A Book That is Set in a Period of History in Which You are Interested


Mary Jo

Pachinko book has been on many “best” lists from 2017, and it finally popped into my library’s ebook availability. After finishing the book, it’s easy to see why this family saga about the Korean diaspora, and the conflict between the people and culture of Japan and Korea, has garnered such laudatory recognition.

The book starts during the years of WWII, a very popular time period for books right now, and is set in Korean and Japan (and later, a brief setting in New York). We follow four generations of a Korean family who have fled, for various reasons, their homeland and are trying to create a new life for themselves in Japan. There is a bit of rags-to-riches toward the end (definitely more rags for most of the story), and a lot of conflict between cultural honor and survival.

I found the characters compelling – I really cared about what happened to them – and was willing to overlook a few story arcs that ended a bit too neatly (e.g., And then he died.) I cringed at man’s inhumanity frequently, raged at what I perceived to be antiquated cultural concepts that got in the way of progress and was saddened by the loss of familiarity. Several generations lost not only family, but their country.

The story runs from the WWII era, through the Korean War and the division of Korea, and tiptoes up to the Vietnam War. Along the way, the characters (and readers, too) confront issues of birth and death, grief and joy, loyalty, organized crime, sexuality, AIDS, religion, abject poverty, organized crime, and great riches. The labyrinth in the story is as addictive as those on a pachinko machine.

The ending was abrupt and left me unsatisfied. I don’t know if there’s a sequel opportunity there, but I feel like the story is not yet finished.

The book comes with a set of questions for book group discussions. Lots of thought-provoking topics. I’ll be recommending it to my book group.

I can’t seem to escape the lure of so many great books written around a WWII theme. This is another that I devoured and have recommended to many friends.

There’s no getting around the discomforting theme – the abhorrent medical experimentations in the Nazi concentration camps – and Lilac Girls is often difficult to read. Knowing that it is based on a true story makes it even more difficult.

Still, I’m glad that I kept at it, trying to find some redemption from an otherwise abysmal period of history. We are not doomed to repeating it.

Another book set in the WWII era, this time, however, focusing on the Manhattan Project.

Set in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which became known as Atomic City, The Atomic City Girls showcases the secrecy, isolation, and uncertainty of the work done in this city created by the government. It’s a viewpoint that I haven’t seen in novels before and was a look at what was being done “here at home” to further the war efforts.

This is the story of Russia during the era of the Tsars, told from the point of view of Empress Maria Feodorovna, wife of Nicholas II, mother of Alexander II, and mother-in-law of Empress Alexandra. I was a Soviet Studies major in college (yes, it was that long ago when it was still the Soviet Union) and this period of its history has always fascinated me.

The historical era is conveyed through the eyes of Maria, from her days as a young, but impoverished, Princess in Denmark through the exile and eventual assassination of Tsar Nicholas II (and family). It’s told as a novel but incorporates historical accuracy, and it rekindled my interest in this time period.

I visited St. Petersburg a few years ago, so I’ve been to the palaces and churches that are referenced. I visited the Tomb of the Tsars where all of the previous tsars are buried and where  a separate room is set up for the tombs of Tsar Nicholas II, Alexandra, and the royal family (although some bones have yet to be interred as a dispute over repatriation continues).

If you are fascinated by this period in history, and Russia’s place in history, you’ll enjoy this read. The author has written several other books in this same style, also dealing with historical characters, so I’m going to try one of her others books to see if it’s her writing that I found compelling or if it was merely the time frame.