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 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.

Tolstoy: the beginning

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Barnes & Noble Classics edition
Right now, at this very moment, I am 300 pages into the over 700-page Anna Karenina. It’s a monstrous book, and probably could effectively function as a doorstop, but here’s the thing: it’s wonderful.

Tolstoy is intimidating. His novels are giant, with about ten main characters each, and everyone has a first name, nickname, and several family names. He uses them interchangeably, and several characters have the same name. It’s like he wanted us to be confused.

But once you sift through, say, fifty pages, you get one of the most stunning portraits of characters you may ever encounter. Because it’s so long, each character is fleshed out to the extreme. You know their hopes, their dreams, and their failings. Tolstoy’s skill is switching tones to match whatever character you’re reading at the time. Alexey tends to have long, rather boring, paragraphs where he considers state matters, who might’ve bested him lately, and anything to do with work. His wife is hardly in his thoughts, except when he is being embarrassed by her and must coldly and mechanically work out how he will maintain his good reputation.

In contrast, Vronsky’s thoughts are full of Anna and money. These are his primary concerns, and when you’re reading the character, you’re reading what seems to be his actual thoughts. He loves Anna desperately, but is heading into dire straits at this point of the novel, trying to reconcile his feelings with the fact that his family disapproves and is withholding cash.

Tolstoy’s ability to transport a reader into a character’s mind is absorbing, not to mention wonderfully skillful. It moves you through pages that could be considered dense, or maybe wordy, with vigor.

Not to mention, his characters are flawed. They are all so flawed—but you care about them anyway. Anna has (spoiler) at this point told her husband she is in love with another man. She begins passionately, feeling relieved that everything is in the open. She feels freed. Many literary heroines would stop their development there. Not Anna. As she begins to consider what she’s done, she becomes terrified. Things that aren’t “supposed” to matter to main characters matter greatly to her. She second guesses herself when the social standing she’s always enjoyed is threatened, and is enormously tempted to take Alexey’s offer that things can just “return to how they were” when he brings up her beloved son. Anna wants to continue to benefit from her high place in society and from Alexey’s protection.

All the same, she’s angry at his indifference, while being ashamed of herself for her infidelity in a twisting cacophony of emotions. It makes Anna one of the most interesting protagonists I may have ever read. It felt like Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, when Harry is feeling hurt, isolated, targeted while feeling guilty for lashing out at his friends. It’s a complex swirl of feeling that are so human, you forget the character is fictional.

But she is, at heart, a heroine, and realizes that despite the lure, she can’t go back to how life was. Beyond Vronsky as a person, she feels for the first time in a long time. She enjoys that passion in her heart, and maybe even the drama a little, because it adds some kind of excitement that has been missing from her life. Rather ignored and belittled by her husband on a day-to-day basis, she finds it’s impossible to go back. She makes a difficult decision that some readers condemn her for, but that you also understand fully. Because you don’t want her to go back, either.

Even when you know what happens in the end.

Sorry, I just went full English major on you there…for a full version of this review when I complete the book, please see Gandy Dancer literary journal’s website, section: blog.