One of the bookstagrammers/book bloggers I enjoy following is Simone and Her Books, and earlier this year (maybe January) and I remember her asking, “Do you ever get in periods of reading where you just stay in one part of the world for a while?” As I considered the question, I realized I was in my third book set in North-East Asia and that reading them in sequence was enhancing my experience so much more. So for this pairing challenge, I want to talk about the two book told about Koreans — both in North Korea and Japan throughout the 20th century. The third book I read during this period was The Leavers by Lisa Ko, which is a favorite of mine, but I think the other two mesh better for cohesive pairing.
Pachinko tells the story of a Korean family living in Japan during World War II. As the war progresses through the attack on Pearl Harbor and on through the bombing of Hiroshima, the book showcases Korean values, why a family would choose to relocate from Korea to Japan, and how Koreans are treated as Japan starts to close their borders. It was incredibly compelling and emotional to read and I absolutely loved it. One of my favorite things about this book was the authors note, in which Lee wrote about the time she spent in Japan and how the book was influenced by hundreds of interviews over the course of her time living there.
Nothing to Envy is the work of an investigative journalist living in South Korea who connected with defectors from North Korea. Through her relationships, she’s able to tell a horrifying story about the conditions in North Korea in the 1990s. These stories are truly beyond belief – imagine being so hungry that you blend grass in a blender to try to drink it. I won’t ruin any more of the shock but its fascinating to not only understand how bad it really was, but how they got there.
I hope you enjoy these two books and learn about a side of history not always taught in the West! Happy reading!
Author: Min Jin Lee
Published: January 2017
Genre: Historical Fiction
New York Times 10 Best Books 2017
FLW Rating: 4/5
Pachinko is a book that I will always remember, maybe not for the story, but for the history lessons I learned from it. This may just be me, but I feel like when it comes to history I tend to stick to similar cultures – American, European, maybe Russian or African at times, but very rarely do I study Asian history. Almost two years ago, I went to the Chinese American museum in New York City, and was blown away at how that population suffered upon immigrating to the US. It’s with this self awareness, that I’m so happy that I read Pachinko and that it is a New York Times Top 10 Notable Book for 2017. But I digress, Pachinko is a wonderful story set in Korea and Japan that spans almost the entire 20th century.
The story begins with a teenage girl, Sunja, who is living in the Bansu peninsula of Korea. The country has been largely oppressed by Japan who is beginning its quest to take over the region, using Korea as a stepping stone to China. Sunja lives with her mother, who, as a recent widow, provides for her family by running an inn full of interesting characters. But as Sunja grows up and moves away from the inn, she is forced to persevere – through hunger and poverty and segregation of many types. Sunja is an inspiring protagonist and as her family grows and moves, you feel yourself growing with them.
My favorite thing about this book, is of course the history, but beyond that I loved the writing. When I finished reading, I felt like I was going to mourn the loss of a dear friend (not a spoiler of the ending, just a reflection of my connection to this book), and so I kept turning the pages to the authors note. What I learned is that Min Jin Lee moved to Japan when her husband accepted a job, and she spent a lot of her time interviewing locals to prepare for this book. She had been working on the story for so many years, and wanted to make sure that it was exactly right. I think this anecdote is the purest example of what makes this book so moving and personal – the time and attention and care for the people it portrays just reflects how genuine Lee’s writing was.
While the plot may come in second to the characters and the history, it moves at the just the right pace, with just enough action to keep you turning the page. I would recommend it to someone looking for a heavier-novel or a lighter-nonfiction.