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
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book subscription boxes: Book of the Month

Can I just say, I’ve rarely seen such a gorgeous book? I got my first book subscription box book, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, and it’s glorious. The front cover has these lovely green and blue pastels with reds and oranges in the center illustration. That’s a high quality hardback, right there. And it has BOTM printed on the front cover in a very subtle, classy symbol. The same is on the spine, and on the back is printed “I Heart BOTM” with “February 2017” in smaller letters bellow it. It just feels crisp and new.

Once you take off the dust cover, you have a hardback with the Book of the Month colors, and, again, BOTM printed in the bottom right corner. Honestly, it looks so nice. “February 2017” is reprinted, as well. Basically, this book is everything you love about hardbacks with some special nuances thrown in for nostalgia sake. I’m definitely keeping this book, and it’ll always be fun to look at it and remember where it came from. It’s almost like a bit of my own history, as who I was when I ordered it, read it, etc. comes back to me when I look at the book (yes, it rhymes).

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Book of the Month is a really simple service. Through a link of an affiliate, I was able to get my first book for just $5.00. You may remember me saying this already, but I’m honestly just so excited to have received such a beautiful copy of a book for so little. To be honest, I’m very relieved not to get the little doo-dads and trinkets that come with a lot of other book boxes, mostly because I’m not interested in them. They’ll sit on my desk and gather dust until I throw them out—and you’re paying more for them! Book of the Month just sends the book and a personalized bookmark with a message from one of the selectors. Let’s be real, I’m here for the books and nothing else!

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Image from: http://modernmrsdarcy.com/book-month-club-review/

I’m pretty sure part of the reason they can send such beautiful books for such a low price is specifically because they don’t mess around with nick knacks. I fully appreciate this. I’m a pretty simple person with simple tastes, and Book of the Month really reflected that. I paid for lovely book, got it, and am 100 pages into reading it. Hint: it’s absolutely spectacular.

The selectors are definitely skilled, because Pachinko is a wonderful book. The story telling is great, and there’s a very nice balance between dialogue and description—not an easy task for a writer. Lee’s characters are honestly good people doing their best, working with what is presented to them. The family aspect of the book is key; children do wrong, but the family stays close. They stay loved.

I can’t wait to see what happens next, as the new family is off to Japan for the next section of the story. I enjoyed this book box with all my nerdy, bibliophilic heart!

Next up: Bookishly’s Tea and Coffee Club

books i’ll be re-reading

As I talk to other people who love books and get more involved in the book community, I notice that there are a lot of book that I’ve read, but not appreciated. You know the feeling, when you read a book six years ago and you’re pretty sure there’s a reason everyone loved it, but you failed to catch the hype. Maybe you were too young (I often was) or maybe you were just distracted. Regardless, I want to give these books another chance to influence me.

I know for a fact that getting through this list will take me forever. It’s kind of exhausting to be an English major and do all the reading for classes and then pick up a book and read during your free time. I love reading, but once I’ve done all of my reading for my homework, I often just want to turn off my brain.

In an attempt to really enjoy these books as I reread them, I will take my time. Here’s the list!

  1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Jane Eyre is one of those novels that is extremely well known for how important and meaningful its quotes are. And yet, somehow, when I read it in eighth grade, it failed to make an impression on me. I know for a fact I read it cover to cover, but I also know I took long pauses in between, saw reading the book as a chore, and generally was in a terrible mood for all of that year. This might have influenced my opinion on the book.

I want to love it. I love Wuthering Heights to distraction, and though I know they’re very different books, they’re beloved for a reason. I’ve read some quotes online from this book, but somehow I don’t even recognize them. This is one book I’m very sure I will enjoy so much more upon re-reading.

  1. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

This is a book I know I enjoyed at the time, but I have zero memory of what happens (besides the end). I read it in school for class, so it was a segmented reading process, as we’d read fifty pages for class, have a discussion, and then read fifty more. I’d lose my enthusiasm and it was hard to keep the plot line in my head. If I read it again

  1. The Princess Bride by William Goldman

I absolutely love this movie, but I read the book in sixth grade and I have no memory of what happened. Judging from the book, there was a lot of subtle humor that I missed. This is a cultural classic, it is an immensely beloved book. As someone who strongly believes in reading the book first, I’m pretty angry that the movie has stuck with me far more than the book. I had to read it for summer reading before middle school (a LONG time ago), so I think that had something to do with my lack of memories, but I want to reread this book so I can properly appreciate it!

book review: Scandalous Women

While Heathrow Airport in London, waiting to board my flight back to the States after several amazing months travelling and studying in Europe, I found myself in the worst situation known to reader-kind.

I had nothing to read.

Thankfully, there was a shop with books only a few feet away. My plane was delayed and I needed a distraction. Into the shop I went.

Among all the bestsellers and YouTuber books was a section about history. As I’d just spent three months going to historical sites, I was drawn to this section for a few more moments of history before I returned to the US. On the shelf was a book that caught my eye: Scandalous Women: The Lives and Loves of History’s Most Notorious Women. Bingo.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon’s short, historical book was very enjoyable. Firstly, it was about some pretty badass women, which I will absolutely always enjoy. Joan of Ark, Cleopatra, Calamity Jane, and Ida B. Wells are only a small selection of the historical figures covered.

Second, it told the truth about these ladies. Cleopatra got the reveal she deserved. After centuries of old men turning her into a sex symbol, she got the credit she was due as a statesman and leader of her country. The woman was willing to do anything to keep Egypt independent, and she succeeded for quite a period of time. This is in comparison to countless other countries that fell to Rome quite early on. And then she was erased by men who were threatened by her. Ask anyone who Cleopatra was, and they’ll reply that she was the lover of Mark Antony. Ask them about her skills as a leader, and you’ll often come up with nothing.

Can you tell I’m a fan of Cleopatra?

Finally, the book was short. The stories were nicely condensed. Despite only being less than 300 pages long and covering over thirty fascinating women, Mahon is able to make each story easily readable and quick.

That said, the ratio of white women to women of color in the book is a little staggering. The section that features the most women of colors, “Amorous Artists”, is very near the end Even the section called “Warrior Queens” has only Cleopatra listed, when in fact there are countless queens around the world who could have been used.

The issue with this lack of diversity is not only that there are people whose stories are missing, but also that the stories begin to sound…similar….after a while. Most of the women were born into poverty, found love and fortune, then lost it and ended up alone and desolate. There are only so many stories I can hear about the same situation in one single book. Asian and African women are completely missing. I attribute that to a lack of intense research, as it cannot be hard to find pioneering women who stand out from history in either of those continents. I feel like the book missed an opportunity to talk about women who aren’t quite as well-known in the West, but notorious in other geographic regions. I would be insanely interested in reading something like that.

Scandalous Women is an interesting work. It covers so many periods and countries (in the West, mostly). The book is great on many accounts, but I did begin to feel the stories were repeating themselves. In addition, the writing style wasn’t that sophisticated (I’m a firm believed that slang doesn’t belong in anything not written in first person). But, I would definitely read another book by Elizabeth Mahon, especially since I think time will help her writing style grow and improve. The more you write, the better it gets. Simple as that.

I also really appreciate that she picked a topic that many people dismiss. These are women that actually had immense power and influence, and they are often pushed aside for the male figures, or to extol their sex appeal. This was a refreshing change.

the essay.

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I’ve submitted an essay to a competition. I’m terrified. It’s just within my college (I think the winners get $150) and it’s for a paper on women—sponsored by the Women’s Studies program, but the paper doesn’t need to be for a Women’s Studies class.

For some reason, I’ve never sent an essay into a competition. Not sure why. Could be something to do with my low self-confidence when it comes to my own work. The world may never know. But, I’ve officially emailed in my paper, and I’m nervously shitting myself while I wait for two weeks to pass so they even start reading submissions. I don’t even know how many people can win.

The paper is from my sophomore year, written about Phyllis Bottome’s The Mortal Storm (now that picture at the top is finally making sense, huh?). It was, in my opinion, a fantastic book despite being pretty melodramatic. I’d forgotten how much I’d enjoyed reading it until my parents brought my flash drive of old essays with them to visit on Saturday. I was looking for things I could add to my portfolio of work, but when I came across this particular essay I started feeling the excitement for the story again.

In short, Bottome was writing at a time when fascism was on the rise (World War II), and her book was a reaction against both the anti-Semitism of the period and the tendency of some formerly militant feminists to turn to fascism. There were so many women who, after suffrage, ran for office and weren’t elected. They had these rights, but they didn’t seem to be able to really use them. Typical. So, many of them gave up on democracy altogether, believing it had failed them as an institution. Apparently the natural next step was fascism? Still not entirely convinced about it, but fascists had this terrifying way of making things that were terrible seem wonderful. The emphasis on a woman’s place being “in the home” was twists to mean that women were valued.

Bottome’s book has fantastic commentary on this. Her main character, Freya, is studying to be a doctor when the book begins. She is first prevented from continuing her schooling for being a woman, and then given further obstacles because she’s Jewish. She is most of the issues of fascism wrapped into one character.

She goes on to fall in love with a Communist, have sex with that Communist (which she does not regret in the least), watch that Communist die, and then have that Communist’s baby. Basically a huge “eff off” to fascists. Freya then leaves the baby to be raised by the Communist’s family and goes to England, where she studies to be a doctor. Badass as hell.

Rereading my essay brought a fire back to me that I had kind of forgotten. I attended the Women’s March, and I’ve been supporting women’s organizations all my life. With all this, reading Freya’s story again made me desperately want to do something more, especially right now. The world needs people who will tell fascism to eff off, in all its forms.

top five TBR

Besides Anna Karenina (which I’ve already posted about) I have a lot of books I want to read this year—though hopefully this list of my top ten won’t take all year. I’ll try to review/post about each one when I complete it, just to keep myself writing and paying attention. I always have such a long list of “to be read”, but I never really keep track of how well I complete it. This year seems like the perfect time, since I’ve decided to attempt the 50 Book Challenge. I obviously need to keep track of my reading

  1. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

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This is the book I selected from my Book of the Month subscription box, and I’m so excited to start it. The blurbs I’ve read say that it’s one of those books that span generations of a family, which is really just excellent. The story follows a Korean family, beginning with a daughter who becomes pregnant and marries in a hurry to prevent disgrace. She moves to Japan with her new husband, and from there she and her family struggle to make this new country ‘home’. I so rarely read books set in Asia or about Asian families, so this should be a wonderful learning experience.

  1. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

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I first heard about this book through Youtube (John Green) and I’ve had its title stuck in my head since then. I admit, it first caught my attention because the author shares a first name with me, but after doing a little research I got interested in the actual story. It’s an autobiographical account told through poetry about the author’s experiences growing up in the 60’s and 70’s.

This seems like one of those books that is Important, with a capital ‘I’, one that will stick with me for a long time. And, again, I’m trying to diversify my reading, so that the author is African American is just a bonus. It seems like a story kind of similar to Pachinko in that it’s going to cover a long time period, but it is fixed on one person so I can really get into the narrator.

  1. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

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After reading Americanah, I got very interested in African literature. It’s not something we often study in classes (the focus tends to be African American authors, not African), and I’d like to close that gap in my knowledge a little bit. This story follows two half-sisters born in Ghana, one sold into slavery and another married to a slaver. Apparently, the enslaved sister is taken to America and her future generations grow up in slavery and the story, again, follows each set. I seem to be very interested in generational stories, it would seem. I assumed from the title that it is the story of how the future generations return home to Ghana? I’m not sure though. Reading two stories in such direct contrast with each other in terms of their experience should be fascinating.

  1. The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

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This book came into my life while I was watching booksandquills’ latest video about her trip to Essex, in which her friend is reading this exact book (most appropriate). After looking through the Goodreads description, it seems to be a mystery covering the conflict between science and religion through two characters who “agree on absolutely nothing…[but] find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart”. I’ve heard great things about this one, and it should make a nice changeup in my reading.

  1. Fig by Sarah Elizabeth Schantz

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I found Fig through a Pin specifically about books that deal with mental illness. The story follows a mother and daughter, both struggling with mental health problems. The mother is slowly losing her grip on reality as her schizophrenia gets worse, while her daughter struggles to take care of her mother and herself. It’s been described as a very honest portrayal of mental illness which, as someone with mental health issues, I always appreciate. I’m also desperate to know more about schizophrenia, since it is so incorrectly portrayed in most media. It is a very misunderstood illness, so reading a book that treats it appropriately should be enlightening.