Book Bag: “Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee; “Bodies of the Ancients” by Lydia Millet

Published: 2/9/2017 3:29:00 PM


By Min Jin Lee

Grand Central Publishing

Korean-American author Min Jin Lee won instant acclaim in 2007 with her debut novel, “Free Food For Millionaires,” a story about intergenerational cultural friction — a first generation Korean-American woman making her way in New York City — that became a bestseller and earned excellent reviews.

In her follow-up book, “Pachinko,” Lee examines a different Korean immigrant experience. Beginning in Japanese-occupied Korea in the early 20th century, the story follows the fortunes of a Korean family that immigrates to Japan before World War II, with succeeding generations trying to find their way in modern Japan.

Pachinko is the name of a type of popular pinball game in Japan, one that’s somewhat akin to slot machines in the United States. And working in pachinko parlors is one of the few areas in which Korean immigrants can make their mark: They face prejudice and restrictions that make it difficult to find work in many traditional fields.

The story begins in the early 1900s with an arranged marriage of a Korean couple; their daughter, Sunja, then becomes pregnant at 16 after falling in love with an older married man. Facing disgrace, Sunja is rescued by a young, ill minister, Isak, who marries her and takes her to Japan in the 1930s.

The story follows the couple and their children, as well as Isak’s family, also living in Japan, as they grapple with the destruction visited on Japan during World War II as well as the endless prejudice they face as ethnic Koreans. As one example, they must reapply for alien registration cards every three years.

Lee’s novel is both a portrait of Sunja, her children and her grandchildren and their lives and loves, as well as a broader study of what it means to be an immigrant — how to find one’s place and success in a new home, and what it means to be labeled a second-class citizen.

Lee, who lived in Tokyo between 2007-11, interviewed many Koreans about their lives in Japan, as well as some of the topics that crop up in “Pachinko”: international finance, colonial Christianity, gambling and Japanese real estate deals. In the end, her story offers both a portrait of individual lives and a detailed look at the Korean-Japanese community.

Min Jin Lee reads from “Pachinko” on Saturday at 4 p.m. at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley.



By Lydia Millet

Big Mouth Press/Small Beer Press

Boston-born novelist Lydia Millet has racked up some serious recognition for her adult books, including the 2003 PEN Center USA Award for Fiction for “My Happy Life” and a Pulitzer Prize nomination for her 2009 novel “Love in Infant Monkeys.”

In more recent years, Millet, now living in Arizona, has turned to Young Adult fiction. In an eco-fantasy trilogy known as the “Dissenters” series, three siblings — two teens and their younger brother — search for their shapeshifting mother, who has disappeared fighting evil forces that are worsening climate change to try and remake the planet to their liking.

The series, set in Cape Cod, is published by Small Beer Press of Easthampton.

In “The Bodies of the Ancients,” the trilogy’s final book, Cara and her older brother, Max, are momentarily relieved when their mother returns. But new trouble looms: the head evil creature, “The Cold One,” takes over a U.S. Navy submarine and threatens to use its nuclear missiles to destroy vents on the Atlantic floor that would release massive amounts of methane into the atmosphere.

Battling back are a host of fantastical creatures as well as the three siblings and their mother. Cara, the middle sister, has the ability to “summon,” or see distant places, while her younger brother, Jax, can control others, read minds, even enter the internet with his mind.

Along with their mother, the three siblings will have to use all their resources to win this final battle against climate change.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at

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