Thursday, August 20, 2009

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet - Jamie Ford (audio)


I will admit, in the world of book blogging, I am probably the last person to read this book. However, I'm at peace with the fact that I am always a good 6 months behind the trend. It gives the dust time to settle! I saw this audio sitting on the library shelves during an emergency visit, and I knew this was thrown into my path for a reason. It is my tenth and last book in my WWII Reading Challenge. Anything that I read now on that topic is icing on the cake!

Henry, a middle-aged Chinese American and a recent widow, is going about the business of grieving and reconnecting with his college-aged son. When the old Panama Hotel, boarded up since WWII, is re-opened, and a basement-full of forty-year-old Japanese effects are discovered, emotions resurface for Henry. With permission from the hotel's new owner, Henry digs through trunks of old pictures, wedding dresses, toys...evidence of lives interrupted...to find a sketch book and an old jazz record. This is what he had been searching for. They belonged to Keiko.

Henry begins to travel back in his mind to his youth in Seattle. WWII was in full swing. Henry's parents, originally from China, insisted that Henry go to an American school, and only speak English in their home. Sadly, Henry's parents only speak Cantonese, and thereby forces an irreversible distance between the generations. Henry's father's life revolves solely around the war, and his hatred for the Japanese. So when Henry meets Keiko, a Japanese American girl at his school, and finds friendship, an ally against prejudice, and a fellow lover of Jazz, life gets pretty complicated for a 12 year old.

Keiko and all other persons of Japanese heritage are eventually "relocated" to an internment camp, leaving behind their personal effects to be hidden in places like the Panama Hotel basement. Henry stays fiercely loyal to Keiko, visiting and writing to her, and later, pledging his love to her. Slowly, for reasons that are revealed later in the book, their letters start to dwindle, and Henry assumes Keiko has lost interest. He moves on. Until now, when the memories flood back and cause Henry to question...can some broken things ever really be fixed?

The title of the novel is perfect. The story is full of the bitter and the sweet. Bitter for the American prejudices held not only for the Japanese, but for anyone of Asian descent. Bitter for missed opportunities and lost love, for estranged sons and fathers, and the persecution of Japanese immigrants by our government. But the story is so heart-breakingly sweet too. The innocence of first love, the ability of children to find hope and joy, despite the obstacles, from great jazz music and the company of each other.

The novel is incredibly predictable. There was nothing in the story that surprised me. However, as the tale unraveled, I was relieved it went the direction it did. You desperately want the story to end well, so I was willing to let this particular annoyance slide by. It was also a highly emotional read. No tears on this end, but definitely anger. Anger at the bullish pride of Henry's father who is so determined to mold his son into an ideal, that he is blinded to the irreversible damage he has done. Anger at the injustices we wrought on those who were also Americans, but with different colored skin. It is unnerving to face the fact that the Nazis weren't the only ones doing wrong by others.

It was also a nice change to read about WWII from the perspective of an Asian immigrant. We hear so little about anything but the atrocities that occurred in Europe, and, assuming the author stayed true to his facts, is a learning experience for me.

4 out of 5 stars

14 comments:

Melody said...

I'm glad you enjoyed reading this book, Sandy! Don't you think the title fits well to the story?!

Beth F said...

You weren't the last person to read this because I haven't read it yet! I've been meaning to track it down. How was the audio? Nicely read?

Kaye said...

Wonderful review Sandy. I just loved the book. Have you read Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas? Another book told from a youthful prospective involving Japanese-American internment during the war.

farmlanebooks said...

I haven't read this one yet either. It is on the list, but I think it will be more than 6 months before I get round to it!

Andreea said...

I love the cover of this book and the story also sounds engaging! Thanks for your review and I am glad that you liked the book:)

Sandy Nawrot said...

Melody - It is a perfect title, very clever!

Beth - The audio was very easy to listen to. The narrator has a slight accent, adding to the overall essence of the story!

Kaye - I've not heart of Tallgrass but I'll write it down. The whole internment thing is so tragic...

Jackie - I'm not feeling so bad now! Back when the book came out, I felt like the whole blogging world was passing me by and I was missing out!

Andreea - the book is precious. Let me know what you think if you pick it up!

Nymeth said...

Nope, I am the last person :P I'm glad to hear you enjoyed it. I've heard lots of good things about this one, so it's on my radar.

Melissa - Shhh I'm Reading said...

Glad to hear you enjoyed this one. It was predictable, but I really liked it!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I didn't mind that it was predictable either. I still sobbed right on cue at the end! (that was predictable too!) :--)

Stephanie said...

I really enjoyed this book when I read it a few months ago.

Anna said...

Nope, you're not the last one. I still haven't read it, but I want to. I'll get this post on War Through the Generations soon.

--Anna
Diary of an Eccentric

Matt said...

This book has been in line but I cannot seem to find a copy. You know I've been on a binge of Asian-American history and literature lately. This would supplement the recent Shanghai Girls.

Gavin said...

You're not the last book blogger to read (or listen to) this book! I have it on hold at the library but it has yet to reach the top of my TBR list. Thanks for a great review.

Anna said...

We've posted your review on War Through the Generations.

--Anna
Diary of an Eccentric