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Archive for the ‘war’ 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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Tasting for Evil   Leave a comment

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History has already documented the atrocities of World War II at the hands of Adolf Hitler. In addition to the horror, his idiosyncrasies and his death are well detailed. Nonetheless, author V.S. Alexander has one more story to add to the fiction side of the scales: The Taster.

Magda Ritter is adrift in war-torn Berlin. With no job or romantic prospects, her parents send her to Berchtesgarten in the German Alps to escape the bombing – to ensure her safety. Their efforts succeed but not the way Magda imagined. She’s assigned to taste Hitler’s food to ensure it’s safe for him to eat.

Alexander describes the bucolic life at Hitler’s mountain retreat, the Berghof, where much of the novel is set. It’s a stark contrast to other parts of Germany. Initially, Magda is frightened by her responsibilities, but she soon realizes they are keeping her and her family alive. Still, she is repulsed by the knowledge that by tasting Hitler’s food she is keeping him safe.

The focus of Alexander’s narrative is Magda who falls in love with Captain Weber, a conspirator within the SS. The cook, other tasters and Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress, are among the interesting characters with whom Magda interacts. Feelings of mistrust, a constant cloud of fear and the blind devotion so many had toward the Fuhrer are well developed.

Alexander notes this is a work of fiction, and his research is chillingly thorough. Knowing Hitler’s death is imminent does little to dispel the thriller he creates.

The Taster
Four Bookmarks
Kensington Books, 2018
320 pages

Refugees, love and peace   Leave a comment

Exit West

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid is part parable and entirely too timely.

Hamid’s story follows Nadia and Saeed who meet in an unnamed war-torn country. She is distanced from her family because of her strong desire for personal independence. He lives with his devoutly religious parents. The two fall in love as the world around them crumbles.

Through a series of doors, which conjure images of Alice in Wonderland or Platform 9 ¾ in Harry Potter’s world, the couple escape from one refugee situation to another. The settings include the Greek island of Mykonos, London and Marin, California. They are different and in many ways similar to one another. Of course, the common factor is the large number seeking refuge from countries all over the world.

Although, the narrative is important because the question of immigrants/refugees/asylum seekers is something facing most Western countries, it is also heavy-handed. There is no doubt this is a serious issue with no easy steps toward resolution. Ultimately, the story is less about Saeed and Nadia. They’re simply the vehicle making the journey but the matter of what to do with the influx serves as the passenger.

Hamid’s writing is stark, yet evocative. There is a sense of fear and relief from one passage to the next. There’s a feeling of hope, initially for Saeed and Nadia, but eventually for something larger. Yet, something in the telling of the story falls short. Perhaps, because it’s somewhat fantastical, but mainly because the characters never truly come to life.

Exit West
3 Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2019
231 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

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

 

War and Fairy Tales   Leave a comment

With so many recent literary references to tigers it’s easy to think
The Tiger’s Wife has something to do with Asia. That’s not the
case with Tea Obreht’s lyrical, engaging debut novel. Instead, she
writes about fear, imagination, survival, and war’s shadow – on an-
other continent altogether.

The title’s namesake and the “deathless man” are told like fairytales
along with the narrator’s, Natalia, desire to know the circumstances
of her much-loved grandfather’s death. These tales also figure promi-
nently in how he lived his life; he was a doctor and survived an earlier
war. It’s his demise that propels Natalia, and even though death is a
constant throughout the book, it is not disheartening.

Natalia, too, is a young physician in a devasted eastern European
country, whose story begins with her memories of going to the zoo
with her grandfather: to see the tigers. Other animals are mentioned,
but the tigers drive their visits. As Natalia grows up, the threat of war
is never far removed, yet she is surprised at her cavalier attitude
toward it. Later, when she treats children orphaned by war, she still
never appears to believe it’s real.

Although, she’s preoccupied with her grandfather’s death, the more
she looks for understanding, the more she explains the myths he shar-
ed. There actually was a tiger and a young girl known as its wife in
the grandfather’s childhood village. By contrast, the deathless man
was known only to the grandfather, and Natalia clearly wants to know
more about both men.

Four Bookmarks
Random House, 2011
338 pages

Posted February 9, 2012 by bluepagespecial in Books, Reviews, Uncategorized

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