Monday, March 18, 2019


Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (2017)

Spanning most of the 20th century, Pachinko is the story of a Korean family in Japan. It begins with Sunja, a teenaged girl in Korea who attracts the attention of an older man. When she becomes pregnant, he says he's already married but offers to keep her as a mistress. She refuses, Her situation feels hopeless, but a kind man offers to marry her and they go to Japan together. There the family stays, never quite fitting in but not feeling like they can return to Korea either.

Starting a new life in a new country is hard. Sunja and her new husband stay with his brother and his wife, but they are all poor. Gradually they became settled and the family did better. Sunja couldn't read, which was not unusual for women at that time, but it made things even more difficult for her. She and her sister-in-law bought a cart to sell kimchee on the street, slowly building up their small business. Her sons were more educated and successful than she was - one went to college and the other went into the pachinko business.

The family's status as foreigners was one of the main themes of the novel. Sunja's children and grandchildren were born and raised in Japan, yet were never quite accepted. This shaped their lives in very significant ways. Being Korean cut off certain opportunities for work and relationships. One character passed as Japanese, but it meant cutting off from family and keeping this huge secret. Sunja often said that it's a woman's lot to suffer, but everyone suffers in this story. 

There's a lot more to it than I've gone into - more characters, more death, yakuza, the return of the man who got Sunja pregnant. It's a lot! It was sad, but not depressing. Although there was tragedy and hardship, the family kept going and over the years they really did make their lives better and easier in a lot of ways. This was just the sort of immersive experience I love in a historical novel. It sucked me in from the start and I spent many happy hours reading about all these lives and experiences that all felt so real to me. 

This is on my 2019 TBR Pile Challenge, and it's my fifth completed book out of twelve.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Leah on the Offbeat

Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli (2018), narrated by Shannon Purser

Leah is a good friend of Simon from Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. She's a drummer in an all-girl band, daughter of a young single mom, and bisexual but not out to anyone except her mom. It's senior year and everyone is applying to colleges and getting ready for prom and the stress of impending life changes is causing a lot of drama. In the midst of it all, Leah is getting some confusing signals from someone she's had a crush on for a long time.

Simon and his boyfriend are both looking at colleges in New York, but things are getting rocky with their friend Nick and his girlfriend Abby who won't be going to school near each other and have to figure out whether or not they can do a long-distance relationship. Abby and Leah are going to the same school, and their friend Morgan didn't get in and implies that Abby only got in because she's black. Leah calls her out for being racist, and her friend group fractures a bit. Also, prom is coming up and you know there will be a lot of drama there. So much drama.

Beck Albertalli manages to create characters that encompass the very best things about teenagers while keeping them genuinely teenager-y. Leah was being pursued by a guy who really liked her and she kept leading him on, not intentionally, but as an adult it was very easy to see it happening. She was also pretty mean about her mom's new boyfriend. Her mom was pretty young, in her mid-30s, and Leah kept going on about how old Wells is. Turns out he's 42. Which, for the record, is a few years young than I am so THANKS, LEAH.

At the same time, I couldn't help but like her. She was just trying to figure things out and basically a pretty good person, and interesting - she was a great drummer and a talented artist. She also stood up for Abby even though it adversely affected her friendship with Morgan. Some of her friends thought she should let the racist comment go, making excuses for Morgan because she was just stressed about being rejected. But Leah knew it wasn't right and was determined to set the record straight about Abby, who was very smart and earned her admission to that college. And yeah, she wasn't clear to Garrett that she only liked him as a friend, but navigating those maybe-friends-maybe-more kind of situations are confusing even as adults, so I totally understand why she kind of bumbled her way through this whole Garrett thing. After all, she did like him, and it's not always super clear even to yourself how much you might like someone or in what way. Especially when you're a teenager with zero relationship experience.

I listened to the audio and I thought the narrator had the perfect voice for Leah. This is not a perky, upbeat, sunny character but a very down-to-earth, deadpan, dry humor kind of person and Shannon Purser captured that perfectly. In contrast to my last couple of audiobooks, I finished this one within a week, which is one of the things I love about teen books. I haven't read many of them recently, but this was just exactly what I needed right now. It was so much fun spending time with Leah and her friends as they prepared to finish high school and start the next phase of their lives.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Prairie Fires

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser (2017)

This biography covers the lives of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, within the larger context of American history. I've read the Little House series numerous times, Pioneer Girl, and some articles here and there, but this is the first time I've gotten such a full story. The Little House books are a fictionalized version of Wilder's early life and Pioneer Girl sets the story straight, but it still doesn't go past the early years of her marriage. Prairie Fires gives us a picture of her whole life, extending also through the end of Rose Wilder Lane's life, touching on Wilder's legacy.

At over 500 pages, this book covers a lot of ground. I'm admittedly not as educated about American history as I wish, and this filled in some gaps for me while providing the backdrop for stories I've been reading over and over again since I was a child, while giving me new perspectives on parts of history I did know about. For instance, I didn't know there was a depression in the late 1800s, nor did I realize how many farmers opposed the New Deal. I knew almost nothing about the Dust Bowl except that there were a lot of dust storms, so it was fascinating to find out that it was caused by farming.

Of course Fraser covers all the parts of the Ingalls's lives that were left out of the Little House books, but then later on when Laura is writing the books about her early life with Rose's editing help, there are some interesting conversations about what constitutes truth versus fiction. Laura and Rose had a number of disagreements about what to leave in, what to take out, and what to change to make the stories more palatable for children and to maintain the narrative of independence and self-reliance. Laura was concerned about not telling the truth. Lane says: "Facts are infinite in number. The truth is a meaning underlying them; you tell the truth by selecting the facts which illustrate it."

I really liked how she put it and agree with it, but that doesn't change the fact that Rose Wilder Lane, despite being a journalist, was prone to lying and embellishing the truth throughout her entire career and was totally oblivious to journalism ethics. She was also a libertarian who admired Ayn Rand and Hitler. Her life was always sort of a mess and she supported her parents financially while also constantly borrowing from them until their finances were so entangled it became unclear who was supporting who. She also borrowed heavily from Laura's stories in writing her own fiction. She was hot-headed and opinionated and would cut people out of her life without a second thought. She was also depressed and mentioned suicide many times.

Rose was invested in Laura's work telling the story of the family in such a way that it emphasized self-reliance, and Laura was pretty on board with this. They left out or glossed over any situation in which the Ingalls family accepted assistance from others or, as happened in one case, left town in a hurry because they couldn't pay their debts. The truth is that the family was very poor. The books hint at this with their simple life, but present that as a choice. In fact, Charles Ingalls never could make a living at farming, and Laura and Almanzo also struggled their whole lives. Relief only really came when Laura's novels became so popular. Which is not to say that their lives weren't happy or satisfying in many ways, but they weren't as easy as they'd like us to think.

My one criticism was the way that Fraser presented the relationship between Laura and Rose because she kept saying that it was extremely strained or that it completely broke down, but didn't show that. What she showed was that they constantly wrote to each other when they weren't living near each other, and she didn't really present any specific conversations or letters that illustrated the breakdown of their relationship that she kept alluding to. I was a bit confused about this point. I know there were things Laura was unhappy about, like when Rose populated a book with thinly-veiled versions of their neighbors in Mansfield, much to their displeasure, but it wasn't clear to me that Laura ever confronted her about it.

Prairie Fires was definitely what I was looking for in rounding out the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder's life for me. It wasn't perfect and I was much less interested in Rose than in Laura, but it felt comprehensive. I spent a week or so reading it because it was so detailed and didn't move along that quickly, but that's not really a criticism. It has kind of made me want to learn more about Westward Expansion, especially about the treatment of Native Americans. More than anything it just made me want to read the Little House books again. Yes, even knowing how much of those books are untrue and how much they try to promote a philosophy I'm not especially on board with (including the desire for the Indians to just "go away") I will always love them for the simple stories about traveling across the country in a covered wagon and a way of life that is gone forever.

This book is part of my 2019 TBR Pile Challenge, which I'm doing well with so far. The rest of it is fiction (except one memoir) so I think I've gotten the most difficult ones out of the way - this book and the one I read half of before abandoning. I'm looking forward to the rest of the books on my list!

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Some poetry

I'm trying to read more poetry and in fact one of my goals this year is to find a new (to me) poem that I love every month. It turns out that maybe "love" is too strong of a word, but my criteria is basically a poem that I want to come back to and read again and again. It also turns out that I have to read a whole lot of poetry to find a poem like that, so this may be more of a two-month experiment than a year-long project. Mostly I've been sampling poems here and there, but here are three collections that I read in their entirety.

Memory of the Future by Elizabeth Spires (2018)

I saw a review of this one which said it's supposed to be sort of Zen, or inspired by Zen thought, and the snippets I read in the review intrigued me. The first poem in it is my first "new favorite" of the year. It's called "Pome" and compares poems to fruit.

O I remember days....
Climbing the branches of a tree
ripe and heavy with pomes. 

As with any collection, there were some I didn't feel like I really got, some which I liked but didn't stand out, and few favorites. In addition to "Pome," there were a couple others that I read several times. One was called "House of String" and another "Snow, the Novel" which I very appropriately happened to read during a winter storm.

When I think about the collection as a whole the descriptors that come to mind are easy, quiet contemplation. Easy in that it feels unforced and the words flow well. Spires tends to focus on little things rather than grandiose proclamations about universal themes. The poems feel immediate, like she is talking about what is right in front of her, but those little things are very important.

100 Best Poems of All Time edited by Leslie Pockell (2001)

I would argue that these are not, in fact, the best 100 poems of all time. In fact, I'd argue that they aren't even all poems, since some of them are actually songs. I didn't read every word of every poem. If one was especially long and I wasn't enjoying it, I didn't make myself finish. If it was a song that I know by heart, I didn't bother reading it at all. (Which I shouldn't have to because although songs are similar to poems, they are not poems.) But I read most of them so I think it counts.

The editor didn't include more than one poem by any poet, so on the one hand I can't see how it's a definitive "100 best" list unless it just happens that the 100 best are all by different poets. On the other hand, I appreciate the breadth and variety that resulted.

The poems I liked most from the collection and which were new to me (as far as I can remember) are "Richard Cory" by Edwin Arlington Robinson and "A Supermarket in California" by Allen Ginsberg. The collection also contains "Daddy" by Sylvia Plath and "Still I Rise" by Maya Angelou which I was already familiar with and still like a lot.

Dark Woods by Richard Sanger (2018)

I think the review I read of this one mentioned nature and vivid imagery and those sounded appealing. It turned out to probably be my favorite of the three. I really like poetry with vivid, surprising descriptions, so when one of the first poems in this book describes an artichoke as "tight-lipped and celibate, nodding your bald pate wisely at the rumor of pleasures you shall never taste" I was pretty sure I was going to like this book.

My favorite might be "Merrily Down the Stream," which compares lives to traveling by water, with occasional interjections like "just look at that cliff, will you" but then progresses on to "our bright vessel banged up against the rock you never saw, dimwit" and accusing "you always do this" before ending with "all our needs and secrets spilling forth, for Christ's sake, in the rapids, and the wreck, the wreck of our lives."

Others I liked a lot include "Herons on Ice," "Different Pears," "Adulterous Mannequins," and "Cornstalks." There's definitely a pattern: most of the poems I liked the most tended to be about everyday things (artichokes, herons, pears, etc) but looked at from a new perspective. I'm kind of simple when it comes to poetry, because often when it tackles larger, more abstract subjects, I just don't always get it. There were some in this collection, too, that I think I'd maybe need to read a few times to understand more fully. But mostly, I liked it the first time through, though I re-read the ones I liked most anyhow just for the enjoyment of it.

Monday, March 4, 2019


Milkman by Anna Burns (2018)

Descriptions of this book are vague and I hadn't read much about it before a friend gave me a copy, but somehow I thought it was a dystopia. However, about 60 pages in it says the events take place in the 1970s and I realized it was taking place in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. It took me this long to figure out because everything in this book is vague and unnamed, including the characters, and the writing style is what I've been charitably referring to as "literary." The sentences are long and rambling with many clauses and commas, the wording can be strange, the paragraphs sometimes go on for pages, and the chapters are very long as well, only seven in the whole book. It's not easy to read.

Our protagonist is a young woman known only as "middle sister" and she is being pursued by an older paramilitary man in whom she is not interested. He's called Milkman and regardless of her disinterest, it's gotten around that she's having an affair with him. She barely knows him but he knows a lot about her, and now she is aware of every move she makes and the fact that he will know about it. She has a boyfriend, "maybe-boyfriend," and she now worries for his safety because Milkman has made vague threats about car bombs. Middle sister lives with her mother and "wee sisters" and she has a job that I don't think is ever actually described and she takes a French class some evenings. She is also known for walking a lot, and reading while she walks. In addition to Milkman, a guy named Somebody McSomebody is also seemingly pursuing her. He's from an unfortunate family in which most of his siblings have been killed for political reasons. One of her own brothers has been killed too, as well as her oldest sister's former boyfriend. There's a theme about people ending up in the wrong relationships, the people they really truly loved either dead or otherwise out of their reach. This is true for eldest sister who is now married to the disliked first brother-in-law.

Middle sister is narrated in the first person so we are privy to all her thoughts and perceptions, and her mind is kind of a weird place to be. Because of the political situation and her desire not to be involved, she is rather shut down and emotionless. I also got the impression that she was just trying to get through each day avoiding trouble and that was pretty much it. Despite her apparent interest in literature, she wasn't exactly deep or thoughtful or observant of the world around her. There's a bit where maybe-boyfriend takes her to see a sunset and she is confused about why this is a thing you'd do, and then a couple of weeks later in her evening French class the instructor has the class look out at the sunset and discuss all the colors they see. It seems that none of them have ever actually looked at a sunset before.

The language makes everything seem even more strange, which is why I think it was set in some fictional world when I started. I mentioned that the the sentences are long and rambling and oddly-worded and that definitely adds to it. When she talks about her relationship with maybe-boyfriend she says, "Under stress we were starting to fight and were communicating less with each other than the normal amount of sharing of ourselves that we didn't tend to communicate before." This is fairly typical of the wording, though a comparatively short sentence - I won't burden you with reading one of the long, complicated sentences. There were times that by the time I got to the end of a sentence I couldn't remember how it started.

Honestly I didn't think I was going to make it through this book. Had it not been a gift, I probably would have given up 50 or so pages in. As it was, I kept going and felt like it was a slog but it started getting much better once I got oriented about where and when it took place and had a better idea of what was going on. By halfway through or so, I was warming up to it and by the time I finished I would call it a pretty solid like. Reading it was work, but underneath the difficult style - which also grew on me until I rather liked it - it was actually a pretty great story.