On Books


“History has failed us, but no matter. At the turn of the century, an aging fisherman and his wife decided to take in lodgers for extra money…”

So begins the novel Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee, recommended to me by my friend Mary from the gym. I don’t see Mary often, and I know very little about her (including her last name), but whenever we see each other, our first question (both of us) is, “What are you reading?” or “What is that you’re reading?” Last time I saw her, she was leaving the gym as I was coming in, but as we passed one another, she uttered one word: “Pachinko.” I know Mary well enough to know not to ignore her recommendations, so I went and bought the book asap. And it’s incredible. All 480 pages of it.

Pachinko tells the story of four generations of a Korean family who end up, through a series of events, living in Japan. It begins in 1910 and ends in 1985 and is all kinds of things: compelling, heartbreaking, eye opening, tragic, moving, surprising…. In early May, I was in New York City for a week, and one night when it came time to curl up with my book, Pachinko was nowhere to be found. I looked everywhere. Under the bed, on every table…even in drawers I knew I hadn’t opened, let alone put a book into. It was driving me crazy. I called the front desk. Perhaps, I said, I left it in the gym that morning? I really couldn’t think of where else it could be. A half hour later, there was a knock on the door. A man from the hotel handed me my book. It was close to midnight. I tipped him. I think I might have even bowed to him. I was beyond relieved and grateful. Reminder: don’t leave your book at the gym or anywhere. It is torture when you go to pick up the thread of the story and it is nowhere to be found. Maddening! Particularly with a book this compelling. I highly recommend Pachinko.  

Another book that I just finished – very different from Pachinko – is How to Walk Away by Katherine Center. I’m not sure what prodded me to read this book, but I am so glad I did. It is written in a light, kind of chic-lit style – a little bit like Elin Hildebrand or Jennifer Wiener (whose books I love). I don’t dare tell you much about it for fear of spoiling the plot. But I will tell you that there is love, frustration, tragedy, family secrets, break-ups, reconciliations and a general theme of overcoming challenge. “There are all kinds of happy endings,” this book is here to say. Refreshing and touching, it moves right along. And the heroine is very lovable. Great for the beach, the pool or wherever you find yourself these days. Totally delightful. Don’t let it out of your sight. 

You Think It, I’ll Say It is another good read. Its author, Curtis Sittenfeld, has also written Prep, American Wife and Eligibleand I would recommend all of these books, except Eligible, which I didn’t like at all. It was one of the few books I actually didn’t even bother to finish. (Another book I didn’t finish was Wolf Hall, which I hated so much I threw in a recycling bin somewhere.) Eligible is a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice. And though I loved Pride and Prejudice, for me, this retelling didn’t work at all. It seemed the Pride and Prejudice influence limited and strangled the flow of the story, and it all felt much too contrived and lifeless. But hey, I don’t know…many others have enjoyed it, and it received good reviews, so, maybe, don’t listen to me. Anyway…You Think It, I’ll Say It is excellent. (And by the way, Prep and American Wife are also excellent, in my opinion.) You Think It, I’ll Say It is a collection of stories. They are engaging and sharp, and the author has a gift for good endings. Highly recommend.

Thinking back, another book I really didn’t like and didn’t/couldn’t finish was I Think I Love You, by Allison Pearson, about two women in love with David Cassidy. I think I was in love with David Cassidy too, back in the day, but I really didn’t like this book. I didn’t throw it in the trash though. I left it in a hotel room, with a bookmark somewhere around a third of the way through. (I tried.) Another book I disliked: The Historian, about a quest for the real story of Vlad the Impaler upon whom the legend of Dracula is based. Hated it. And The Name of the Rose. I really didn’t like that one, either. 

But why am I talking about books I didn’t like? I like and love so many more than I don’t like and love. And rarely do I give up on a book without finishing. Speaking of finishing (or not finishing), I am still listening to Anna Karenina. I think I have ten hours left (I have listened to about 26). This is a great book, and I know I’m not the first to say so.

Originally published in installments from 1873 to 1877 in a Russian periodical, this long novel has a complex plot, with many mini dramas and sub-plots, all woven together beautifully like a gorgeous, rich, complicated tapestry. I just got through an early morning grouse hunting scene, a portion of which is told from the perspective of the dog. And before that, there was great hope that Sergei was going to propose to the saintly, beautiful Varenka during a mushroom hunt. They managed to slip away from the group, and Varenka was pale with anticipation, certain that this man was finally going to utter the words she was longing with all her being to hear (and that her friend Kitty, happily married to Sergei’s brother, Levin, was also keeping her fingers crossed that they would be forthcoming).

But then, somehow, the words that came out of his mouth were not words of love but of mushrooms and fungi, surprising them both…and she knew and he knew that the moment had passed and would never come again, and out of the forest they walked…and Kitty could tell from the crestfallen look on her sweet friend’s face that it was a no go…and anyway, this is quite a tale. If you see me out driving in my car, you can be pretty sure that though my eyes are on Route 7, my mind is in St. Petersburg. Don’t honk.

The next book I want to listen to is Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, which my sister Sharmy and her son Noah tell me is stunningly well written. And do not miss David Sedaris’ Calypso, which is so funny and totally right on – one of his best so far. And though this is not a movie column, please go see RBG, about Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who is more of a superhero than you would ever guess. It’s at the Roxy. Excellent! Life-changing, really.  

Summer is almost officially upon us, and I hope you are enjoying these beautiful days and finding some good books of your own to dive into and explore. Please let me know if you turn up anything good!