Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Recommended by Liz to help break my reading slump. I picked up Pachinko as an e-book from my local library, and saw the descriptors ‘multigenerational epic,’ among others, go by as I opened it. Now, normally ‘multigenerational’ and ‘epic’ are both turnoffs for me, but I trust Liz entirely. And it’s a great book – maybe I should consider more multigenerational epics.

The cultural backdrop was fascinating to me, and almost entirely new. Pachinko is set in Korea and Japan, following a family of Koreans who become Korean Japanese, across most of the twentieth century. The cultural implications – the perceptions of Koreans in Japan – were a big part of the appeal, and the point, of this novel. I learned a lot. And as far as that (potential) ‘multigenerational epic’ problem, any hesitations I might have felt were well taken care of by Min Jin Lee’s excellent handling of a large cast of characters over time. I didn’t have any trouble keeping track of them, because each was well-developed and clearly delineated. I lived so thoroughly with these people that I still feel myself a little bit with them, even now it’s been a few days since I finished reading.

The first line of the book reads: “History has failed us, but no matter.” In 1910, in a little Korean fishing village, an old fisherman and his wife have a single son, Hoonie. Given his cleft palate and club foot, he considers himself lucky to marry at all. With his wife Yangjin he has a single surviving daughter, Sunja. She becomes pregnant as a young woman by an older, wealthy, married man. Therefore she also considers herself lucky to marry Izak, a young minister who considers it a charitable act to give her child legitimacy. Izak and Sunja go to live in Osaka, in Japan, with Izak’s brother and sister-in-law. Sunja’s first son is Noa; her second, with Izak, is Mozasu.

Sunja is surprised to find how poorly Koreans are treated in Japan. Back home her family was poor; here they are poor and abused. Circumstances are harder still during World War II, until Sunja’s first lover Hansu – Noa’s biological father – resurfaces to help the family. It turns out he’s been helping behind the scenes all along, which is not equally appreciated by all. When Noa learns the truth, he cuts all ties, and establishes a new life for himself in another city, where he represents himself as full Japanese. Both brothers wind up working in pachinko parlors, in different parts of the country and in different contexts.

Sunja and her dearly loved sister-in-law support the household, now including elderly Yangjin as well. Mozasu’s wife dies young. They have one son, Solomo, who attends college in New York, then returns to Japan with his Korean-American girlfriend. But even in 1989, Korean Japanese occupy a special sort of cultural no-man’s-land, unable to return to a national home that no longer exists (Korea in its pre-war form), and not accepted in Japan despite having been there, in many cases, for four and five generations.

The book’s central themes include cultural dislocation and (the myth of) racial difference; home, identity, and belonging; gender (there is a refrain that “a woman’s lot is to suffer”), class, and the stereotypes about pachinko (a totally legal, highly profitable and enormously powerful industry, but with continuing perceptions of criminality). It is a gorgeously rendered novel, rich with details and with food (which I love), and with wonderfully wrought characters: complex, complete, sympathetic but flawed. I loved the, yes, epic sense of time and scope, everything that Hoonie’s generation and Solomon’s do and do not have in common. I noted that when Sunja got pregnant out of wedlock, her mother did not shame her; she seemed sorry that her daughter would have a hard road to walk, but she never called her any names. Yoseb and Kyunghee take her in and ignore the elephant in the room. It is only when Hansu returns to their lives that there is a sense of shame. “A woman’s lot is to suffer”: if she has a baby out of wedlock, certainly; if her brother-in-law won’t let her work for a living; if her son finds out she’d been pregnant out of wedlock; because she must work long and hard from childhood until old age ends her life; because she must bow to the wishes of the men in her life. But also, a Korean’s lot in Japan is to suffer; and they will remain “Korean” even when it’s been several generations since anyone in the family saw Korean soil. That sense of cultural homelessness touched me deeply.

My ebook came with an interview with the author. Lee indicates that it was indeed the cultural situation of Korean Japanese that she wanted to explore with this novel. “Although the history of kings and rulers is unequivocally fascinating, I think that we are also hungry for the narrative history of ordinary people, who lack connections and material resources,” Lee says, and I couldn’t agree more: the narrative history of ordinary people is endlessly appealing to me, and beautifully accomplished here.

This is an absorbing novel of a world quite far from the one I know, but with people I easily recognized and related to. I could spend more time lost in Lee’s remarkable writing and characters. Definitely recommended.


Rating: 8 cups of kimchi.

“Total Eclipse” by Annie Dillard (from Teaching a Stone to Talk)

I began by thinking I could review this essay, but I can’t. Annie Dillard and the force of these words here are too much for my limited powers of communication. Read this and wonder.



(As usual from that excellent source of excellent things, Liz.)

from the New Republic: on books

Thanks, again, to Liz for sending this along. The New Republic‘s issue of October 21, 2013 featured a cover focus on books and publishing, with five articles included. They range from a one-page infographic to 3 pages long; no serious time commitment here, although you will have to find them. I accessed these stories through a database (Ebsco, if you’re curious) through my employer; you may have similar access through your local public library, for example. I know that on Houston Public Library’s page you can go to “research databases” and search for the publication you want (New Republic), and then you’ll need to put in your library card number to see the articles. Contact your local librarian if you want to get in and you need some help; she or he will be happy to assist. Or, there’s always the print edition, if you subscribe or know of a decent newsstand!

I found these articles interesting (obviously) and wanted to share just a few thoughts. In the order I read them (I have no idea how this relates to the print magazine):

  • “Books Don’t Want to Be Free: how publishing has escaped the cruel fate of the other culture industries” by Evan Hughes examines the fact that books have avoided the way music and movies have become open to pirating and price drops. Those industries are struggling, Hughes writes, in ways that the book publishing industry isn’t. (And don’t even get started on print magazines and newspapers…) This article is optimistic and thus refreshing. It touches on the recent price-fixing court case between a group of major publishers, and Amazon. It also speaks to pricing differences between e-books and traditional print, which is addressed in the next item:
  • “The Words Business, In Numbers,” an infographic (sort of) identifying trends in revenue (e-books vs. print), reader trends, and foreign readership. In a word, “e-books are growing the pie.”
  • “The Dastardly Defender of Letters” by Laura Bennett is an article about and interview with Andrew Wylie, “who still makes millions off highbrow.” He is an infamous agent for clients including – I shamelessly reproduce those listed in the article – Amis, Nabokov, Bellow, Rushdie, Roth, and more in that vein. He is delightfully curmudgeonly, snobbish about the lowbrow, and defending books as they should be made (says he, and I largely agree). This was the most fun piece to read. His apparent serene calm regarding the future of traditional books was heartening.
  • “I Hope They Read Books in Hell” by Norene Malone, on the other hand, touches on the opposite end of the spectrum. Malone visits with the editor, Ruby-Strauss, and agent, Leavell, of Tucker Max, author of I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell.” Max’s cache, if you didn’t know, is being 1) internet-born and 2) offensive as all get-out. Ruby-Strauss and Leavell work with others in the same vein: Snooki from Jersey Shore, that University of Maryland student who wrote that bitchy email, Shit My Dad Says (whose twittering I like, btw). It was interesting to consider that counterpoint, the lowbrow, which (it is argued) helps finance the highbrow.
  • Finally, “The Rancid Smell of Success” was written by Lionel Shriver, author of a good number of novels, most famously We Need to Talk About Kevin, which became a major motion picture. She laments the changed life of a successful novelist: from the scary, financially insecure obscurity of an undiscovered writer to the publicity-exhausted successful author – who is still financially insecure and has to immediately begin work on the next book, but can’t because of all the promotional demands of the current one. It’s a beautifully written article, and she acknowledges the problem with her complaints about the literary festival she has to attend in Bali; but she justifies her complaints, too. It’s a thoughtful piece.

On the subject of e-books versus print – and the question of the future of the traditional book (“is it dead?!” they ask hysterically) – others have said it better before me, but I’ll briefly file my position. The birth or the rise of the e-book does not signal the death of the book, any more than the birth or the rise of television sounded a death knoll for radio. Radio has changed over the decades, but we still have a recognizable semblance of what it was when the television was born. There’s room for both e- and print books in this world, and both have their uses, their pros and cons, their seasons if you will; and both have their fans. Those of us who prefer print (even if we occasionally read electronically!) will continue to buy and borrow real books. Everybody calm down, is my concise message. And please, read books – any kinda way.

from Liz: Sean Hemingway interview on alternative endings to A Farewell to Arms

She does it every time, you guys, because she a) knows me and my tastes quite well and b) scours the internet and the podcasts and whatnot constantly.

Liz sent me this: an interview with Ernest Hemingway’s nephew, Sean, on a radio show called “To the Best of Our Knowledge” (acronym TTBOOK, which is cute). It opens with a movie clip (from a movie I’ve never heard of, which is a reflection on me, not the movie) about Hemingway’s very well-regarded World War I novel, A Farewell to Arms: the movie’s protagonist is upset about the ending, as many of us have been and will be. Sean Hemingway has recently released a new edited version, A Farewell to Arms: The Hemingway Library Edition, which includes all the alternative endings that Hemingway wrote before settling on the one we know. There were 47 of them.

Click the above link to listen to, or read, the interview, which includes a few of the alternate endings. (I started by listening – which was good, for the movie clip, and for hearing Sean’s voice; but then I got impatient and read through the rest.) Um, this should be clear, but if you haven’t read the book, beware of spoilers in the interview!

I was intrigued because, as interviewer Steve Paulson says, these alternate endings give us a real window into Hemingway’s process and his difficulty, himself, with the ending. And as Sean points out, most of us have lost a loved one, and the difficulties Hemingway had working out how to end this book are analogous, at least, to the difficulties we have in letting go.

Do I want this new edition? Do I want to reread the novel, or just the 47 endings? I’m not sure; my appetite is certainly whetted by this interview, but I don’t think I’m up for a full reread. For one thing, although much-lauded, A Farewell to Arms is far from being among my favorite Hemingway works. I’d reread it before I reread Death in the Afternoon, but that’s about it. And I still haven’t read everything he wrote, either, so it would be hard to justify. I could run through those endings, though… we shall see.

Thanks, Liz, for another great reference. Go check out the interview – it’s short.

hemingWay of the Day: as an archivist

Oh my word, Liz does it again. Never was there an article more designed to make me sigh and daydream. From PRI’s The World comes

This came to me from Liz, who got it in turn from Jessamyn West (blogtwitter). A solid pedigree right there. I swoon; this is my dream job.

Liz’s Pinterest from The Son

I once wrote about how I keep a piece of scratch paper as a bookmark, one sheet dedicated to each book, for keeping notes: page numbers for referral or quotation, words to look up, thoughts that belong in my review. My coworker (who has contributed to this blog several times), Liz, read that post, and says she thought it a great system. Now, lately, Liz has been telling me about reading The Son, by Philipp Meyer. Set in the American southwest, The New York Times calls it a “multigenerational family saga spanning the years from 1836 to 2012,” one of those “greatest of historical novels… we come to feel both the distance of the past and our own likely complicity in the sins of a former age, had we been a part of it.” (High praise!) Apparently Liz has been making a number of notes on historical terms and references that she needed to look up – and she’s gone a step well beyond my vocabulary lessons, and created a visual collection of those notes on Pinterest.

I’m not on Pinterest at this time – too many things to keep up with! – but it’s an attractive way to see what she’s learning… what do you think? Anybody else have any Pinterest pages based on books out there? (Silly question, I know! Do share!)

more on Maclean from Liz

Nature, unfortunately for the organization of academia, is vexingly interdisciplinary.

Why are the activities aboard the Titanic so fascinating to us that we give no heed to the waters through which we pass, or to that iceberg on the horizon?


Last week I posted a review of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, and other stories. My coworker Liz, who more than once has directed us to some great reads, immediately found and forwarded a 1989 Past President’s Address to the Western Literature Association by a Glen A. Love. Her comment was: “After reading your review I went looking for Maclean biography and found this, I know you dislike the form but I was compelled to send it along anyway.” She’s referring to my dislike of essay collections – I know, it’s terrible, right? but I can’t get excited about collections of essays. A single essay, however, for no good reason, I am game for.

This one turned out to be very interesting. (Liz wins again.) It begins:

Describing the early rejection of the manuscript for his widely admired book A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean recalls in his acknowledgments the cool dismissal from one New York publisher: “These stories have trees in them.”

And then it largely abandons Maclean; but never fear. It’s a great argument for the failure of Literature to address ecology; it’s a polemic, and sadly no less relevant and (to my inexpert eye) no less correct in its criticisms today, despite being 24 years old. I thrilled to read about great nature writers whom I’ve loved, and also those I haven’t yet discovered (and note the reference to Gretel Ehrlich, of whom I’d never heard until recently). She is mentioned as one of those writers who “seem to slough off their New York or L.A. skins when they confront western landscapes.” If that doesn’t remind you of Phil Connors, you haven’t been paying attention. Maclean inhabits this article mostly in that phrase, quoting a rejecting publisher: “These stories have trees in them.” Love argues that this is one of the tragedies of Maclean’s kind, and a chief failure of the literary establishment: that to write about trees will get you derisively branded with “the contemptuous epithet nature-lover.”

I muse, as I read this article, about some books I’ve read that were partly nature writings, but only as a framework through which to dissect the human condition: Mountains of Light was lovely, and awed by Yosemite, but the author was really there to exorcise the particular demon of his wife’s death; and Almost Somewhere was even more overtly a drama of young women coming of age, and the unfortunate cattiness that often accompanies them, set against the John Muir Trail. This is one of Love’s points, too: that we (as a society, not only as writers & critics) continue to fail to consider nature, or the earth, in its own right, and instead keep considering its role in human experience.

I think Phil Connors and especially Derrick Jensen would agree with Love’s assessments. So, I’m feeling more of that synchronicity that I’ve written of before: I’ve found another kindred spirit, as Anne of Green Gables might say.

Pulitzer Prize-winning multimedia journalism

(Today I send you elsewhere for your reading.)

Remember that very cool article I pointed you all towards several months ago? (Here.)

Liz strikes again, making me aware of the latest round of Pulitzer Prize winners.

You guessed it! Among them is Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek. And so well deserved. Thanks for the head’s up, Liz.

Chrome’s library extension for Amazon

Coworker Liz does it again. I have long been a Mozilla Firefox user, but (gulp) am finally switching to Google Chrome for my internet browser, and here’s why: Chrome’s new Library Extension for Amazon.

The concept is this: when you look up a book on Amazon, you have the option – once you have this extension set up – to see at the same time whether that same book is available at your local library.* For instance (after buzzing right through Lost in a Good Book), I am looking for the third Thursday Next book by Jasper Fforde:
New Picture2
And I would normally have two tabs open in my browser, so that I could search Amazon and my local library at the same time. But now:
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Look at that. My local HPL has me covered – and all in one browser tab. Thanks, HPL! And thanks, Google!

Now, it remains to be seen whether this will continue to fly for Amazon, an organization which likes its profits. If Amazon were to suspect any drop in business I imagine they’d find a way to keep libraries off their website. But we can hope – and enjoy it while we can.

*Once your local library is set up in the extension. Ours wasn’t, so Liz emailed “the guy” who does such things and the next day, there we were. So it might be just that easy – at least while the traffic remains manageable for “the guy”, which, I have no idea.

article from Orion magazine: “Dark Ecology” by Paul Kingsnorth

This article came to me from coworker Liz (who always recommends good stuff), and simultaneously from Pops, who also thought it was great. That should be testimony enough; but I am unstoppable and will say just a few words myself, too.

Paul Kingsnorth writes about the future of ecology, conservationism, “green” thinking, or whatever you’d like to call it. This is “dark” ecology because the news is not good. I’ll let him give you the real dish because he does it better – as Pops says, “the good news is that Kingsnorth is a writer first, not a social scientist, so it reads pretty well” – but I really appreciated his willingness to look forward to what’s ahead and what we have to do differently than the old guard of environmentalism, which sadly hasn’t worked. And his ideas about what’s ahead and what we might do in anticipation, however dark, resonated with me. Plus, he writes beautiful thinking lines like these:

Our human relationship to the rest of nature is not akin to the analysis of bacteria in a petri dish; it is more like the complex, love-hate relationship we might have with lovers or parents or siblings. It is who we are, unspoken and felt and frustrating and inspiring and vital and impossible to peer-review. You can reach part of it with the analytical mind, but the rest will remain buried in the ancient woodland floor of human evolution and in the depths of our old ape brains, which see in pictures and think in stories. Civilization has always been a project of control, but you can’t win a war against the wild within yourself.

I give you:

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