Friday, June 24, 2011

Book #50: My Dad's Pick

“His jacket caught and tore on the barbed wire and his hands gently framed her waist, his fingers feeling the soaked sweater. He was leaning in, his forehead pressed against the cold metal wire; if there was something sharp there, he didn’t feel it. All he felt was Keiko’s cheek, wet from the rain, as she leaned in too.”
                                                                 -Jamie Ford, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

A few weeks ago, my dad recommended a book to me, Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. It’s the first novel that my father’s ever recommended to me – in a reversal of our usual ritual. Until now, I’ve been the one to suggest books to him. When he retired a few years back, he turned to me – his bookish, English professor daughter – for a reading list. What a delight that three years later, I find myself no longer a burnt-out prof and my dad has become such an avid reader that he’s telling me what to read.

Like many of my favourite historical novels, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet alternates between past and present plotlines. The novel opens with 56-year-old Henry Lee standing on the steps of the Panama Hotel, a boarded-up hotel located at the threshold of Seattle’s Chinatown and what was once Japantown, before World War Two. After recently purchasing the hotel, the new owner has discovered in the basement a storehouse of treasured possessions that were hidden by Japanese-American families during the war – their attempt to salvage something of the past, before being dispossessed and dragged off to internment camps in remote areas of Idaho and California. But more than simply ghosts of history, these recovered objects hold deeply personal memories for Henry, triggering him to remember his childhood sweetheart, Keiko Okabe, a young Japanese-American girl whom he’s never gotten over, even after they lost touch when she was interned. Bittersweet regret and melancholy thoughts about what might have been linger on in Henry’s imagination, taking him on an emotional odyssey into the past. Although I don’t usually gravitate to sentimental novels, this one is so compelling that I found myself feeling perfectly justified in indulging in a good cry toward the end. Maybe I’m not so highbrow after all….

Perhaps I was also feeling emotional because the novel has a personal meaning for me. The depictions of camp life in Minidoka, Idaho were particularly fascinating, since I know my grandmother was interned there. “There were no trees or grass or flowers anywhere, and barely any shrubs,” Ford writes. “Just a living, breathing landscape of tar-paper barracks spotting the dry desert terrain.” Here is a photo of my grandmother raking mud at the camp (she’s three in from the right).... My dad sent me this photo a while ago, after he discovered it online, and I blogged about my initial reactions here. But now, after reading this novel, I find my thoughts straying to the question of my grandmother’s love life…. What guy was she dreaming about as she raked, that little smile playing on her lips, the murmurings of her heart a thousand miles away?

Photos from: here and here

Thursday, June 16, 2011

My New Book Cover

A couple months ago, my publisher asked me if I'd had any dreams or fantasies about how the cover of my book would appear.  I racked my brain ... but nothing came to me.  Or nothing terribly original, that is.  All I could see in my head was a stack of books (which seems obvious enough, since my book is a literary memoir about finding myself through reading), juxtaposed with a martini glass (since during the tumultuous period I write about I was consuming quite a bit of Grey Goose, indeed).

I guess this is why I'm not a graphic designer.

A big thank you to Natalia, my publisher's graphic designer, who read my book and came up with this cover.  I liked it as soon as Sandra showed it to me; it seems to capture the evocative, melancholy, searching-for-happiness mood of my book perfectly.  The sepia photo is meant to represent my grandparents, whose turbulent romance casts light on my own journey of self-discovery. 

After deciding upon the cover, Sandra and I spent a lovely, somewhat anxiety-ridden morning, drinking coffee and bouncing around ideas about the blurb on the back of the cover.  After a few more rounds of revision, which involved chopping a couple hundred glorious words (I'm definitely way too subtle and verbose to ever make my living writing promotional material), this is what we were left with - my book in a nutshell:

"Leslie Shimotakahara is a young, disenchanted English professor struggling to revive her childhood love of reading.  Her father Jack, recently retired from a high-powered corporate job, finally has time to take up reading books for pleasure.  The Reading List tells the story of Leslie’s return home to Toronto to rethink her life and decide what to do next.  At the same time, she bonds with her father over discussions about the lives, loves and works of the novelists on their shared reading list – Wharton, Joyce, Woolf and Atwood, to name a few.  But when their conversations about literature unearth some heartbreaking, deeply buried family secrets surrounding Jack’s own childhood – growing up Japanese-Canadian in the aftermath of World War II – Leslie’s world is changed forever.  Could discovering the truth about her father’s past hold the key to her finally being happy in love, life and career? 

As captivating as The Jane Austen Book Club, and as inspiring as The Film Club, The Reading List reveals how literature can sometimes help us expose our past, understand our loved ones and point us toward our future."

So there you have it.  Having the cover and back blurb in place definitely makes my book feel more real.  Until this point, I suppose there's still been something kind of abstract or dreamy about the concept of my first book.  But now, the book's become a material object and I'm filled with excitement and anticipation.  At the same time, another form of anxiety sets in.... No one in my family has read my book yet.  I wonder what they will think when my book is published in September?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Book #49: My Phobia of Writing from a Male Perspective

"I fancied myself a chief in an earlier life, a man of the people, leading them through troubled times, photographed like Sitting Bull, my profile stern in its wisdom.  But I didn't get your gifts.  Or maybe I did, only just a little."                                               -Joseph Boyden, Through Black Spruce

Last Friday, I met a friend for drinks at Reposado, where I had a curious experience.  I walked to the back patio and found my friend perched at the corner table, looking very glamorous, sipping a margarita, surrounded by other stylish people, whom she introduced as architects she works with.   I, being the only non-architect, was very interested in hearing about the world of adaptive reuse and mixed use building, but not five minutes into our conversation someone interrupted my question and shifted gears.  “I don’t mean to seem like a stalker,” this guy said, “but are you a writer?  Were you by any chance having brunch with another writer about six weeks ago at Union?” 

I nodded, recalling my poached eggs and peas in hot sauce very well.  He proceeded to tell me that he and his boyfriend had been sitting at the table next to us – dreadfully hungover.  In fact, they were so hungover that rather than having their own conversation, they’d simply put their heads on the table and listened to two hours of my friend Diane and I talking about what we’re currently writing.  So this guy knew everything about me!  He knew all about my memoir and the revisions I’d been struggling with at the time, and he knew about my next project, the historical novel I’m trying to get underway.  But what was most eerie was that he also knew about my fears and insecurities in embarking on this novel and he quoted verbatim what I’d been saying that caffeine-fuelled morning, as I poured my heart out to Diane about my desire to write the novel from three different perspectives, one of which would belong to my great-grandfather.  He was an internment camp doctor during the Second World War.  But I have this fear – phobia, really, or mild phobia, let’s just say – of writing from the male perspective.  And especially a perspective so removed in not only gender, but also place and time.

Thus my writing and my writing hang-ups became the strange focus of our conversation, making my cheeks burn very hotly, and I felt compelled to reflect on what’s at the root of my hesitancy to doff my gender and identity.  Maybe it’s simply the fact that for the past year-and-a-half, I’ve been immersed in writing a memoir….  And much as I’ve enjoyed the process, the memoir genre does have limits.  While a certain creative latitude is at the memoirist’s disposal, changing one’s gender or throwing in a rape scene (unless it really happened) simply aren’t options.  And there’s the rub.  Much as I’ve loved the self-disclosure of writing memoir, I knew at the end of the process that I wanted the creative freedom of writing fiction.  So my mysterious run-in with this architect who ventriloquized my fears and anxieties as a writer so well (sadly, I didn’t manage to catch his name, even though we spoke for two hours) made me think about where I’m going and the direction in which I want to grow.  More imaginative risks.  Proliferating “selves” that go well beyond my own.

The author who’s brilliant at this – and whose Giller Award winning novel I was recently reading on my trip to Spain – is Joseph Boyden.  I love how Through Black Spruce takes the reader into the minds of two characters who are polar opposites of each other.  Will Bird is a dare-devil bush pilot lying in a coma, as he narrates in a strange, dream-like fashion, the story of his tormented past.  Annie Bird is his eccentric, beautiful niece, who’s on her own journey to find herself; she leaves the native reserve where she grew up to become a model and have a taste of the high life in Toronto, Montreal and ultimately New York.  The novel oscillates between these two very different voices, which are both utterly convincing, and yet, what’s most striking is how Boyden artfully reveals deeper similarities between their characters, emotions, fears.  I feel that any writer could learn a lot from reading Boyden, particularly on the craft of inhabiting other identities and creating voices that are distinctive and real.

Photo from: here 


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About Me

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Toronto, ON, Canada
Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.