The One with the First Zainichis

Min Jin Lee, Pachinko (2017)

First of all, kudos to you for choosing to read a blog post about “Zainichi”, on a book titled “Pachinko”. Shoving weird Japanese words into your blog feed isn’t very polite of me, especially when I didn’t quite know what they meant before reading this book.

You deserve a few explanations first. Zainichi means Foreigners staying in Japan, but it is used to define people with Korean ethnic roots who live in Japan and whose families came from Korea under Japanese rule (i.e. before 1945). It is therefore a derogatory word because these people aren’t really temporary immigrants and don’t want to be singled out from the main Japanese population. Pachinko is a popular arcade game, that is often operated by Korean people in Japan because they are not allowed into more honorable jobs, and that is associated by crime and yakuzas.

I usually don’t read family sagas, because I prefer tighter plots and shorter timelines. When the characters are nicely drawn, I’m always sad to leave them to move on to the next generation. When the focus is on the family culture (may it be strong or dysfunctional) I’m always uncomfortable that characters are created as artificial variations of an archetype, and that the author’s intention would negate the individual freedom.

But I’m glad I made an exception for this novel, which I chose as a read-along to our trip to Korea in August. Little did I know that only the few first chapters are taking place in Korea, but by then I was swept by the story and would have followed the characters anywhere.

The book spans much of the 20th century (1910s to 1980s) and chronicles at the micro level the intertwined destiny of Korea and Japan, especially for people who are not particularly invested in politics or who are not educated enough to see how their particular fate is heavily influenced by historical, social and political facts far beyond themselves.

Pachinko is about the destiny of one girl, Sunja, the uneducated daughter of a poor inn keeper in the tiny Korean island of Jeju, whose life takes unexpected twists and turns when she bumps into a rather shady older man Koh Hansu. This meeting will have endless (and seemingly random) consequences all her life, as she marries a Christian priest and moves to Japan. Pachinko is meant to symbolise how luck and determination both play a role in life.

Pachinko is also about sin and forgiveness and guilt, passed along generations with a heavy family secret. It is interesting to see Christian religion through the prism of Asian culture, but it is only one of the facets of the book. Immigrant identity, especially in the context of Japanese racial prejudices, is painted in detailed strokes. The book is both broad and intimate, and I enjoyed that the pace could slow down to a particular scene, or pick up to show how years passed in a few pages. Sunja’s life is full of tragedies and sadness, but it is not a sad book, and what comes out of it is the extraordinary resilience of this woman.


The One with the Diary of the Longest Wait

Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar, Maman, What Are We Called Now? (French 1957, original title Ceux qui ne dormaient pas, English 2015)

This book is not an easy read. It is a diary held by the author during summer 1944 while her husband had been arrested by the Nazis and their French cronies. This was the last moment of the war, and the Resistance, together with the American and British forces were advancing towards Paris to free the city from the invaders. But Jews were still being sent to concentration camps, resistance fighters were still arrested and tortured and killed. In this diary, Jacqueline pines for her missing husband, she is mad with anxiety and grief and every day fears that someone will tell her that he’s dead. It made me think of La Douleur by Marguerite Duras. Duras’ anguish is more literary, more impactful because of her style, but Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar’s is no less sincere.

All around her Parisians are catching their breath and their hope get stronger by the day that they soon will be free, but the city is full of wild rumors that Germans want to burn the city down before leaving. It is a limbo period both for the author and the city, and she vividly captures the atmosphere.

As she walks all over the city (no fuel for cars anymore) to meet with friends and gather news about her husband, she passes by old places and remembers her happiness with her husband before the war. The biggest difference with Duras’ book is that Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar was Jewish, as was her husband and their 10 year old daughter. They had survived the war by going into hiding and assuming false identities, moving from place to place everytime their hiding place was threatened. Family members had been arrested and sent to death in extermination camps, and she’s very aware of the dangers she and her daughter, as well as her own ageing parents still face in the last days of the war.

Like Duras, she has tried to ask well-connected friends for favors to save her husband and her family. Unsuccessfully. She bemoans old friends’ lack of courage, their compromises with the enemy and their indifference at the persecutions against Jews, especially children. She is bitter and angry because she feels betrayed by almost everyone, and also by her own old delusions of safety. She had grown up in a wealthy French assimilated Jewish family, where people believed that Antisemitism would not affect them, only poorer and less assimilated immigrants from Eastern Europe. But in the end, Nazis made no difference in treatment, and French people turned their backs against them.

As always in Persephone delightful and thoughtful editions, a very rich and informative preface adds to the reading experience by filling the gaps, and the diary itself is followed by articles that Mesnil-Amar wrote later to appeal for the Jewish orphans of the war. We learn how the author was involved after the war in Jewish help organizations and how her Jewish identity took precedence over her French identity that had disappointed her so much. It is a very moving book that would be a perfect companion to Helene Berr’s diary (the two women knew each other, as I understand), who was not so lucky.


The One with the Lost Best Friend

Sonia Orchard, Into the Fire (2019)

I was attracted to this book 
by its aesthetically pleasing cover, by the theme of female friendship and by the Australian setting (and not necessarily in that order). I have read Jane Harper’s The Dry earlier this year, and I was curious to read more Australian writers. They seem to have quite a different voice from the mainstream American-British literature I’m used to. Which sounds pretty naive from me, I know, but I’m a complete ignoramus when it comes to Australia.

I loved the book, although it started slow and took its time to get to the main point of tension. But provided you’re not in a big hurry (in which case a more classic thriller would be more suitable), there are many things to enjoy in this novel. “Into the fire” chronicles the slow evolution of a friendship during two decades between two women, Alice and Lara, who met at university. It’s probably a universal sentiment to have had deep friendships loose their intensity as people grow older and grow apart.

The point that Sonia Orchard adds to this classic mix is that Alice and Lara had strong feminist ideals when they met, which united them, and Orchard dissects how life make these ideals a lot murkier when confronted with motherhood, marriage, work and partner choices. Lara has been in awe of Alice because of her independence and strong voice. She is surprised and upset when her best friend falls for a charming musician, gets pregnant and moves to the countryside to raise their kids.

There is also a strong element of mystery, but the friendship (and subsequent betrayal thereof) was what interested most. Lara is an unreliable narrator who is not completely sympathetic, but I could understand her and relate to her sadness and regrets.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The one with the Ambitious Chef

Maylis de Kerangal, Un Chemin de Tables (2016, English 2019: The Cook)

I love Kerangal’s style and I have known to say that I would read the telephone book if it was written by her. Ah well… Apparently style is not quite enough (but you knew that, didn’t you?)

If I use the analysis framework that I discovered through Kazen from Always Doing, I’d say this book is 60% language and 30% setting, leaving 10% for character and exactly 0% for plot (see? Even at 7 am I can do maths).

Kerangal’s language does not disappoint. It’s as musical and precise as ever, it can envelop you in a sort of rhythmic trance that makes you turn the pages for more of the stuff.

The setting is the world of restaurant, with all the pleasure of cooking and the exhausting work that runs behind the scene. When a person sets out in this particular career, because he’s talented and passionate, it’s a merciless quest to do always better and bigger. The competition in this business is ruthless, and it’s also draining. Mauro is a young autodidact guy, who studied economics at university, but who has always loved cooking. He chooses to work in restaurants instead of following a more routine (and financially more rewarding) career path, but the risk is high. Will he succeed? And more importantly, how to achieve success without eroding his love of cooking?

This book is a novella and doesn’t feel completely “finished”. As in previous books Kerangal is very good at describing technical moves and also a particular working environment with a lot of untold rules and traditions, but I can’t say I’m totally convinced this time around.

A Feast of Miscellaneous Stories

It’s quite a challenge to review short story collections, all the more when I read some stories but not the complete collection. Also, I have so many titles to review by now that I really can’t procrastinate any longer. So I’m going to cheat and give you a mixed bag of titles that have nothing to do with one another.

During summer I read Irene Nemirovsky‘s collection “Dimanche and Other Stories“, published by the ever-delightful Persephone press (2010 edition, first publication 1941). I am returning to Nemirovsky, but I am still conflicted because her stories are not of the likeable sort. Her characters are tough to love, they show how mean, selfish, hypocrite and cruel people may be in some circumstances, and often the stories are full of unreleased tension: in short, it’s not a fun reading experience, but it is a worthwhile one, because nobody can accuse her of having one-dimensional characters or sloppy writing.

Back in October I borrowed a Roald Dahl short story collection from the middle grade shelves at the library, but I think it should have been shelved with the YA or the adult altogether. The collection was “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and others” (1977), but I see that the French collection didn’t have all the stories of the English edition. The title story was actually quite pleasant even if it took a while to come to the point (a lazy man who learns a weird trick from an Indian yogi and then turns his life around), and it came as a palate cleanser after the story The Swan, which is a horrifying tale of bullying (it reminded me that Roald Dahl is sometimes very disturbing). I also enjoyed the short memoir part where he explains how he came to write stories and the first story he ever wrote about an accident during the war.

Before Halloween I got ambitious and picked up Clarice Lispector‘s complete short stories collection, a 500 pages magnus opus of 85 stories, some of which very hard to come by. Clarice Lispector has been recommended to me by many different people (among those, the wonderful Michelle Bailat Jones), and I should have tried her a long time before. Overall, I was a bit overwhelmed by some stories. I felt as if I was missing the point or the context or the underlying literary project. But it’s a writer that you can’t ignore or forget, and I will come back to her.

To balance out the highbrow literary endeavor, I chose the very same day a Joanne Harris‘ collection “Jigs and Reels” (2004). I had fond memories of her other collection “A Hat, a Cat and a Piece of String“, and this one didn’t disappoint. Not every story worked for me (some were too obvious and others just too weird, I’m the Goldilocks of short stories!). I was glad to find returning characters Faith and Hope, the grannies in retirement home who once again defy conventions. Harris is great when she takes an unexpected viewpoint to a rather mundane situation (for example, the story of Cinderella’s mean sister, or a highschool reunion for witches, or a recipe book given by a woman’s mother-in-law).

On a last (and very different) note, I want to mention The Furthest Station (2017), by Ben Aaronovitch. This novella with ghosts and sorcerers in the London underground was calling out to me from the Acquisition shelf, but at about half point I can’t make sense of any of it and I am going to quit. This is #5 in the Rivers of London series, and if some series can be started at any point, this is not the case. Did anyone enjoy this series?

The One with the Little Mother in the Prairie

Sarah Miller, Caroline: Little House, Revisited (2017)

I grew up with the Little House book series. It’s one of the first books I remember choosing and reading and re-reading. In fact, almost forty years later, I still remember where the collection of little pastel colored books were shelved at the central library of my home town. I also watched the TV series but not so much.

Of course I identified with Laura, and not with Mary. But I didn’t really pay any real attention to the girls’ mother. What stuck in my memory were the chores and the way everything had to be done by hand, but I did overlook so many things. In my memory, Caroline Ingalls was a woman who was very gentle and worked all the times and always agreed with her husband. “Yes Charles”, she said, and I didn’t go beyond that. She was a kind but boring character. That said, I never dared to go back and reread those childhood favorites, for fear of being disappointed (I tried it with Sherlock Holmes and ouch… it was a bitter experience). I have since realized that some parts of Ingalls’ memoir are historically problematic (especially in regard with the Indians territory), but my memory of Ma Ingalls had mostly remained pristine behind the doors of a nostalgic glass cabinet.

I never tried to put myself into her shoes, and that’s exactly what Sarah Miller sets off to do. The fear, the loneliness, the resolve of this woman, who also is the product of her times. She doesn’t argue with her husband like a 21st century woman, she is a 1870 woman who has grown up with hardships, hunger and grief. Because I am also older, I found Charles and Caroline quite young and foolish, whereas as a child they of course knew what they were doing because they were the parents. They were winging it about as much as I do! (but with more dangerous impacts in case things went awry…)

I could at last see that behind Caroline’s “Yes Charles” a lot of emotions were rolling at the tip of her tongue but weren’t expressed, as this generation of women were taught to do. All the hardships that Laura glossed over are here detailed in a stream of consciousness way that marry the most mundane (chamberpots) with the vivid beauty of untouched nature around the little house.

I doubt that the book will appeal to anyone who was not immersed in the series as a child. I expected something like fanfic but the novel delivered a lot more, while respecting my childhood memories.

The One with the Forsaken Corgis

Alan Bennett, The Uncommon Reader (2007)

This book has been featured in countless book lists, but it wasn’t until Mr. Smithereens actually purchased it and read it for himself and pushed it in my arms that I started considering it seriously. Yes, it takes some doing, and Mr. S is nothing if not persistent.

This is a very short book, a novella rather, and it’s the perfect fun book for a few evenings (or even a luxuriously lazy weekend, now that the days are short and cold). The opening paragraph made me laugh out loud, featuring a pompous and rather ignorant French president quizzed about Jean Genet by Her Majesty, whose honest literary interest is met with blank stares and embarrassment. The tone is set, and the rest of the book is even better, until the final twist that will leave you smiling and reaching for a cuppa, as they say.

I wonder what people thought of it at Buckingham Palace, and I rather like to think that they read it and decided that it was not disrespectful (even if it is indeed irreverent). I think that the fictional queen comes out as very wise, although she takes decisions that her real-life counterpart would probably not choose. But who knows what happens really behind close doors, in the intimacy of libraries.

Paired with a box of Darjeeling or Earl Grey it would be the perfect gift to give a fellow book lover, if you can be sure that s/he hasn’t read it already.

The One with Jesus and the Overbearing Author

Emmanuel Carrère, Le Royaume (French 2014, English: The Kingdom 2017)

Goodreads tells me that I added this book in January 2017 to my To-read list. This is no typo. It doesn’t mean that I had immediately started to read it, but this book was indeed part of my 2017 resolutions, a vetted, focused list of 10 books I owned and was supposed to read… last year. Needless to say it wasn’t a brilliant success. “But nonetheless, she persisted”, as Americans say.

There was something about that book that I couldn’t let go. I didn’t want to be defeated by this one (I had no problem about letting go of others). It wasn’t the theme: a detailed research about Jesus and the early Christians. I have attempted to watch a well-researched, highly praised TV series on early Christendom before (Corpus Christi), and it had lulled me to sleep so often that I’d given up. I’m no Christian, and it’s no really clear why I would attempt to read 600+ pages on this subject. Mere curiosity is not enough.

No, it was because of Emmanuel Carrère. This writer, with his trademark narcissism and shocking remarks (he likes to pepper his books with a few thoughts on sex, just to keep things interesting, or so it seems), is someone whose previous books never left me cold, and I wanted to have seriously tried reading all his books and have my own opinion about them.

So I tried, and tried, and tried. Almost gave up countless time. I took an audiobook version of it, read by the author and abridged by him (or with his blessing). It took me well over a year. So I’m not gonna pretend this is the page-turner of the century and the easiest, most comforting read for the holiday season. But I’m glad I read it in the end.

I learnt a lot of stuff (which I may or may not have slept through during Corpus Christi), and he managed to make the early Christians alive in front of me (in particular St. Paul and St. Luke). Carrère’s writing skills are wonderful when he blends research with fiction and psychology (less so when he indulges into navel-gazing and porn confessions). The apostles become real people of flesh and blood, with their own backgrounds and agendas, and not sacred texts written by no one in particular and turned into stones by centuries of ecclesiastic doctrines. As a non-Christian, it had never been obvious to me how different the 4 Gospels are in tone and manner (I read some of it, but not all and not systematically). I believe that this book would be more valuable to a Christian, but it was not worthless to me at all. In a very long first memoirish part, Carrère also dissects how he became a very pious and fervent Christian for several years before lapsing into agnosticism or atheism. Although far too verbose for my taste, it was intriguing and revealing.

The One with the Puget Sound Secrets

Michelle Bailat-Jones, Unfurled (2018)

Disclosure: I know the author personally, but I bought her book only because I wanted to and I try to separate what I think of her book from what I think of herself.

I’m not a dog person in the least, and one could argue that I’m not an animal person either (the kids know better than to ask for a pet). I’m not a boat person, and I don’t understand much about all its technical terms, either in French or English. Also, I have never been to Seattle and the Puget Sound where the novel is set (although I went to Vancouver and Victoria years ago), and I have no direct experience of mental illness and intense grief.

Which makes the story of Ella, a vet working in the Pacific Northwest, devastated by the sudden death of her father, a ferry-boat captain, an unlikely story for me to read. But I remembered how I loved Bailat-Jones’ previous book, Fog Island Mountains, that had won the Christopher Doheny Award. I remembered how emotional that read had been, and I was ready for more. I kept some Kleenex close by and I was right to!

Unfurled is a book about grief and family secrets, about the lies that Ella and her father have been weaving for decades around their fragile relationship, and how death challenges this story and demands that Ella now sees the truth and gets some answers. Those lies were convenient and protective, and when they are suddenly taken away Ella is raw and lost, and she lashes out in anger rather than to risk accepting comfort and love.

Grief and mental illness are no easy subjects, but it’s not a harrowing read, because the writer treats all her characters with love and respect. Bailat-Jones’ love for words is obvious, especially when she crafts scenes with animals or the ocean, and she managed to make me care. I was in Ella’s head and I could see the world through her eyes, and I was sorry to let her go at the end of the book.

The One with the Forbidden Kiss

Marzena Sowa, You Can’t Just Kiss Anyone You Want (original Polish, 2012; English 2017) 

There are many tragedies based on forbidden kisses, but this one starts innocently enough, in a dark cinema between a boy and a girl in kindergarten or early elementary school. The girl doesn’t want to be kissed, but it’s not a story about consent. The commotion interrupts the movie and then the real tragedy starts, because the movie happens to be a propaganda film about Stalin, and the showing takes place in an unnamed Eastern European Communist country not long after the war. The kiss is interpreted as rebellious and seditious, because no one is allowed to be bored or distracted during a movie about Stalin. And if a little boy doesn’t toe the line, it must be due to the bad influence of his family. The cogs of tragedy are turning already.

The book (whose title is inspired by a nursery rhyme) is a graphic novel by a Polish author, with naive designs and sepia colors. It chooses to stay on a child’s eye level, and what a kid might understand about oppression and resistance is an interesting point of view. The story is moving, but the full effect is lost because it never quite defines if it’s a children book (as the images would imply) or if it’s an adult graphic novel (some pages and themes seem to require it). To me, it’s as if it didn’t quite strike the right balance between naivety and hope vs. cruelty and despair. It would be too difficult for a kids audience but adult readers might feel frustrated. On the same themes, the House of One Thousand Eyes by Michelle Barker (a YA novel set in Eastern Germany) was more impressive.