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review 2018-03-15 17:29
Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee
Pachinko - Min Jin Lee

It took me almost four months to read Pachinko. As I read, I began wondering about my slow pace. My fall semesters are busier, yes, but I still manage to finish most books in what's a timely manner for me. It certainly wasn't because I found the book hard to read in terms of comprehension or engagement. As I got closer to the end, I realized: it was because I was so invested in the characters and storytelling I had to take time to process the intense feelings the novel evoked. There are also regular gaps in time that take place between chapters where characters' situations change significantly; I needed mental space before diving into the story again. I can't think of another novel that required this sort of reading from me.


In addition to Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh, Pachinko has served to establish that "family sagas" can engage me, or at least when another culture is involved. Through the family portrayed here, I learned more about Korea, but it never feels like a history lesson. Everything comes from the characters. The novel also provokes thought about national and racial identity.


There were moments I dreaded, as with the return of a less sympathetic character, though not in a way that made me dislike the novel or its author. There were moments that shocked me to the point of gasping. There are many scenes that easily and vividly come to mind when I recall my reading, which I finished more than a month ago.


I would love to teach this novel. I have the feeling I may reread it some day, regardless. For me, that's a rarity, a compliment, and a sign of deep gratitude. 

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review 2016-08-26 21:22
The Girls, Emma Cline
The Girls: A Novel - Emma Cline

A/N: I'm reposting this because I just realized when you save a draft and then post it later, it posts under the original date and time. #themoreyouknow


Guy had been less interesting to the media, just a man doing what men had always done, but the girls were made mythic.


Why have the Manson murders made such a cultural impact, from 1969 to the present? Why do they fascinate us in a country with so many murders (or so much interest in them) there are now entire TV channels dedicated to true crime? One possible explanation is that, along with other events, like Altamont, the murders signaled the ending of an extended summer of love and of the counterculture, or showed us their dark underbelly, what happens when love is too devoted and social justice motivations are twisted. Another possibility is the unforgettable, crazed face of Manson himself.


But really, it's the girls.


How could so many girls be held in such thrall as to murder on command? How could they kill a beautiful, young, pregnant starlet? Young women make familiar victims. When they become victimizers, it puzzles, shocks, and disturbs, as if rabbits suddenly turned into predators instead of prey. As the quote above mentions, a man killing is nothing new. A woman killing...unnatural, we think.


A strength of Emma Cline's The Girls is that, though the girls flock around the Manson-like figure of Russell, it's really the protagonist's relationship with one of them, Suzanne, that takes center stage. As she notes of her meetings with Russell, I was eager for our encounters, eager to cement my place among them, as if doing what Suzanne did was a way of being with her. 


First, what this book isn't. It isn't an omniscient picture of a Manson Family-like group or of the fictionalized murders, though certainly you get an idea of the former through the lens of the first-person narrator, Evie, who is a temporary fixture at their farm. Evie learns the details of the murders through the media, like everyone else, but we're only given snapshots, disturbing but not too graphic. If you want a play-by-play of the real thing with gory details, google it or read Helter Skelter. That's not this novel's focus or raison d'etre.


It's also not a sweeping portrait of America in the '60s. I've seen some readers complaining that there isn't enough of this or that, mostly the sorts of things we've come to associate with that period whether we lived at that time or not: counterculture, protests, hippies, Vietnam. Those things are mentioned, and Russell preaches love and the ills of money while getting it where he can via the girls, but the book's not a history lesson (also, many forget that the majority of Americans did not participate in the counterculture or oppose the war in Vietnam). Evie is a fourteen-year-old girl; she's not oblivious to larger goings-on, but they're not as important as her feelings and desires and her immediate situation and environment.


If anything, The Girls is a coming of age story. It's split between Evie as a grown, older woman in the present and as a teenager in 1969, with a focus on the latter. She's become a caregiver but seems isolated. A run-in with an old friend's son and his girlfriend dredges up the past and reminds her what it feels like to be paid attention to. Evie comes to realize little has changed when it comes to the dynamics of young men and women, and it's a lens through which she sees herself in the past (and vice versa, her experiences in the past shedding light on her present observations). Her friend's son knows she was a part of "that cult," and his and his girlfriend's questions prompt her to consider how and why she didn't become a murderer herself.


As a fourteen year-old, Evie's life is familiar: she has a best friend, divorced parents, longs for the attentions of her friend's older brother. A fight with her friend and a disintegrating relationship with her mother (whom Evie blames for the divorce, as so many girls blame their mothers and pardon their fathers) leads her to help one of the girls she'd seen from the farm when they encounter each other at a pharmacy. Evie is immediately drawn to Suzanne; it's the book's opening scene. Evie begins spending time at the farm with Suzanne and the others, mostly girls, and eventually is introduced to their charismatic leader, Russell.


What follows mirrors what most know of the Manson Family: drugs, sex, communal living, a man who knows how to play to girls' insecurities to get what he wants. Russell knows a man from a popular rock band and wants a record deal; Evie becomes a sort of gift or bribe in those efforts, which ultimately fall through and culminate in violence.


Evie knows only so much about the other girls and their backgrounds, including Suzanne. She herself is conscious of her cleanliness and nice neighborhood, where she spends less and less time (her mother thinks she's with her friend), and of the boarding school she's being sent to at summer's end. But she finds some measure of acceptance at the farm, and the feeling of belonging (and Suzanne's attention) is intoxicating.


I highlighted more passages in this book than in any other e-book I've read. Cline has so many smart and revealing observations about girlhood (or girl into womanhood), and her prose is sharp and unique. I wouldn't be surprised if she wrote poetry as well. In terms of her writing style, YMMV (your mileage may vary); I've seen some put off by it. I ate it up (in contrast, I couldn't even finish the sample for Fates and Furies the language was so cloying to me). It's isn't overwhelming or flowery, just consistently startling. If you read the opening, you'll immediately have an idea of the book's prose and tone and whether or not it appeals to you.


There's a reason the book's description references The Virgin Suicides. Like that novel, there appears to be a mystery in need of solving, but there are no pat answers. Instead of the boys' perspective, as in Suicides, we have that of a young girl who was there. The Girls is clear about how and why Evie became who she is instead of someone else, and it's a line as fine as a thread, which is the most disturbing of all. The question isn't "Why those girls?" It's "Why not me?"

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review 2015-01-23 16:27
The Orphan Master's Son, by Adam Johnson
The Orphan Master's Son - Adam Johnson

Wow. Where to start. This is certainly one of the best contemporary novels I've read in at least a decade. It's like nothing I've read before, or a unique amalgamation of genres I haven't seen combined. It begins very much in the vein of the Odyssey, except the protagonist, Jun Do, can't be said to literally be journeying home. Much of this book is about identity and storytelling. In that way, Jun Do (read: John Doe) is trying to get home, if home is one's sense of self and ability to determine one's fate. This book is also a love story and an adventure. All these things exist in the specific milieu of contemporary North Korea, the description of which leads us to wonder how one can have an identity separate from the state or create true intimacy with another person.


I had no idea how accurate or inaccurate Johnson's picture of North Korea might be as I read, but the novel was followed by a Q & A that revealed both his in-depth research and travels to North Korea. It also makes clear what is invented by the author and why, but clearly his portrait is not far from the truth. That's devastating.


There are changes in point-of-view in the second half (these pov's consist of Jun Do's, one of his torturer's, and the voice of the state); at first I balked, sad to seemingly lose Jun Do's voice. But the book just keeps flowering, and the structure increases tension and shows us what we can't see just from Jun Do's first person perspective. I was intrigued, charmed, saddened, and/or angered by all the characters and admire the way characters from earlier in the book are not forgotten. Everyone feels like a fully realized person.


Only a fraction of the way into the novel I wondered where else this book would take me; already Jun Do had been through much (mostly awful, though the book is not depressing and possesses humor and offers hope). You can't anticipate all that will happen; it's surprising and humane, and this is a story I'm guessing I won't forget.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2012-09-12 00:00
Gone Girl
Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn

To make an unavoidable pun Amy would love: amazing, really. Structure whore that I am, I loved the side-by-side chapters of Nick's account contrasted with "Amy's" diary, then the switcheroo in the middle. Some things I sensed coming, but most I didn't.


Though this may be categorized as a mystery, suspense, or thriller, it's my favorite thing: a novel more about the characters and their relationship(s) than anything else. Even though I've never been married, I recognized myself and others in all sorts of ways here (scary!). And even though Amy's a sociopath (I would argue, rather than a psychopath), her Cool Girl diatribe is right on; I highlighted the whole thing.So glad I didn't wait to read this any longer and before it could be spoiled for me!

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