by Min Jin Lee

Paperback, 2017

Call number




Grand Central Publishing (2017), Edition: Reprint, 512 pages


Following one Korean family through the generations, beginning in early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them all. Deserted by her lover, Sunja is saved when a young tubercular minister offers to marry and bring her to Japan. So begins a sweeping saga of an exceptional family in exile from its homeland and caught in the indifferent arc of history. Through desperate struggles and hard-won triumphs, its members are bound together by deep roots as they face enduring questions of faith, family, and identity.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Cariola
Life is hard for citizens of Japanese-occupied Korea in the midst of World War II: food is scarce, males are conscripted into the army or as slaves, young girls are promised jobs but end up as comfort women. Sunja manages to live a more comfortable life than most in her mother's boarding house. She
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remembers the strength and perseverance of her deceased father, Hoonie, who was born with both a club foot and a cleft palate yet managed to provide for and love his family and help his neighbors whenever he was able. At 16, Sunja is seduced by an older man, believing that he will marry her; but when she tells him that she is pregnant, her reveals that he has a wife and three children in Japan and offers instead to make her his paid mistress; she refuses. Fortunately, a handsome Korean Christian minister whose life was saved by the ministrations of Sunja and her mother takes her as his wife, and the two of them move to join his brother in Japan, where, surely, life will be better.

Thus begins a generational saga of the struggle of Korean immigrants to Japan. I admit to being ignorant of the longstanding prejudice and harsh treatment of Koreans there, which is in many ways comparable to what African Americans suffered here in the US. Children are bullied because for their ethnic features and traditions, families are forced to live in a ghetto where few can ever hope to own their home, job discrimination abounds, options are limited and cause stereotypes to persist, etc. Even as recently as the 1970s, Korean boys had to register with the government at the age of 14, after which it would be determined if they could stay in Japan or were going to be deported.

I was moved by the story of Sunja, her husband Isak, her sons Noa and Mozasu, her brother-in law and his wife, and the rest of their growing (and, sadly, diminishing) family. The women especially showed strength and ingenuity, always finding a way to survive, if not to get a tiny bit ahead. Secrets and lies inevitably lead to conflicts, as with any other family, and the ups and downs of these hardworking people made for fascinating reading. My interest began to drop off, however, with the youngest generation. The characters in the last third seemed less fully realized, and the section seemed to rush through to the ending--a rush that nevertheless, for this reader, seemed to drag.

If you are wondering about "pachinko," it's a kind of upright pinball game popular in Japan, often associated with gangsters because it is a form of gambling for prizes. Sunja's youngest son enters the business but does his best to stay honest. Every night, the owners rock and tilt the pachinko machines to throw them off a little from the day before--just enough to ensure that the players' chances of winning decrease. I'm sure the author intends it to be a metaphor for the way the Koreans in Japan held on to a little hope, although the odds were stacked against them.

Pachinko would have been a solid four-star read for me, if not higher, except that my interest really waned in the last third. Bringing the story into the 1980s and beyond apparently meant bringing in a lot of drugs, alcohol, and sex, which I found rather boring and off tone from the rest of the novel; I just didn't care much about the self-destructive younger characters, even though I know I was supposed to feel that the years of intergenerational oppression were what brought them to this point. Still, I learned a lot from this book, including some things that put the current hostility between Japan and North Korea into perspective.
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LibraryThing member jnwelch
“Living everyday in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage.”

“There was consolation: The people you loved, they were always there with you, she had learned. Sometimes, she could be in front of a train kiosk or the window of a bookstore, and she could
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feel Noa's small hand when he was a boy, and she would close her eyes and think of his sweet grassy smell and remember that he had always tried his best. At those moments, it was good to be alone to hold on to him.”

“In Seoul, people like me get called Japanese bastards, and in Japan, I'm just another dirty Korean no matter how much money I make or how nice I am. So what the f*ck?”

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee has gotten mixed reactions on LT, but I fall into the camp of those who greatly enjoyed it. It's a multi-generational story of a Korean family, beginning in the 1920s. In an afterword, the author explains that it was 30 years in the making, and that she scrapped it completely and started over in 2008 after interviewing many Koreans living in Japan and finding her first draft was off target.

I didn't know that Korea was occupied by Japan during WWII (my bad), or that Koreans historically have been looked down upon by many Japanese. (Amazing how prejudice can take so many different forms). This story begins with good-hearted but cleft-palated Hoonie, who normally would never get married because of his deformity, but does because of the dire economic times. His daughter Sunja grows up carefully watched over in their boarding house near the port city of Busan. When at age 15 she becomes coveted by Hansu, a sophisticated businessman, her life changes, and then changes once again when a Christian priest enters her life and the family moves to Osaka, Japan.

There are lovely moments and terrible ones, and many hardships overcome, often through family effort. Sunja proves hard-working and resilient, and her family the same. All the characters are skillfully drawn, and the writing is smooth - drafts of the book apparently were run by what seems like a cast of thousands, including early enthusiast Junot Diaz. If you're looking for a reading experience set in a different part of the world, with an interesting clash of cultures and memorable characters, this one fits the bill. Yes, like many long books, it could have been shorter without harming the story, but I'm one reader who says, so what.
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LibraryThing member 66usma
I usually enjoy family sagas and I felt this work maintained my interest. I learned a lot about the Koreans who migrated to Japan during the early 20th century and the ethnic biases they had to cope with within Japanese society. The book emphasized the strength, both mentally and physically, of
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Korean women developed in the book. Thought the book would have been improved without the inclusion of the Solomon/ Hana sexual relationship. Accordingly, rated this work lower than most reviewers.
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LibraryThing member gbill
If you want a plot-driven book that tells the story of a Korean family over many decades, this might be for you, but for my taste, it was a wasted opportunity. It’s a book that reads like a made for TV movie, focusing on melodrama like a soap opera, rather than offering interesting insights or
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any kind of depth. It began losing my respect the moment a character who had disappeared dramatically showed up again, and lost more when big plot moments were dropped on the reader in the laziest of ways, until the book spiraled over its final third, increasingly relying on sex as a crutch.

“Akiko adored rough sex, foreign books, and talking,” Lee writes breathlessly in one of her more banal attempts at character development. “…she sent Noriko off to a toruko where she would have to bathe and serve men in the nude until she was too old to work that job. Her tits and ass would last a half a dozen years at most in the hot water,” she blithely writes off another. After a reasonably good start, there were times I laughed out loud at the writing.

One of the big misses was that it didn’t really transport me back to the 1930-1950’s in the earlier portions of the book, in part because the dialogue is written in the vernacular of today, and in part because a lot of the historical context is barely touched upon. Overall, it’s just not that intelligent or inspired, and honestly, it felt like anyone could have written it.
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LibraryThing member Dianekeenoy
This was a wonderful saga. It reminded me of the book, Shogun which I read so many years ago, which immerses the reader so much into the story, it's difficult to pull yourself out. Pachinko is like that as well. Sunja is the daughter of Hoonie, her beloved father who dies young. Because he was
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disabled, she might never marry. When she becomes pregnant by a older Korean man from Japan, she is dismayed to find out that he is married. A young preacher is on his way to Japan when he becomes very sick while staying in her parents' boardinghouse. After he recovers, he marries Sunja and takes her with him to Japan.

The story spans from the early 1900s to the late 1980s. I didn't know anything about what happened when Japan annexed Korea. We learn about this through our characters as they work hard to earn a living and even when born in Japan (as Korean), they aren't welcome and or treated well. An excellent, well written book that I absolutely loved.
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LibraryThing member bragan
This family saga follows four generations of Koreans from Korea under Japanese occupation into Japan itself, where Koreans were treated first as second-class citizens of the Japanese Empire, and then, after WWII, as foreign nationals even if they'd been born in Japan.

It's long -- about 500 pages
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-- and rather rambly, dipping in and out of the lives of its characters as they experience grinding poverty, impressive success, love, shame, scandal, discrimination, identity issues, multiple tragedies, and the effects of the differing expectations their times and their culture place on men and women.

Shortly after I started this book, I described it to someone as "well-written"... and then, when I opened it back up and started reading again, I found myself questioning that. The prose, really, isn't especially beautiful. If anything, it has a hard-to-describe but perhaps slightly "off" quality that I associate with books in translation, although it was written in English. And the structure is perhaps a bit baggy, with a thread or two that don't really seem to go much of anywhere. And yet, it reads to me as if it's very well-written, if that makes any sense at all. There's a quality to both the writing and the characterization that just easily and effortlessly swept me along. By the end, possibly it was wearing a tiny bit thin, but in general, the novel really didn't feel nearly as long as it actually was. And I was entirely content to just live these people's lives along with them, wherever the author might decide to go with them.

It was also rather interesting to me because it involves places and cultures and bits of history I had only a superficial knowledge of going in, but also ended up saying things about the immigrant experience that felt very familiar to me as an American.
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LibraryThing member Karndog
The book started out strong, but just fizzled for me by the end. I like my books to have solid plots, with conflicts and turning points and resolutions. Interestingly, the book had this in the beginning. By the very nature of the families' early struggles to just survive, and WWII, you get plenty
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of narrative drive. But by the end of the book, as the characters have easier lives, there was not really enough conflict to hold my attention very well.
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LibraryThing member lauralkeet
This sweeping family saga tells the story of 4 generations of a Korean family, from 1910 to 1989. Hoonie was born with physical disabilities and marries Yangjin in an arranged marriage benefiting both families. Yangjin bore several children, but only her daughter Sunja survived. As a teenager,
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Sunja was seduced by Hansu, a prosperous businessman, and became pregnant, only to discover he was already married with three children of his own. Sunja rejected Hansu’s proposal that she continue to be his mistress and receive his financial support. A young clergyman, passing through Korea on his way to Japan, offered to marry Sunja and provide for her and her child. They left Korea for Japan, and lived with Isak’s brother and his wife. Sunja and Isak’s marriage was a happy one. In addition to Sunja’s first-born son, Noa, the couple had another son, Masuzo. Sunja and her sister-in-law developed a profitable business selling kimchi and sweets in their village. But the family also had a benefactor: Hansu, who eventually found Sunja and took a particular interest in Noa’s upbringing and education. Without Hansu’s intervention, the family would not have survived the World War II & Korean War periods, but his actions also had far-reaching consequences for Noa, Masuzo, and the generation that followed them.

Pachinko’s portrayal of Korean immigrants in Japan was very interesting. Subject to extreme prejudice, their employment opportunities were severely limited. They were unable to become Japanese citizens, but political events in Korea made it impossible for them to return home. Some Koreans were able to pass as Japanese and improve their socioeconomic status, but most lived out their lives within the Korean community in Japan.

The last third of the book extends the family saga one generation beyond Noa and Masuzo, and here, it tries to do too much. New characters are insufficiently developed. Major life events are dealt with far too hastily, and the characters respond in predictable, shallow ways. Min Jin Lee throws in everything but the kitchen sink to make it clear we are now in the 1980s -- drugs, prostitutes, AIDS, pop music stars -- and it’s all just too much. Pachinko was great when it focused on Sunja, her children, and her husband’s family, and would have been more powerful had the story remained centered on those central characters.
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LibraryThing member zmagic69
Overall a very well told story, sadly the last quarter of it does seem rushed, with some characters never finalized like Haruki and his wife.
The Japanese were never held accountable for all of the horrendous shit they did in the first half of the 20th century, and a large part of this book is
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centered around their behavior. Still the book is a fascinating glimpse into Koreans and their world view, as well as the Japanese and how the two live and interact in Japan and in the world.
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LibraryThing member novelcommentary
Like the owner of a Pachinko machine, manipulating the pins to control the fate of the pinball, Ms. Lee takes us for a wonderful ride through a part of history many have not known. In a podcast, I heard listened to her talk about her thankfulness that readers spent some 12 hours engaged in this
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private relationship that is reading a novel. But I would like to thank her for her 10 years of dedication to a story that spans generations and brings us such memorable characters. We begin In Buson, South Korea, where Yangjin runs a boarding house that is well known because of her cooking and cleanliness. Her husband had died three years ago so now just she and her daughter, Sunja , manage the place. A man shows up in the night, a pastor named Isak who has tuberculosis and must be separated from the others. From there the story unfolds, a story mostly about Sunja, who falls for a wealthy businessman without suspecting that he has a wife and family. A potentially ruined reputation is saved by the noble proposal of the handsome pastor, who has been nursed back to health. journey begins, from Korea to Osaka, from Isak's brother to Sunja's children, four generations that become intricately linked to a game that I never knew existed, and to a racism that is faced by Koreans living in Japan. The second half of the novel is like that pinball machine that takes us rapidly through the years in the lives of her two sons and their experiences.
I appreciate the author's research and her numerous observations that make this wonderful novel such a pleasure to read. Highly recommend.
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LibraryThing member laytonwoman3rd
Generational fiction about ethnic Koreans and their struggles as immigrants in Japan, where they were discriminated against throughout the 20th century (and possibly still are). I guess there's really nothing new or unique in the world. People are people, and Us vs. Them is just everywhere. As is
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fairly common with this type of novel, some characters and story lines get short shrift, and narrative tension is lacking in parts. I also found the author's voice a little too apparent as the omniscient narrator makes the same point over and over through different characters. A little more subtlety, a little more editing, and this could have been a five star read for me.
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LibraryThing member labfs39
In 1910 the Japanese occupied Korea, beginning a decades-long colonization that only ended at the conclusion of World War II. Throughout this time, as life in Korea became increasingly difficult and food scarcities more widespread, many Koreans emigrated to Japan to seek a better life, but for most
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Koreans, life in Japan was equally harsh, and the discrimination they faced was daunting. Even second- and third-generation Korean Japanese were denied citizenship and struggled to find acceptance. Pachinko parlors were one of the few places where Koreans could find jobs. Although gambling is illegal in Japan, pachinko parlors were, and remain, big businesses, often associated with the yakuza.

Pachinko begins in the early 1900s and ends in 1989, three generations later. The novel opens in Jeongda, an island off Busan, where Hoonie the fisherman is more concerned about feeding his family than the politics of colonization. His daughter, Sunja, meets a sophisticated Japanese-speaking businessman, and her innocent life is set on a new trajectory. She marries a Christian minister, who takes her to Osaka, where she and her family will live throughout the rest of the occupation period, World War II, and the Korean War. Buffeted by historical events, economic hardships, and discrimination, her children and grandchildren struggle to find success and happiness in a culture that never fully accepts them.

There was much about Pachinko that I loved. The author did years of historical research and interviews with Koreans living in Japan, and her efforts show. The plot touches on many of the events of the time without seeming forced, and the themes of assimilation, what it means to be successful, generational conflict, and being a minority Christian are handled deftly. The characters are well-developed and vivid, and I had no trouble keeping track of who was who, unlike in some family sagas. The tone was of quiet strength, exemplified by the women who held the family together. Some readers felt the last third of the book, dealing with the third generation of characters, was less interesting or engaging. I felt like it was a natural development, as the old mores gave way to foreign education and modern sensibilities. It may not have been as romantic, but it felt real.

My only quibble is that I found myself putting it down for long periods of time before picking it up again, but I think the fault lies with me not the book. If I had read it at a different time, perhaps I would have remained better engaged.
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LibraryThing member debann6354
Pachinko was a wonderful, informative history lesson regarding the Korean experience in Japan during through much of the 20th century. I was invested in the main characters, most significantly Sunja and Kyunghee. For me, and I will admit character development is my favorite part of novels, the
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secondary characters were not fleshed out enough. For example, Sunja's relationship with her husband was barely touched on. Toward the end Hana's story was given a lot of space and I was so not interested in her situation, that whole storyline seemed like it belonged in another novel. In spite of my previous statements I was always compelled to read on and sympathized with all the Koreans who had to endure such blatant discrimination while living in Japan.
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LibraryThing member MinDea
Wow. This book took me a little while to read, because it is a heavy story. It is filled with the history between Japan and Korea. How the Koreans lived and suffered when they were displaced to Japan. This family had such strength to survive in a world that kept pushing them down and really did not
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want them in their country. Each person found their own way to make money, survive the bullying and the hate, and to try to find peace within their family and the choices they have made. I would highly recommend this book.
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LibraryThing member brangwinn
One of my favorite books of 2017. This multigenerational story tells the plight of Koreans living in Japan, pre-World War II to the late 20th century. There’s so much depth in this story about a woman who had an illegitimate child in Korea, married an honorable man who accepts the child as his
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own and moves them to Japan. Not only are we introduced to Japanese mafia personalities, we see the extreme racism of the Japanese against Koreans, and how the only place Koreans could find success was in running the Pachinko halls. I was left cheering the strength of the Korean women, crying over the treatment of Koreans and amazement at the ability of the Koreans to accept what was happening to them, knowing that returning to Korea wasn’t an option for them.
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LibraryThing member janismack
I would have given this 5 stars but I was disappointed with the end. The story started off very strong and had me interested right away. I did not know much about the Korean-Japanese conflicts and learned quite a bit about both countries.
I would recommend this book.
LibraryThing member TracyRowanAuthor
I'm not a huge fan of the family novel, but the readers on Litsy were so unanimous in their love for this book, and because I had wanted to expand my reading this year, and mainly because I got it for $1.99 during one of those one-day sales on Amazon, I took the chance. I'm so happy I did.

The game
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of Pachinko is used as a metaphor for how we live our lives, taking gambles which sometimes pay off, and sometimes don't. It can be colorful and exciting, and it's certainly something about which many of us obsess. In this story, people gamble all the time, some are fortunate, like Sunja, who is rescued from infamy by a young man whose life she helped save. And in fact, as hard as Sunja's life has been, there have always been people there for her, there have always been opportunities, often unlooked for, like the random bounce of a Pachinko ball as it spins through its maze of pins.

Sunja and her family are Koreans living in Japan before, during, and after WWII. They are perennial outsiders in what is a highly insulated society, yet manage to make their way through hard work and determination. Some of her family slip away, some cling to life and make it work for them, and its not always who we might expect in either case. Some make their mark, looking past their social position to the status that success can bring.

Pachinko is very much about the expectations people have of themselves and of each other, and yes, it's very much about family. But for once I wasn't put off by the formulaic treatment inherent in a family story. Even the family members I didn't like I liked, if that makes any sense. And in the end, the story was satisfying which is all I really ask of a novel.
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LibraryThing member maryreinert
Pachinko is a pinball, video, gambling game popular in Japan but usually owned and run by Koreans. Pachinko is only the background of this beautiful, warm story of a Korean family beginning with an illiterate deformed peasant in the early 1900's living on an island off Korea. Sunja is a beloved
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only daughter who becomes pregnant by an older man. Sure to live a live of shame, a young Korean missionary marries her to save her from disgrace, but Isak feels called to move to Japan to be with his brother's family even though Koreans are treated shamfully in Japan.

This story follows the life of Sunja as she gives birth to another son, Mozasu, fathered by Isak who is a loving father to both boys. She becomes a young widow when Isak is imprisoned for his Christian beliefs and dies of brutal injuries. Isak's brother, Yoseb, is deeply responsible for his family including his brother's sons and sister-in-law, but times are hard and Sunja and sister-in-law, Kyunghee, find opportunities for income by selling food. Sunja becomes aware these opportunities are made possible by Hansu, the father of Noa, her first son. Hansu, a wealthy Korean, has made his money by being involved in organized crime.

World War II devastates Japan and the family as Yoseb is severely injured at Kagasaki. Noa, a brilliant studen,t is treated poorly at school because he is Korean, but again, thanks to the anonymous help of Hansu, manages to enroll in a highly-respected university while Mozasu becomes street smart and begins work in a Pachinko parlor, a business scorned by the Japanese and Koreans alike, but one that is very lucrative.

"Pachinko" is a family story which evolves in the midst of the cultural and political climate of Koreans in Japan. Koreans who have lived in Japan for generations are still required to register, they are unable to attain good jobs or proper housing, discrimination is deep. The last chapters of the novel take place in the 1980's. Solomon, Sunja's grandson, has graduated from Columbia University in America; he is a bright investment banker, but still deep, unacknowledged prejudices toward Koreans exist when he returns to Japan.

The game of Pachinko is an apt background for this story of individuals who are shaped and limited by their backgrounds but still are responsible for the choices they make in life. This is a story of family devotion and love, disappointment and separation, pride and shame.
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LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
This is a multi-generational story of a Korean family, from their modest farm on an island, through their move to Japan at the start of WWII and on into the 1980s. Min Jin Lee explores how Koreans living in Japan are treated, even after they have been their for generations and how it affects both
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them and Japanese society. Her descriptions of life in Japan during WWII were especially vivid. Sunja and Isaac move from Korea to Japan when he takes the post of a minister to a protestant Christian congregation, a difficult and dangerous position as any lack of conformity is considered treasonous. The struggles of the generations who came of age after the war do feel less weighty than those of their parents, but they still faced life in a country that was prejudiced against them and barred them from many kinds of employment, leading the family into the world of pachinko parlors, a world where the yakuza (Japanese gangsters) control many of the gambling dens and a world that isn't entirely respectable, although it is lucrative.

This was an interesting book to read. The author kept things moving and the history she recounted was largely unfamiliar. She was clearly writing for a western audience, and she took pains to explain historical events. My only complaint about the book is one that wouldn't be an issue for many readers; Lee keeps the secondary characters uncomplicated, and often the primary characters as well. They aren't complexly drawn. Admittedly, in a novel that has such a large cast of characters and which covers so much time, this is difficult to do.
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LibraryThing member shazjhb
Excellent. What a story.
LibraryThing member jmoncton
I loved this book! This is the story of a Korean family through several generations, starting just before WWII. The story starts in Korea, but quickly moves to Japan, where being Korean, they are treated as second class citizens. Like the title of the book, Pachinko is a story of how luck and fate
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change people's lives. From the shame of an out of wedlock pregnancy to starvation and poverty, this family endures a myriad of challenges. The characters are complex and well drawn and although this book is long, I was sad to see it end.

One of favorites for the year!
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LibraryThing member pdebolt
Pachinko is an utterly absorbing book from its onset. It encompasses the years 1910 to 1989, and is the saga of a Korean family that begins with Hoonie, a kind, caring man with a cleft palate and a twisted foot that marked him as different in his poor community. His arranged marriage to Yangjin was
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happy, and eventually produced one daughter, Sunja, after the heartbreak of numerous miscarriages. This book follows the life of Sunja after she is seduced and becomes pregnant by a married older man, and then goes on to marry a minister who treats her and her son with compassion and caring. They have a son, Mozasu, before the minister's cruel death for his beliefs at the hands of the Japanese. Sunja's descendants are followed for four generations as they navigate the difficulties of being ostracized by the Japanese and their attempts at assimilation. The history of the conflict between Korea and Japan is very compelling when viewed from the perspective of the ongoing effects on the family and their relationships. Min Jin Lee writes with a depth of understanding and respect for the characters in this novel that makes them memorable.
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LibraryThing member CheryleFisher
LibraryThing member tenamouse67
I won this in a GOODREADS giveaway - Pachinko by Min Jin Lee -- Don't let my comment stop you from reading this because there were several good stories within the book that interested me. This appeared to be written more like sectional memoirs (compare it to the CLOUD ATLAS movie) and left whole
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gaps. An interesting read but not a pleasing format, for me. I repeat, it has so much to tell. if you can step outside the writing style.
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LibraryThing member Krisbee
If I were only rating the first half of this book this would be a 5 Star review. This family saga starts off strong with a unique story that explores the issues facing a Korean family living in Japan. The characters are wonderful and the story heart wrenching - a real page turner until you reach
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the second half where the characters become one dimensional. The story changes its focus moving away from the engrossing family saga and into themes of needless debauchery. I gave up and skipped to the last chapter just to see if the ending was worth anything. It wasn’t. I should have quit half way through. Seriously disappointing after such a strong start.
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National Book Award (Finalist — Fiction — 2017)
Dublin Literary Award (Longlist — 2019)
The Morning News Tournament of Books (Quarterfinalist — 2018)
RUSA CODES Reading List (Shortlist — Historical Fiction — 2018)




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