book review: Pachinko

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Book cover art
Pachinko is a game of chance. Rigged each morning so that only certain machines will win, the public comes en masse to try to win big. Very few win it all.

It’s an apt metaphor for the family Min Jin Lee has created with her beautifully-crafted book, Pachinko. The story of a Korean family who moves to Japan, it primarily follows Sunja as she navigates being a poor Korean, a single mother, and an even poorer Korean expatriate. The book switches narration often between characters, but always returns to Sunja. She is a young Korean girl who falls pregnant by a man who is already married. When a missionary proposes to her in exchange for saving his life, the couple go to Japan to work in a church. Unfortunately, Japan is not welcoming to those it has colonized. Sunja and her husband face endless bigotry as they try to make a living, as do Sunja’s two sons and, eventually, their sons.

Throughout the novel is a running theme of female strength. Not in an overt way, but instead in praise of the women who quietly run their entire family. Sunja’s mother has a motto: “a woman’s lot is to suffer”. Continually, the women in Pachinko are the ones keeping everything together, keeping the family afloat. When her brother-in-law forbids it, Sunja and her sister-in-law create and run a successful business to keep the family from starving. When the family must seek shelter during World War II, the women work for their keep on a farm safe from the bombs.

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Continuously, these women work for the bare minimum of livening, but they do it for their families. All in a country that, quite honestly, hates them. Sunja’s sons deal with bullying and discrimination at school, leading to another theme about identity. Noa, for example, spends most of his childhood wishing he was Japanese and feeling conflicted about his Korean ancestry.

Pachkino tells the story of one family, but it is a representation of each Korean family that was told Japan would bring them success only to be severely disappointed, and still clawed their way back up from the bottom. It is an underdog story, but the stakes are so much higher. Min Jin Lee has made a fantastic, moving, and important book.

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Author Min Jin Lee

book of the month.

This is not an ad, it is not a sponsor, it’s just something cool that I figured people would enjoy information on.

There has been this phenomenon on the internet—and elsewhere—for a long time called “subscription boxes”. Some of them are beauty related, some are snacks, and some…are books. That’s right, you can pick a book to come right to your door, along with other cool shit you might enjoy or throw out. Still not sure about that aspect. After watching PeruseProject’s most recent video about exactly this topic, I decided I’d try it out.

It seems like a great system, and a good way to get books for a relatively discounted price (I also followed a link from the blog My Subscription Addiction and got a coupon). My goal this year was to diversify the authors and characters I read about, so I’ve selected Pachinko by Min Jin Lee for my first book.

From the blurb that my subscription site, Book of the Month, gives me, it looks like this is a story that goes across generations of a Korean family living in Japan. I love books that span lifetimes, mostly because I love seeing how choices affect future generations. It gives a link to the past and the present that I worry people often forget about. Pachinko sounds both heart-wrenching and fascinating, and I’m excited for it to come in two days!

Part of the reason I wanted to diversify my reading was because I want different stories and perspectives. My favorite part of reading is learning something new, not just academically, but emotionally and socially. I have one very limited perspective, and I love to broaden that.

Another reason is that I have definitely seen the recent news about representation in media. I consider books to be media, and my favorite kind. They spread a message to huge amounts of people, making them extremely important. This break, while going through my bookshelf to clean it out, I found that more often than not, the authors I was reading were white, heterosexual females from either the UK or the US. That’s not a terrible thing or anything, but I realized why I had felt recently that I was reading the same story with small variations. In addition, I wanted to support writers whose stories are maybe not being turned into movies (notoriously unrepresentative) or getting the interest they deserve.

Basically, I’ve gotten complacent in my little bubble, and I need to branch out or I’ll end up stunted. Simple as that.

PeruseProject talks about wanting to read more diversely in the video linked above, and she has also made a point of increasing that type of reading she does for the year. With this inspiration, I looked up my own monthly subscription box for books and discovered Book of the Month. The coupon (also linked) allowed me to get one month for $5 and free shipping. If I choose to continue, the rate is $14.99 per month for one book, with the ability to add on two others for $9.99 if I really can’t decide!

Personally, I think this is a marvelous way to keep people reading. Half the reason I don’t read as much during the school year is that I don’t live at all near any bookstores. It just takes more effort, time, and planning to get to a bookstore while at school. Not to mention, I’m basically broke and reading for classes, as well. This just seems very manageable and easy.

As I said, I haven’t received the box yet, so I can make no attestations as to whether this subscription would at all be worth your time. I hope it will be, but regardless this is an opportunity to get at least one book for very cheap. I jumped at the chance, hopefully others will, too.

If you subscribe to a book box, let me know in comments so I can try more!