Review: The Scarlet Pimpernel by Emma Orczy

In the wake of the French Revolution, one man stands against the Terror and the bloodthirsty guillotine. He is known as… the Scarlet Pimpernel!! In this pulpy adventure-romance, Emma Orczy originates the trope of a hero with a secret identity.

The main character is not the Scarlet Pimpernel, but rather Lady Marguerite Blakeney, a clever Frenchwoman married to a handsome, wealthy, and stupid Englishman. When an old acquaintance blackmails her into joining his efforts against the Scarlet Pimpernel, she struggles between her personal good and the greater good.

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This book reads the way you might expect from the description. It’s chock full of action and adventure, the Scarlet Pimpernel maneuvering himself out of high-stakes situations at the last moment. Or, rather, he very often prepares his escape before he’s even trapped. Like in Sherlock Holmes, there are builds to elaborate reveals.

Unlike in Sherlock Holmes, though, these reveals can be fairly predictable. I was taken in by one or two of the Pimpernel’s tricks, but I was able to foresee the better part of the last third of the book. I enjoy figuring out a twist here and there, but in this case, some of the puzzles are just too easy.

Also, as you might expect from a novel with anti-Revolution tendencies, there is a hefty dose of classism with sides of sexism and racism. It’s such a light and frolicsome read that I couldn’t take the author’s biases too seriously, but if these things are likely to ruin your reading experience, steer clear.

Nonetheless, The Scarlet Pimpernel is a fun and swashbuckling sort of read. Like a modern-day action film, it’s meant more for a thrilling ride than anything else. I recommend it to anyone looking for a short book that goes down easy, especially if you’re trying to get into classics, but are intimidated by more complex works.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

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Review: The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

She was struck by the selfish thought that this was not fair to her. That she’d been in the middle of a different story, one that had nothing to do with this. …Stupid men and their stupid violence, tearing apart everything good that was ever built.

In the 1980s, Yale Tishman is weighed down by a tricky art acquisition for work, relationship problems, and the AIDS crisis striking down his community. In 2015, Fiona chases a shadow of a hope to Paris, where she searches for her estranged daughter. The connection between the two? Fiona’s brother, Nico, was a pillar of Chicago’s gay community and a good friend of Yale’s before dying of AIDS.

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The Great Believers is a twisty book. While its narrative is firmly entrenched within the perspectives of its two main characters, its cast is a large ensemble, sweeping across decades and tied together by all kinds of messy, strained, and complicated relationships.

And frankly, as I got further and further into the book, I got the distinct impression that it’s something someone my mom’s age would read for their book club. There’s the nostalgia for the youthful eighties in one thread, a relatable middle-aged woman of the present day in the other, and they’re tied together by the regrets and hardships in between. It’s a book that I, as a young person, struggled to read in the same way I struggled to read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (although that book is hard to read for multiple reasons).

The intricacy of the characters’ relationships combines with the reader’s initial unfamiliarity with said characters in such a way that the book ends up with a slow start. At the beginning, I had trouble mustering the curiosity to follow all of the petty intrigues that were happening. Fiona’s thread suffers from this more than Yale’s. However, as new facets of the characters reveal themselves, and as connections arise between past and present, the plot gradually becomes more engrossing.

By the end of the book, every new detail makes the tale more heart-wrenching. It makes me realize that it’s easy to forgive a slow start in a book if the ending is good. The ending here is an agonizing denouement, scratch upon scratch and bruise upon bruise. A blurb on the back of the book calls it “a healer and a heartbreaker,” but the healing is in catharsis and survival, the healing of a scar rather than a cure.

This book is meaty, emotional, and an excellent tribute to the gay community of 1980s Chicago. It’s also not really my type of book, although I did enjoy it overall. If you are looking for a book club book, though, The Great Believers is a solid fresh pick and a tearjerker without being wholly depressing.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

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Review: Everything Belongs to Us by Yoojin Grace Wuertz

You made a fool of us– what right do you have? Not everything is your plaything. Not everything belongs to you.

This novel takes places in the simmering political environment of South Korea in 1978, a year before the assassination of dictator Park Chung-hee. Its opening scene takes place at a factory workers’ protest, unarmed women facing a government crackdown. With this kind of setting, you might expect the plot to be political in nature.

It is and it isn’t. The central dilemma of Everything Belongs to Us concerns three students at Seoul National University, the country’s most prestigious school. Jisun is a poor little rich girl turned labor activist, the heiress of a chaebol, an elite, massive conglomerate with fingers in every pie. Namin, her foil, claws her way up from poverty, determined to succeed in life. Caught between the two of them is Sunam, a male student among thousands, neither rich nor poor, ambitious but lacking in drive. The politics here are personal, a microcosm of three different strata of society meeting.

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While their story is totally different from the book, Wuertz was inspired by her parents’ college years.

In short: everything belongs to Jisun, but she doesn’t want it. Namin has nothing and wants everything, but not if she has to eat it from Jisun’s hand. Sunam has something, but he’s opportunistic. He could always have more.

The entanglements of these three students, rather than resolving themselves, become nastier and more complex throughout the novel. Like so many tragic heroes, fate binds them ever stronger in its hold as they try to struggle against it. Rather than ending with a violent fall from grace, though, the story twists into an unsatisfying anticlimax that mirrors the protagonists’ dissatisfaction with their own lives. All of them get what they want in life, more or less, but with a tinge of bitterness to it. “Everything belongs to us,” claims the title, but what did they sacrifice to get it?

The types of these characters seem obvious, easily cast as leads in a drama. However, sometimes a character that can be painted in broad brushstrokes is exactly what a story needs. Simple on their own, they become fuller versions of themselves through the ways they interact with one another. The fact that they end up more or less where they began only makes it more intriguing.

The prose of this book is like a pinball machine, each sentence bouncing from the one before it. Sometimes the angle is expected, and other times it ricochets to a completely different direction. Wuertz has the chops to skillfully paint pictures with words, but she resists the temptation to over-describe. We learn just enough about the scene to set the tone before diving into the action.

The plot develops so quickly that saying much about the contents of the book would spoil it, so suffice it to say that I was seriously impressed with this book. It’s almost hard to believe that this is Wuertz’s debut novel. It makes you think more deeply about the meanings of words like money, love, and success. I recommend it to anyone looking for a fast-paced but thoughtful read steeped in interpersonal drama.

Rating: 5/5 stars.

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Review: The Cake Tree in the Ruins by Akiyuki Nosaka

I received a digital advance reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

There are many wars going on around the world, many children and families are suffering, but these hardly affect those of us living in peacetime and we become inured to the images of suffering that we see on TV. I feel strongly that people should be aware of the reality of war and why we should do everything in our power to avoid it—whether it affects us directly or not. That is why stories like the ones in this collection are so important.

— Ginny Tapley Takemori, translator

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Akiyuki Nosaka is best known as the author of “Grave of the Fireflies,” an award-winning short story that was adapted to film by Studio Ghibli, becoming one of the most critically acclaimed animated films of all time. The stories in this collection are diverse, but like “Grave of the Fireflies,” they also concern the tragedies of World War II, particularly as seen through the eyes of children and animals. This short story collection is an expansion on the 2015 English-language publication of The Whale that Fell in Love with a Submarine. It includes five additional stories not included in the original English publication, making a total of twelve.

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Nosaka presents war as a calamity that inevitably strikes innocents who cannot fully understand it or be complicit in its violence. The personification of animals, child-oriented tone, and elements of magical realism throughout the book give the stories a fairy-tale feeling that contrasts with their dark subject matter.

Content below the cut contains spoilers.

Continue reading “Review: The Cake Tree in the Ruins by Akiyuki Nosaka”

Review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

A few weeks ago, I picked up Pachinko alongside its fellow National Book Award finalist, Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. Sing, Unburied, Sing took home the prize last year, but Pachinko has won my heart.

Is that too cheesy?

The novel follows the history of a Korean-Japanese immigrant family. It begins in Busan, Korea in 1910 and ends in Yokohama, a main port city of Japan neighboring Tokyo, in 1989. With the narration in omniscient third person, many characters, major and minor, contribute their voices to the telling of this story. The sprawling network of characters has a nucleus in Sunja, who is not so much a main character as a central one. It is her unexpected teenage pregnancy that serves as the catalyst for the events of the book, and as she weathers the storms of life, she slowly transforms from a wide-eyed girl to an elderly matriarch of many sacrifices.

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The variety of perspectives reflects the research that Lee conducted while preparing it, which included interviews with numerous Korean-Japanese people. She has also expressed her desire to tell the stories of “minor” players in history, such as minorities, women, and the working class, and so the ensemble cast includes all of these. About her narration, Lee has said, “above all, I wanted the narrator to be sympathetic to every character’s plight.” This even-handedness lends the book an interesting realism when it comes to the thoughts and feelings of the characters — after all, everyone can justify their actions within the safety of their own minds, no matter how unreasonable those actions may seem to other people.

A major thread that runs through the narrative is Christianity: the characters’ relationship to it or lack thereof. Sunja’s husband, Isak, is a Presbyterian minister, and their marriage contains parallels to the book of Hosea. When the imperial Japanese government cracks down on Christianity, there are nods to the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Although Isak is an exemplar of Christian love, faith, and humility, other characters have more complicated religious viewpoints and struggle with the idea of God. Sunja, for example, wonders whether she will see her father in heaven and feels attached to the ancestral traditions of her upbringing.

The male characters of the family line, Yoseb, Noa, Mozasu, and Solomon, each have their own burdens to bear, and even having biblical names can be a struggle in a country where they are extremely uncommon. There is a push and pull in how each character lives up to, runs away from, or simply ignores his name. These names are badges of both their Christian upbringings and their foreignness, and some of the characters wish to break away from both of those things. The politics in a name are even more evident as each Korean is required to take on a legal Japanese name. As the younger generations become more and more Japanese, they more often choose to pass as native Japanese to avoid discrimination, although their legal statuses remain as foreigners. Outside of the context of the book, Korean-Japanese people are still not considered full Japanese citizens today.

The game that gives the book its name, pachinko, does not come into play until midway through the book, when Mozasu gets a job at a pachinko parlor. Pachinko is a type of pinball/slot-machine game that sidesteps Japan’s anti-gambling laws by offering prizes that can be exchanged for cash. Historically, it has been affiliated with yakuza, or Japanese organized crime. It’s also one of the only industries where early Korean immigrants could get a leg in, owing to widespread discrimination.

While pachinko plays a role in the livelihood of Sunja’s family, it also serves as an extended metaphor for life itself, and particularly the chances taken by immigrant families as they build their lives in new countries. Some of the Korean characters work in pachinko, but none of them play it. Instead, they play the game of life. This connection becomes explicit in the story of one of my favorite characters, Etsuko: “[She] had failed in this important way—she had not taught her children to hope, to believe in the perhaps-absurd possibility that they might win. Pachinko was a foolish game, but life was not.”

Being a family history, Pachinko necessarily reflects on parenthood and on connection and disconnection between generations. The plot flows so gradually through time that changes in technology and cultural norms can catch the reader by surprise, and characters that once seemed full of life transform into two-dimensional cutouts in the eyes of their descendants. The effect is to follow a trajectory opposite of most novels — in the end, when their adventures are over, some of the characters seem less than they were in the beginning, even when we know that they must be more. Most novels, of course, don’t follow characters past the end of their own stories, and in stopping there, they leave them frozen in states of self-realization in the mind of the reader. Not so in Pachinko nor in life — the waters of time must flow onward.

The characters of Pachinko struggle to bridge the generational gap between parents and children. Parents wonder why their children don’t respect the sacrifices they have made for them, and children run relentlessly toward the future, determined to blaze their own paths. Heartbreakingly, it is the mothers who often suffer the most in these situations: Yangjin, Sunja, and Etsuko all experience some kind of abandonment from their children. “A woman’s lot is to suffer,” they repeat time and time again. The tragedy of their familial discord is a powerful reminder to love and respect the parental figures in your life.

Pachinko is a complex and lovingly crafted novel that clocks in at nearly five hundred pages long. Min Jin Lee clearly put in the work to make it as historically accurate as possible, and the details buoy the story, giving life to the various settings while refraining from over-exposition. It has the fire and pluck of an adventure novel, the emotional tension of a family drama, and the scope of an epic. I recommend it to anyone looking to get invested in a book with substance. This is a truly great modern novel.

Rating: 5/5 stars.

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