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


jsstuntman said...

Leslie, I knew right away that you would relate to this book after I read it.
I am touched that you have shared with others our special bond around books and how you have helped me grow.

Your Dad

Leslie Shimotakahara said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Leslie Shimotakahara said...

Thanks, Daddy! I look forward to receiving more of your book suggestions, so that our "reading list" will continue, long after my book is published. I hope that you enjoy reading it when it comes out in the fall.


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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.