Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

pachinko

At the opening of this novel, we meet Sunja, a young girl who toils away, helping her mother run a small boardinghouse on a small island in Korea.  When a young, handsome minister comes to stay with them and falls ill, he seems to be the answer to their predicament, as he is willing to marry her, even though she is pregnant with another man’s child.  As he carries her off to Japan, her life takes many unexpected twists and turns, and this poignant story follows her through the next generations.

Through the telling of Sunja’s life and the life of her mother and sons, the reader also learns of the experience of Koreans at the hands of the Japanese through much of the twentieth century.  Although many of Korean descent were born in Japan, they were not allowed to be Japanese citizens and were treated as foreigners in their own country, forced to obtain a Korean passport at the age of 14 and having to recertify this every 3 years, with the constant threat of deportation.  They were denied many educational and employment opportunities and often the only way to earn money was in businesses such as the “pachinko” halls, pachinko being a form of pinball or slot machine.  At the same time, anyone involved in these businesses were looked down upon and considered gangsters, whether or not they actually were.

What is apparent throughout the story is that this oppression casts a heavy shadow on each and every member of Sunja’s family and each comes to bear the burden in his or her own way.  There is some success and much heartbreak in the course of Sunja’s life as a consequence of this and it ranges from very outright to more subtle.

The more I think about this story and sit with it, the more I realize how much is here to think about and appreciate.

I think you will too.

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Life is Short but Wide by J California Cooper

life is short but wide

When Irene first laid eyes on Val, she wasn’t at all experienced in the ways of men, but she was careful to make it clear that he was to show her respect – and that he did.  As Val courted Irene, and then proposed marriage, he wanted to prove to her that he was worthy of her, so he bought her a large house on an impressive piece of land, which would serve her well over the years.  This is the story of how this house enabled not only her survival, but the survival of the generations after her as well.

I didn’t care for the voice of the storyteller, first and foremost.  I feel that vernacular is great for dialogue in a story, giving characters authenticity and enabling you to almost hear them speaking out loud when you read.  But when the whole story is told in a vernacular, and in as repetitive a way as was used in this particular novel, it diminishes the impact of the story.

I also was waiting for a huge crescendo to the plot, but unfortunately – I’m still waiting.  There are a few blips, for sure, but it is hard to discern what is major and what is minor because of the inconsistent way in which the story is told.  Some parts are brushed over and some are drawn out in unnecessary detail and they do not, at least in my mind, correlate with the magnitude of the events themselves.  Even the characters themselves might have been developed further – it seemed that most were either only good or bad – that is, rather flat.  In my opinion, no one is all good, nor all bad.

So as you can easily surmise, I was disappointed in this book.  I would not recommend this one…

 

 

Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill

someone knows my name

Aminata was born free, in the heart of Africa and learned early how to “catch babies” with her mother, who was a midwife in her village.  On their way back from delivering a baby in a nearby village, Aminata was captured, dragged on a 3-month trek over land and then forced onto a slave ship, which she survived within an inch of her life.  She was to go on to become a slave in the south and, like others of her time, become a pawn caught between the colonists and the British.   All she wished for, her whole life, was to return home to Africa – and it seemed as if the Book of Negroes, the book in which she eventually was inscribed, just might be her ticket back.  During her whole ordeal, she fought for freedom for herself and for all Negroes everywhere.  Would she see it finally come to pass?

There are innumerable books about slaves and slavery during the time of the Civil War, but this takes the reader further back, to the time of the American Revolutionary War.  This was a time when both the colonists and the British were inflicting the indignities of slavery onto the Negroes of the time and these people were essentially pawns caught between the two warring factions.  It was unclear which side would deal more fairly with their race and who to trust, and each individual gambled with their life in choosing sides.  We learn, through this story, about the British offer to those Negroes who had worked for the British for at least a year prior to the end of the war the promise of freedom and a new life in Nova Scotia.  But were they really to be trusted? Would they really achieve the independence they were seeking?

This is a powerful story about the inescapability of slavery for Africans of that era, and how globally it was accepted.  This story gave much historical context of the British practices and laws and the involvement of Canada and Nova Scotia as well.  While it was fictionized, much of it was based in fact.  Telling it from Aminata’s perspective highlighted how truly evil it was and her frustration with how she could truly almost never escape it now matter where she fled.  She could not trust anyone and she could not know for sure she would not be taken away and sold back into slavery if she were freed.  How terrifying.

This is an excellent book that truly grips you from the first page and doesn’t let you go until the last.  Historical fiction at its best.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

an american marriage

Roy Othaniel Hamilton is a well-to-do Black man from the Louisiana, who now lives with his wife, Celestial in Atlanta.  They’ve come home to visit Roy’s parents, but because of a little friction between Celestial and Roy’s mom, they decide to stay in a little motel for the night.  After a benign encounter with a woman down the hall, they are suddenly accosted by police and Roy is eventually convicted of a crime he never committed.  As the story unfolds, we are drawn in to feel the painful ripple effect of how one (erroneous!) incarceration can devastate so many lives around the one, innocent, individual.

Tayari Jones is a masterful storyteller.  She changes voices with each chapter, a la Jodi Picoult, and this helps the reader to see inside the heart of each main character.   In addition, she utilizes letters written by the characters, which help the reader to feel the distance that the characters themselves feel when they are kept at a distance by prison walls.  The characters she creates are deeply human – they are all Black, and they are each beautiful and flawed and real in their own ways.  It is hard not to sympathize with each and every one of them.  And the story itself is extremely powerful, playing out slowly and rising to a dramatic crescendo.

According to the NAACP, African Americans are incarcerated more than 5 times the rate of whites, and although African Americans and Hispanics make up only 32% of the U.S. population, they comprised 56% of all incarcerated people in 2015.  There is clearly a problem here.  And of course this problem is complex; with poverty and educational disparities and opportunities being at least part of this problem.  And I don’t profess to be able to solve things merely by reading a book.

But…  by reading books such as these, we begin to bring to light what the problem is and how deeply this affects so many people.  We begin to bring understanding and compassion to what people experience when this happens and it becomes more than just a statistic.  And hopefully it will help us to stand up for our fellow man and woman and to see it as a problem that affects us all and not just “the other.”

Reading books such as these – is a start.

This is a MUST READ, for sure.

 

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

alone in berlin

This unusual story of the quiet insurgency of Otto and Anna Quangel against Hitler’s war begins with the various characters in their apartment building.  At the beginning of the story, each family has little to do with each other, but because the Gestapo has fostered a culture of paranoia and turning others against each other, each has an eye out for/against the other and their lives become unwittingly embroiled together.  Ironically, the most self-contained and private of all of them, reveal themselves to be the most truly dignified, even as they are ineffectual in their attempts at postcard propaganda.

Let’s just start with the statement that this is not the usual WWII novel, at all.  The quirky writing and the shift in focus from minor character to character keep it floating just a little bit above the usual depth of despair that one usually carries, although it is certainly not without its violence or death.   The focus, though, is really on what is going on in Germany proper and particularly in the ” criminal justice” system.  There are more than a few interlocking stories of how corrupt Nazi Party officials use their positions to gain from the losses of the masses and everyone tries to profit from informing on each other.   The overarching irony becomes who are the “criminals” and who are those who deliver “justice.”  The highlight of this is the actual trial scene, during which a judge essentially does the work of the prosecutor.  After this, when Otto’s “defense attorney” accuses Otto of being mad for what he’s done, Otto rightly asks him, “Do you think it’s mad to be willing to pay any price for remaining decent?”

The most dignified characters here are also the most common, ordinary ones.  Otto and Anna are not wealthy, and not well-educated.  They are hard-working, awkward, regimented people.  Otto is pretty OCD and shuns social interactions.  He is not the typical novel hero.  Which I think is what makes him all the more striking as a hero here.  He’s saying here that anyone can, in his own, small and dignified way, stand up for what he believes in – for what is right.

There is an obvious message here and relevance to what is going on today.  I apologize for my frequent references to political issues in this supposed literary blog, but I can’t help myself.  As I read this book, particular lines and issues jumped out from the pages as if coming fresh out of the newspaper headlines of 2018 as well.  Injustices done to people because of their race or religion, leaders getting away with abuse of power because people worshipped them valuing party over constituents, having a leader of a country who believes himself a deity deserving of unlimited power as if he is not in a democracy at all.  It’s all too familiar and if we do not stop this, it will be just as it was in 1933 at the beginning of all of that.

We have to circulate our own little postcards here and now.  This is mine…

 

Playing with Matches by Carolyn Wall

playing with matches

Clea is a smart, but smart-mouthed girl who seems to not be able to stop herself from saying things that get her into trouble.  And while Auntie (her adoptive mother) loves her dearly, she still craves attention and love from her Mama, who seems to show love only to the men who come to her each night from the prison up the road.  As Clea grows older and the hurt grows deeper, Clea learns to internalize this hurt and drive it inward, until she finally learns how to cope and ultimately to forgive.

This is a poignant coming-of-age story, that blends flavors of the deep, poverty-stricken South into a young woman’s struggle with trauma and development of empathy and forgiveness.  While Clea starts off as a bold, outspoken, actually crass and rude child, she learns quickly that her words can do terrible harm.  And they do.  But she clings to words in other ways, and words ultimately become what save her.

The character I find the most beautiful in this story, actually, is Auntie.  Auntie is the one who has taken Clea in, an hour after Clea’s Mama has given birth to her, with no blood relation (in fact, she’s black and Clea is white) but only because she’s a human child with no one to care for her.  And she raises the child as she would her own child and loves her unconditionally.  She does not give Clea everything she wants, but rather she gives her everything she needs.  She sets admirable limits with her and guides her with wisdom and tenderness.  She is so very kind.

My only reservation about this book is that toward the end, there is a little more forgiveness than I think is realistic.  There is one character, in particular, who is extraordinarily evil.  Forgiveness for her may be beyond realistic – but maybe that is because I am not kind enough.  I’d love to hear others’ opinions on this one!

I definitely recommend this book – but it is pretty serious, so prepare yourself!

 

Seven Days in May by Kim Izzo

seven days in may

This is a gorgeous work of historical fiction that is a new addition to my “Must Read” list.  Isabel is a woman hell-bent on reinventing herself as a decoder for the war effort for Britain during the second World War.  Across the ocean, Sydney begins as a headstrong suffragette, much to the chagrin of her sister, Brooke, who just needs Sydney to tone it down so as not to scare away Brooke’s fiancee Edward.  They are all entwined by the voyage of the Lusitania, which is to carry Brooke, Sydney and Edward to England where Brooke and Edward are to marry.  Will the Lusitania make it through war zone waters safely?

This is a beautifully orchestrated novel, with suspenseful subplots and many amusing and colorful characters that draw the reader in and keep the pages turning.  Both Isabel and Sydney are strong protagonists, each with complicated pasts but each also very forward-thinking.  The reader cannot help loving both of them for their idealism and their honesty.  I imagine some of the scenes as being beautiful, by the descriptions of the elegant rooms on the ship, the gowns that the sisters wear, the view from the ship – I can easily picture a filming of this book.

But the real beauty lies in the suspense that builds throughout the story, both in the various sub-plots as well as in the overall big story.  There is a battle between the sisters that must be overcome.  There is someone who might jeopardize all that Isabel has worked so hard to achieve.  And will the Lusitania actually defy the Germans and cross to Liverpool safely?  This is a page-turner that will bring tears to your eyes, that you will read late into the night, and that will stay with you after putting it down.