Friday, February 26, 2010

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

By Jamie Ford

New York, Ballentine Books, 2009

Week 8 Fiction

Reviews of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet are all over the place. Some reviewers call it stunning; others say it is evocative; still others call it strained, and less perfect as literature. I guess I will have to go with the latter descriptions. However, we must remember that I have just read Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson, which is full of descriptive grandeur.

I read this slight novel on recommendation of another reader and thought it would be a good book to add to the church collection of books to go with Kalamazoo’s Reading Together program. And it is that. It is the story of the Japanese internment through the eyes of a 12-year-old Chinese boy, Henry, and his schoolmate, Keiko, who is Japanese. They live in Seattle and half the story takes place in 1942 when Keiko and her family are sent to an internment camp in Idaho. The other half takes place in 1986 with the discovery of thousands of items left by interned families in the basement of the Panama Hotel in Seattle.

The book goes from one time frame to the other, and the plot unfolds with the differences between the nostalgia that motivates the older Henry to dig through the artifacts in the hotel basement and the fear and adventure that motivates the young Henry and Keiko during World War II and the subsequent internment. There are many elements at play in the book—family loyalty, race and prejudice, bullying, jazz, and father-son relationships.

One feels the strain as the author tries to move his plot along while struggling with all these elements. As an example: Henry has a love of jazz as a 12-year-old which brings him into contact with some of the West Coast’s most prominent Black musicians. This is a delightful subplot and adds an element that binds the past to the present as well as binds Henry to Keiko. However, I felt that the importance made of a broken 78 rpm record was awkward and contrived.

Actually, a lot of the plot devices seemed contrived. I found myself struggling to hurry through the book, just so I could get it done for my Friday deadline. I did not find myself getting lost in the story. I do have to say that I am not a romantic at heart, but I thought the idea of a 12-year-old romance lasting a lifetime was a bit far-fetched.

I did have a bit of a reality check, however, when an acquaintance was telling me yesterday, that as the Japanese were being interned on the West Coast, Midwesterners were appalled and offered train fare and housing for Japanese families in Kalamazoo and other Midwestern cities. She said that her parents were involved in the movement to bring families to Kalamazoo.

Can I recommend this book? It was my least favorite of the dozen books I have read this winter. However, for people who are romantics, this is an interesting, albeit idealistic, look at the internment of the Japanese. It has some lovely moments, but I cannot recommend it as a profound look at the era. (Postscript to my writing: I have just been reading a bunch of blogs, and among blog writers, my opinion of this book is quite different from most of the writers. So, if you find yourself disagreeing with most of my reviews, you will probably love this book.)

Here is a link to Jamie Ford’s website and blog.

Here is a video of Jamie Ford discussing his book.

Here is Publisher’s Weekly review of the book from Feb. 2009. Seems to support my opinion. Probably why I like it.

Ford's strained debut concerns Henry Lee, a Chinese-American in Seattle who, in 1986, has just lost his wife to cancer. After Henry hears that the belongings of Japanese immigrants interned during WWII have been found in the basement of the Panama Hotel, the narrative shuttles between 1986 and the 1940s in a predictable story that chronicles the losses of old age and the bewilderment of youth. Henry recalls the difficulties of life in America during WWII, when he and his Japanese-American school friend, Keiko, wandered through wartime Seattle. Keiko and her family are later interned in a camp, and Henry, horrified by America's anti-Japanese hysteria, is further conflicted because of his Chinese father's anti-Japanese sentiment. Henry's adult life in 1986 is rather mechanically rendered, and Ford clumsily contrasts Henry's difficulty in communicating with his college-age son, Marty, with Henry's own alienation from his father, who was determined to Americanize him. The wartime persecution of Japanese immigrants is presented well, but the flatness of the narrative and Ford's reliance on numerous cultural cliches make for a disappointing read.

Three Cups of Tea and a word about reading aloud

By Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Reling

New York, Penguin Books, 2006

Week 8 Read Aloud

A few words about Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson. I read the book for the first time in 2008 and then read it again aloud with my husband. We heard Greg Mortenson speak in October of 2009 and read the book in anticipation of his speech. It took us much longer than we had anticipated, and we just finished it this week.

We enjoyed hearing him speak so much. The school gym at Gull Lake High School in Richland MI was packed…probably a couple of thousand people. That was as impressive as the speech itself. People are so hungry for inspiration; it was very clear to us that we were in the presence of humble greatness. He is not a powerful speaker but has a very powerful message.

Most of my readers will already have read this book and formed their own opinion about it and about Greg Mortenson, so I only want to make a comment about reading aloud. My husband and I began reading aloud to each other the year we were married (2000). I was reading a very funny book of essays, Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman, and he wanted to know what I was laughing about. I started reading the book to him, and it went from there. We have read books in nearly every genre, but we seem to do best with philosophical works or political works. We really enjoyed The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester and The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman, so you can see where we go with books. He reads one day and then I read the next. Because Thell hasn’t read much fiction in his life and because breakfast time (when we generally read) is often interrupted by breakfast meetings, grandchildren, and business calls, we seem to do better with books we can pick up easily. We began reading Super Freakonomics by Levitt and Dubner this week. Look for a review of it later.

Monday, February 22, 2010

An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness

By Kay Redfield Jamison
New York, Vintage Books, 1995
Week 8 Memoir
I sat down to read An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Manners on Saturday morning and finished it early Sunday afternoon. It was a quiet weekend, and the book was extremely well written. Kay Redfield Jamison is a professor at John Hopkins Medical School and the world’s leading expert in Bipolar disorder. She prefers to call it Manic Depression; she also speaks of madness, a term that people often object to. She has the unique opportunity to look at the disorder from the perspective of a trained expert but also from the perspective of a sufferer.

In this memoir, she lays bare her life for all the world to see and thus opens a window to those who study mental illness and those who suffer from it. In the fifteen years since she wrote this book, much progress has been made in the study of mood disorders, and her influence has been profound. She ends the book by saying that were she to choose her life’s course, she would not choose her unmedicated self, but because of her disorder, her life has been richer, more colorful, and more productive than the lives of many of the people that she knows.

It isn’t an easy read, but Jamison is an extremely good writer, and her writing skill makes the unbearable more bearable. She has written several books about creativity and the madness that often comes with giftedness. The reader can really relate to her amazing intelligence, creativity and zest for life as she fights to keep her life together. Her scientific training, combined with a literary gift, makes this book a poignant witness to the power of the human will.

As I was seeking another review to point readers to, it became abundantly clear that this memoir is seminal in the study of bipolar disorder as well as other mood disorders. Her name comes up again and again in discussions of other memoirs and books about mental illness. When she opened up her life for study, she enabled the discussion of mental illness to enter the mainstream—a huge comfort to people whose families have genetic histories that include mood disorders.

Other books she has written include:
Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament(1996)
Exuberance: The Passion for Life (2005)
Nothing was the Same (2009)
The first two are books about genius and mental illness; the last is a memoir of her marriage.

Although An Unquiet Mind probably will not be on everyone’s reading list, it is an intense look at what drives the human spirit.

Radio interview of Kay Redfield Jamison

Friday, February 19, 2010

The City of Falling Angels

John Berendt

New York, The Penguin Press, 2005

Week 7 Non-Fiction

This book had been stacked on my “books to read” pile for a couple of years. Not sure why I hadn’t read it before. I love Venice and I loved Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which is John Berendt’s other book.

The City of Falling Angels has a bit of everything—history, mystery, travel writing, and gossip,—much like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Basically Berendt uses the same format with similar results. The mystery is not so tawdry and compelling; instead of a murder there is the arson burning of the opera house, Le Fenice. The cast of characters is just as colorful; there are artists, poets, glassblowers, Mafiosi, and various and sundry American expatriots.

One of the more interesting aspects of the book is the history of the artists, writers, and musicians who spent time in Venice, including Henry James, Ezra Pound, John Singer Sargent, and Robert Browning. More than once, I wished to return to Venice and look up the palaces and cottages where these people lived. I plan to read The Aspern Papers by Henry James this weekend. James also wrote Wings of the Dove in Venice, Ezra Pound lived there in a small cottage with his mistress, Olga Rudge, for all of his declining years, and Robert Browning died there of a broken heart.

Berendt tells the story of the decline and death of Ezra Pound and the way in which Olga Rudge was bilked out of his papers through the machinations of the couple who managed the Guggenheim museum in Venice. An additional poignant story concerns the beautiful Palazzi Barbaro and the American family that lived there for over 100 years before they were forced to sell it because of the cost of upkeep. Other interest characters include the premier glassblowing family, a suicidal poet, and the inventor of a best-selling rat poison.

Of lesser interest is the story of the infighting within an American non-profit called Save Venice. Berendt tries to help the reader understand the nature of the idle rich party-going expatriates who make Venice their second home. He succeeds in conveying the infighting but fails to help us identify with them. And surprisingly, the narrative regarding the burning of the opera house, upon which Berendt hangs his story, is anti-climatic and relatively uninteresting.

I found myself Googling photos of palaces, churches, and individuals as they appeared in the book. Berendt really helps the culture of Venice come alive for the reader. One of my favorite passages concerns the reconstruction of the Maliban Theatre. As construction began, workers dug up one floor only to discover another floor beneath, and then layer after layer of flooring going all the way back to the sixth century.

The sum of the book comes in a speech made to the Board of Directors of the Save Venice foundation by one of its Venetian members. “To be Venetian and to know how to live in Venice is an art. It is our way of living, so different from the rest of the world. Venice is built not only of stone but of a very thin web of words, spoken and remembered, of stories and legends, of eye-witness accounts and hearsay. To work and operate in Venice means first of all to understand its differences and its fragile equilibrium. In Venice we move delicately and in silence. And with great subtlety. We are a very Byzantine people, and that is certainly not so easy to understand.”

I think as I am writing this review that I liked this book better in retrospect than I did as I was reading it. Although it was not a compelling read, I learned a lot, and it definitely made me want to read some Henry James and watch the movie version of The Wings of the Dove and rewatch The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Below is an interview with John Berendt regarding the writing of this book. In it he discusses his writing form, which he calls Narrative Nonfiction or Literary Nonfiction. It’s an interesting part of the interview.

Here is the review of the book in the New York Times:

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible

A.J. Jacobs
New York, Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 2007

Week 6 Religious and Spiritual

Not too many spiritual or religious books can be regarded as hilarious, but for the most part, this one is. A.J. Jacobs, or Jacob as his biblical alter-ego is named, set out to follow biblical precepts and laws for one year. His first couple of months were spent reading the Bible, listing rules and laws that he planned to follow and then read books about the Bible that helped him to understand why these rules and laws existed in the first place. And then he spent the rest of the year trying to keep the rules, journaling and expounding on the results. He wore biblical garments, grew his hair and beard long, and obsessed over the right way to greet the people (women particularly) that he met on a day to day basis.

A.J. tells us almost at the outset that he has obsessive-compulsive disorder, and that is obvious. Only someone with OCD could do the things that he has done and continues to do in his books. His first book was called The Know It All and concerned his year reading the Encyclopedia Britannica from cover to cover. In the book that has just come out, called The Guinea Pig Diaries, Jacobs immerses himself in a series of radical lifestyle experiments.

He calls himself Jewish in the same way that the Olive Garden is Italian. He believed himself to be an agnostic, but later, through the influence of a pastor (one of his advisers) he started calling himself a reverent agnostic. He found himself believing in the sacredness of life, in gratitude, and in openness to change.

One of the things that I particularly liked about his experiment is that A.J. had a group of advisers, who helped him understand the vagaries of the Bible, the somewhat arbitrary rules and laws, and the anxiety that comes from trying to follow some pretty weird stuff. He also sought out the people on the fringe, both Jewish and Christian, who have decided to follow certain precepts literally, people who eat bugs, people who handle snakes, and people who believe in biblical creationism, including the creators of the dinosaur/human museum in Kentucky. He journeys to Amish country, to Israel, and to Jerry Falwell’s ministry as well as groups of Christian evangelicals including groups of gay men in San Francisco and Hasidic Jews in New York.

That is what I liked about the book; Jacobs was fairly well rounded in his approach. His advisers helped him to find the most important followers and practitioners of certain rules and laws, so he never operated in a vacuum. Additionally, he really tried to understand the reasoning behind the rule, and why and how he would be able to follow it. The ones he found the hardest to follow are the ones we all have trouble with—coveting, gossiping, lying.

He gained the most ground personally in his ability to feel gratitude, to be thankful, and to value his life and the lives of those around him. "I'm now a reverent agnostic. Which isn't an oxymoron, I swear. I now believe that whether or not there's a God, there is such a thing as sacredness. Life is sacred." Even though he worked at making the book fun to read, he comes across as a genuine seeker, trying to understand what works and what doesn’t work for religion. He is respectful of people’s beliefs and doesn’t ridicule the followers of obscure rituals and laws. He remains a generous and thoughtful participant observer. The reader is left with nuanced insights into the impossibility of biblical literalism. If you are expecting Jacobs to have a revelation and become religious, that doesn’t happen. But, if you expect that such a year will provoke growth and new understanding, you will be pleasantly surprised as well as hugely amused. You will also learn some interesting information about the Bible.

The New York Times review says, “Jacobs begins the book by saying that if his new self met his old at a coffee shop they would think each other ‘delusional.’ I’m not sure he makes the case for that much of a transformation. But here and there, through some surprisingly poignant moments, he sees through to the other side, and he stumbles his way to a working definition of what it might mean to become a better person.” You can read the full review here:

A.J. admits at the outset that he had a book contract and a movie contract before he even began the project. He never makes excuses for what he does, and he acknowledges the ridiculous nature of some of the things that he does and some of the things he puts his family through. I would recommend this book. It’s a lot of fun—both religious and secular.

Here is Matt Lauer’s interview with A.J. Jacobs on the Today Show.

Monday, February 8, 2010

I Just Saw the movie Snow Falling on Cedars

A word or two about the movie, Snow Falling on Cedars (1999). As I read in a movie review website, the movie of Snow Falling on Cedars is all about atmosphere and cinematography. Because of that, the plot suffers a bit and is quite confusing. Of course, I had just read the book, so I knew what the flashbacks were referring to, but my husband was a bit confused.

Especially vague was why the two fishermen, upon whom the plot hinges, were seemingly angry with each other. The anger, vindictiveness and prejudice of Carl’s mother is never fully explored nor is the childhood friendship of Carl and Kazuo, which might have made their agreement over the disputed property more understandable.

Max Von Sydow is awesome as the defense attorney…his portrayal is very much like the character in the book, and he has the movie’s best line, “If I were that old, I’d be dead.” Ethan Hawke suffers appropriately, and Hatsue is charming and beautiful as is Susan Marie.

One thing that the movie does express beautifully is the dignity of the Japanese people, their sense of honor, and their love for family. The scene in the movie when the people are taken off the island is very poignant, with the men in the top coats and bowlers, and the women in their fur trimmed coats and high heels going off to an uncertain future.

Of course, like most movies, the book’s point has to be made obvious, and while justice was done, it wasn’t a happy ending for all concerned. The movie’s ending has more plot devices than the book does, and I rather liked that the book didn’t link Hatsue and Ishmael again. Ishmael did what was right and that should have been ending enough.

It is always hard to watch a movie based on a book you have read. I tried to watch this movie through my husband’s eyes. There were a lot of loose ends in the movie that were beautifully explained in the book. I think that the book’s portrayal of the war scene in which Ishmael loses his arm is amazing; the movie is very confusing and one is never sure quite what happened to him.

However, on moodiness and poignancy of setting, the movie can’t be beat.