Friday, December 29, 2017

Two Books about remote cultures

Two excellent books that I read this week: Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak and Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. The contrasts between them are dramatic: they take place in two very different societies (Turkey and Japan); they are very different in narrative approach (one is a family saga lasting 70 years, the other occurs in one evening); and their characters have very different views of the world even considering the differences in the places they live. Both authors use food in very interesting ways to portray the characters and their exotic (to us) lives. As always, I concentrate on food though there are many other themes that could be highlighted.


Pachinko takes place mainly in Japan, with early episodes in Korea. It traces five generations of a Korean-Japanese family, along with family friends and connections, from 1910 to 1989. In some way, the book is a series of episodes, following a family from grinding poverty in early-twentieth century Korea to more poverty in wartime Japan to affluence in the post-war era.

As Koreans in Japan, the family members experience many aspects of being a highly disdained group without the right to become citizens. The children are bullied in school, while as adults eventually they suffer from a sense of shame and self-hatred or from direct discrimination. In the more recent generations of the family, the men seem fatally destined to earn a living by running or owning Pachinko parlors, despite their early promise as able to accomplish more. Above all, the reader is given insight into their humanity, their ability to do hard work, and for most of them, their determination to be someone despite prejudice against them.

Pachinko especially provides a detailed picture of the lives of women in the family. Their cooking skills are vital to the survival of the family in the worst situations, and the foods they cook and serve are an interesting background to the many complications of their lives. Here's a description from nearly the beginning, when the first generation of the family are working to run a boarding house for very poor fishermen and eke out a living:
"The lodging fees couldn’t go up, because the men were not making any more money, but she still had to feed them the same amount. So from shinbones, she made thick, milky broths and seasoned the garden vegetables for tasty side dishes; she stretched meals from millet and barley and the meager things they had in the larder when there was little money left at the end of the month. When there wasn’t much in the grain sack, she made savory pancakes from bean flour and water. The lodgers brought her fish they couldn’t sell in the market, so when there was an extra pail of crabs or mackerel, she preserved them with spices to supplement the scantier meals that were sure to come." (Kindle Locations 181-186).
And here, at almost the end, when the family are very wealthy, the women are still cooking, this time for a grandson's American girlfriend:
"When the frying pan was hot enough, Sunja poured a scant cup of the scallion pancake batter into it. She checked the edges and lowered the heat. Phoebe was lively and good for the boy, she thought. Her mother used to say a woman’s life was suffering, but that was the last thing she wanted for this sweet girl who had a quick, warm smile for everyone. If she didn’t cook, then so what? If she took good care of Solomon, then nothing else should matter, though she hoped that Phoebe wanted children." (Kindle Locations 6702-6706)
Pachinko is a very rich novel about the cultural and social history of Koreans in Japan in the twentieth century and how they were mistreated. The author's research, including interviews with Korean people in Japan, is very thorough as far as I can tell. Few people are aware of the details of this history -- I knew only the vaguest things about it. A very fascinating book!


Three Daughters of Eve takes place in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2016. The central character, Peri, is the dominating consciousness in the book; between the descriptions of what she does for a single evening in Istanbul are flashbacks to her childhood and to her time in Oxford, England, during 2000-2002. Elif Shafak uses food in a very interesting way, as she also did in earlier books that I've read. The entire narrative is framed by a dinner party and how the central character reacts to it. Details of each course of an elaborate and showy meal are listed, mostly at the beginning of each chapter. Example:
"The hors d’œuvres vanished amidst effusive compliments to the chef. Smoked aubergine purée, Circassian chicken with garlic and walnuts, artichoke with broad beans, stuffed courgette flowers, grilled octopus in lemon butter sauce. When she saw the latter, a shadow passed across Peri’s face. She had long stopped regarding octopus as food and pushed it away with her fork, gently. (Kindle Locations 2004-2007). 
The reason for her reaction to octopus comes out slowly as her memories take over: it's a subtle use of a literary motif. The author describes a number of Peri's fellow guests at this over-the-top meal, but names them only by their professions and accomplishments. Example:
"The desserts arrived, served on crystal plates: hazelnut-mousse cake with a chocolate-custard centre and an oven-baked quince with buffalo cream on top. The guests broke into a chorus, half of compliments, half of concern.  
"‘Ah, I must have put on two pounds tonight,’ said the PR woman, patting her belly." (Kindle Locations 2456-2458). 
The wealth of the dinner's host and the pretensions of the other guests in contrast to Peri's background are key themes of the novel. (A comparison with Mrs. Dalloway is tempting, but I'll resist.) The central character's inner thoughts during the dinner contrast these people to those she knew in her early life as a child of not-so-well-off parents. More important, we learn of her lost goals to gain an Oxford degree and her youthful aspirations be something consistent with this education. As the dinner progresses, we find out in detail about the events and relationships that brought her to this place. There's quite a bit of suspense and drama as the novel concludes -- but no spoilers here! I enjoyed reading another book by this accomplished and skillful author.

8 comments:

Judee Algazi said...

Mae,
I enjoy reading books from different cultures, especially Meditteranean cultures. The Three daughters sounds like a book I would enjoy. Thanks for sharing the reviews.

Tina said...

The food passages from Eve would make anyone hungry, so describe. I like a family saga and if you have food featured it sounds all the better to me. Also, what a beautiful cover for the book Pachinko. Sometimes it’s the eye candy, book cover, that leads me to pick it at a bookstore when I’m browsing.

bermudaonion said...

I want to read both of those books. Min Jin Lee is doing an event here that I hope to go to - hopefully I'll get Pachinko read before then.

Jackie Mc Guinness said...

I have both these books on my library wish list!
I am looking forward to reading them.

Deb in Hawaii said...

I have Pachinko sitting in my TBR pile and hope to get to it this year. I've also heard good things about Three Daughters of Eve. Thanks for pointing out the foodie aspects of both. ;-)

Happy New Year!

Mae Travels said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone -- I hope you get to read these books.

@Tina -- the cover is a picture of a Pachinko machine. They are fascinating and very beautiful, as well as (evidently) irresistible to gamblers!

best... mae

JoAnn said...

Pachinko was already on my wish list, but now Three Daughters of Eve is, too! Thank you for the reviews.

Beth F said...

I have both of these books staring at me from my TBR!