of her own food.

Since Eleanor Roosevelt “didn’t care what she ate {and} had no palate for food,” she seems an unlikely target for this list of women; however, the promise of food affecting the brain had me reading on.  Supposedly, formal dinners at the White House had terrible food (a nod to the Depression) and expecting the worst, diners often ate before they arrived.  A typical menu might be breaded fish with marsmallow pudding, but privately and separately (they usually did not dine together) FDR dined on roast beef and cocktails, and Eleanor’s expertise with the chafing dish often delivered coddled eggs.   More pages are devoted to her relationship to her mother-in-law and Lucy Mercer and later to her devotion to causes than to the food in her life.

Despite her advocacy for the new home economics major at Cornell University, Eleanor was more devoted to politics than nutrition.  Foods produced in the university laboratory kitchens inspired her to cooking cheap and simple foods – prune pudding is mentioned.  Later, on her own with women friends at Val-Kill Cottage, she would make salads and a pancake dessert, a layer cake with maple syrup.  As with the first two women in the book, Eleanor Roosevelt’s tastes changes as she aged; for her, life and food became better when she was away from her husband.

Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress, is another unlikely candidate for this group of women, yet Shapiro focuses on the champagne and cake behind the scenes.  To sustain Hitler’s image, Braun gave interviews with magazines (Life, The Saturday Evening Post) and noted her expertise with potato dumplings and apple strudel.  Privately, she preferred salads.  Hitler was a vegetarian and had special meals prepared only for him, while others at the table dined on food no longer available in the Europe he held hostage.

Shapiro focuses more clearly on food when she writes about British novelist Barbara Pym.  By reviewing Pym’s extensive notebooks, Shapiro was able to connect the author’s observations to her fiction. Her diaries reflected her attention to the details of food often repeated in her fiction, for example, a note about “lettuce dressed with oil and salt, gruyere cheese and greengages – crusty bread” she had eaten in a restaurant found its way into her famous novel Excellent Women.   Shapiro describes Pym’s decline into obscurity and her resurrection years later through an article in the Times Literary Supplement, naming her as most underrated author of the century; soon after her Quartet in Autumn “where most of the food reflects the narrow, often lonely circumstance of the four main characters,” was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.  Shapiro says Pym would eat anything – fine food or frozen dinners.  When at publisher’s luncheons or dining out with friends she noted having lobster, smoked salmon, profiteroles but at home she cooked fish fingers and apple tart, often adding spices from India when she had them.

Finally, Helen Gurley Brown rounds out this small group.  A woman notoriously thin and always on a diet, she created her own cookbook – The Single Girls’s Cookbook (I once had a copy).  I could not connect how Brown who often had jello for dinner and considered a plate of poached fish a treat, could create a cookbook full of beef stews and decadent desserts.  But the book was meant for the single girl trying to catch a man through his stomach, and Shapiro spends a number of pages detailing how Helen chased her eventual husband David Brown.  Brown’s eating habits were miserable with only staying thin as the goal; Shapiro notes Brown must have always been hungry.

Styling herself as s culinary historian, Shapiro did extensive research for the book, but the result seems more like short biographies of each woman, with a nod to food.  Although the descriptions of well-known historical events sometimes seemed overdone, I did learn more about each woman than I had known before.  The theme has possibilities – perhaps Shapiro will write a sequel – how did food influence other women in history?  Florence Nightingale, Beatrix Potter, Alice Waters, and M.F.K Fisher would be good candidates.  Whose meals would you like to know better?

 

 

 

 

The Nix

I really didn’t want to read Nathan Hill’s 620 page novel this summer; I think the nix made me do it.

shopping    A Nix is a Norwegian mischief maker, a mythical spirit character who can be dangerous.  In Nathan Hill’s novel The Nix, a house spirit from Norwegian folktales is only the seasoning adding to the overall flavor of his expansive examination of pretty much everything politically and socially in the 1960s leading to an overwhelming examination of what is wrong with today, politically and socially.  The “meat” of his story, however, is about how people overcome their fears and guilt, relate to one another, and are never, ever, who you think they are.

Although Hill’s long Faulkner-like paragraphs ramble to include every detail of scenes I often did not want to know so much about,  his  characters are funny, human, pathetic, happy, and miserable – all at once – reminiscent of John Updike or Philip Roth.   His ability to suddenly jolt with information through switchbacks from the late 1960s to the almost present kept me riveted.  His surprises came at times just when I was about to stop reading, but then could not.

What was the book about?  So many reviews have been written, some as rambling as the novel itself.  In his review for NPR, Jason Sheehan encapsulated the plot:

Hill’s novel is the story of Samuel. Of the boy who became him and the man that he is in 2011, in an Occupy Wall Street America, where he is obsessed with an online videogame called World Of Elfscape and failing at pretty much everything else. But when his vanished mother suddenly reappears on every TV screen in America — this forgotten ’60s hippie radical now emerging as a viral sensation with a handful of gravel and no good explanation — he is given a chance to write a book about her. A hatchet-job in which he, the abandoned son, is contractually obligated to savage his own mother in lurid, tell-all fashion…

The Nix is about a lot of things — about politics and online gaming, about the tenuous friendships of adult men and the 1968 Democratic National Convention. It is a vicious, black-hearted and beautiful satire of youth and middle-age, feminine hygiene products, frozen foods and social media. But more than anything, it is a treatise on the ways that the past molds us and breaks us and never lets us go. How it haunts us all.

Read Sheehan’s complete review here  

Not everyone will agree that reading a novel over 600 pages is worth the time – remember The Goldfinch?  I liked that book too. But, for me, The Nix became a book I had to finish – not only to find out how lives finally resolved, but just to catch more of the humor and wisdom between the lines.  Not for everyone, but I’m glad I listened to a fellow reader and fell in.

 

Leaving Lucy Pear

9781101981764_p0_v1_s192x300  Anna Solomon’s sad tale of a baby left in an orchard in Leaving Lucy Pear has a cast of characters whose lives relate to her desertion in a little village in Cape Ann, Massachusetts in 1917.  I had expected only a version of the same theme I had read in other books – The Forgotten Garden, Light on Snow, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, and many more, but Solomon’s book holds its own with an underlying struggle of classes driving the classic redemption of the lost child.

Lucy is a minor character as the story begins with her under a pear tree, left by her wealthy teenage mother unwilling to give her up to a strict Jewish orphanage,  and found by a poor Irish family stealing the pears. Solomon evokes admiration for the tough Irish Emma, whose drunk fisherman husband is only home long enough to make her pregnant every year and pity for Bea, the lonely teenager who became pregnant after one assignation with a handsome naval officer.  Solomon does not alternate chapters on the mothers, as expected, but slowly reveals each of the mother’s lives through a series of related characters as well as their past and present, as she skips though the years.

Ten years after leaving her baby in a pear orchard, Bea, has grown into a women’s rights and Prohibition advocate, married to a handsome Boston banker.  She lives in Cape Ann with her aging Uncle Ira in an imposing house near the pear orchard.  Josiah, married into wealth on the island and hoping to gain Bea’s endorsement for mayor, arranges to have Emma, now a mother of nine children with her husband at sea, to care for Ira.  Emma recognizes Bea as the mother of Lucy but Bea does not learn of Lucy’s new home until much later in the story.

Solomon adds political and class story lines as she addresses the parallel lives of the mothers.  The famous trial of Sacco and Vanzetti punctuates the plot in an underlying voice accusing both the wealthy land owners – the outsiders on the Cape – and the poor working class locals. Ira’s brother, who is a successful shoe manufacturer changed his Jewish name to one better suited to the Protestant New England upper class, while his wife,  Bea’s mother, is a pitiful pretender at the country club, overdressing and fracturing her vocabulary as she tries to fit in.   She later becomes the catalyst for a strange twist of fate I did not see coming.

As the characters grow into their lives, Soloman slyly dismisses the reader’s assumptions about their motivations, revealing surprising yet reasonable secrets protecting their characters’ flaws.  Emma’s risks in having an affair with Josiah, Bea’s selfless crusades to protect her fragile ego, Albert’s steadfastness despite his yearning, Lucy’s disguising herself in a boy’s clothing – all eventually merge into revelations.

As I read, I found myself googling Sacco and Vanzetti, their trial, its effects, their execution, and much later vindication by Gov. Michael Dukakis.  I looked for Cape Ann, not as popular as Cape Cod, at the other end of the half moon of land off the coast of Massachusetts.  I wondered about the pears and found orchards still producing, with aged cinnamon pear vinegar and Stone Ruination Ale.

Lucy is almost a minor character in the plot, but has grown into a feisty and capable girl.  The ending brings her full circle to face both mothers.  Hints of her final decision, as she tries to manage the pull of both mothers, may be predictable and hopeful, but no less sad for an independent ten year old.  I’m hoping for a sequel to follow Lucy as she grows into womanhood.

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A Book for Your Next Book Club Discussion – Before We Were Yours

Unknown-1The picture of Beulah Georgia Tann, who used her Tennessee Children’s Home Society to sell children, hides all the horror and misery Lisa Wingate uses as the framework for her fictionalized tale of a family of river gypsies caught in the net of children stolen for profit – Before We Were Yours.  Although the corruption was exposed in the media (Sixty Minutes) and nonfiction (Raymond’s 2007 The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgian Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption), the appalling history was new to me.  I remember my grandmother cautioning me about baby stealers, but Tann’s grand scale child trafficking seems more like fiction than the reality it was until the ninety-fifties.  The history is worth discussion.

Briny and Queenie were poor river gypsies with a brood of blond curly-haired children, ranging from a two year old boy to four girls, with twelve year old Rill as the oldest. They live aboard an old boat, the Arcadia, fishing and bartering  with other riverboat people.  When Queenie’ s latest pregnancy ends in the premature birth of twins, the family is suddenly torn apart.  With Queenie in a nearby hospital, the children are stolen from their river barge and sent to one of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society collection sites; it would be a disservice to call it an orphanage.  One by one, each child is bartered out to a new home.

Wingate mixes adventure and romance, cleverly creating mystery and suspense as the story shifts back to the present day investigation of a thirty year old grandchild of one of the stolen children, Judy Stafford.   The Stafford family background remains a secret, and with Judy, the grandmother now suffering from dementia, it might have remained so.  Circumstances trigger Avery’s exploration of her grandmother’s past, while she struggles with her own future as the possible successor to her father’s political legacy, and her marriage to a longtime friend she is not sure she loves.

As the chapters alternate between 1939 and the present,  the background of the river family and the consequences of Tann’s actions slowly emerge.   The two time frames converge to reveal the children’s fears and hopes.  By using a fictionalized aggregate of the children targeted by the corrupt Tann, Wingate makes the story real.  By teasing the reader with the identity of the grandmother until the end, she creates a page-turner; I read the book in one sitting.

Although Wingate offers her commentary on how lives of privilege may not always be as they seem, the historical context of poor children kidnapped and sold to wealthy families throughout the country from the 1920s to the 1950s carries the importance of the drama.