Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Pachinko - Quite an Education

Pachinko (National Book Award Finalist)

"Go-Saeng," is the Korean word for suffering. From her youngest days Sunja was reminded that this is a woman's lot and yes, author Min Jin Lee visits an extraordinary amount of loss and pain on this young woman. I often wonder if these kinds of well-meant warnings from elders don't set the tone for exactly the very thing we are warned about to happen.

Sunja is the much-loved only daughter of Hoonie and Yangjin, born in Yeongdo, Busan, Korea at the beginning of the twentieth century. The family runs a boarding house which, at five hundred square feet, is considered a small luxury, especially in light of the fact that Japan has annexed Korea to deleterious effect. Money is tight, food scarce, education rare.

And yet, from this sparse beginning, Lee creates a fascinating, multi-generational saga that enthralls even as it educates. I often look back at my own schooling and  marvel at the holes. The politics and intricacies of the Asian world, pre-World War II, were simply not on our teachers' radar screens.

Min Jin Lee (https://www.minjinlee.com/about/), a Yale grad with a law degree from Georgetown, lived in Tokyo for four years while researching this passion project and it shows. The flavors of the food, the look and feel of the clothing, the street sounds, and the strength and courage of the people is evident throughout this amazing book. Min's writing style has a visual quality that would render this novel ripe for moviemaking. I sat down one afternoon and read 150 pages without even noting the time!

The plot is simple and certainly not new. Na├»ve and protected, as much by the boarders as by her parents, Sunja is entranced by a much older man with all the time in the world to convince Sunja that she is special. Of course, he is right. But she is sixteen and he is older than her father. When she joyously tells Hansu that she is pregnant he must admit that, though he will take care of her and the baby in Korea, he cannot marry her as he has a wife and children in Japan.

To Sunja's credit, she is sensible enough to realize that her mother's reputation and livelihood will suffer if word of her shameful state was to get out. But fate intervenes in the form of Pastor Isak Baek, a young Christian missionary on his way to his first posting in Osaka. He has been recuperating at the boardinghouse, nursed by Sunja and her mother, and he is not only grateful but half in love with the troubled young girl and the idea of a family.

From the joining of these two young people readers meet generations of immigrants torn between their Korean roots and their Japanese lives. Through their experiences as outsiders, people who are considered dirty, less educated, willing to do the work that their Japanese neighbors won't (sound familiar?) we get a lesson in the history of the fraught Japanese/Korean relationship and also a deep look at what it means to assimilate, to become a productive member of a country that will always keep you at arm's length.

I loved this novel and each character in it. Though Sunja's progeny attain education, business sense, and financial comfort, Min has actually written a paeon to women's strength and fortitude. They truly do hold up half the sky, and then some. A wonderful read!

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Must We Love the Characters for a Book to Resonate?

Last week I finished a book that's been languishing on my kindle for way too long. I told Don I hated it. Then I proceeded to talk about it with him for half an hour. So, the question is, how can one hate a book that keeps percolating long after "the end?"

Product Details

"The Crime Writer," by Jill Dawson (http://jilldawson.co.uk/) is that book. I violently disliked the characters even as I tried to get inside their heads. Jill Dawson did the same thing. This novel is one of that oh so popular genre I've dubbed fictional biography. Novelist Patricia Highsmith, best remembered for her Ripley series, is the subject of the book which is written like a novel within a novel. It is convoluted enough for the reader to wonder where the truth of Ms. Highsmith's life and the fiction differ. I'm still unsure of the ending and I reread it several times.

Truth: American novelist Patricia Highsmith, master of psychological, disturbing literature, moved to a bucolic country cottage in Suffolk, England, in order to complete work on two books. She wanted, in fact craved, complete privacy except for visits to and from her lover in London, an unhappy wife and mother named Sam. Fiction: What Highsmith got instead was a nosy neighbor and an aggressively pushy journalist, Virginia Smythson-Balby, who seems to show up unexpectedly and everywhere that Pat goes.

Pat Highsmith's reputation was as an extremely difficult person with whom to spend time. A raging alcoholic who still managed to put out an enviable trove of award-winning books, in the book she keeps up a running, angry, resentful commentary on the presence of "Ginny" Smythson-Balby, even as she encourages her to visit for drinks and chatter. The sense is that the stalker has become the stalked.

The catalyst for the crux of the story, a horrific crime of passion and the guilt that follows, is Sam, the somewhat reluctant lover. Torn between the easy luxury of her life as Mrs. Gerald Gosforth, even in light of spousal abuse, and the future she would face as Pat's partner, Sam hesitates to fully give herself to either Pat or the marriage, prompting Pat to act out in a way that one of her characters might. And then things get murky indeed.

Jill Dawson is especially brilliant when she examines guilt, how it eats at the soul, how it wreaks havoc on one's imagination, and how an act of evil yearns to come out into the open. The crime writer becomes the criminal and Jill Dawson becomes Patricia Highsmith, creating an atmosphere every bit as dark and evil as the one that suffused "The Talented Mr. Ripley." 

Friday, January 12, 2018

New Author Alert - Laura Lee Smith

A new year of great reading is ahead and I can't wait to dig in. I've begun physical therapy for my broken shoulder - those of you who've been following me know all about that saga - and I have a feeling that I'll be back in full form by the end of the month. With my down time I've been continuing my never ending search for new Florida writers whose books I can tout on my radio review program (http://news.wgcu.org/programs/florida-book-page) and I'm pleased to say that I found a gem in Laura Lee Smith (https://lauraleesmith.com/)

When I saw that one of my all time favorite authors, Richard Russo, had written a blurb for her debut novel, "Heart of Palm," I knew that I was in. And what I love about Russo is the same thing that attracts me to Smith. She has a kind and forgiving heart, something we see too little of these days. Many of the characters Smith creates are deeply damaged, some may be beyond redemption, but she gives them second, third, and fourth chances and, as we get to know and understand them, so do we.

"Heart of Palm" opens with a tragedy that sets the tone for this 400 plus page family saga. Life rarely plays out the way we imagine it will and for the sprawling, brawling Bravo family, life made no exceptions. Bad boy Dean Bravo may capture the heart of St. Augustine's golden girl, Arla Bolton, but the guilt that he carries after disfiguring his beautiful, perfect wife in a boating accident on their honeymoon, informs the next four decades. In fact, as Arla's strength and acceptance of her fate blossoms, Dean's sense of self seems to diminish. 

Though they'll raise four children in the rambling Bravo family homestead that sits on a glorious piece of Florida land hugging the inter-coastal waterway, secrets, lies, and plain old stubbornness will take their toll on the Bravos' marriage. Alcoholism plays a major roll in the unraveling of the family, so if your own life has been affected by this disease, you may find Smith's book to be an especially difficult read.

Still, the dialog is simply outstanding and there isn't one peripheral character in the entire novel. A few readers have faulted Smith for stereotyping certain Florida denizens but, for me, the big shot developer swanning in from out of town in his Mercedes, the pushy local realtor just trying to catch a break, or the impatient, overworked waitress at the local coffee shop are all just pitch perfect.

If you're looking for a book with an authentic sense of place and characters that you could throttle one minute and hug the next, if you're a fan of Pat Conroy or Richard Russo, then give this debut novel a go. If you're as enamored as I was then you can move on to Smith's new book, "The Ice House," which just came out. I'm halfway through and will let you know.