Pachinko // Min Jin Lee

It’s been a while since I’ve truly been obsessed with a book.  Once I started reading Pachinko, I couldn’t stop- I even got up half an hour early every day so that I could fit in some reading time before my day began!  It’s just that good, and most readers seem to agree: beyond it’s 4.3 rating on Goodreads, it was named one of the ten best books of the year by the New York Times among being a National Book Award finalist.

In a nutshell, Pachinko follows four generations of a Korean family in Japan through the twentieth century as they face various dilemmas ranging from complicated romance to life-or-death situations.  Written in plain but elegant prose, Pachinko both entertains and educates the reader, heavily discussing the Japanese-Korean conflict with an emphasis on the Korean diaspora and identity crisis.  Personally, I learned a lot I didn’t know about the Korean culture as well as the underground world of pachinko parlors.


“Learn everything.  Fill your mind with knowledge- it’s the only kind of power no one can take away from you.”

-Min Jin Lee, Pachinko


From the back cover:

History is seldom kind.  In Min Jin Lee’s bestselling, magisterial epic, four generations of a poor, proud immigrant family fight to control their destinies, exiled from a homeland they never knew.

In the early 1900s, teenaged Sunja, the adored daughter of a crippled fisherman, falls for a wealthy stranger at the seashore near her home in Korea.  He promises her the world, but when she discovers she is pregnant- and that her lover is married- she refuses to be bought.  Instead, she accepts an offer of marriage from a gentle, sickly minister passing through on his way to Japan.  But her decision to abandon her home and to reject her son’s powerful father sets off a dramatic saga that will echo down through the generations.

Richly told and profoundly moving, Pachinko is a story of love, sacrifice, ambition, and loyalty.  From the bustling street markets to the halls of Japan’s finest universities to the pachinko parlors of the criminal underworld, Lee’s complex and passionate characters- strong, stubborn women, devoted sisters and sons, fathers shaken by moral crisis- survive and thrive against the indifferent arc of history.


“Living everyday in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage.”

-Min Jin Lee, Pachinko


Though Pachinko follows four generations, much of the plot relies heavily on Sunja’s initial plight, as she gets pregnant out of wedlock to a wealthy man with a wife and children in Japan.  Sunja ends up marrying a sickly minister in order to give her unborn son a proper name, and they begin a family of their own as she falls in love with him.  Sunja has two sons, one from each man, and from there the novel focuses on the boys and their relationships with their respective fathers.  In that regard, Pachinko focuses on fatherhood, the issue of nature versus nurture, and what it means to be a father.

Initially Pachinko took the time to explain everything in detail, but as the story moved along, the pacing steadily increased, and as time progressed faster, more and more characters were introduced.  Structurally and pacing-wise, Pachinko struggled, but I fell in love with the story and the characters.  Much like The Heart’s Invisible Furies, another well-loved, character-driven tome, Pachinko was a very emotional read.  I felt sucked into the story, so much so that I was undeniably sad when it ended.  Pachinko is a gem, so deserving of its recognition, and by far one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Find this book on Goodreads.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation // Ottessa Moshfegh

There was no escaping My Year of Rest and Relaxation this summer.  Visit any bookish website, and its iconic hot pink text and classic cover art was plastered on the front page.  Scroll through bookstagram, and Moshfegh’s name appeared in post after post.  Browse any bookshop, and it was prominently displayed on the front table.  I try to avoid over-hyped books at all costs, but I gave in for this one, and I’m glad I did.

I snatched up my copy at McNally Jackson a few weeks ago, while staying on the Upper East Side, weirdly enough just a few blocks away from where our unnamed narrator lives.  It was one of those instances where I read a book at the absolute perfect time.  Reading My Year of Rest and Relaxation in New York definitely heightened my reading experience; this book feels, in every sense, like a New York Novel, and I’m not convinced I could’ve accessed the full meaning had I not been in the very city where it takes place.


From the jacket:

Our narrator has many of the advantages in life, on the surface.  Young, thin, pretty, a recent Columbia graduate, she lives in an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan paid for, like the rest of her needs, by her inheritance.  But there is a vacuum at the heart of things, and it isn’t just the loss of her parents while she was in college, or the miserable way her Wall Street sometimes-boyfriend treats her, or her sadomasochistic relationship with her alleged best friend.  It’s the year 2000 in a city aglitter with wealth and possibility; what could be so terribly wrong?

My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a powerful answer to that very question.  Through the story of a year spent by a young woman under the influence of a truly mad combination of drugs prescribed to heal people from alienation and existential ennui, Moshfegh shows us how reasonable, even necessary that alienation sometimes is.  Tender and blackly funny, merciless and compassionate, it is a showcase for the gifts and the rewards of one of our major writers working at the height of her powers.


“Sleep felt productive.  Something was getting sorted out.  I knew in my heart- this was, perhaps, the only thing my heart knew back then- that when I’d slept enough, I’d be okay.  I’d be renewed, reborn.  I would be a whole new person, every one of my cells regenerated enough times that the old cells were just distant, foggy memories.  My past life would be but a dream, and I could start over without regrets, bolstered by the bliss and serenity that I would have accumulated in my year of rest and relaxation.”

-Ottessa Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation


My Year of Rest and Relaxation presents a very privileged yet very depressed narrator.  Unnamed, she is somewhat unlikeable in her trust-fund, Upper East Side ways, and yet she isn’t the biggest fan of herself either.  Drowning in the world after the death of her parents and the latest break-up with her on-again-off-again boyfriend Trevor, she takes self-care to the extreme by creating endless amounts of prescription drug cocktails, prescribed to her by an aloof psychologist, so that she may escape the world and sleep for a year.  This book, weird and wonderful in so many ways, touches on an abundance of topics, from mental health to inauthenticity, while focusing on the narrator’s relationships, healthy and unhealthy.  Moshfegh is a very polarizing writer but My Year of Rest and Relaxation reminded me very much of The Idiot in its tone and content, so it should come as no surprise that I loved this one as well.  Despite the cliché ending, the last page crushed my soul and left me hungry for more.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation is not an “enjoyable” book, it’s not a “feel-good” book.  It’s about the ugly, depressing parts of life, the parts that make you want to hole up in your apartment and literally sleep for a year, to hide from masochistic, pretentious boyfriends and irritating, nettlesome best friends.  If anything, this book made me feel awful.  Yet, I loved every minute of it.  Suddenly, I want to devour everything Moshfegh has every written (thank God I planned ahead and bought Eileen).  Sign me up for the Ottessa Moshfegh Fan Club.

Further reading: “Ottessa Moshfegh Plays to Win” by Kaitlin Phillips, The Cut; “Ottessa Moshfegh’s Otherworldly Fiction” by Ariel Levy, The New Yorker.

Find this book on Goodreads.

Crudo // Olivia Laing

Crudo is the book I didn’t know I needed.  Highly experimental and introspective, the novel’s entirety is spent inside the head of forty-year-old writer Kathy, who is meant to be the persona of established American novelist Kathy Acker (1947-1997), as she faces the ever-changing world around her: her individual world, as she gets married and ends her life as a single woman, and the political world, suffering from the repercussions of Trump and Brexit.  Crudo is the kind of book you could read in one sitting and revisit time and time again without bother.


From the jacket:

Kathy is a writer.  Kathy is getting married.  It’s the summer of 2017 and the whole world is falling apart.  Fast-paced and frantic, Crudo unfolds in real time from the full-throttle perspective of a commitment-phobic artist who might be Kathy Acker.

From a Tuscan hotel for the super-rich to a Brexit-paralyzed United Kingdom, Kathy spends the first summer of her forties adjusting to the idea of a lifelong commitment.  But it’s not only Kathy who’s changing.  Fascism is on the rise, truth is dead, the planet is heating up, and Trump is tweeting the world ever-closer to nuclear war.  How do you make art, let alone a life, when one rogue tweet could end it all?


At just 130 pages, Crudo is barely a novel; it’s a steam-of-conscious sprint through one woman’s contemporary point-of-view.  As a young American, it was interesting and eye-opening to read from a British perspective on the current political climate.  Though Crudo is a work of fiction, it read very true-to-life, touching on topics like global warming, Brexit, and North Korean politics, while very much focusing on Trump and the “Fake News” era.  Sure, sometimes the commentary and the context went a bit over my head, but there were also times when Laing’s (or “Acker’s”) words just clicked, and I completely related to the message she portrayed.  Those are the moments that made this book work for me, despite my small struggle with the inaccessibility of the experimental prose.


“Everyone talked about politics all the time but no one knew what was happening.”

-Olivia Laing, Crudo


Brief, thought-provoking, and a bit bizarre, Olivia Laing’s Crudo succeeds in capturing the current social and political climate unlike any other written work today.  It’s claustrophobic with originality and teeming with voice, and perfect for fans of experimental stream-of-consciousness narratives or thought-provoking fiction that reads like nonfiction.

Thank you to W. W. Norton for my copy of Crudo by Olivia Laing.  All thoughts are my own.

Find this book on Goodreads.

Three Things About Elsie // Joanna Cannon

Thank you to Scribner, Simon and Schuster, and Netgalley for an early review copy of Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon, which was published August 7, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.


From the publisher:

“There are three things you should know about Elsie.  The first thing is that she’s my best friend.  The second is that she always knows what to say to make me feel better.  And the third thing… might take a bit more explaining.”

Eighty-four-year-old Florence has fallen in her flat at Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly.  As she waits to be rescued, she thinks about her friend Elsie and wonders if a terrible secret from their past is about to come to light.  If the charming new resident is who he claims to be, why does he look exactly like a man who died sixty years ago?


When Joanna Cannon’s Three Things About Elsie was longlisted for the Women’s Prize, I read review after review but never gathered any intention of reading it.  Then, I decided to request it from Scribner on a complete whim because I have no self control, at least when it comes to books.  The result of my momentary weakness was a quirky, heartwarming story about growing old, being young, and the tough questions we must ask ourselves as we age.

Three Things About Elsie has a little bit of everything.  There’s a little romance, a little mystery, and a little suspense, but at its center is the sweet friendship between Florence, the main character, and Elsie, her childhood best friend.  The pair have a special relationship; they know each other better than anyone else, and I imagined them as those cute little old ladies I see while I’m out grocery shopping.  They were hysterical together, and I enjoyed reading about the unique bond they shared with one another.

Beyond Florence’s relationship with Elsie is her role as an unreliable narrator.  I have a growing admiration towards unreliable narration, so I fell in love with that aspect of Three Things About Elsie. While reading about Florence’s mishaps, I wondered if someone was actually setting her up for misfortune or if she was just losing her marbles. I believe Cannon intended for her audience to question Flo’s sanity, just like she intended for it to be a page-turning mystery.

Though I found a lot to admire with the characters of Three Things About Elsie, I found it too predictable when it came to plot, and unfortunately that ruined it for me.  The “surprise” ending was all too obvious, and something I’d assumed from the start.  I’m sure it would’ve been less predictable if I didn’t read so much, but it made me lose interest around the halfway point.  I enjoyed the quirky characters and the unreliable narration, but the awkward writing style and predictability made this one a miss for me.

Find this book on Goodreads.

Young Adult Shelf: We Are Okay + Turtles All The Way Down

Occasionally, when I’m trapped in a reading slump, I’ll make a trip to the library and peruse the young adult fiction shelves for an easy read or two.  Sometimes I’ll go for the authors I loved as a high schooler, but this time I chose two titles that were heavily talked about in the fall and winter of last year: Nina LaCour’s We Are Okay and John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down.

Generally, I’ve found that it’s difficult for me to write full-length reviews on teen novels, so I’ve decided to start a new feature, Young Adult Shelf, where I’ll discuss the YA books I’ve recently read through mini reviews.

We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

We Are Okay is young adult at its finest.  It’s no surprise that Nina LaCour’s latest won the 2018 Printz Award, a prize that I follow along with closely every year.  We Are Okay is a quiet reflection on grief, loss, and, perhaps most prominently, friendship.  It’s a slow-paced, character-driven novel, and it was refreshing to read about a character so much like myself.  Like me, Marin is a young undergrad and English major at a large upstate New York university, and, like me, she feels alone despite being constantly surrounded by family, friends, and familiar faces.  Her feelings of loneliness and isolation are only amplified by the novel’s setting, a desolate, snowy campus during winter break.  It’s truly astonishing how brilliant and beautiful LaCour’s writing is.  I wish I could make We Are Okay required reading for everyone, or at least every college freshman.

Turtles All The Way Down by John Green

I’ve read all four of Green’s previous novels, starting with the heartbreaking The Fault in Our Stars, and moving through the others rapidly: I loved the adventure and mystery of Paper Towns, I feared I didn’t “get” Looking for Alaska, and I fell in love the highly underrated An Abundance of Katherines, which seemed to be everyone’s least favorite but mine.  When Turtles All The Way Down was announced, I rolled my eyes.  I knew (or thought I knew) it would follow the same “recipe” as Green’s previous works: the manic pixie dream girl, the angsty teenage boy and his 2-3 equally awkward friends, and some kind of cross-country quest.  In the past, I’ve disagreed with Green’s over-conscious prose, his try-hard, too-quotable metaphors, but Turtles takes a step back from his usual style, and puts forth an honest, searing tale of a teen with anxiety disorder and OCD in a world that’s not all too understanding.

In short, Turtles All The Way Down is about mental illness.  It expertly captures the angst and anxiety that comes with being not only a teenager, but also a person in the world.  Turtles really illustrates how hard it is to be a teenager struggling with mental health, and how that can affect every area of life, from education to relationships.  The book also discusses the role of parents in a kid’s life, specifically the idea that not all parents are adequate, and sometimes the best role models aren’t related to a child by blood.  Overall, I enjoyed Turtles All The Way Down, and if I had to pick, I’d say it’s a new favorite John Green book.

What did you think of these two books?  Are there any young adult novels you’d recommend for me?  I’d love to hear from you!

xx,
Hannah

Sweetbitter // Stephanie Danler

I had every intention of saving Sweetbitter to read on my trip to New York in a few weeks, but I just couldn’t wait any longer.  This book, Stephanie Danler’s debut, was an instant hit two summers ago, and its recent development into a Starz series re-inspired my interest.  I devoured Sweetbitter just like one would devour a meal at the Union Square Café: slowly, savoring every minute, while still impatiently craving the rest.


“You will develop a palate.”

-Stephanie Danler, Sweetbitter


From the jacket:

Shot from a mundane, provincial past, Tess comes to New York in the stifling summer of 2006.  Alone, knowing no one, living in a rented room in Williamsburg, she manages to land a job as a “backwaiter” at a celebrated downtown Manhattan restaurant.  This begins the year we spend with Tess as she starts to navigate the chaotic, enchanting, punishing, and privileged life she has chosen, as well as the remorseless and luminous city around her.  What follows is her education: in oysters, Champagne, the appellations of Burgundy, friendship, cocaine, lust, love, and dive bars.  As her appetites awaken- for food and wine, but also for knowledge, experience, belonging- we see her helplessly drawn into a darkly alluring love triangle.  With an orphan’s ardor she latches onto Simone, a senior server at the restaurant who has lived in ways Tess only dreams of, and against the warnings of her coworkers she falls under the spell of Jake, the elusive, tatted up, achingly beautiful bartender.  These two and their enigmatic connection to each other will prove to be Tess’s most exhilarating and painful lesson of all.


If I struggled with any aspect of this book, it was Tess, our whiny narrator.  Sweetbitter is categorized as a “coming-of-age” novel, but by the end, I had a hard time believing Tess had truly matured into an adult.  The so-called “romance” between Tess and Jake frustrated me immensely.  At one point, Jake told Tess to wipe off her lipstick because she looked like a clown, and I just sat back and wondered why she would put up with a guy like that.  If you know me, you know I don’t really give a crap about being in a relationship, so Tess’s desperation to be with Jake that badly irked me.  I think Tess was supposed to come of age by realizing how silly it is for her to tolerate the constant shit that Simone and Jake give her, but even in the last few pages, Tess still felt immature and whiny.  I’m not sure she learned anything from her post-grad identity crisis.  I wanted to see her grow more, but she was too busy worrying about what other people thought of her, and drinking too much to try to forget about it.


“She belonged to herself only.  She had edges, boundaries, tastes, definition down to her eyelashes.  And when she walked it was clear she knew where she was going.”

-Stephanie Danler, Sweetbitter


I think Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter is the kind of book where it really matters when in your life you read it.  In all honesty, if I wasn’t a nineteen-year-old dreaming of life in New York, I don’t think I would’ve liked it as much as I did.  I also enjoyed all of the commentary on the quirks of the service industry, and the exploration of the special bond restaurant co-workers share with one another.  I worked in a fast-casual restaurant for my first year of college, nothing fancy like Tess’s job but closer to a Panera Bread, but still the kitchen environment was entirely similar, and I loved reading Danler’s take on a world I had experienced myself.  Parts of Sweetbitter had me cracking up and reminiscing about my own days cleaning fridges and dropping food in front of everyone, so I really felt for Tess, her struggles, and her insecurities in a way I’m not sure someone who hadn’t once worked in a restaurant would understand.

Danler’s fiction is somewhat experimental in that MFA-writing way, but it’s dripping with talent and I’m curious to see what she does next.  Though Sweetbitter, like any piece of writing, wasn’t perfect, I wholeheartedly enjoyed my time reading it.

Find this book on Goodreads.

The Incendiaries // R.O. Kwon

When my copy of The Incendiaries arrived in the mail, I almost cried.  I’ve been looking forward to reading this one for months, and I was thrilled to finally have a copy in my hands!  The Incendiaries wasn’t what I thought it was going to be, but it definitely surpassed my high expectations.


From the jacket:

Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall meet their first month at an elite American university.  Phoebe is a glamorous girl who doesn’t tell anyone she blames herself for her mother’s recent death.  Will is a misfit scholarship boy transferring in from Bible college, waiting tables to get by.  What he knows for sure is that he loves Phoebe.

Haunted by her loss, Phoebe is increasingly drawn into a religious group- a secretive cult tied to North Korea- founded by a charismatic former student with an enigmatic past involving Phoebe’s Korean American family.  Will struggles to confront the obsession consuming the one he loves, and the fundamentalism he’s tried to escape.  When the group bombs several buildings in the name of faith, killing five people, Phoebe disappears.  Will devotes himself to finding her, tilting into obsession himself, seeking answers to what happened to Phoebe and if she could have been responsible for this violent act.


At its heart, The Incendiaries is a story about loss: loss of faith, of family, of love, and what that means for different people.  For Will, who has already lost his faith and family, it means tracking down the woman he loves and saving her from the life she’s chosen to lead.  But for Phoebe, who blames herself for her mother’s sudden death, it means running away from love and from faith, and turning to something horrible in return.


“Faces lit up if I walked into a room, the liking a light I could refract, giving it back.  Phoebe, oh, I love that girl, people said, but it’s possible they all just loved the reflected selves.”

-R.O. Kwon, The Incendiaries


The Incendiaries comes at an all-too-perfect time, discussing racial and religious prejudice, terrorism and extremism.  It’s a topical novel that reflects brilliantly on the current global and political climate while weaving together the lives of two very different people.  It’s incredibly slow-paced, and it personally took me two weeks to get through its measly two-hundred pages, but it packs a punch and it’s certainly not a book you’ll forget any time soon.

Read if you liked: (1) Exit West by Mohsin Hamid for its glittering yet abrupt, abbreviated prose on a timely topic; (2) The Mothers by Brit Bennett for its heartfelt story about a young woman losing her mother and struggling with her role in it; (3) The Girls by Emma Cline for its powerful, cult-centered tale about adolescence and extremism.

Thank you to Riverhead Books for my copy of The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon.  All thoughts are my own.

Find this book on Goodreads.