South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami

“For a long time, she held a special place in my heart. I kept this special place just for her, like a “Reserved” sign on a quiet corner table in a restaurant. Despite the fact that I was sure I’d never see her again.”

3/5 stars.
ebook, 224 pages
Read from November 26, 2020 to December 2, 2020

I just realised that I am four books shy of having read everything by Murakami (23 books according to his website). If that doesn’t show that he is my favourite author then I don’t know what does. No matter what book I pick up by Murakami, regardless of the plot, each book brings me back to the same feelings; comforting, welcoming, and familiar.

South of the Border and West of the Sun is a love story and while much of Murakami’s work have love stories in them it isn’t always the main focus. This one was an exception. Hajime is an only child and he’s a bit hung up on it as he feels that only children are different. During his childhood, he makes a friendship with a girl with a lame leg called Shimamoto. Shimamoto also happens to be an only child and the two of them find a friendship that carries them into adolescence as they spend their time listening to music and talking about the future. The two of them grew apart as they got older, as adolescent friendships often do. However, even when Hajime reaches middle age, is married with children, a successful business owner with a seemly ordinary and happy life, he cannot stop thinking about Shimamoto and what could have been. Shimamoto predictably reappears in his life, igniting a passion in Hajime that he can’t ignore and will risk everything for.

As a reader, Hajime’s obsession becomes your obsession as you anxiously anticipate what will happen when Hajime somehow reunites with Shimamoto. That doesn’t, however, make it any less heartbreaking when his wife finds out what he’s been doing.

“I think you still love me, but we can’t escape the fact that I’m not enough for you. I knew this was going to happen. So I’m not blaming you for falling in love with another woman. I’m not angry, either. I should be, but I’m not. I just feel pain. A lot of pain. I thought I could imagine how much this would hurt, but I was wrong.”

The book itself is a testament to the power of memory and nostalgia, as well as the risks and rewards of indulging in them. The story is also very much about childhood and the dissatisfaction that comes with becoming an adult and the endearing power of first love.

“…..the sad truth is that certain types of things can’t go backward. Once they start going forward, no matter what you do, they can’t go back the way they were. If even one little thing goes awry, then that’s how it will stay forever.”

This book, however, lacked the pull that most Murakami books have for me as perhaps it was too love-centred or that I was generally more interested in Shimamoto and her life and thoughts than Hajime’s perspective. I’m usually not bothered by the male-centeredness of most Murakami novels or the lack of real characteristics he gives his female characters as the protagonist’s story feels universally relatable to me. I’m not saying that this character wasn’t, I just found myself more interested in Shimamoto this time around.

It’s a safe book for first-time Murakami readers but it’s definitely not his best. The book itself is still very much a Murakami novel and I still found enjoyment in it.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

“Living everyday in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 496 pages.
Read from October 27, 2020 to November 6, 2020.

Another great recommendation that I can’t recall where I got it from. I think I stumbled upon it as historical fiction involving multigenerational stories are concepts I get excited about. It also helps that this book racked up a variety of literary awards in 2017/2018.

Pachinko, as I learned, is a popular type of gambling in Japan that started in the 1920s. The concept of the game is a mash up of a VLT and a pinball machine.

From left to right: a pre war pachinko game, 1970s pachinko machine, bottom photos are of the current modern machines.

Pachinko, in this novel, is a metaphor for the struggles of life, especially that of the Korean family in the story, and many others during is time under Japanese occupation.

“Life’s going to keep pushing you around, but you have to keep playing…”

The story begins in the 1900s with a teen named Sunja around the beginnings of the Japanese occupation detailing her poor but humble life at a fishing village in Korea. She is taken with an older stranger to the village named Hansu who fills her head with love and promises, however, when she falls pregnant he confesses to already having a family in Japan. Hansu is wealthy and does care about Sunja but Sunja is stunned by the betrayal and refuses any help from Hansu despite knowing the social rejection she will face being an unmarried mother. She instead decides to marry a kind, but sickly, minster named Baek Isak who knows her situation and takes her in regardless. Sunja leaves her home and follows her new husband to Japan. She gives birth to her first son Noa and to another son by Baek Isak named Mozasu. She lives with Baek Isak’s brother and sister-in-law in the Korean slums in Japan. While she finds a deep companionship with her sister-in-law, Japan is immensely unkind to Koreans and the conditions in which she lives are worse than they were in Korea. Sunja is stubborn and persistent and shakes conventional norms for the sake of keeping her family fed. Sunja’s sons struggle with acceptance as they are born and raised in Japan but their heritage makes them less than in the eyes of the Japanese. This struggle is particularly awful for Noa, who, is very academically astute, tended to hide is heritage. Mozasu is a much more practical child who grows up to take on a pachinko business, often viewed as dishonourable work. Despite Sunja’s rejection of Hansu, the decision comes to affect her whole life as well as her sons’, as Hansu isn’t so easily deterred.

Pachinko is a deeply moving story that encompasses so many themes and emotions. While the story embodies struggle, it’s very much about love, resilience, standing by your beliefs, and ambition. You become deeply invested in these sturdy and resilient characters as they endure hardship over nearly four generations.

“People are awful. Drink some beer.”

The book emphasises and focuses on strong and stubborn female characters with empathic and equally as strong male characters that compliment them in a compromising and highly patriarchal society. The story itself is very much focused on the characters and doesn’t discuss the nuances of the political situation in too much depth other than the depictions of suffering and persecution that this family endured. I think this approach has made this book accessible to readers who may not enjoy historical fiction. For me, it made me want to learn more about this tumultuous time for Korea as after the Japanese occupation is when the North and South of Korea parted ways, making for a very long and difficult era for Korea and its people.

Overall it was a wonderful and enrapturing read, despite it being a bit long, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in historical fiction, multigenerational sagas, immersive characters, or an interest in Korean and Japanese culture and relations.

Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui

“How nice it would be to die swimming toward the sun.” —Le Corbusier

4/5 stars.
ebook, 203 pages.
Read from July 5, 2020 to July 8, 2020.

I can’t remember how I found this book but I must have put it on hold at the library after reading about it somewhere. I was a competitive swimmer for the majority of my youth so I have always had a close connection with water, making this read a no-brainer. As a species, you could say that we’re really not meant to swim. We are in many ways, the least adapted to do it and yet we’re drawn to it and how it makes us feel. Whether its a pool, ocean or river, we are drawn to what the water gives us.

Bonnie Tsui is a swimmer and wanted to explore the deep connection that humans make with water. She talks to people from around their world with their unique experiences with swimming.  The author explores the science on what happens to our bodies in water and how some are capable of changing and adapting to its environment. The author visits Iceland to swim in its waters and to talk to a minor celebrity whose uniquely adapted body allowed him to survive in freezing water for more than 6 hours as he swam to safety after his fishing boat sank. He was the only one on the ship to survive. In Iceland, swimming is ingrained in every community as an important survival skill and beloved pastime. The author talks to renowned open water swimmers and Olympians, to those living in wartime Bagdad where swimming lessons occurred amidst the war, to Japan with its unique history of samurai swimming, all to explore the many ways that we find solace, danger, and challenge in water.

If you don’t swim or have an aversion to water, this book likely won’t speak to you. However, it may help you understand why many are drawn to water when you’re less inclined. For me, this book told me much of what I already felt and knew when it came to my experiences with water. It was wonderful to follow this author’s journey and feel her passion and get the science and history behind some of the unique aspects of our relationship with water.  This book is a subtle love letter to water, a thank-you, an expression of appreciation and an insight into our relationship with it. The writing is concise and really gives you a feel for the people that the author is interviewing as well as insights into her own passion and history with water creating a well-rounded and accessible non-fiction read.

If this book sounds at all intriguing to you, then I would highly recommend reading it. It’s short and sweet and made me look up a few further interesting facts and stories based on what the author discussed. Like samurai swimming, I just had to know what it looked like. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.