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[745] Hotel On the Corner of Bitter and Sweet – Jamie Ford

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” Until he was twelve, he had been forbidden to speak English in his own home. His father had wanted him to grow up Chinese, the way he had done. Now everything was upside down. Yet the cadence of the words seemed to have more in common with that of the fisherman who came over from China than with the English Keiko and her family spoke so fluently. ” (122)

This is a heartfelt, sentimental novel that portrays two children separated during the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War Two. In 1940s Seattle, ethnicities do not mingle. Henry Lee, American born, is a 12-year-old son of Chinese immigrants. He meets his true love, Keiko Okabe, at the all-white elite school, which his staunchly nationalistic father enrolls him in. Despite the Sino-Japanese conflict, Henry and Keiko, the only Asian kids in school, are like a pair of gloves. Friendly at the mercy of schoolyard bullies, Henry quickly forges a forbidden bond to the nisei Keiko, who speaks no Japanese.

His father hated the Japanese. Not because they sank the USS Arizona—he hated them because they’d been bombing Chongqing, nonstop, for the last four years. (14)

Undoubtedly, Keiko lies at the heart of Henry’s subsequent struggles, with his Chinese-patriotic father, his racist classmates, and his suspicious and xenophobic country. Whereas there’s a war going against the innocent Japanese-Americans, there’s a silent war going on at home. Henry’s father stops speaking to him upon the discovery of possessions of Keiko’s family hidden in the drawer. As Keiko’s family is rounded up for relocation, the relationship between Henry and Keiko ends abruptly.

The novel alternates between 1986, just after the death of Henry’s wife, and the 1940s, just before Japantown is shut down. A chance discovery of items left behind by the Japanese in the basement of Panama Hotel i Seattle provokes Henry to share this story of Keiko with his son. The 12-year-old boy in the flashbacks is one without a bone of rebellion, but slowly transformed, as he learns to stand up for what he believes. He also scrapes an acquaintance with a black jazz musician, Sheldon, who becomes his moral support in reaching Keiko’s family at the camp.

The beauty of this book is the evocation of rich period details on the eves of war. Like Henry and Keiko, Sheldon is also socially marginalized, being a black man who lives from hand to mouth by perform on the street. These relationships and episodes of racial discrimination keep the pages turning. The only downside is that Henry’s voice always sounds like that of a grown man, not apropos of a child, even a precocious child who is caught in a time of historical strife.

300 pp. Ballantine Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Ali Smith

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I must have mistaken Ali Smith for another author who writes chick-lit. With much gratefulness for a friend who points me to her direction, I have been on a hunt for her books although luck hasn’t been on my side. The Scottish writer has a long roll of honors and merits. She has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize, and winner of Scottish Book Award, Clare Maclean Prize, and Whitbreak Book Award.

To say that Smith plans her writings conscientiously gives the impression that she might be an over-deliberate, uninspiring writer, but this is very far from the truth. The themes she chooses to write about are ambitious: love, particularly but not only, that between women, death, loss, guilt, grief, illness, time and the chasms of misunderstanding between couples or the generations, where affection can become lost in impatience and incomprehension. They are themes that most writers touch upon, yet she seems to see them in a new, fresh light.

I will begin my Ali Smith journey with The Accidental, the story of the Smart family and Amber, the strange girl who comes into their lives one hot summer holiday. Her mysterious tales force each member of the family to view themselves in a new light.

[744] Green Light – Lloyd C. Douglas

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” For so long had the name of Newell Paige been indisolubly associated with her mother’s tragic death that it had acquired, in Phyllis’s memory, a peculiarly sinister quality, symbolic of an inexcusable and irreparable disaster. She had never tried to visualize him. ” (XII, p.192)

Green Light begins with the stock market crash in 1929, on the eves of Great Depression. Newell Paige is a young surgeon who is to assist his venerable mentor, Dr. Endicott, in a kidney excision operation for a Mrs. Dexter, who has scraped an acquaintance with Paige that has ripened into a comradeship. When Endicott receives news of the stock market crash, he botches the operation, the patient dies, and Paige takes the blame for it rather than have his elderly mentor’s reputation sullied. To escape the ensuing publicity, he runs away, travels under a new persona, Nathan Parker, and finds himself in a hotel and later a mountain research station in Montana.

People collide with circumstances that push them off the commonly accepted moral reservation—and then they assume that they have lost their souls… (IV, 53)

Through the various people Paige (Parker) meets, he comes under the influence of the deeply spiritual Dean Harcourt, left permanently crippled by infantile paralysis, is knowledgeable of the various anxieties which bedevil the mind of the average citizen. He has also come to meet, inevitably, Mrs. Dexter’s daughter, Phyllis Dexter, who has alternately dreaded and desired to see him. The story is very simple, but heavy in authorial intrusion, propelling along with the multiple plots tethered together by Dean Harcourt and his philosophy. Although the characters are not fully developed, Douglas manages to put the troubles of Paige in perspective. It’s a good novel about how a man finds his redemption.

326 pp. Grosset & Dunlap. Hardcover 1st Ed. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[742] Remember Me Like This – Bret Anthony Johnston

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” It was what happened when you spend time near someone who’d suffered the way Laura had: You felt the stranger. You saw the void surrounding her, stranding and diminishing her, and you saw her seeing it, too. Undoubtedly, what everyone experienced around Laura was what she experienced around her poor, ruined son. You only saw the wounds. ” (Ch.21, p.246)

Remember Me Like This delves into the tension and complex dynamics of the Campbell family, which reunites with their son who has disappeared for four years. Despite Justin’s miraculous return, the family struggles to reacquaint itself with normalcy, tiptoeing around their son’s unexplained torments.

The book is very dense; but its beauty is in its complexity, in its characters’ endless search for truth behind Justin’s disappearance. The narrative, which begins with the reunification of the victim and his family, proceeds with multiple perspectives. While the Campbells are dazed with happiness upon his return, as time goes by, they realize no easy endings are coming. The return has become Laura and Eric’s worst nightmare because, of course, while their son was held in the abductor’s apartment, he has been, one can only assume, the victim of unspeakable violence. They are ravaged by the desire to know the truth and the fear of knowing. Justin is glad to be home, but he carries with him four years of damage: anger, abandonment and isolation. The Campbells abide the therapist’s order to avoid broaching about Justin’s captivity for fear of further traumatizing him. But the awkwardness and strained silence suggest that they are incapable of giving voice to their most lurid fears. They tread lightly, tiptoe gingerly, until their reticence erodes what joy they have managed to revive.

Johnston strives to hold back all the juicy details of Justin’s life with his captor that would place this book among the huge canon of thrillers. The closest to fulfilling one’s voyeuristic pleasure is when Justin confides in his brother at the spot where he was abducted. To his brother’s question that alludes to his “away-life” Justin says, “Is that a clever way of asking if he raped me?” In a way, Johnston, using his authorial silence, keeps his characters and reader at a narrative distance in order to keep Justin safe from all interior access. This induces a very powerful moral standard that rebuffs voyeuristic curiosity. Instead of inventing gruesome facts or conjuring a courtroom scene, he redirects the attention into a more private sphere, safe from public prying—the house and hearts of the victim’s family.

There’s Laura, whose fear and guilt have shut down her life. She and her husband have drifted apart. She desires to erase her identity as a mother by signing up to volunteer with her maiden name. Eric has an affair with his friend’s wife Tracy. Cecil the grandfather conceives his own plan to bring the abductor to justice. Griff, wallowed in guilt, believes his argument with his brother is the cause of Justin’s leaving. As their perspectives intertwine, Johnston’s characters are fully realized. All their mistakes, blind spots, and secrets become undone and raw.

Remember Me This Way is far from a mystery or thriller despite the buildup of tension. It is an uplifting portrait of a family in crisis, and how they struggle to overcome it by love and acceptance.

373 pp. Random House. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

A Different Abduction Tale

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Remember Me Like This caught my attention at the bookstore. For all of the novels that have been penned about dramatic kidnappings and abductions, few tell of what life is like after a loved one’s return. This is where Bret Anthony Johnston’s book begins.

“We don’t have a lot of narratives in our collective consciousness of people trying to be a family again, and that was really fascinating to me,” he tells NPR’s Arun Rath. “How do you relate to each other after the worst has happened? And because that book really didn’t exist, I had to write it to find out what it would be.”

The book follows the Campbell family in a small town in Texas as their son Justin is returned four years after his disappearance. Rather than focusing on the details of the abduction, Johnston tells the story of a family as they struggle to rebuild.

This is a book about being found. Though the reunion is a miracle, Justin’s homecoming exposes wounds that may never fully heal. This is a novel that explores complex family dynamics.

[741] The Color Purple – Alice Walker

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” But I don’t know how to fight. All I know how to do is stay alive. ” (18)

The Color Purple is an epistolary novel that begins in the early 1900s and ends in the mid-1940s. It’s the poignant story of Celie, a poor, barely literate Southern black woman who struggles to escape the brutality and degradation of her treatment by men. The tale is told primarily through her own letters, which, out of isolation and despair, Celie addresses to God.

Anyhow, I say, the God I been praying and writing to is a man. And act just like all the other mens I know. Trifling, forgitful, and lowdown. (193)

As a teenager, Celie is raped by her stepfather—even worse, she believes him to be her real father. She’s made to bear two children that are taken away from her. She is married off without her own consent to Albert, whom she only addresses as Mr. _____, who only uses her to raise his children and to do housework. By sacrificing her body to Albert without love and feeling, Celie saves her sister Nettie, whom Albert wants, making it possible for her to escape. Soon Nettie goes off to Africa to work as a Christian missionary. About halfway through the book, Celie’s sub-literate dialect letters to God become woven with letters from Nettie in Africa.

Ironically, Celie finds a friend and unlikely redeemer in Shug Avery, Albert’s blues singer-lover, who in defiance of what men expect of her, brazenly asserts her individuality. She is made the subject of sermon in church. Shug forces Albert to stop brutalizing Celie. She opens Celie’s eyes and encourages her to fight for herself. Shug’s pride, independence and appetite for living act as a catalyst for Celie and others and Sofia, whose rebellious spirit leads her not only to desert her overbearing husband but also to challenge the social order of the racist community in which she lives. It is also Shug with whom Celie first consummates a satisfying and reciprocally loving relationship. The most Shug does is free up Nettie’s letters, hidden away by Albert, thus granting poor Celie a tangible life and bringing about a shocking revelation of her family history.

I think it pisses God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don’t notice it. The thing about color is that you do have to notice it. It is the beauty of that that is lost in muddling through an endless string of hopeless days.

Without Celie’s knowing, for almost 30 years, Nettie has been writing her letters from west Africa. Mr. _____ has intercepted the letters and hides them. The girls in a male-dominated society don’t fare any better than those in America. They are not allowed to be educated in any matter other than what will transform them into good wives. Nettie, a lonely girl who has to struggle for her own life, is often looked down on and pitied. Her letters broaden and reinforce the theme of female oppression by describing the customs of the tribe that parallel some found in the American South.

What makes The Color Purple so powerful, besides the dialect folk voice, is the choice of narrative style which, without authorial intrusion, forces intimate identification with the heroine. Whereas the letters in the beginning give a knothole view of her hard life, as the book progresses, Celie grows in experience. Her observations become sharper and more informed; the letters take on authority. Her once awkward fumblings slowly transform into a more fluid cadence as she finds some quiet dignity in her life.

The book is a triumphant work that explores self-realization. It’s a poignant but inspiring tale of women’s struggle for equality, independence and dignity. Despite the loss and misery, it is tempered by hope. The story is caked with layers of discrimination and prejudice that surround us, in races and in gender. Different as the subjects are, they are the realities of out world. This book is an important work in the canon of American literature.

294 pp. Harcourt. Mass Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[740] The Blood Promise – Mark Pryor

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” Hugo, this whole thing is far-fetched. Every step of it has been insane, so try me. And how many times do I have to point out that life has taught me to be a little more open-minded than some people? ” (Ch.34, p.246)

(Hugo Marston Series #3) In The Blood Promise, Mark Pryor weaves a historical myth from 1795 France into a modern day murder mystery. Hugo Marston, the US Embassy Head of Security in Paris, is asked to escort US Senator (a prospective presidential candidate) Charles Lake, while he is in France to negotiate Guadeloupe’s petition to become part of the United States. The talks are arranged to take place in the country west of Paris, at the house of the Minister of Foreign and European Affairs, in Chateau Tourville. While at the chateau, Hugo becomes intrigued with an antique sailor’s chest. During his stay at the chateau, the senator believes he has been drugged, and vaguely recalls an intruder in his room at night. All talks are suspended when the senator demands an investigation into who was in his room.

The Bassin family is as old as the hills. And they’ve lived in that house for a couple of hundred years . . . I think that something dodgy happened toward the end of the 1700s. (Ch.32, p.229)

Hugo calls on his friend, Parisian cop Captaine Raul Garcia, to brush for fingerprint in the chateau. Among the many fingerprints found in the bedroom where the senator slept is one that ties into a robbery-murder in Troyes, a suburb of Paris. While the owner of the chateau refuses to cooperate in the investigation, Garcia and Marston interview the murdered victim’s son, Georges Bassin. They discover that an antique sailor’s chest was among the stolen items. Hugo suspects that secrets within the old chest are the linchpin to the murders. The evidence points to a close friend or member of the Tourville family. As the killing begins and the leads narrow, the evidence, surprising to all, is found in the chest that contains a 200-year-old secret that could imperil international politics.

When events do happen in this book, they happen with a bang and with a completely unexpected twist. Despite a slightly slow start, The Blood Promise has a devious plot, and one must pay careful attention to the story in order to fully appreciate the nuance and to ready for the twist when the secret is revealed.

286 pp. Seventh Street Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

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