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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The Excellent Lombards

If I hadn’t read Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, I may have missed Jane Hamilton’s The Excellent Lombards. Patchett recommended the book as “the book Hamilton was born to write.” Like Patchett’s Commonwealth, The Excellent Lombards focuses on a family, and has some biographical references from its author. Coincidentally, both books also have a character named Frances.

Since Hamilton tells this coming of age story through the voice of twelve year old Mary Frances Lombard living with her family on a small Wisconsin apple and sheep farm at the end of the twentieth century, the rhythm of the narrative is hard to follow at first. Ownership of the farm lands has been passed down through generations and is now shared by Jim Lombard, Frankie’s father, his cousin Sherwood, and an elderly aunt May Hill. Everyone from old May Hill to the children, Frankie and her brother, William, work the farm, except Nellie, Frankie’s mother who is the town librarian.

Frankie is determined to stay on the farm forever, imagining a long life there with her brother, but the small farm struggle against land development and innovative crops, as well as inner family rivalries, threaten her dream. Change is hard, especially when you don’t want to grow up.

Hamilton, of course, has a message for the reader through tense moments at town hall meetings or around the dinner table, but the novel’s humor, cleverly flowing through Frankie, kept my attention – from her pushing the library carts through the halls in a synchronized dance routine to being locked in the old lady’s bedroom while she was sharpening her spying skills.  Frankie will go to extremes to keep everyone happy, purposely losing the geography bee to her younger lispy cousin to make her feel better.

Hamilton touches on historic moments such as the terrorist attack on the New York City Towers, but only as placements in time. The real terror is the developing history noone can stop. The story ends with Frankie facing her own possibilities, opportunities, and obstacles – some seem inevitable. With grace and wit, Hamilton delivers her perspective on the difficulty of letting go.

Saints for All Occasions

9780307959577_p0_v6_s192x300  J. Courtney Sullivan’s Saints for All Occasions features two Irish sisters immigrated from Ireland.  One joins a cloistered convent; the other marries and raises the nun’s out-of-wedlock son.  Although their lives seem predictable, Sullivan uses their strict upbringing and their personal struggles to create a family saga across generations.

The story begins with the death of Patrick, eldest son, but his place within the family is quickly absorbed into the estranged relationship of the two sisters. As the story moves between the present and the past, Sullivan follows the sisters as they travel by ship to their new world, and teases the reader with their future lives.  Despite the long descriptions and the choppy dialogue, I kept reading to find out how their lives developed.  How did Theresa become a nun?  How did she get to Vermont? How did Nora have so many children when she had not consummated her marriage after two years?  Sullivan posing possibilities by her glimpses into their future, constantly opening new doors for her characters.

The title refers to a collection of holy cards Nora has kept in a box.  I remember my grandmother’s – bespoke cards for specific requests with the saint’s picture on one side and the prayer of entreaty on the other.  Some have entered popular culture – pray to St. Jude for the impossible or St. Anthony for lost items, but St. Monica as the patron saint for mothers of difficult children was new to me. The cards also include commemorations of the dead, usually distributed at a funeral. I have a stack of those bequeathed to me – some of relatives I barely remember.

For those of us who grew up in the Catholic religion of old and watched as it morphed into modernity, then was crippled by the exposure of priests’ crimes, Sullivan’s references will make a connection.  As the book ended, I wanted more  and realized I had become immersed in the characters’ lives.

Related Review: Maine

This Was a Man – The Final Volume of the Clifton Chronicles

9781250061638_p0_v6_s192x300  With the same fast-paced intensity as the six books leading up to this final entry in The Clifton Chronicles,  Jeffrey Archer’s This Was a Man leads the reader back to the family saga of the Barringtons and the Cliftons.  Although the last two books included my name ( a result of winning a contest), this final volume has no Ph.D. with good advice.  The main characters do return, and Archer successfully reminds the reader of past adventures but it would be easier to binge read all the books together – if you could.

Cunard has bought out the Barrington ocean liners, Harry has been knighted, and Margaret Thatcher is in office, with Emma newly appointed to championing a health care bill. Villains return too, with Lady Virginia artfully and greedily worming her evil through the scenes.

Archer skillfully addresses each family member in the line, providing successful outcomes as their lives continue to develop and interact.  Despite the novel’s length and the complications of following a number of characters across dissecting story lines, Archer has the unique ability to maintain clarity, helping the reader follow with anticipation and sometimes with empathy, as he weaves his storytelling drama across generations.

The character Harry Clifton offers an undeniable clue to the ending of Archer’s last volume – it really is the end –  and Archer uses his last pages to revisit highlights of his previous six novels.   The family saga is over.  But maybe it will reappear someday as a modern Forsythe Saga in a BBC special drama series.  I would welcome it to my Sunday nights.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

51vo9iqcxjl-_ac_us174_Ann Patchett knows the power of the sudden jolt in her stories.  I remember finding it in Bel Canto and in State of Wonder, but I almost missed it in her latest novel – Commonwealth.  The story slowly unravels, as two families are torn apart by pride and lust, and then slowly reassembled through love.  Amazingly, the crises seem almost familiar, and the real secret of survival may be the illusions and perceptions the characters carry with them through years of denial.

Patchett sows the seeds in her opening gambit when beautiful Beverly, married to her policeman husband,  passionately kisses the handsome attorney, Bert Cousins, father to three small children and one on the way, at her daughter’s christening.  Was it the gin in the orange juice or deeper discontent driving their passion?  The reader doesn’t have to wait long before Patchett has the two moved to Virginia with Beverley’s two little girls, Caroline and Franny.  In the summer, Bert’s four children join in – a blended family of intolerance.

While the two lovebirds are cementing their attraction, the children suffer each new chapter of their lives, hating each other and the loss of their old lives, angry and unforgiving.  They run wild in the summer, and the older children regularly drug Albie, the youngest, with Benadryl to shut him down and keep him out of their antics. While Teresa, mother of Bert’s four hellions, is back in California working at her new job, Beverly finds herself hiding in her air-conditioned car in Virginia to escape the children.

Patchett cleverly shifts gears and creates suspense by teasing the reader with cliffhangers as she suddenly jumps from present to past and future in alternating chapters spanning fifty years.  The children speak as adults, some of whom have forged unlikely alliances.  The first indication of a change in atmosphere in the novel comes with the death of the eldest boy, Cal, with lingering repercussions for the other children, as they reveal their roles in the coverup.

But the big jolt comes later in the book, when Franny’s new love, the older Leon Posen, a famous writer who has hit writer’s block after his last big success, creates his masterpiece – titled “Commonwealth.”  Patchett is so convincing, I found myself googling Posen and looking for his book, almost missing the point of his stealing Franny’s stories about her childhood for his use.  Dysfunctional families may be fodder for a bestseller, but when Posen uses the details of Cal’s death and the children’s secret drugging of Albie, fact and fiction become alarmingly the same – exposing harmful secrets.  I wondered if Patchett was also sending a subtle message with the title – the possibility of her using stories from her own life in her fiction?

Just as the slide you went down as a child seemed so much bigger than it does to you as an adult, and just as the teacher you idolized as a child seems not as old when you are grown, the mere action of having her adult characters look back on their time together as children offers a philosophical and healing balm.  They all adjust and forgive, and they see their parents’ actions and their own frantic childhoods from a wiser perspective.

Each of us plays the cards we are dealt, and Patchett offers the consolation that however our lives evolve, we can find some way to be true to ourselves and those we love.

Commonwealth is another winner from Ann Patchett, one of my favorite writers.  I could not stop reading the book until I finished in the wee hours of the morning, and I may have to read it again.