Alex's Reviews > Pachinko

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
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bookshelves: best-of-2017, 2018, japan

I kicked off 2018 by reading some of the best of 2017. This was the last book of the project. Here are the selections; here's Digg's aggregate top ten list.

Pachinko is like gambling on pinball machines, so I don't know how that hasn't destroyed civilization yet, good lord.


Here's a cheesy browser game if you wanna get the general idea. You shoot the ball, it bangs around, things light up, you win or you don't.

So this makes an effective metaphor, if a pretty thudding and obvious one: "Life's going to keep pushing you around, but you have to keep playing," someone tells you toward the end, just in case you missed it. And that's pretty much the thing with this whole book: it's effective but a little dumb.

"Multigenerational family epic about people from a different culture" might not totally fire your jetpack but it does mine, I hear that phrase and I'm like sign me the fuck up, I get all excited. I don't know, why are you reading books? I'm trying to broaden my mind up in here. This one is about Koreans in Japan; did you know they were super discriminated against? I didn't! I'd never thought about it at all! What happened is Japan invaded Korea in 1910, and then they totally ruined the whole country, and some Koreans moved to Japan because at least there was food there, but they lived in shitty ghettos and Japanese people were dicks about it. Still sortof are.

Then after World War II the Allies split Korea in half: the Soviet Union got to do communism in the North and the United States got to do capitalism in the South, which I am literally a socialist and even I have to admit that the optics on that experiment are not great for my team. This part isn't really covered in the book though, I had to look it up myself. The book goes from 1910 to 1989 but it only alludes to the two-country thing.

Anyway some of the Koreans were Christians, too, I guess? And this is basically a Christian novel, which, like, it's fine, Min Jin Lee's not an asshole about it, but you know how that Christian stuff goes. They're always doing wack stuff like taking inspiration from Bible quotes or, like, finding grace. Barf.

And it's a little sloppily written. There are a few actual typos, someone just left a stray word kicking around - but worse, a lot of it is just clunky as hell. Here's a sentence: "'Bando-San,' a woman shouted. It was the radical beauty on campus, Akiko Fumeki." See what I mean? Punched in the face by exposition! That's some fan fiction-level shit there. And it skips a little weirdly, too - a chapter will start like "Following [someone's] death, life was different" or something, and you're like oh, I guess they're dead now? Glad you didn't get all maudlin about it but maybe you overcorrected?

The book is fine. I love that I learned new things. It kept me turning the pages; I was invested in the characters. It's a little dumb and obvious. If multigenerational family epics set in other cultures are your thing, read it; if they're not, don't.
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Reading Progress

December 2, 2017 – Shelved
December 2, 2017 – Shelved as: to-read
December 31, 2017 – Shelved as: best-of-2017
January 25, 2018 – Started Reading
February 1, 2018 – Finished Reading
February 12, 2018 – Shelved as: 2018
December 5, 2018 – Shelved as: japan

Comments Showing 1-27 of 27 (27 new)

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message 1: by Nadine (new)

Nadine Jones I can't decide if I want to read this one or not. It gets great reviews, but sweeping sagas aren't always my thing. You go first!

Alex I like a good sweeping saga...but elapsed time between my getting excited about a book and my reading it is, like, years, so this is going to be a slow race.

Alex Nadine! I went first! Three stars, it was fine.

message 4: by Nadine (new)

Nadine Jones Yes it appears you've won the race ;-). I may not even be a contender, your review is reinforcing my suspicion that this book is not for me.

message 5: by Cait (new) - added it

Cait Poytress I read on someone else's review that it was a bit... simplistic? I still think I'll read it, but it's not high on my list right now.

Alex Yeah, I probably saw that review too - I feel like I've seen that in a few places now. And yes, I agree with it. For both of y'all, Nadine & Cait, it sounds like it's in the right place on your lists.

message 7: by Janice (JG) (new) - added it

Janice (JG) Well sigh and damn. I was hoping for more excellence. Many Asian novels can seem simplistic because the language and culture are not emotionally or descriptively laden... maybe that's what's going on here? Anyway, it's dropped down in the stack. Btw Alex, a multigenerational about people from a different culture is the description of Independent People... have you read it yet? It seems just the thing to fire your jetpack.

message 8: by Janice (JG) (new) - added it

Janice (JG) Oh and... I used to play Pachinko like a crazy person (maybe it goes hand in hand). Loved those machines.

message 9: by William (new)

William "[She] was the radical beauty IN campus"?

message 10: by Alex (new) - rated it 3 stars

Alex Janice(JG) wrote: "Many Asian novels can seem simplistic because the language and culture are not emotionally or descriptively laden... maybe that's what's going on here?"

Good idea! And that's what I suspected at first, too - I haven't been able to define the peculiar feel of Asian novels as clearly as you have, but I'm aware, generally, of what you're referring to. But in the end it's deeper than that: the actual book is simplistic. The, like, the message, and the themes. The thought behind the book. That pachinko metaphor, again, for an example: it's just not a very deep metaphor. So goes the book.

message 11: by Alex (new) - rated it 3 stars

Alex William wrote: ""[She] was the radical beauty IN campus"?"

Shit no, that was my typo, sorry. Fixed it. Radical beauty ON campus. Although that's a good example of the sort of typo that actually does appear here and there in the book.

message 12: by Alex (new) - rated it 3 stars

Alex Janice(JG) wrote: "Oh and... I used to play Pachinko like a crazy person (maybe it goes hand in hand). Loved those machines."

Where...where did you find them? I totally want to play.

Now that I think about it, there's no way there aren't several pachinko parlors in NYC somewhere, and I'm not actually going to carve out time to go to any of them.

Monica I'm not quite as disciplined a reader as you. I get distracted. I am liking the book so far, but another novel came available from the library so... ;-) BTW haven't read your review yet because spoilers...

message 14: by Alex (new) - rated it 3 stars

Alex I have to stay disciplined because I'm not disciplined by nature; if I allow myself to get distracted, it's game over for me.

My review contains like zero information about the plot - as a review, it honestly does a terrible job, now that I think about it, which is frankly not unusual for my reviews - but I never read other peoples' reviews until I'm done anyway. I don't even want, like, qualitative spoilers, you know? People will be like "I thought it was boring" and then I'll think about that the whole time. Is this boring? Am I bored? It's distracting.

message 15: by Janice (JG) (new) - added it

Janice (JG) Alex wrote: "Janice(JG) wrote: "Oh and... I used to play Pachinko like a crazy person (maybe it goes hand in hand). Loved those machines."

Where...where did you find them? I totally want to play.

Now that I ..."

A friend of mine in Honolulu had his own machine, which I was allowed to borrow. I'm sure there were/are Pachinko parlors in Honolulu, but I never frequented those... I'm sure that would have been creepily addictive. My advice would be to stay far far away from them, whatever town.

Robin I really liked this book a lot more than you but I agree with you about the overt Christian themes. The theme of "curse" keeps coming up but I interpreted it as "if you do the deed outside marriage you screw future generations" such as Sunja, and her mom kind of beats her over the head with it. The other lady, Moses's girlfriend, has tragic kid after she steps out on her husband. But Hansu is wealthy and successful in spite being a man-whore, and admits he doesn't really love his children the way that Sunja does so I guess it only applies to women?

message 17: by Janice (JG) (new) - added it

Janice (JG) I read it and gave it 4 stars. I think this is a story that might be more appreciated, or understood, by women. The stories focus on daughters and wives and mothers, and how they find ways to survive emotionally as well as physically in often impossibly crushing circumstances... but there's no handwringing or petty melodrama, in fact there's barely even a sense of drama at all, because each character's story is just stated flatly, laid out in plain language... after which we just move on to the next character or next generation. This is a book of simple statements about how life is in extreme situations. Sunja is my favorite character, the word stoic doesn't even begin to describe her.

Casey Man I'm glad I'm not the only one who wasn't obsessed with this book. Although, now I'm pretty interested in reading a good nonfiction book about the Japanese colonization of Korea, so if you hear of one let me know!

Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship Hi Alex, I really enjoyed this review!

I took the "kids are screwed for life when mom screws somebody other than her husband" thing to be cultural really. Noa was doing just fine until he found out that Hansu was his father and decided to let this define his life. And Hana might've been fine if Etsuko's cheating had been handled differently - her husband beat her up in front of the kids, which was traumatizing for Hana, and then Etsuko felt she had to leave them because she was told she could never get custody without job skills and having cheated (never mind the domestic violence and that being a homemaker seems to have been the norm for her generation).

And then Hansu's kids seemed pretty messed up too. I mean really, handbags were the most important thing in their life? For all three of them? We never actually met them so who really knows what was going on there.

message 20: by Alex (new) - rated it 3 stars

Alex Hey there, new friend Emma! Excellent points! I mean, I like a good handbag as much as the next guy, so. I have a murse. It's got my stuff in it. The deep, dark secret is that if you actually give a man a handbag for a day he'll be like holy shit, how did I ever live without this. Look at all my stuff! I brought it!

Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship Hi new friend Alex! You may have just convinced me to "loan" my boyfriend a murse. Though I imagine when you're used to being unencumbered by dozens of random objects and still manage to survive somehow, carrying a bag everywhere might not be entirely appealing.

message 22: by Alex (new) - rated it 3 stars

Alex Dozens of random objects are the BEST.

Sara-elizabeth Cottrell If you think “this is basically a Christian novel,” I’m gonna go out on a limb that you have never read an actual Christian novel. I’m not the book’s biggest fan -I agree with others who thought it sunk after the first third- but I think the character Isak was the most faithfully written Christian character in a completely secular novel I have ever “met.” You mean there’s a character who is a Christian and isn’t an ignorant idiot falling all over himself to condemn and hate everyone who’s not like him? Must be “basically a Christian novel.”

message 24: by Alex (new) - rated it 3 stars

Alex Sara-elizabeth wrote: "You mean there’s a character who is a Christian and isn’t an ignorant idiot falling all over himself to condemn and hate everyone who’s not like him? Must be “basically a Christian novel.” "

Haha, yeah, pretty much!

Kristen Krip It was pretty light on the Christian themes. I saw a lot going on with racism and generational crises etc. Not Christian.

Kristen Krip Curses. Autocorrect

message 27: by Alex (new) - rated it 3 stars

Alex I thought it was....medium-strength or so on Christian stuff. I definitely noticed it.

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