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.

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