Five great reads you may have missed (Part 2 in a series)

So many books are published each year that it’s impossible to keep up, even if you focus on only one type of book (e.g., literary fiction, short stories, crime novels, books by women). Add to that our busy lives and the many and constant distractions, and it’s easy to see how even passionate readers can miss a lot of good books. So, as my small contribution to solving this problem, over the next few weeks I’ve decided to publish a series of three posts in which I share some books that are worth your valuable reading time.


Pachinko

Pachinko

By Min Jin Lee

Grand Central Books 2017, 481 pages

If 2016-2017 is remembered for anything beyond the political nightmare we find ourselves in, it might be as the years Korean fiction – by both Koreans and Korean-Americans – reached critical mass and got a lot of attention. The Vegetarian by Han Kang won the 2016 Booker International Prize (though it was originally published in Korean in 2007, it wasn’t translated into English until 2015); Everything Belongs to Us by Yoojin Grace Wuertz, Shelter by Jung Yun, and How I Became a North Korean by Krys Lee have also received acclaim.

But the book that is likely to stand as the definitive “Korean” novel is Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, published last February. The story of one Korean family from 1910-1980, Pachinko harkens back to a more traditional storytelling than much of contemporary fiction, combining the melodramatic family saga and literary fiction. When Sunja, a young girl in a fishing village, finds herself pregnant and abandoned, she needs an escape to avoid shaming her family. A visiting minister offers her a chance to marry and move to Japan. Thus begins the story of ethnic Koreans living in Japan, where they are treated like second-class citizens (at best).

Pachinko is one of the most immersive reading experiences I’ve had in recent years and focuses on a theme that I always find compelling: the immigrant’s struggle to acculturate, with the attendant schizophrenia of the Old World and New World pulling you in different directions. This is particularly so when one’s appearance broadcasts that one is different. The cross-cultural tensions in Pachinko, combined with Lee’s smooth, controlled prose, held me in thrall. This was a time and place and experience I knew nothing about, and Lee was a riveting guide through the family’s lives in a rapidly-changing Japan (has any country changed more than Japan from the 1930s to the 1980s?). Pachinko is one of this year’s must-reads. And I suspect it will remain a must-read for many years to come.


The Pathless Sky

The Pathless Sky

By Chaitali Sen

Europa Editions 2015, 312 pages

Chaitali Sen has written a timeless novel of love and life in an authoritarian society. She has wisely chosen to leave the country and time unstated, making her story universal, and yet it feels so timely and specific that it can be said to accurately capture our zeitgeist. (In that sense, it is somewhat like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.)

While books that tread this territory can feel coolly unemotional, with characters often representing ideas, The Pathless Sky achieves an emotional intensity through its flesh-and-blood characters and the hypnotic quality of Sen’s prose. It is the story of John and Mariam, who meet while in college and spend the following years in and out of each other’s lives for reasons both personal and political (with an emphasis on the lower case “p”). John is studying geology, a powerful metaphorical contrast with the fickle nature of human efforts, particularly those of authoritarian governments.

The characters’ opposing natures and the random, inexplicable actions of the increasingly militaristic police state combine to test their relationship in a hundred different ways. We never stop rooting for their love to triumph because it can be all we have left in such circumstances, the human struggling against the machinations of tyranny. The Pathless Sky could well have been titled Love in a Time of Oppression (apologies to Garcia-Marquez).


Hour-of-Daydreams

The Hour of Daydreams

By Renee Macalino Rutledge

Forest Avenue Press 2017, 235 pages

One of the more promising developments in fiction over the last several years is the increased presence of Asian writers. These are voices telling us stories we need to know, both because it’s good fiction and because the fictional world should correspond to the actual world. After many years as a journalist and nonfiction book editor, Renee Macalino Rutledge has published her debut novel with the literary fiction independent press that recently brought us the powerful Landfall by Ellen Urbani.

The Hour of Daydreams is a “reimagined Filipino folktale” about a country doctor named Manolo whose marriage to Tala is disturbed by his belief that she has wings that allow her to fly up to the stars at night. Tala is indeed hiding a secret from Manolo and it’s creating a divide in their marriage and their conceptions of fact and fantasy. Macalino Rutledge weaves this magical tale through the voices of several characters, and the result is a hybrid of folktale and contemporary fiction, merging myth and modernity as it explores marriage, gender, and culture. I was not surprised to see that this book has been compared to the work of Isabel Allende; indeed, The Hour of Daydreams reminded me of The House of the Spirits, with its elegant prose-poetry, brooding sense of possibility, and Macalino Rutledge’s ability to cast a spell over the reader.


Heat and Light

Heat and Light

By Jennifer Haigh

Ecco 2016, 435 pages

Jennifer Haigh is one of our best writers, yet she’s not quite a household name. Her second novel, Baker Towers, introduced the town of Bakerton in northwest Pennsylvania, where coal is king, but in the years following WWII, an increasingly weakened and aging king. Through her subsequent novels, Haigh explored contemporary concerns with compassion and insight (the effect of a child’s rare disease on her family in 2009’s The Condition, clergy sexual abuse in 2011’s Faith). In 2013’s News from Heaven, she returned to Bakerton in a series of interconnected stories that brought readers up to date on the current lives of the locals.

With last year’s Heat and Light, Haigh has laid claim to this part of Pennsylvania in the same way William Faulkner did with the fictional Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi. This time, oil company reps have come to town to purchase the drilling rights beneath residents’ homes so the companies can search for natural gas through the latest method, fracking. Crews pour in from Texas, creating tension with the local folks. The impact of illegal immigration complicates matters further. Haigh explores the impact of this changing circumstance on a large cast of characters, including a prison guard, a nurse, a farmer, a pastor, and a visiting activist.

What makes Haigh stand out is her uncanny ability to inhabit so many characters so fully. They walk and talk like people we know or have encountered. And she makes us care about each and every one of them as they try to cope with a changing world that has turned everything upside down in Bakerton. In her review of Heat and Light in the New York Times, Janet Maslin compared Haigh’s concerns and style to those of Richard Ford, Richard Russo, and Richard Price. She certainly belongs in such esteemed company. If you read Heat and Light, be prepared to continue with Baker Towers and News from Heaven; before long, you’ll know as much about life in Bakerton as its residents do.


the-given-world-paperback

The Given World 

By Marian Palaia

Simon & Schuster 2015, 320 pages

The Given World takes us back to the height of the Vietnam War in 1968 to tell the story of Riley, a teenager whose older brother Mick is fighting in Vietnam. When he goes missing, Riley decides to go in search of him. Over the course of more than two decades, we follow Riley from her childhood in Montana to San Francisco, and ultimately to Vietnam.

Palaia tells the story out of chronological order, starting with Riley as a thirty-something woman in Saigon approximately 25 years ago. We are taken back and forth in time and in and out of characters’ lives, giving us a firsthand sense of Riley’s chaotic inner and outer life. The Given World is a powerful coming-of-age story, with a range of narrative voices that provide one gut punch after another, especially Riley’s tough-but-tender sections. This is a dark story, but enough bands of light cross it to give you hope that Riley will find her brother or at least herself. At the very least, she wants to know what happened to Mick. In a life of broken promises, abandonment, and addiction, she wants answers and closure for a change.

What really stands out in The Given World is Palaia’s ferocious writing. She dives deep into the characters’ psychic pain, and she conveys that in her vivid prose and well-chosen concrete details that capture Riley’s life in Montana and San Francisco. The Given World is a book of heartbreak and hope, a rough ride, and a satisfying read.

Chaitali Sen on Real Life Inspiration: Traces of My Grandmother

Chaitali Sen  The Pathless Sky

My grandmother was born in East Bengal, now Bangladesh, in a town named Dinajpur, around the year 1909, according to our calculations. She was married at thirteen to a man in his twenties – my grandfather, who outlived her by almost ten years. She had her first child at sixteen and all together gave birth to seven children, raising six to adulthood. She died in 1971 of heart failure, when I was a year old.

For most of my life, the things I knew about my grandmother were like this: numbers, data, isolated facts. None of the bits I collected from my mother or aunts ever came together to form a full picture, or more accurately, the feeling of grandmother that I craved. I don’t know if she was a warm or affectionate person, if she was reserved, gregarious, fond of being alone or in groups, or even if she was a good mother. My mother sometimes joked that by the time she was born, eighteen years after her eldest sister, my grandmother was already worn out. Seemingly, my aunts did their fair share of parenting, and it’s unclear how much time my mother and grandmother actually spent together.

Only one thing I’ve always heard about my grandmother gives me any idea of who she was. My mother often talks about her accomplishments and how intelligent she was. Without a formal education, she had no choice but to seek outlets for intellectual stimulation in the domestic sphere. She managed the complicated household finances of a large family, at one point in two countries while the family was split between Burma and India. She stayed on site day after day as a new house in Calcutta was being built, supervising its construction down to the mixing of the cement that would become the walls and floors of their new home. She was an accomplished cook who learned dishes from a variety of cuisines, and her intricate embroideries have been passed down to us on bedcovers and handkerchiefs.

Perhaps more surprising is that my grandmother became keenly interested in politics during the movement for India’s independence. She attended meetings with Subhas Chandra Bose, a Bengali nationalist who disagreed with a non-violent approach to the freedom struggle. He felt the British would only leave by force, and my grandmother believed in his cause so strongly she enlisted my two eldest aunts into the nascent Indian National Army that was forming in Burma. There are photos of my aunts in uniforms, looking formidable, holding bayonets. Bose was later killed in a plane crash, and after Independence, my grandmother satisfied her interest in politics by reading the newspaper every morning on the veranda. Over their cups of tea, she and my grandfather would sit and discuss world events, my grandmother reading the Bengali paper and my grandfather reading the English.

Then, well into her forties, my grandmother insisted on learning how to drive and tackled the chaos of Calcutta traffic to drop her children off at school every morning. My mother can furnish even more examples to make me imagine a woman who was always moving, always hungry, rarely satisfied with what she already knew. I wonder if she thought of herself as an intelligent woman, and if she’d ever had dreams of achieving things beyond her own household.

In my novel, The Pathless Sky, there is a scene in which one of my characters, a young woman named Mariam, is looking at a picture of her grandmother. Her mother is about to tell her something important about her grandfather, but momentarily, it is her grandmother who holds her interest.

She knew a fair bit about her grandmother, come to think of it, little things Mama had told her over the years. She knew her grandmother was very intelligent, through not highly educated. She was a lover of card games, and ruthlessly competitive at them. It was the only time she raised her voice, playing card games.

I was interested in how notions of women’s intelligence are passed down from one generation to another. Mariam is the first woman in her family to attend college, yet she underestimates her own intelligence, and like her mother and grandmother, her own education is unexpectedly stalled when her father becomes ill.  Despite their best efforts, Mariam is forced to continue a pattern of truncated education that has been repeated in her family through the ages. For her grandmother, and mine, marriage was the great disrupter. For Mariam’s mother, it was war and displacement, and for Mariam, illness and finances. The world over, women have channeled into alternative spheres their aspirations to learn and be thoughtful participants in society. It seems my grandmother was one of the lucky ones. She had people in her life who encouraged, or at least tolerated, her attempts at intellectual stimulation. The women in my novel develop similar coping mechanisms, sometimes hiding their intelligence, sometimes expressing it in unexpected ways, sometimes entrusting it to someone else.

Readers ask me if my characters are inspired by people I know.  In a way, of course, they all are. Not their exact blueprints, but their situations, their struggles, their survival skills can probably be found in someone I have known, or in the case of my grandmother, someone I have never known, who has only left traces. I gave Mariam a moment I have had in relation to my grandmother, the handing over of an inheritance not of heirlooms, but of precious information.

***

Chaitali Sen is the author of The Pathless Sky, published by Europa Editions in 2015. Born in India and raised in New York and Pennsylvania, she currently lives in Austin, Texas with her husband and stepson. Her short stories, reviews, and essays have appeared in New England Review, New Ohio Review, Colorado Review, The Aerogram, Los Angeles Review of Books, and other journals. She is a graduate of the Hunter College MFA program in Fiction.