Thursday, April 10, 2014

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Book: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
Author:Jamie Ford
Read: April 10, 2014
490  pages-includes author comments and reading guide
Rated: 4 out of 5

This is a story told in parrellel about the same person 45 years apart. A story of finding love, losing love, having a different love, and finding love again.

The Chinese and Japanese have had animosity towards each other. But this is a story about two individuals overcoming that animosity and finding love. But the route is not straight and full of obstacles, including time. 

The author interweaves  his story, going between the mid-1980's when Henry's wife has died and he is not sure of his relationship with his son. But the other half of Henry's story concerns him growing up in Seattle in a Chinese neighborhood, with a strict Chinese father, being sent to a white school. There he meets the only other Asian in the school, a Japanese girl named Keiko. As the relationship develops, he first faces disapproval and eventual being cut off from his father. Keiko and her family, eventually gets caught up in the Japanese internment of World War II. Here he loses track of the love of his life to gain a love which lasts a lifetime. Through understanding this story, Henry's son sees him through different eyes and creates a different kind of respect.

Ford introduces certain words at the beginning of the story, such as scholarship. Part of the fun of this book is to recognize how Ford weaves these words throughout the book. Going back and rereading the story with this in mind was worthwhile for me.

I am Chinese (or Japanese). What roll does national identity play in this book? In my life? That is a good question for me? To those born in America, they are Americans first. To Henry's father, he wants his son to be American, but not with all of the values of America. Such as the scandal of having a Japanese girlfriend. Ford works through some of these tensions through the life of Henry and his sone Marty. But there really is no definitive answer. Ford's skill is to weave the story so you see the tension.

Ford describes the ultimate parent-child communication gap. Parent wants child to speak only in English so they can become Americanized. But the parent speaks only Chinese. How did the parent expect him to talk with them? Eventually Henry lives with this gap, but probably never accepts it. That is what hurts him so with his relationship with his own son.

Some of the phrases Ford uses are a bit of a stretch, like he is trying to be clever, but the saying is forced. Such as when he initially describes Mrs Beatty, comparing her to a kennel dog which does not foul his own habitat, Ford says that Beatty does not eat her own cooking.

There is a description of Henry shaving Ethel's head when she has cancer. This is describes as part of the mechanics of dying. He compares this process of caring as being similar to gently crashing a jet into the side of a mountain. While the phrase is vivid, it does not have the power to carry me beyond the words.

A quarter to buy a piece of candy after the funeral, but Henry keeps it to remember his wife. To Henry, it was a promise of so etching better. What was that something better? Later Henry leaves the coin on top of Ethel's grave. This was the promise of happiness. How so?

In the chapter speaking American Henry thinks that his father does not like jazz because it is different. How much do we acquire our tastes by differences? In food, in culture, in people?  But there is something comforting about things we know, even dangers. If we tend to only the things we know, that gives a sense of security. If we go to differences, then lack "being home". We should learn how to tell apart what is good and bad based upon rightness, not on differences.

One thing which I was wondering about was what did Ethel, Henry's wife, think of Keiko? Was there jealousy? Was there competition? Or acceptance? Was Ethel complicit in keeping Keiko's letter's from Henry? Then when Henry was looking through the crates of the Japanese interment stuff, was Henry being unfaithful to his dead wife? What was Henry looking for? Lost love? A time in the past of happiness? One statement which stands out is that the more he realized what he'd known all along, Ethel would always approve of things that might make Henry happy.

Ford in telling of a white person, trying to make a deal with Henry's father to take land in Japantown. This is ok with Henry's father, but Henry as interpreter mixes up the message, on pupose, these men are speaking to each other. So there is no deal. Henry is expecting to feel some elation or a sense of victory for doing right. Instead, there is only a feeling of exhausted relief and guilt. This often is the result offing right. You feel like you could have done things differently, better, without a sense of wrong. This drains you.

In the chapter called Records, Ford shows he can turn a phrase or two. First, he says normal abnormal faces. Just strikes me as an interest use of opposites. Then he says that even pigs have standards. This is in contrast to the kids at Henry and Keiko's school who are piggish in their behavior.

It is very easy to take care of only your own, particularly if you do not like the person being threatened. That was the experience of Henry's family with the Japanese who were being rounded up. But how much different am I? Would I stick my neck out for someone else?

   You will need to read this book twice. Not because the plot is complicated. Nor because of large, archaic words. Not because the author is cloudy in his writing. But because on first reading you do not catch the nuances Ford uses. Such as the word scholarship. When Henry Lee's son comes in and talks about giving his father a scholarship to complete his school, he does not, nor does the reader understand complexity of emotions which this causes in Henry Lee. But once you read it, you understand.

This is a very readable book. What I got from reading the book was some of the flavor's of the Asian community as well as the concerns and prejudices of the times.

Even more than that, I enjoyed the flow of Ford's story telling. He speaks from his own family's background as well as the history of our own relocation camps of Japanese Americans during World War II. It is a story which as you read, it grows on you, you sort of hope he does not end it too soon.

I look forward his Ford's future writings.

Notes from my book group:
(I was not able to attend our book group's discussion)
What makes a person an American? Is it being born here? The values the person holds? What values? 

When a person emigrates to America, many times they want to become an American. How does Henry's family show this? In whatever ways do they not? How about the Okabe's?

Ford shows Henry still in love with Keiko after 40 years. Was he being unfaithful to Ethel? Even during there marriage?

After 9/11, what sentiments did we have? How did we react towards Muslims? Was there lessons learned from the WW II experience? In what ways did we accomplish the same things as during WW II? At what cost?

New Words:
  • sienna (124):

    Good Quotes:
    • First Line: Old Henry Lee stood transfixed by all the commotion at the Panama Hotel.
    • Last Line: "Ureshii desu", Henry said, softly.
    •  ... the sun was setting, burnt sienna flooding the horizon. It reminded him that time was short, but that beautiful endings could still be found at the end of cold dreary days.  124

      Barnes And Noble Reading Guide
    1. Father- son relationships are a crucial theme in the novel. Talk about some of these relationships and how they are shaped by culture and time. For example, how is the relationship between Henry and his father different from that between Henry and Marty? What accounts for the differences?
     2. Why doesn’t Henry’s father want him to speak Cantonese at home? How does this square with his desire to send Henry back to China for school? Isn’t he sending his son a mixed message? 
    3. If you were Henry, would you be able to forgive your father? Does Henry’s father deserve forgiveness? 
    4. From the beginning of the novel, Henry wears the “I am Chinese” button given to him by his father. What is the significance of this button and its message, and how does Henry’s understanding of that message change by the end of the novel? 
    5. Why does Henry provide an inaccurate translation when he serves as the go-between in the business negotiations between his father and Mr. Preston? Is he wrong to betray his father’s trust in this way? 
    6. The United States has been called a nation of immigrants. In what ways do the families of Keiko and Henry illustrate different aspects of the American immigrant experience? 
    7. What is the bond between Henry and Sheldon, and how is it strengthened by jazz music? 
    8. If a novel could have a soundtrack, this one would be jazz. What is it about this indigenous form of American music that makes it an especially appropriate choice? 
    9. Henry’s mother comes from a culture in which wives are subservient to their husbands. Given this background, do you think she could have done more to help Henry in his struggles against his father? Is her loyalty to her husband a betrayal of her son? 
    10. Compare Marty’s relationship with Samantha to Henry’s relationship with Keiko. What other examples can you find in the novel of love that is forbidden or that crosses boundaries of one kind or another? 
    11. What struggles did your own ancestors have as immigrants to America, and to what extent did they incorporate aspects of their cultural heritage into their new identities as Americans?
    12. Does Henry give up on Keiko too easily? What else could he have done to find her?
    13. What about Keiko? Why didn’t she make more of an effort to see Henry once she was released from the camp?
    14. Do you think Ethel might have known what was happening with Henry’s letters?
    15. The novel ends with Henry and Keiko meeting again after more than forty years. Jump ahead a year and imagine what has happened to them in that time. Is there any evidence in the novel for this outcome?
    16. What sacrifices do the characters make in pursuit of their dreams for themselves and for others? Do you think any characters sacrifice too much, or for the wrong reasons? Consider the sacrifices Mr. Okabe makes, for example, and those of Mr. Lee. Both fathers are acting for the sake of their children, yet the results are quite different. Why?
    17. Was the U.S. government right or wrong to “relocate” Japanese Americans and other citizens and residents who had emigrated from countries the U.S. was fighting in WWII? Was some kind of action necessary following Pearl Harbor? Could the government have done more to safeguard civil rights while protecting national security?
    18. Should the men and women of Japanese ancestry who were rounded up by the U.S. government during the war have protested more actively against the loss of their property and liberty? Remember that most were eager to demonstrate their loyalty to the United States. What would you have done in their place? What’s to prevent something like this from ever happening again?