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Since I’ve been on a bit of an unplanned blogging break for the past month or so, I’m a bit behind on my Book Of The Month posts. I’m going to start getting caught up by reviewing the books I received for my February 2017 delivery, which were Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, Before The Fall by Noah Hawley and All At Sea by Decca Aitkenhead. I ended up liking all three, but in particular absolutely loved Pachinko. I would highly recommend it. Keep reading to find out why!
(My blogging break came about because I realized I was no longer enjoying blogging as much, I think as a result of putting myself on too strict of a schedule. Because this is really just a hobby for me, I want to make sure that I’m enjoying every minute of it. This most likely will mean that I’ll be posting less frequently, but I’m still planning on sharing as many of my favorite reads as possible with you!)
By Min Jin Lee
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
Pachinko follows one Korean family through the generations, beginning in early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them all. Deserted by her lover, Sunja is saved when a young tubercular minister offers to marry and bring her to Japan.
So begins a sweeping saga of an exceptional family in exile from its homeland and caught in the indifferent arc of history. Through desperate struggles and hard-won triumphs, its members are bound together by deep roots as they face enduring questions of faith, family, and identity.
What I Liked
The multi-generational family saga spanning different historical events. This novel is definitely long at 490 pages, but considering how much time and how many life events it spans in the lives of the characters, the length felt more than justified by the scope of the story. We start with Sunja as a teenager working with her mother in her mother’s boarding house in Busan. By the end of the novel we’ve traveled with Sunja into old age, have seen the creation of her family and the destinies of her children, and have experienced the sweeping historical events of World War II from their point of view. The characters are faced with difficult decisions that leave moral quandaries open for the reader and struggles that seem at times insurmountable. There’s so much that is offered in terms of character development, and by the end of the novel I felt like I had developed an understanding of Sunja that made me feel close to her, even though she is fictional.
The strong, multi-dimensional female characters. Though Sunja is the primary focus of the novel, and her resilience in the face of what life throws her way is inspiring in and of itself, I think the strength of the story lies in the way in which the author portrays the relationships between the three primary female characters at its center. Sunja is part of the entire novel’s story arc, but her mother and her sister in law play a significant role in much of the narrative as well. Each woman is different in personality, temperament and history, so there’s much to explore in the way in which each one brings her different qualities and skill to bear to propel the destiny of the family. Despite distances and arguments, the women become the fulcrum of their familiar unit, to which the men and children turn to for guidance. Buffeted by events in a time when women were often much more prey to circumstance than men, they proved themselves to be even more resourceful and dependable than their male counterparts.
Learning more about the relationship between Japan and Korea. Though I’ve read pretty extensively about Korea’s recent history, especially with regards to the experiences of escapees from North Korea, I was not as familiar with the country’s history in the first half of the 20th century, or its relationship to Japan. Learning about the way in which Zainichi or ethnic Koreans living in Japan were treated was equal parts fascinating and disturbing. It was fascinating because it was a side of the history between the two countries which was largely unfamiliar to me. It was disturbing because these immigrants, fleeing Korea due to degenerating starvation-level conditions in the country, often met with horrible discrimination and mistreatment in Japan. Without too many spoilers, Sunja’s newly-formed family experiences this discrimination from their very first year in their new country, and her children continue to be tormented by their Korean origins into adulthood.
What I Didn’t Like
Occasionally, the novel felt slow. Like I said, though this novel is long, it covers a lot of ground. Overall, I thought it was an extremely well written story, considering the complexity of the material covered and how many years it spans. Occasionally, there would be a chapter or portion of a chapter that felt like it wasn’t moving the story forward much. This bare semblance of a criticism is all i could come up with about what I didn’t like, because this novel really transported me into a different place and time that felt equally engrossing and moving to me.
This family saga will teach you so much about the relationship between Japan and Korea in the early 20th century while moving you and inspiring you through the struggles and resilience of the strong female lead character.
Before The Fall
By Noah Hawley
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
On a foggy summer night, eleven people–ten privileged, one down-on-his-luck painter–depart Martha’s Vineyard headed for New York. Sixteen minutes later, the unthinkable happens: the passengers disappear into the ocean. The only survivors are Scott Burroughs–the painter–and a four-year-old boy, who is now the last remaining member of a wealthy and powerful media mogul’s family.
With chapters weaving between the aftermath of the tragedy and the backstories of the passengers and crew members, the mystery surrounding the crash heightens. Events soon threaten to spiral out of control in an escalating storm of media outrage and accusations–all while the reader draws closer and closer to uncovering the truth. The fragile relationship between Scott and the young boy glows at the heart of this novel, raising questions of fate, human nature, and the inextricable ties that bind us together.
What I Liked
The riveting beginning of the novel. Because the plane crash with which this thriller starts is in its blurb, I’m not considering it a spoiler to talk about it openly in this review. Despite being deathly scared of flying, I’m riveted by any stories of airplane crashes or air crash investigations. I think there’s a masochistic part of me that likes to expose myself to the very things I’m most scare of, but I also find it somehow reassuring to learn exactly about what might have gone wrong in a particular situation. This explains why the beginning of the novel instantly had me hooked. You knew the airplane crash was coming but I have to say that the author really did a masterful job of prolonging the suspense and of then developing the crash into a second nightmarish scenario in which the two survivors are initially embroiled. Won’t give too much away about that, but I was on the figurative edge of my seat for the first few chapters.
The way in which the author used individual chapters to explore each character’s background. After the initial action packed chapters dealing with the crash and immediate aftermath, the author starts to structure the novel with chapters that move the central action forward, alternated with chapters that look at the individual past histories of the victims of the crash. From the bodyguard of one of the businessmen who is killed, to the two pilots and stewardess, to the affluent passengers themselves, the author takes you through the years and days before the crash in each person’s life, trying to untangle the mystery of the crash. I felt like these retrospective chapters did slow down the action a bit, but they also provided necessary clues for the reader to start to untangle the cause of the crash ahead of the final reveal at the end of the novel.
That it wasn’t the typical straight-forward crime thriller. Despite the fact that the essence of this thriller is to find the person or instance that caused the death of the victims, much of the novel is actually dedicated to dealing with the aftermath of the crash on its survivors. A significant aspect of the story revolves around the way in which news media plunge like vultures on stories like this and their survivors, turning every tiny semblance of a lead into a soap opera of speculation and made-up hypotheses. Scott, the painter who survives the crash, is hounded by journalists who dig into his past and develop theories about whether he may have been the one to cause the crash that lead the actual investigators of the crash to suspect him as well. Considering that I’m currently reading a nonfiction recounting of JonBenet Ramsey’s murders, I found this turn of events disturbingly realistic.
What I Didn’t Like
I found it hard to relate to or like the main character. There was something just plain unlikable to me about the main character Scott, and this was despite the fact that he acts very heroically in the beginning of the novel. He’s a washed up painter who has struggled to get his life together well into early middle age, and who often abandons himself to unfortunately long and dreadfully boring monologues that are just strings of questions he asks himself about the meaning of life and the direction of the events in which he’s caught. I definitely skimmed some of these as I got further into the narrative. Somehow, Scott ends up being something of a chick-magnet in the novel, but this sounded more than just slightly implausible to me. It wasn’t a deal breaker, but now that I’m thinking about it, the book may have been better if it had focused any chapters that were dedicated to him more on the crash and its other victims. Something about him just didn’t click for me, and it ruined the impact of the story to some degree.
Thriller with an absolutely riveting start, not for the faint of heart, which turns into a critical analysis of modern media’s destructive hunger for sensational stories. Timely and interesting read despite the unlikable main character.
All At Sea
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
“The thing to remember about this story is that every word is true. If I never told it to a soul, and this book did not exist, it would not cease to be true. I don’t mind at all if you forget this. The important thing is that I don’t.”
On a hot still morning on a beautiful beach in Jamaica, Decca Aitkenhead’s life changed for ever. Her four-year-old boy was paddling peacefully at the water’s edge when a wave pulled him out to sea. Her partner, Tony, swam out and saved their son’s life – then drowned before her eyes.
When Decca and Tony first met a decade earlier, they became the most improbable couple in London. She was an award-winning Guardian journalist, famous for interviewing leading politicians. He was a dreadlocked criminal with a history of drug-dealing and violence. No one thought the romance would last, but it did. Until the tide swept Tony away, plunging Decca into the dark chasm of random tragedy.
What I Liked
The realistic way in which Decca describes coping with her grief. I’ve never experienced the loss of a very close person to date in my life, but often when I’m in a very serious or upsetting situation, I have the irresistible urge to laugh or smile. It’s like pathways in my brain are crossing and somehow I’ve having the exact opposite facial and physical reaction to what I’m actually feeling. I therefore found the way in which Decca described her initial response to grief over Tony’s death very believable. She struggled to figure out what the correct expected societal response was and whether she was delivering on it in the eyes of the people around her. She went from feeling numb, to not feeling very upset at all, to acting inappropriately and then finding herself in tears from moment to moment without rhyme or reason. I think people who are looking for a way to relate to someone else’s grief will find something to mirror their experience in Decca’s response.
The humor and humanity she injects into retelling such a horrible experience. So, let’s start off by saying this isn’t a funny story. It’s about the tragic death of a man who left his wife and children reeling from his sudden absence. I found myself tearing up at times while reading the book, but at others, surprisingly, I was bursting out laughing. Before you think I’m a sociopath, I think finding humor even in life’s most horrible moments is important. Much of the humorous aspects of the book actually relate to Decca’s retelling of the way in which she met and eventually married Tony. She has a very self-deprecating style of humor that I think made her entire story more relatable and even brought a different level of pain to the sadder and more tragic parts of her narrative. It rounds out Decca as a person and brings nuance to her family and to the man whose life and loss the boss it about.
What I Didn’t Like
Some of Decca’s life-choices were hard to relate to for me. It’s true that you can’t control falling in love, but to some degree you can control whether or not you accept that the man you are living with continues to smoke crack and deal drugs. Decca does some serious somersaults in her head, trying to justify to herself and supposedly the readers why she decided to stay with Tony while she realized he continued to be an addict and to also perpetuate other addict’s habits by selling drugs. Decca also almost glorifies Tony’s reliance on violence, seeming to justify his use of violence in his job as a drug dealer or during impromptu street fights by the fact that he never acting violently towards women. Hardly a significant redeeming grace. Eventually, Tony gets his act together and Decca’s faith in him is rewarded, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to judging her and being puzzled by her choices and explanations of why she stayed with him in the first few years of her relationship.
There may be more to take away from this book for those who have recently suffered the loss of a loved one. Having been lucky enough to be spared the death of an immediate loved one, I felt the emotion and relevance of this story, but probably not to the same degree to which it would have been useful to someone who has gone through a similar experience to Decca’s. I think the book was meant in part as a tool for others who have experienced a significant loss to find someone to relate to, and to be able to see that there is life after this kind of loss and there is a way to get through this kind of experience.
A memoir of loss that tells the story of a flawed man with a larger than life personality, and of how the woman and family who loved him survived his tragic passing.
Have you read Pachinko, Before The Fall or All At Sea? What did you think of them? Do you agree with my ratings? Let me know in the comments.
Here’s my Instagram image from when I received my February 2017 delivery from Book Of The Month.
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