"Outside a dog a book is man's best friend, inside a dog it is too dark to read!" -Groucho Marx========="The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." -Jane Austen========="I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book."-JK Rowling========"I spend a lot of time reading." -Bill Gates=========“Ahhh. Bed, book, kitten, sandwich. All one needed in life, really.” -Jacqueline Kelly=========

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko is a sweeping saga of a family which takes place first in occupied-Korea and then in Japan from the early 20th century to the late 1980s. The story chronicles the lives of four generations in one family beginning with Yeongdo, a poor but industrious woman who marries a crippled man. They live in a small fishing village in southern Korea. Their only surviving child is a girl, Sunja. She is also very industrious, helping her mother run a boarding house after her father's death. When Sunja is 16 she is seduced by a married man. Pregnant and desperate, Sunja agrees to marry a kindly Presbyterian pastor who knows of her plight and is willing to raise the child as his own. Soon after they wed the pair immigrate to Japan to join Isak's brother and his wife in Osaka, Japan. Noah is born soon after they arrive.

Several years later another boy is born, Mozasu. WWII is raging and Koreans are not well-liked by the Japanese. Isak is rounded up because he is attending a rally and he is thrown in jail. The family is not allowed to visit him and they fear he will die before they see him again. Sunja and her sister-in-law are forced, by necessity, to make money and they make kimchi and candy to sell on the street. When Isak is finally released from jail, after being detained for several years, he is almost unrecognizable. Noah, who is home alone when Isak returns, "can't take his eyes off his father for fear he will disappear."

Noah is a scholar and wishes more than anything that he could become a Japanese citizen. Mozasu is not a good student and is constantly getting into fights at school due to the taunts from bullies aimed at him for his ethnicity. He finally talks his mother into allowing him to drop out and to go and work at the local pachinko parlor.

Pachinko is a slot-machine type game which is popular in Japan. Koreans, who are shut-out of opportunities to work in every sector of Japanese society, often find employment at the pachinko parlors and can, if they work hard enough, become wealthy this way. Mozasu does well and is promoted up to the position of manager as a young age. He also seems to be able to resist the temptations to become a thug, which is very common in the profession. He marries a nice girl and they have a son, named Solomon by his uncle, the family patriarch. (The reader will learn very little about the actual game of pachinko, though the game gives the book its title.)

Solomon, like his uncle Noah, is a good student, but unlike his uncle he is able to attend college in the USA. When he returns to Japan, Solomon naively thinks that his schooling and his skills will shield him from the discrimination against his Korean heritage. But he too finds that this isn't the case.

Krys Lee, writing for the NYT Book Review says this about the novel,
"Like most memorable novels Pachinko resists summary. In this sprawling book, history itself is a character. Pachinko is about outsiders, minorities and the politically disenfranchised. But it is so much more besides. Each time the novel seems to find its locus — Japan’s colonization of Korea, World War II as experienced in East Asia, Christianity, family, love, the changing role of women — it becomes something else. It becomes even more than it was. Despite the compelling sweep of time and history, it is the characters and their tumultuous lives that propel the narrative. Small details subtly reveal the characters’ secret selves and build to powerful moments."
I listened to the audio version of Pachinko read expertly by Allison Hiroto. The audiobook is over 18 hours long.  I lived with the family for weeks. Every time the audiobook started in the car I was transported to Korea or Japan to live a little inside the characters in the story. My favorite bits of the tale were those where the aspects of the unique cultures were described. Small and trivial details related to food, sleeping, clothing, and interactions ignite my imagination and bring their lives into clearer focus.
"In this haunting epic tale, no one story seems too minor to be briefly illuminated. Lee suggests that behind the facades of wildly different people lie countless private desires, hopes and miseries, if we have the patience and compassion to look and listen" (NYT).
Themes related to honor, the role of women, segregation and discrimination as populated the pages. This will be great fodder for our book club discussion later this month. As the 18 hours of listening was coming to an end, I worried a little that there could be no good resolution to this family's story but I assure you that the ending is very satisfying. As the book credits were being read I felt like a foreign exchange student who was very unhappily having to go home after a rewarding and an exciting cultural exchange program abroad. It was an experience that will change me forever.


  1. This sounds intense but oh so good. And maybe the audio is the way to go.

  2. I read this last year. A great book - I loved that although it's a saga it never really went the expected melodramatic way. It was more real. I loved that.

  3. I liked it, but didn't consider it a great book. I can't really explain why. I look forward to our BC discussion!

  4. Great review! I look forward to reading it even more!


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