Jul 09

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet: A Novel

Posted by Soliloquy in Books on CD

“Sentimental, heartfelt….the exploration of Henry’s changing relationship with his family and with Keiko will keep most readers turning pages…A timely debut that not only reminds readers of a shameful episode in American history, but cautions us to examine the present and take heed we don’t repeat those injustices.”— Kirkus Reviews

“A tender and satisfying novel set in a time and a place lost forever, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Swe… More >>

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet: A Novel

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5 Responses

  • I was excited to read this book because I knew it was set in Seattle during the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and that’s a time period that has always interested me. I expected an interesting trip through history, but what I got was so, so much more than that.

    Henry Lee is still mourning the death of his wife when he learns that the belongings of Japanese Americans hidden in the basement of Seattle’s Panama Hotel for decades have been discovered. Henry is drawn to the basement, and what he’s searching for there opens a door he thought he had closed forever. The story switches back and forth between 1986 and the 1940s, when a 12-year-old Henry attending an American school (he’s “scholarshipping” as his father likes to say) meets another international student working in the school kitchen. Keiko is Japanese American, the enemy according to Henry’s father, but the two become best friends before her family is imprisoned in one of the relocation camps.

    This book does a phenomenal job exploring the history and attitudes of this time period, and Ford’s portrayal of Seattle’s ethnic neighborhoods is amazing. But really, the thing that pulled me into this novel the most was the richness of the relationships — Henry and Keiko, Henry and his father, Henry’s mother and his father, and Henry and his own son. HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET looks at the best and worst of human relationships, the way we regard others, the way we find ourselves reenacting our relationships with our parents with our own children, the choices we make along the way. Mostly, though, this book reminds us that there is always room — and time — for forgiveness and redemption.

    I finished this book in tears, moved by the people who came to life so vividly in this story and sad that it had to end at all. HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET is a perfect, perfect choice for book clubs or for anyone craving a compelling story about human nature at its worst and at its best. An amazing, amazing book. It will be one of your favorites, I can almost promise.

  • As I wipe my teary eyes, I am amazed at the extraordinary journey I have just experienced reading Jamie Ford’s “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.”

    The hotel is the Panama Hotel, an old dilapidated landmark in Seattle. It’s 1986 and 56-year-old Henry Lee is among the onlookers who witness the unveiling of recently discovered belongings left in the basement of the hotel by Japanese families in the 1940s. To Henry, however, the trunks, suitcases and crates and their contents are not just mere curiosities or historical artifacts. For him, they bring remembrances of the World War II years, of being twelve years old and trying to fit in an all-white school while following Chinese cultural traditions at home; of being Asian and his father’s dread that he would be confused with the enemy, the Japanese. Most importantly, they bring back memories of a special friendship with Keiko, the only other kid of Asian ethnicity in school.

    As Ford deftly switches the narrative from 1986 to the 1940s and vice versa, the readers are taken through a remarkable story that is both sweet and poignant. For me, it brought history to life. All too often we forget that behind the numbers, there were individuals and lives that were deeply affected by the fear, the uncertainty and the hatred. I confess that there were many moments that I was on the verge of tears, such as when young Henry looks on Japanese American families burning their personal belongings for fear that they would be accused of cooperating with Japan or when Keiko and Henry witness the “evacuation” of Bainbridge Island. I also felt moved by Henry, the adult, who is still reeling from the death of his wife. His inability to emotionally connect with his own son, and his struggle to find his own identity as both American and Chinese are familiar to me as I’m too the daughter of Chinese immigrants.

    Ford’s novel is a story with many layers. But I was most impressed and touched by the author’s honest and unflinching portrayal of the sentiments that pervaded the years after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Sentiments that led to acts and events that we would rather trivialized or forget today. The fact that they were acted out not only by adults but also by children made them more painful to read about.

    I highly recommend this novel to those who remember their first love, have heard about the Japanese American internment camps, or strive to bridge two cultural worlds and to those who just love a good story. To all of you, there is a room waiting at the “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.”

  • This story opens in 1986 in Seattle with fifty-six-year-old Chinese American Henry Lee walking past the old Panama Hotel, where he sees that the new owners are bringing out some things they’ve discovered in the basement. Among them he sees a Japanese parasol that once belonged to a girl named Keiko, someone he cared very deeply about. These are things Japanese families had to leave behind when they were taken away to America’s concentration camps forty years earlier, during the Second World War.

    Henry has been searching for a very rare and long out of print jazz record that a friend had recorded back in Nineteen and Forty-Two, when Henry was twelve years old. These things are from another time, but it’s a time Henry has not forgotten.

    In 1942 Henry was the only Chinese student in an all white school. The kids tormented him, because he looked Japanese and we were at war. His father, a man who loathed everything Japanese, made a button for Henry that said, “I am Chinese.” It was embarrassing. He was bullied at school. The first day they stole his lunch, so everyday thereafter he gave his lunch to a street playing black jazz saxophonist, named Sheldon. A man he’d be friends with forever.

    Henry works at in the school cafeteria, serving the white kids. One day a new person, Keiko Okabe, is there working with him. She’s Japanese and a new student in the school. They form an instant friendship. They’re only twelve, but they know the hazards their friendship can cause, still they risk it.

    Henry introduces Keiko to Sheldon and one day they go to an alley outside a club where Sheldon is playing with Jazzman Oscar Holden. Holden sees them, invites them in and dedicates a song to them, which he later records. This is the record Henry spends four decades looking for, the record he hopes is in that basement, for it is their song, his and Keiko’s.

    Keiko bought him the record, but he couldn’t take it home, because in addition to hating the Japanese, Henry’s father hates Jazz. He’s a stern guy, Henry’s father. So when Keiko and her family are taken to a camp, for their own protection, the record, along with Keiko, is lost to Henry. He is able to visit her and he gets his first kiss and they promise to write and he promises to wait. But he’s only thirteen now and when her letters stop coming, he moves on, meets a postal worker named Ethel, who is Chinese, much to his father’s delight. And they marry.

    Forty years later, six months before Henry sees Keiko’s parasol at the Panama Hotel, Ethel dies of lung cancer. Can Henry make things right? Can he fix his life? Is that record in that basement? Can he find Keiko again? Should he? These are all questions that kept me turning the pages of this bittersweet coming of age story. Young love, it’s the finest thing there is.

  • I love a story told from a surprising point of view. This one deals with Japanese families who were “evacuated” after in 1942 from the West Coast. Except the story is told by 12-year-old Henry, the son of Chinese immigrants. An American himself, Henry’s father is an ardent Chinese nationalist who hates the Japanese not for the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but for their invasion of mainland China. Even a whiff of anything Japanese is forbidden in the house, so Henry has more than one big problem when he befriends and eventually falls in love with Keiko, whose family is inevitably evacuated to a camp in Idaho.

    Unfortunately, this story needed a more polished teller. Ford flips his story back and forth from 1942, when Henry is 12, to 1986, when Henry is 56. Ordinarily, this is a great way to tell a story about what happened “back then” and how it has effected the present. But Henry’s voice is just the same from the time he’s 12 to the time he’s 56, making his thoughts and feelings as a child more than a little unbelievable. Keiko also seems to have far too much perspective on what’s happening to her family and in the world.

    Added to that are the incredible anachronisms scattered throughout the book. Henry’s son belongs to an online support group in 1986? The nursing home has a rear-projection TV? An editor should have picked up on these things. Admittedly, I got the book as an advance copy, so perhaps by the time the book is actually published some of these mistakes will have been fixed. At least I hope so, because they are so jarring as to make it difficult to get any actual enjoyment from this book.

  • … redux. I chose to give this book the second star primarily due to the central topic, the internment of Japanese citizens and residents of the United States during the Second World War. This is one part of American history that it would be most difficult for anyone to be proud of. It remains relevant not only in terms of our historical development but because the United States again says that it is in a state of war, and as so often happens in war, there are clear racial overtones. Paraphrasing one of Jamie Ford’s best lines in the book: “They didn’t intern Joe Dimaggio, did they”?

    Alas, a much better book should have been produced to call attention to this chapter of our history. The book is riddled with mistakes, inaccuracies, and a jumbled time continuum (and I’m not talking about switching back and forth between 1986 and 1942, which is a very acceptable story-telling technique). Other thoughtful reviewers are spotting some of the problems, and they begin early, like on page 4. Brandon Lee did not die until 1993, so how could Ethel be buried in the same cemetery with him in 1986? Likewise, how could the son, Marty, have been dealing with his grief “through an online support group”? He’d have to be far more than “modern” to do so! He’d have to jump into a time machine. Two pages later “flashbulbs” were going off. No mention that these would have been true museum pieces in 1986. On page 224 Henry is visiting a patient in a nursing home, in 1986, and they are watching a game on a “giant rear-projection TV,” which was invented in 1991.On page 203 Henry is being driven north, looks out the passenger window (which would have been east), “watching the sun set one last time.” How significant are these mistakes? In reviewing another book I made the comparison with Wallace Stegner’s truly excellent novel, “Angle of Response.” IF he had the heroine fly back to the East Coast in the 1890’s, instead of taking a train which she did, would anyone have noticed? Novels that deserve hype and praise should be authentic to time and place. No doubt those familiar with jazz and Seattle, which I am not, will find others.

    All the above mistakes are rather trivial compared to the ones about the Second World War. (Obviously a LOT of people could use a primer). Much of the book simply unravels if these mistakes are rectified. Consider: In the chapter entitled “Home Again (1942)”, on p. 167: “There’s good news for us, though. Hong Kong is secure. The Japanese have been contained in the north for months. Next school year, you can go to Canton.” In reality, the battle for Hong Kong ended, with the Japanese completely victorious, on December 25, 1941. Their rather brutal occupation of the British crown colony would last until August 15, 1945. On page 237, also in 1942, “Japan is losing.” “The Kuomintang has forced the Japanese Imperial Army north once and for all. Your father has decided you can go to Canton now…”. In reality the high-water mark of the Japanese advance, on the ground in Asia, was 1943, when they invaded northeastern India. The Japanese even seized the Chinese southern provinces of Guangxi and Hunan in 1944. No father, no matter how patriotic, would have been sending his son back into a very active war zone. And if there were no plans to send Henry back to China, since the father realized the true dangers abroad…logically you’d have a very different story.

    But page 127 is the most egregious; I read it several times, trying to make sense out of it. It is important to remember that Henry was born in the United States in 1930. Presumably, his father was there, married to his mother, and had lived there for at least a year. The father speaks Cantonese, spoken in southern China, yet for some reason he and his entire family are in northern China, (tourists?) when the Japanese invade, killing his entire family, leaving him an orphan. In reality, the Japanese invaded Manchuria (which the author likes to call “Northern China,”) in 1931. Sure, the author is trying to provide “motivation” (and there is nothing like the first person) for hating the Japanese– the problem is that none of this could have happened.

    Less this review just be some grousing about historical inaccuracies, I found a lot of other problems with this novel. Wouldn’t Sheldon have been in the military? How many tourists would have been listening to his street jazz in 1942? Did the FBI really invade a jazz club, and handcuff Japanese on the floor. Would Asian immigrants to America in the `30’s be staying at a fancy hotel, like the “Panama,” or rather some dive in Seattle’s version of “Hell’s Kitchen”? Would US soldiers be guarding the internment camps with fixed bayonets? Would Keiko really have said: “Scout’s honor, Kiemosabe.”? Etc. And of course there were the misspelling that spell-check would have caught, and the misplaced words it would not.

    I have no problem with fantasies in their time and place; I’ve even had a few myself. J.R.R. Tolkien’s books are clearly identified as such. Happy endings are nice too. But clearly the investors with Bernie Madoff have not appreciated the fantasies that are their financial statements, and there probably will not be many happy endings. Like a few other reviewers, I received my “Advanced Reader’s Copy” through the Vine program, so I should add the caveat that corrections could be made–though it would seem a major re-write is in order. On the first page of the copy that I received there was a letter from a Senior Vice President at Ballantine Books who assured me that “Ford hits every note, from his painstaking research…” How much pain is involved in entering “Hong Kong, Second World War” in Google?

    There remains a very real story here–which someone inside the publishing industry needs to write. How can this keep happening? Within the last year there was the famous “Love and Consequences” book fraud, which appeared to fool everyone in the book industry. It took a truthful sister to reveal that the book was a complete fantasy. There are numerous others, so much so that that some wags have joked about a separate category, entitled “fake memoir.” True, this is a novel, and parts are factually correct, but for the other parts, does that mean anything goes? Aren’t the best novels authentic to time and place, and historically accurate? Aren’t publishers worried that their “imprimatur” will be as worthless as a Madoff statement if they do not perform “due diligence”? If only 5% of the marketing effort was put into fact checking, there would be a much better book, and less need for the “rah-rah” marketing.

    Finally, along with the book, I received a card from the “Ballantine Books Marketing Team” urging me to post my comments. They promised to send me a signed finished book when it is done (while the supplies last!). Somehow, I suspect the supplies will be exhausted.

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