Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Min Jin Lee - Pachinko

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Author: Min Jin Lee
Title: Pachinko

I found this book on my Scribd app.  Scribd app is like a paid subscription to a library which allows you read several books at less cost. I don't have to buy individual books. However, the books on offer are not unlimited, unlike on Amazon where you can get a vast number of titles. I was pointed towards this by a book group on Twitter which goes under #TSBC or #TSBCWedReads run by @TSBookClub. People are asked about the books they are currently reading every Wednesday and one can pick up good tips there.

Pachinko is about a Korean family that migrates to Japan around 1930. Despite their best efforts they find they cannot integrate into Japan. The reason is not poor assimilation on their part.  They are kept apart from Japanese because of deep rooted discrimination against the Koreans.

The story starts in Korea in the picturesque little Island town of Yeongdo near Busan. Sunja is the young daughter of Hoonie and Yangjin. After her father dies, she is busy helping her mother run a boarding house that they inherited from Hoonie's parents. Her life is humdrum but comfortable. Hansu is a businessman whose eye falls on this wholesome young girl. Sunja becomes pregnant and when she tells Hansu about this, he reveals that he is married but offers to keep the girl in comfort.  Sunja is shocked to learn this and rejects him.

One of the boarders at Yangjin's boarding house is a Christian Minister called Isak who offers to marry Sunja to give her unborn son a family name. He is leaving for Osaka soon to join his older brother and his wife and takes Sunja along with him. Sunja's son by Hansu is called Noa who suffers deeply when he learns about his birth. Sunja and Isak have a son called Mozasu who first goes to work at a Pachinko parlour.

Life in Osaka is not easy with the Japanese breathing down their neck and looking down upon them. Many misfortunes befall them but they persevere. Despite being good, hardworking and honest, they find they cannot make a headway in mainstream Japanese life.  They are relegated to ghettos.  The family eventually makes their fortunes in Pachinko parlours which becomes a symbol of the kind of life allowed to them.

Sunja's sons and grandsons achieve academic success they are not allowed into white collar jobs. Noa tries to do it but only at the cost of his identity. He pretends to be a Japanese and cuts himself off from his family. Mozasu's son Solomon finds it hard to work in a proper office even though he holds an impressive degree from a good college. Despite their education and qualification they are elbowed out.

The plot outline looks dull and depressing. It is not a book full of merry happenings but there was never a dull moment. The story proceeds at a breakneck speed, often jumping years to avoid tedium. It was close to 700 pages but I could barely put it down and completed it in 2 days. Like the book I read before this, it was a fast read.

Especially in these days when Immigration has become such a bad word globally, it is important to rake up the issue of how the host nation treats its immigrants. Even though the immigrants work hard and are honest, doing jobs that are shunned by others, they are treated sub-par and are never allowed to integrate. Often they wind up creating their own communities within the host nation.  It seems horrific but is true. It goes against the very tenets of humanity.

The book spans decades from 1910 to 1989. It starts from Korea and ends in Japan. The early parts of the book, set in Yeongdo, are breathtakingly beautiful. The author takes care with her characterizations. The life of Sunja's parents is described in detail. Sunja's seduction by Hansu is again well etched, with the author going deep into how Sunja's mind works. Later, the descriptions are not as unhurried and beautiful and story is trotted forward without much detailing.  Of course, if the pace of the book had remained the same, it would have reached nearly double its size. It is reminiscent of the times also. The early part of the twentieth century was unhurried and slow, later life also became fast and shallow.

By all means pick up the book. Do not let the number of pages deter you, reader. They will fly by, I promise.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Ava Dellaira - In Search of Us

Publisher: Farar, Straus and Giroux
Author: Ava Dellaira
Title: In Search of Us

I loved the author's first offering Love Letters to the Dead. I loved this inventive novel and  knew I had to pick up the second book by Ava as soon as it came out. I was already in middle of another book when this landed into my kindle on being launched.  So it took me a few days to get to it.

I started reading the book and felt a little disoriented, I could not really get my mind into it.  I wondered if this book would be a bad follow up to the wonderful first one. But as soon as I reached page 24, I found myself melting into it. I paused and retraced my steps from the first.  This time round I had no problems hooking in.

Marilyn is a single mother who has struggled to raise her daughter, Angie.  She has risen from being a waitress at a local diner in Albuquerque to being a bank manager. She is eager to let her daughter have all the love and care that was denied to her by her mother. When she is sixteen Angie discovers some pictures of her father that her mother had kept from her. This makes her dig around and find out that her father's brother is alive.  She wants to find out more and takes off to Los Angeles to search for her uncle.

One of the first things that occurred to me was that this was a little like Gilmore Girls, with more angst and less humor. There are some similarities of course. Like Lorelai, Marilyn is 17 when she finds herself pregnant.  They are both single mothers trying to raise their daughters without the intervention of their families. But that's where the similarities end. There is nothing open about Angie's parentage.  Marilyn has kept many things from her daughter.

Angie is biracial as her father was an African American. This has often resulted in problems for Angie as people did not immediately assume that Marilyn and Angie are mother and daughter, especially as the father is absent.

The story is told in the voices of Marilyn and Angie, when they were/are at the age seventeen. So we go back in time for Marilyn's story and come back to the present for Angie's. Marilyn's story is about her deep and abiding love for James, her neighbor, who is able to make her forget her miserable life and plan a hopeful future.  In current times, Angie is on the way to Los Angeles in search of her uncle Justin.  She hopes he will be able to lead her to her father James and also provide the missing pieces of her past.

The story is so well crafted and so well told that I was loath to put down the book.  I kept racing through it and completed the book in two days, a sort of a record for me in recent times.  The finale, the reason why Marilyn ran away from everyone when she found herself pregnant with James' child is well worth the wait to find out.  The racism that James and his daughter Angie encountered is heart rending.

I loved the love story of Marilyn and James. Marilyn's feelings of being in love, of being in lust are so well expressed. The best part of this book is the image of these innocent children exploring life and wanting good things for each other.

The present time love story between Sam and Angie was quite unnecessary I feel. Angie wanted to know about her father to feel more complete, it should not have tied up to her inability to open up to Sam. Manny lurking in the background as someone who has a long time crush on Marilyn is a bit of a cardboard cut out. Cherry and Miguel are there for convenience. Angie, Marilyn, James, Justin,  Marilyn's uncle and mother are the well fleshed out characters. They are the ones who are really integral to this beautiful story.

What I did not like so much was the neat wrapping up at the end. I guess I would have liked something left a little open to interpretation. Once the truth was out, the characters should have had a little more flexibility than falling into predictable slots.

I will be thinking about 17 year old, beautiful, full of promise, aspirational couple James and Marilyn cavorting on the beach for a long long time.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Catherine Lowell - The Madwoman Upstairs

Publisher: Touchstone
Author: Catherine Lowell
Title : The Madwoman Upstairs

Sometimes you stumble across a book which is completely to your taste. It is like browsing in a library, looking through a few pages and saying to yourself, 'I know nothing about this author but I will try reading it.' This feeling is precisely why I love browsing books in a library. 'If I don't like it', I think,' I can always return it.' There is no commitment via a purchase to hound you if you don't like it. 

I was a member of a private library called Browser in Chandigarh. For some amount, you could read any of the books on offer there.  If you wished, you could also buy a book from their library at a discounted rate. It was a good arrangement, but the library was far from where I lived and it was a bit of drag to come and go.  Now I have an app called Scribd where I pay a subscription and can read any of the books on display there. They don't have every book under the sun, but a good many. I get the same library experience without the pressure of due dates and visits.

I found The Madwoman Upstairs on Scribd. Just like I would do in a regular library, I flipped through a few pages and was hooked.  It is about a young woman Samantha Whipple, who has come to Oxford to study English Literature and is assigned to the dishy Professor Orville. Samantha Whipple is famous, she is the last living relation of Patrick Bronte, the father of the Bronte sisters. This has brought her a lot of attention, most of it unwanted.  Her father, Tristan Whipple was an avid student of his famous ancestors and an author in his own right.

Her father is now dead but the rumor is that he hid some Bronte relics. There are people who are interesting in knowing more about them and are hounding Samantha. She has to grapple between her own theories about her famous cousins, trying to locate the said relics and learning more about her eccentric father. On top of all this, she has to fight her attraction to the dishy Orville who is never happy with the papers she turns in.

If you like this kind of a book which is chockablock with literary allusions you have hit jackpot. Read this ASAP.  It is funny and smart, but without any pretensions. It propounds some really wild theories about the B sisters which are fun. Samantha is fixated on Anne Bronte, so get ready to hear some things about the least famous Bronte. The tower that Samantha lives in as a student is about as Gothic as the tower that Bertha Mason was locked up in.

It is not exactly a derivative as it references the books by Brontes directly. It references even the best known derivatives, Rebecca and Wide Sargasso Sea. Yet when you are ready to snap the book shut after a very satisfying end, you realize the book was a derivative after all, maybe of The Professor? The epilogue has a dreamy feel that makes you wonder, did this really happen?

It addresses the madness that descends on Literature students who want to unravel the lives of famous authors and find clues to what led them to write the books. The book, for this reason, kept reminding me of Possession by A.S. Byatt. Byatt had created a fictional writer and  his body of work. It was brilliant. Yet this book by Catherine Lowell does not pale overmuch by comparison, as it is very good. You will fall in love with the quirky, socially awkward, Bronte loving character of Samantha Whipple.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Greer Hendricks Sarah Pekkanen - The Wife Between Us

Publisher: MacMillan
Authors: Greer Henricks Sarah Pekkanen
Title: The Wife Between Us

Right in the first chapter the new bride to be is frightened when she thinks she just saw someone in her wedding dress. The image instantly reminds you of Jane Eyre. This feeling gets stronger when you read on to find that a soon to be married young couple is being stalked by a jealous, paranoid ex-wife of the groom.

Charlotte Bronte wrote about the mad wife in the attic because it was such a great twist, one of the best ever.  How can a couple in love ever surmount a problem like this? With Rochester married to a mad woman from the Caribbean, how could Jane ever be with him. This angle has been used so often in literature after this.  This book, however, starts at this point.  In these times, divorces have made it possible for married people to get unmarried and marry others. Yet, how does one tackle a jealous ex-wife who does not seem to be able to move on?

The book moves at a steady pace and there are many revelations, strategically placed, that alter your perception of the characters.  Halfway through, you don't who the bad guy is. It could be any of the protagonists. The husband Richard, is handsome, successful and rich.  He is a dream boyfriend, caring and understanding. But he takes unilateral decisions in the relationship and looks a little controlling. Vanessa the ex-wife is haunted by her breakup.  She is an alcoholic and seems paranoid. But is she more sinned against than sinning? The new wife is sweet as sugar and malleable but are her intentions honorable? Is she in this just for the love of Richard?

There are a minimum of characters which keeps the story lean and focused; Sam (Vanessa's roommate and bestie), Aunt Charlotte (the only family Vanessa has), Vanessa, Richard and his new bride-to-be, Richard's sister Maureen. I was rather amused to note that Richard is the only major male character.  So long women have cribbed that the spotlight was taken by male characters and at times (Lord of the Rings being a particular case) female characters few and far between.

I loved the way the story moves, you are taken through many bends and at each bend you are surprised and drawn in. This is very skillful as the narrator is only one.  It can be easy to narrate different viewpoints through different voices but to narrate different viewpoints through only one voice is very tricky.  It has been handled to great effect.  My only grouse with the book is that the climax was not as clipped and quick as the rest of the book. It was rather long drawn.  I am sure many readers will love the climax nevertheless. It did not spoil the book for me though.  I still love it.

There was a long queue on the book in the library, I can see why.  It is a new release and has got rave reviews.  I was also swayed into reading this book by one such recommendation and am glad I did.

It has been likened to The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl. Like these books, you don't know what is coming next. Which character is going to do a perception change next? However, despite these similarities, this book is not a copy of those previous best sellers.  It is very much its own book and well worth picking up.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Alexander McCall Smith - Love over Scotland

Publisher: Anchor Books
Author: Alexander McCall Smith
Title: Love over Scotland

Alexander McCall Smith is among the top of my favorite writers. He is contemporary, successful and consistent. He is most famous for his series The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.  I was in love with his Isabel Dalhousie series and was feeling a bit bereft when it ended.

I read 44 Scotland Street, the first book in this series quite a while ago. The title is the address of an apartment block in what is known as Edinburgh's New Town. The first book was primarily about some tenants of the apartment block. Pat is an art student who works part time at Matthew's art gallery. Irene and Stuart are a young couple in the same apartment block. They have a gifted young son called Bertie. Another resident, Domenica, is a social scientist.

There are short chapters that carry the story forward slowly, focusing on one or two characters at a time. So far I have read only two books in the series and they seem to chart the happenings a year at a time.

On the surface, the book seems to be full of small incidents, not very remarkable at times.  I soon realized that our life is like that.  There are a series of small events, things we would not even bother to recount to our friends but collectively they make up our lives.  Just when we are getting used to the small incidents, something big happens. Angus' dog Cyril is stolen, Bertie gets left behind in Paris by his orchestra mates

I was reminded of Sketches by Boz and also Pickwick Papers the latter especially when things get very funny. There were many times that I found myself laughing out loud.  The characters have their quirks which are well exploited by the author.  I found the exchanges between Irene and her son, Bertie very funny. Irene is very determined about what her son should do and rides roughshod over his feelings.  Most times Bertie just wants to be left alone which is something Irene never listens to.

Matthew was my favorite character in the first book and I was happy to see him more successful in this book.  Angus Lordie, Big Lou, Domenica, Pat, Matthew, Bertie, Stuart, Irene are described with such warmth that we cannot help feeling attached to them. 

I am glad that there are 12 books in the series, I can have a whale of a time reading through them.

Friday, February 02, 2018

Suki Kim - The Interpreter

Publisher: Farar, Straus and Giroux
Author: Suki Kim
Title: The Interpreter

Who are Interpreters? Those who convey the meaning of what is said in one language in another? Or those who interpret one way of life to another?

Suzy Park makes a living as an interpreter.  Her job is to translate the questions that the lawyer asks Korean people who are not conversant in English and also interpret their replies.  Interpreting comes naturally to her.  She spent her life doing it.  Her parents could speak only Korean and she and her older sister Grace habitually translated to and fro for them.

Until she left home, kicked out by her father when he found out that she was sleeping with a married man.  Some years after this, her father and mother were killed in their store, shot through the heart. Suzy goes into a tailspin.  She is heartbroken that she never got a chance to make up with her parents. What's more, her sister Grace has cut off all ties with her. 

She flounders through life until one day she chances upon a man who mentions her parents during his deposition. There is more to the murder of her parents than meets the eye. Only a person who knows the nuances of the way a Korean thinks can solve this tangled mess. In the process we get to see the messy underbelly of illegal immigrants, caught in a corner, working hard but never really making it. Some fall into depression and some turn to unsavory acts to survive.

While the first generation of immigrants is trying to make ends meet and survive in a country where everything is alien to them, the children have a task of their own.  Part of them wants to blend in to the American culture, part of them wants to stay true to their own culture. They are forever at odds with their own selves.

How fast you go though a novel depends on how interesting you find it. I was barely able to put down the book. (My kindle actually.) I am still a little panda-eyed from having stayed up to finish the book.
The book starts slow and you wonder why the protagonist, Suzy, is so full of angst.  Soon we are in thick of things. 

Even though the book is about murder and the mystery surrounding it, it cannot be called a thriller.
It can be called a noir psychological murder mystery which has to be solved, not so much by chasing after things, as by interpreting the events that have taken place in the past.

The interpreter, however, is the shadow. The key is to be invisible. She is the only one in the room who hears the truth, a keeper of secrets.


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