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Archive for the ‘survival’ Tag

Fate and Chance   Leave a comment

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Admittedly, I knew nothing about pachinko before reading the book of the same name by Min Jin Lee. The first mention of the popular Japanese pinball-like game doesn’t surface until halfway through this epic novel spanning four generations.

It begins on a small Korean island in 1910 and progresses rapidly several years later following the birth of Sunja, the only daughter of a poor, disabled innkeeper and his wife. Times passes quickly; soon Sunja is a teenager helping her widowed mother run the inn: a glorified name for a shack with paying guests. Tension between Korea and Japan contributes to the dire economic straits.

Sunja discovers she is pregnant and her lover is married. The arrival of a young man, ill and en route to Japan to serve as a minister, changes the course of her life. They marry, move to Osaka and live with his brother and sister-in-law.

History converges with their story as war, famine and prejudice dictate their lives: Koreans are considered less than third-rate citizens.

The family’s ability to survive depends largely on an unknown benefactor, reminiscent of Great Expectations. Heartache ensues once the identity is revealed.

The novel is rich with characters reflecting both the intolerant attitudes of many Japanese and the cultural constraints of Koreans living on foreign soil.

This is a bulky, albeit well-paced, joyful and heart wrenching story with a historical perspective. The game is an apt title since much of life is left to chance while bouncing around from situation to situation.

Pachinko
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Grand Central Publishing, 2017
490 pages

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Family Ties   2 comments

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At first, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi seems more like a collection of short stories than a novel and that, along with the title, is part of its beauty.

Spanning more than 300 years, this is an epic tale of the evolution of a family. Each chapter focuses on a specific character and could be a stand-alone story. Fortunately,  a thread connects one to the other, even though there are some knots and loops along the way. These simply enhance the narrative. There is a chronology but not in the traditional sense.

In 18th century Ghana, Effia, the young beautiful daughter of a village chief is married to an Englishman, where she lives in a castle. She’s unaware that her half-sister, Esi, is imprisoned in the castle dungeon as a slave to be sold and sent to America.

The author traces, through the years, the lives of the sisters’ descendants  as they experience warfare among Ghanian tribes, plantation slavery, British colonization, the migration from Alabama to Harlem, and more.

Gyasi provides portraits of 14 distinct main characters and a supporting cast of dozens more. Each is nuanced through his or her experience, determination and environment. Almost equally important are the landscapes; the element of place shapes the individuals in ways that can’t be ignored. There are lush and harsh jungles, shorelines, cotton fields, inner-city Baltimore, Alabama coal mines and smoky jazz bars.

Survival and the strength of family ties resonate in every chapter as each character takes a turn in the spotlight.

Homegoing
Four Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2016
305 pages

From Russia With Art   1 comment

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Anthony Marra is the master of foreshadowing. At times he’s subtle, then he’s as obvious as an agitated teenager reeking of cigarettes claiming he doesn’t smoke. This was true of his first novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, and follows suit in his most recent: The Tsar of Love and Techno.

Marra has chosen a similar setting in Russia with another interesting cast of characters; however, he spans more time, beginning in 1937 continuing to present day. He expands the setting from Siberia to Leningrad/St. Petersburg to Chechnya: landscape is a crucial element.

The narrative begins with an artist in the propaganda department whose job is to erase enemies of the state whose images appear in paintings and photographs. He does this by blotting out faces with ink or by painting something new, which is often his dead brother’s face. It appears in a myriad of scenes representing various phases of his life: child, teenager, middle age and old age.

With each chapter comes a new narrator, in a different setting providing a singular element to the overall novel. The stories are a progression. It’s no spoiler alert to note that the pieces do eventually fit together (very well). Even if they didn’t, Marra’s writing is full of wit and pathos. The images of the pollution-wreaked mining community in Siberia are stark and frigid; just as a Chechnyan hillside is pastoral and warm. The men and women introduced by the author are so human their breath practically turns the pages.

The Tzar of Love and Techno
Four bookmarks
Hogarth, 2015
365 pages

Misplaced Loyalties   Leave a comment

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Even with plenty of objectionable characters and situations, it’s easy to empathize with the narrator, known only as the captain, in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer.

The captain is the sympathizer; he’s an undercover agent in Viet Nam just as the country falls to communist rule in 1975. Nguyen’s writing is of the step-on-the gas and honk-the horn variety. It’s thrilling, witty and poignant. It demands well-deserved attention.

The captain receives orders from his communist handlers to travel with a South Vietnamese general as part of his entourage to the United States. They’re among those on the last planes to leave the war-torn country. It’s in the captain’s nature to consider both sides and see the value and downsides in each. He is the son of a Vietnamese woman and a French Catholic priest. This and his western education make him an outcast. In Nguyen’s hands, the captain is kind, albeit sarcastic, and exceptionally intelligent. It’s not difficult to understand his situation.

It’s clear from the beginning that the captain has been caught. Most chapters begin addressed to the commandant and it eventually becomes clear that the captain is recounting the days that led to his capture. However, this is not before the captain’s loyalty to his friends, his love for his mother and a handful of questionable decisions and actions are detailed.

The aftermath of war, the stigma of not fitting in and the lengths people go through to survive are all addressed by Nguyen in this compelling narrative.

The Sympathizer
Four-and-half Bookmarks
Grove Press, 2015
367 pages

Survival Modes   4 comments

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I’m usually not drawn to apocalyptic novels, but Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven is so much more than a foreboding tale about a small group of people who  survive a pandemic. It’s also about getting through the trials of what we might consider the normal elements of life: existence before the disaster.  She blends the backstory of the half dozen characters she masterfully introduces with their lives following the devastation; and it works!

The story follows the characters whose lives shared parallel paths with Arthur Leander, a famous actor, and which orbit around the fall of society. Unrelated to the flu that kills most of the world’s population, Arthur dies of a heart attack.  Nonetheless, he remains a substantial character as viewed by those who knew him: one of his ex-wives, his best friend, a young girl who watches him die and the man who tries to save him. Another ex-wife and Arthur’s son have important, albeit tangential, roles.  Each character is connected to Arthur, although they don’t all intersect with one another.

St. John Mandel creates a bleak, but not black and white picture, which is often the case in similarly-themed novels. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road comes to mind as a portrayal of a dismal post-catastrophe world. Sure, there is plenty of anarchy and death in Station Eleven, but somehow they don’t overshadow the power of friendship, love and art.

The author deftly illustrates that fear and loss exist before and after the collapse of civilization – as does hope.

http://www.emilymandel.com/bio.html

Station Eleven
Five Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2014
352 pages

Befores and Afters   Leave a comment

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In her debut novel, An Untamed State, Roxane Gay serves up a brutal story about cruelty, survival and love. In the process she’s created haunting characters who don’t easily disappear from the mind’s eye — even days after putting down the book.

While vacationing in Haiti to visit her parents, Haitian American Mireille Duval Jamison is kidnapped just outside the gates of their well-heeled estate. Her husband, Michael, and young son are threatened, but it’s Miri the kidnappers want for the ransom she’s likely to bring. What they have no reason to expect is her father’s steadfast and misguided refusal to ante up. Nor can they have any clue regarding Miri’s tenacity to survive.

Gay tells the story in two sections. The first includes the kidnapping and Miri’s past: how her parents came to leave their island home only to return years later having led successful lives in the U.S., as well as how Miri and Michael fell in love. A particularly moving section recounts Miri’s care of her mother-in-law and the evolution of that relationship from tolerance to respect and even friendship. This plays a significant role in the novel’s second section which comes after Miri is released from her 13-day ordeal. There’s no need for a spoiler alert, since the beginning of the story reveals as much.

Gay doesn’t temper her descriptions of Haiti’s poverty or of the brutality inflicted by the captors. Miri’s pain, fatigue and even filth are tangible. So is her despair.

An Untamed State
Four Bookmarks
Black Cat, 2014
367 pages

Soviet Roulette   Leave a comment

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

 

Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vial Phenomena demonstrates that families are often created by need, proximity and shared experiences – sometimes more than bloodlines.

Marra writes of worn-torn Chechnya. More accurately, his story involves the newly-formed family of Akhmed, Havaa and Sonja, three genetically-unrelated characters whose lives intersect because of friendship, obligation and fate.

Moving back and forth between 1994 and 2004, Marra details the poverty and fear of those living in a small Chechen village. Eight-year-old Havaa is rescued by Akhmed, a long-time family friend, when the girl’s father is “disappeared” by military authorities.

Akhmed, a third-rate physician, takes the child to the city hospital 11 kilometers away. There, he convinces Sonja, a surgeon, in charge of the facility to keep Havaa. In exchange, Akhmed offers his medical services, which prove to be lacking.

The novel’s beauty is Marra’s writing. The people and landscape are bleak, and are vividly portrayed. Yet hope surfaces in spite of the harsh conditions. Havaa is optimistic about her father returning; Akhmed hopes he can keep the child safe; and Sonja needs to believe that her younger sister, Natasha, is still alive. Hope also makes cameo appearances when Marra foretells characters’ futures. At first this is done with incidental players, then minor ones and finally those about whom the reader cares most.

Trying to understand the historical context of Chechnya is confusing. Fortunately, Marra’s emphasis is on a handful of characters, each who do what it takes to survive while trying to remain true to themselves.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Four Bookmarks

Hogarth, 2013

384 pages