Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee

510SEx3k77L._SY346_[1]I’m not a huge fan of the family novel, but the readers on Litsy were so unanimous in their love for this book, and because I had wanted to expand my reading this year, and mainly because I got it for $1.99 during one of those one-day sales on Amazon, I took the chance. I’m so happy I did.

The game of Pachinko is used as a metaphor for how we live our lives, taking gambles which sometimes pay off, and sometimes don’t.  It can be colorful and exciting, and it’s certainly something about which many of us obsess.  In this story, people gamble all the time, some are fortunate, like Sunja, who is rescued from infamy by a young man whose life she helped save.  And in fact, as hard as Sunja’s life has been, there have always been people there for her, there have always been opportunities, often unlooked for, like the random bounce of a Pachinko ball as it spins through its maze of pins.

Sunja and her family are Koreans living in Japan before, during, and after WWII.  They are perennial outsiders in what is a highly insulated society, yet manage to make their way through hard work and determination. Some of her family slip away, some cling to life and make it work for them, and its not always who we might expect in either case. Some make their mark, looking past their social position to the status that success can bring.

Pachinko is very much about the expectations people have of themselves and of each other, and yes, it’s very much about family.  But for once I wasn’t put off by the formulaic treatment inherent in a family story.  Even the family members I didn’t like I liked, if that makes any sense.  And in the end, the story was satisfying which is all I really ask of a novel.

Review: The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula Le Guin

41bl2ognhpL[1]It was probably forty years ago that I first read this book in a science fiction as literature class at Northeastern Illinois University.  It was taught by Tom Hoberg, one of the most interesting professors I’ve ever encountered. (I can still recall the names of the teachers who made a difference to me in those years, and maybe one day I’ll do a retrospective just to honor them.) He led off the class with this book, and even though I’d read SF and fantasy all my life, it was a remarkable introduction to a body of truly great science fiction writers and their work.  I’m not sure I adequately appreciated how ground-breaking this novel was.  I’ve heard it said that Le Guin didn’t do a very good job in creating an androgynous society — a criticism that even Le Guin admits may have some truth to it — but for the time in which it was written, it was about as bold a statement as I could ever imagine.

For those who have been living under a rock since it was first published, TLHoD is a first contact story.  It’s about Genly Ai, an emissary from a body of united planets called The Ekumen , who has come to the planet Gethen in order to convince them to join that group.  Gethenians are androgynes who enter what they call “kemmer” once a month in order to breed.  When not in kemmer or pregnant, they go back to being androgynes.  A Gethenian can enter kemmer as either male or female, they can sire children or bear them.  Most have done both. Because Genly Ai is a human male, this state of affairs is difficult for him to comprehend, and adds a layer of visceral difficulty to the already complex task of learning the cultural norms of a new world.

Much of the novel focuses on Ai’s relationship with Estraven, a lord of Karhide who has been helping him try to win over the Karhidish king.  Through political intrigues, a banishment, imprisonment and escape, and a long and fearful flight through some of the bleakest parts of a bleak country in the dead of winter, Ai and Estraven are forced to drop the walls of custom and meet as human beings.  And this is what the novel is ultimately about: crossing the boundaries of our differences to see the essential humanness of another person.

Since it’s been about 40 years since I read TLHoD, I can’t tell you what I thought if it then, save to say that I loved it.  What I can tell you now is that it remains timely in terms of its political content, its message about gender and other differences between people, and also because it is a book written by a woman in what was once a sausage-fest genre.  To some degree, that Le Guin knocked down the boys’ club  door and helped to pave the way for so many wonderful women writers in this genre might be its greatest legacy.

This is not to deny the value of the story itself, a story which still moves me, which made me cry again even though I knew what was going to happen, a story that made me think more deeply about not just gender but about the human condition.  It is not a book to dismiss for being dated or having shortcomings that are only important in retrospect, but rather one to read and cherish.

Review: The Many Worlds of Albie Bright, by Christopher Edge

26202647[1]Albie, who has lost his mother to cancer, and who feels neglected by his bereaved father, decides that if the many worlds theory is correct, then he can find his mother alive in a parallel universe if he can figure out how to hop between them. To that end, he discovers the Quantum Banana theory, and begins jumping into parallel universes looking for the one person he desperately wants to be with. Along the way, he encounters other versions of his friends and family, and even of himself, he has adventures, and he learns a few things about family and love, and loss.

When I was growing up, one of my favorite books was “A Wrinkle in Time.” When I read the description of “The Many Worlds of Albie Bright” I couldn’t help but be reminded of that old favorite. A story about a smart kid who goes searching to other worlds/universes to find a lost parent? Heck yeah. And yet in many ways the two books couldn’t be more different. Albie’s story is far less serious than that of the Murray children, the writing is direct and unpoetic, and there’s a hella lot of sciencing going on in the narrative. The only problem that I had with this book, in fact, was wondering if a child reading at this book’s level would get even the simpler scientific explanation of quantum physics. Since I’m not a nine year old, I came to no conclusions, but I can tell you that I got a kick out of it.

Review: The Changeling, by Victor LaValle

I love LaValle’s writing so I jumped at this book on release day and swallowed it whole. And yes, I liked it very much. Not as much as Big Machine or The Ballad of Black Tom, but very, very much. What I love about LaValle is that he has a take-no-prisoners approach to his characters. Nobody gets off without a few bruises at the very least, and you come away from every story knowing that, for better or worse, these characters will never be the same.

I got to the end of this book and I was still waiting for another shoe to drop. I still am nearly 12 hours later. The characters are so well developed you can’t help but wonder how they’ll cope with a less fraught life, much as they may desire nothing more. And will they actually get their wish? Hard to say. This is LaValleworld after all. Nothing is entirely a sure thing.

But the prose is sleek and convincing, the horror isn’t so much in the grisly bits, but in the steady build-up of the oh-god-oh-god-what-is-going-on? tension which is really the best kind. The characters are sympathetic, though not perfect, and there are stories within stories. It’s a book to savor, and one that made me smile often from the sheer pleasure of reading LaValle’s words.

If you’re not familiar with his work, you should be. He’s a wonderful, original author with a good deal to say, not just about fantasy and horror, but about being human, and about minorities and sub-cultures in our society.

Book Haul Day

51N6WOvZPQL[1]Ah, Tuesdays.  New release day.  I’d pre-ordered Eddie Izzard’s memoir, Believe Me, months ago, so when I got the email saying that it had arrived, I checked my Audible library and couldn’t immediately find it.  Panic!  Oh noes!  Then I remembered that the library is arranged chronologically and scrolled down.  Yes, there it was.  Ah, bliss.  Fourteen hours of listening to Eddie talk about “love, death, and jazz chickens.”  What could be better?

Actually if I wasn’t in the middle of the audiobook of The Left Hand of Darkness, that would be perfect, but I want to finish that one.  I abandoned another book to listen to the Le Guin; I don’t want to establish a pattern here.

But wait, the new Victor LaValle was also released today!  In fact, I checked last night about 11 p.m. and on impulse I clicked the pre-order button even though I shouldn’t have spent the money.  But The Housemate and I share libraries, so she’ll pick up the final volume of The Great Library when it comes out so we both benefit.

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By the time I got to my Kindle about 11:30, The Changeling was in my library, so I sat up and read a quarter of the book last night.  Chapter 24 ended with me shuddering and thinking “ohgodohgod, this is bad.”  I love it when a book can do that to me, don’t you?  One reason why I acted on impulse was that I’d been seeing a lot of good chatter about the book from ARC readers, one of whom said that he’d read most of it with his shoulders hunched up to his ears.  If that isn’t a great recommendation, I don’t know what is.

And finally, a Vine request arrived today, an ARC of The Many Worlds of Albie Bright.  After an orgy of requesting books from Vine and NetGalley when I realized my reading mojo was back, I’ve tried to rein myself in.  Between the freebies, and the stuff I’ve been buying from Amazon and Thrift Books (If you’re not familiar with the latter, you should be!) I could read 24/7 for the next six months and still not get through TheManyWorldsofAlbieBright-70495-3-456x703[1]everything I have sitting here unread.  However the blurb for Albie Bright was irresistible.  Albie’s parents are astrophysicists (He’s named for Albert Einstein.) and when Albie’s mother dies, Albie’s father seeks to comfort his grieving son by telling him that she may be alive in a parallel universe.  So Albie sets out to universe hop in hope of finding her.

There was something about that which tickled a memory, and finally I realized that it reminded me a bit of A Wrinkle in Time which I first read when I was eight or nine, and which has remained a favorite for my whole life.  If Albie’s story is even half as intriguing as Meg Murray’s, this is going to be wonderful.

So that’s my Tuesday.  I also have a shipment coming from Thrift Books, but in my defense I have to say that my intention was to order a clematis handbook for the garden library The Housemate and I keep, and of course since it was under $5, I had to bring the total up to $10 to get free shipping.  I mean it would be foolish not to, right?  And I had a $5 discount coupon that I could use on orders of $15 or more, so I had to get a couple more books. But the discount couldn’t be used with their Deal books, so I had to buy enough non-Deal books to use the discount.  Right?  Of course right.  You understand how it is.

But really, getting these books for under $15 delivered is quite a deal.

  • The Secret of Lost Things
  • People of the Book
  • The Book of Lost Things
  • If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler
  • Timber Press Pocket Guide to Clematis

Yeah, you really should check out ThriftBooks.com.

Review: Marlene: A Novel, by C. W. Gornter

28246442[1]There’s something about the whole concept of fictional biography that makes me feel a little crawly. It’s one thing to use a real person within a story of your own invention as Doctorow does in Ragtime, but quite another to attempt to write a biographical novel in which you mix established facts with fictionalized episodes. What does that even create? It’s not reality, but not wholly fiction.

Gortner relies heavily on relationships in his recounting of the life of Marlene Dietrich. Familial and sexual relationships dominate the story, and the latter often feels so prurient that it made me uncomfortable. Again, it’s one thing to know a fact about someone’s life, in this case that Dietrich led a very separate life from her husband Rudi Siebert, yet remained married to him until his death. It’s quite another to be treated to sex scenes and pillow talk between celebrities.

In spite of the accounting of Dietrich’s relationships, I never got a feel for who she was. One would think… would hope anyway, that if you’re going to fictionalize the life of a star, the account would bring that person vividly to life. But Gortner never manages to get very far into who Marlene Dietrich really is, even inside Gortner’s own head. I know no more about his Dietrich than I know about how my neighbors feel about Mariah Carey, and frankly, by about page 300 I’d ceased to care.

Marlene: A Novel is for people who want some kind of fantasy about Dietrich. That’s fine, but it’s not for me. Gortner gets two stars for creating a highly readable book if nothing else. And when you think about it, that’s something of a triumph for someone writing in a genre this awkward.

Review: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, by Dai Sijie

I seem to be on a tear this year of reading books about books. Most I’ve enjoyed, but few have presented the whole process of reading and learning in quite such a wonderful way as Dai Sijie does in this book. He ably illustrates the pleasures of reading, the way it takes us out of ourselves and improves our lives, by showing us how reading makes the whole process of “reeducation” in Mao’s China more tolerable.

He shows us how we can become obsessed with books and reading, whether because we are in intolerable situations, or simply because they give us a look into other worlds. The young men in this story risk a great deal for their books without questioning whether its worth it or not. And with the same story he shows us how reading brings people together, and ultimately how it can tear them apart when readers grow in different directions, when they take different lessons and ideas from the same books.

It’s a deft and surprisingly amusing story about reading, books, young love, ambition, hope, despair, and the power of stories. I enjoyed it tremendously.