Saturday, March 30, 2013

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
By Jamie Ford

Read in your best Estelle Getty:

Picture it. Seattle, 1942. Like most North American cities of the time, whites, blacks, Chinese and Japanese live in separate neighborhoods, their children attend different schools and prejudice is worn proudly on one's sleeve. Henry Lee’s father is a Chinese Nationalist with a deep rooted hatred for the Japanese, who are waging war in his former homeland. In Seattle, he sends 12 year-old Henry to an all-white school with an “I am Chinese” button pinned to his shirt. Naturally, he is the target of bullies who don't see the difference between Japanese and Chinese. His only deliverance is Keiko, a Japanese girl with whom he develops a lifelong bond. Although circumstances keep them apart, Henry never forgets her.

Picture it. Seattle, 1986. An older Henry, recently widowed reflects on the war years and his time with Keiko before and after her family's interment. The coincidental discovery of items left behind by Japanese-Americans in the basement of a downtown hotel inspires Henry to reveal the story of Keiko to his own son in an effort to repair their own fraying bond. 

/Estelle Getty

Jamie Ford's debut novel is a strong declaration of purpose from a promising writer. Although not without fault, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet deserves some applause its characterization of an era that doesn't get the attention it deserves from the literary community (The Japanese Internment) and deserves a certain measure of comparison to Julian Barnes's Booker Prize winning novel A Sense of an Ending in that both novels bookend of the protagonist's life via a story that begins in childhood and ends in old age (while, it would seem, stagnating during the middle part of life). In fact, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet reveals virtually nothing of Henry's forty year marriage to his wife, a two-dimensional character rendered with so little characterization that the reader is left confused as to whether Henry really ever had feelings for his wife at all. 

But that's okay because that is the sort of characterization that gets to the heart of the Chinese sense of familial duty and the complexity of the relationship between Chinese father and Chinese son. Ancestral obligations are often stronger than any personal bond one might make outside the family and Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, in that respect is an interesting examination of Chinese experience in America and the cultural shackles that stretch across the Pacific. Henry's father, though fiercely proud that he is able to live and educate his son in America, never once identifies himself or any member of his family as American. The button he forces his son to wear to school, ostensibly to keep him from being identified as a Japanese, speaks volumes about Henry's fathers ancestral and familial morality. It is equally important that Henry be identified as Not Japanese as it is for him to be identified as Not American, a point that causes more than a little friction between father and son.

Which brings us seamlessly to the subject of prejudice in this novel. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is, at its core, an interesting examination of the ingrained prejudice both within American society toward visible minorities (especially toward Japanese Americans) and the prejudices that were imported along with ethnic populations from abroad onto American soil. The racial tension not only between White Americans and Japanese Americans (which, retroactively speaking, makes a degree of sense) but also the tension between White Americans and Non-Japanese Asians (i.e. Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese) and the tension between the Chinese and Japanese populations speaks volumes about the very real anxiety of the time and how very close it all came to boiling over on the home front. Though the inclusion of Sheldon, the black jazz musician did seem a tad contrived (one too many ethnicities in the literary melting pot spoils the broth, apparently). 

But not everything works in this novel. The tone is, at times, overly sentimental.
"I was so worried about my family. Worried about everything. I was confused. I didn't know what I wanted. I didn't know what good-bye really was."
Emo during World War II? Apparently, yes. A good lesson: Let the reader feel rather than force the feeling.

As well, the prose is often repetitive. If an author employs a flashback it seems rather unnecessary to include the actual account of flashback to another character in the present, but that is precisely what Ford does at several points in this novel, giving Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet an unpolished feel. Also, Henry speaks in an unnatural, stilted manner that makes you wonder whether he was ever actually 12 years old.

But don't let saccharine sentimentality and wooden dialogue stand in the way of a decent debut. Jamie Ford's got a lot of promise as an author and overall, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is as good as any debut novel you're going to read this year or next. I mean, if you can't forgive an author a few transgressions for the sake of a good story and an interesting backdrop well, who are you anyway?

Saturday, March 23, 2013


By Henning Mankell

Forget Afghanistan.

Forget the Congo. Never mind Somalia, Rwanda or Colombia. Safe havens, all of them, compared to the world's most dangerous country. If the novels of Henning Mankell serve as any indication, the country in which you are most likely to be murdered in cold blood is undoubtedly Sweden. And it's not run-of-the-mill sort of violence one needs to fear while traveling the Great White Nørd but rather the grisly variety. The sorts of crimes that require a full forensic team to identify the remains. The sort of crimes that have remains rather than simply bodies. Mexico City is as secure as a bank compared to Stockholm, Malmo and Ystad.

Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander Series serves as a reminder to anyone thinking of traveling or (worse!) relocating to Scandinavia: Think twice, O weary traveler for thou goest forth into the realm of Scandinavian Crime fiction, the most specific pop culture genre after Spaghetti Westerns, Lucha Libre and German Scheiße videos.

Firewall is the eighth book in the Kurt Wallander Series but it is only the second (after Faceless Killers, the first in the series) that I have read personally. Firewall begins with the seemingly senseless and disturbingly violent (of course) murder of a taxi driver by two teenage girls. Another man dies a natural death on the other side of town. But slowly Wallander and the Ystad Police Department begin to piece together a cyber-conspiracy that combines the two cases and expands its reach intercontinentally. Along the way there are any number of grisly and disturbing murders (just in case the original murder wasn't gristly and disturbing enough). And to think there are seven novels preceding Firewall (and that doesn't even account for the uncountably number of murders that occur in the novels of Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbo). Given the population density compared with the total number of violent murders, well... Scandinavia is a dangerous place.

I was a bit concerned about jumping to book eight in the series. I worried that i was breaking the continuity of the narrative, and there were some unavoidable spoilers along the way, but I was surprised how well Henning was able to contain the story within the confines of Firewall without divulging the previous stories. I like that can always go back and read any of the books I skipped knowing that I haven't the faintest idea what will happen.

However, the jump was a little awkward in that it was a little like watching the original Rocky and then skipping to Rocky V without watching the slow degeneration of the series along the way. While I don't think the Wallander Series suffered the sort of fall Rocky suffered along the way, there did seem to be a degree of implausibility to the plot in Firewall that didn't exist in Faceless Killers. I wonder whether Mankell spent seven books upping the ante to the point where Firewall's narrative wouldn't have seemed so outlandish to someone who had read the entire series up to that point.

Furthermore, Firewall is not the sort of novel that could have aged well. Books that rely heavily on technology never do. It was published in 2002 and Mankell spends a lot of time explaining terms, such as "firewall", "server" and "code," that most of us understand, at least in principal, nowadays. Even if you aren't computer savvy, a reader in 2013 doesn't need a half page explanation about how banking transactions can be performed over the Internet. Naturally, Mankell could not have foreseen a world in which this would be common knowledge and nit-picking over a few dated references shouldn't dissuade anyone from reading this novel. But forewarned is forearmed.

But where the storytelling lapses into the realm of the dated or the implausible, the actual writing remains consistent to what a fan of Scandinavian Crime Fiction should expect. Ebba Segerberg's translation is hauntingly austere and completely lacking in idioms giving the novel a cold, stainless steel tone. As with Faceless Killers, Firewall reads like a veritable policing manual on how to (and sometimes how not to) run an investigation. Readers will enjoy the almost belabored way in which Mankell presents the facts of a case, dissects them and divides them, rethinks them and rehashes them and then does it again every time a new piece of information becomes available to the investigating team.

The constant reinterpretation of the facts is not only helpful to the reader but also in accordance to what a detective would do throughout an investigation. For all Firewall's implausibility, Mankell remains loyal to the spirit of policing in that he has written a consummate police force, but one that suffers from the same politics as real life forces. A police force that often stumbles and bumbles under pressure. A police force that is often understaffed and unappreciated. A police force that is populated by real people with real problems and real lives.

One might say that Mankell has written a wonderful novel about a typical police force, but this is the Scandinavia of the literary world. Mankell's typical police force is destined to clean up the world's most atypical crimes. And while Stockholm may weep, readers should rejoice.

But it's no wonder Wallander is consistently threatening to retire.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

When God Was a Rabbit

When God Was a Rabbit
By Sarah Winman

The blurb on the back of this novel says:

This is a book about a brother and a sister.  It's a book about childhood and growing up, friendships and families, triumph and tragedy and everything in between. More than anything, it's a book about love in all its forms.

Having read that, I should have known I wouldn't enjoy this book.

OK, I probably should have known from the title. That labored, idiosyncratic title.

Oh, it's not that I don't enjoy books about brothers and sisters or childhoods and friendships, etc. Certainly those themes are the foundation for many a great novel. And certainly I couldn't possibly dislike the novel because it's about love. I'm jaded and cynical, but I haven't lost all of my humanity quite yet. No, the tip-off should have been the short, clipped sentences. I should have seen that this novel was going to make an effort to be clever, quirky and irreverent, which isn't necessarily bad if the novel actually ends up being clever, quirky and irreverent. But it is my experience that every time an author sets out to write a novel that is clever, quirky and irreverent it turns out to be clumsy, awkward and tedious.

When God Was a Rabbit, is clumsy, awkward and tedious.

When God Was a Rabbit is told from the perspective of Eleanor (Elly) and chronicles the childhood and early adulthood of her, her brother Joe and a odd ensemble of friends that include Joe's teenage lover Charlie (who loses an ear in a Middle Eastern hostage crisis), Elly's best friend, Jenny Penny (who is revered by Elly and her clan, but for reasons I must have missed entirely) and a cast of characters that take themselves so terribly, terribly seriously. It is a novel that suffers from a bad case of Cathy Lamb Disease in that it tries to cover literally every social and cultural ill in the entire modern world from sexual abuse and child neglect to gray-area spousal homicide to September 11th. All the while this cast of characters spend their days naval-gazing without a notion toward what it all means.

But I could have handled that if it weren't for Sarah Winsome's hopelessly contrived and frustratingly cumbersome prose. It was like reading an entire novel written in passive voice, from individual sentences, to paragraphs, to chapters and ultimately to the entire narrative itself. My kingdom for an active sentence! My fortune for straightforward plot advancement. If real people talked like the characters in this book, nobody anywhere would understand what the hell was going on at any point, ever. As a reader, one has to learn to read between the lines, but when you are reading between the lines that are between the lines (and in passive voice)... well, there is only so much one reader can take.

And the false endings! I felt like I was reading the literary equivalent of Lynyrd Skynyrd's extended version of Freebird. There were literally dozens of places in which Winsome could have wrapped the narrative up as neat as a bow, but she continued to forge right on ahead into the uncharted territory of unnecessary developments (The entire last twist surrounding the events of September 11th were so forced I had to physically restrain myself from throwing the book out the window). I'm sure someone will tell me that I've missed a metaphorical point (probably something to do with cultural amnesia or some such nonsense) but I'm not listening. Metaphors never, ever trump a good story. And that's what was missing from When God Was a Rabbit... A good story.

Listen, I'm going to be blunt. There is more I could write about the failures of this novel but it isn't really worth the time it has already taken me to write this review. I really hate saying things like that because, as I've said before, anybody who has taken the time and put forth the effort to write a novel deserves the utmost respect (and for that, Sarah Winsome, you have mine... in earnest). But I would be remiss if I were to lie or sugar-coat my loathing for this novel. I'm sure it has garnered excellent reviews somewhere (I declined to check) and you certainly shouldn't base your decision about whether to read this novel or not on my blog post. But be forewarned, if you have found that my reviews jive with your reading tastes, this novel is one that might be best left on the bookshelf.

Or better yet, the remainder bin.

Oh well, it's still better than Henry's Sisters.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Astronomer

The Astronomer
By Lawrence Goldstone

Extremely mild spoilers ahead, though if the spoiler I reveal ruins the book for you, I sincerely suggest you brush up on your history. Tsk tsk.

Historical fiction can be an unforgiving genre. Writers have to walk that fine line between historical accuracy and a good story. If the writer focuses too much on historical authenticity he/she tends to allow the pace of the novel to lag, alienating the reader from the actual narrative. To little attention to historical detail and the reader will view the novel with a degree of consternation. I tend to fall on the side of a good story and to hell with authenticity, but that's just me. But truly bad historical fiction is that which hold no regard for neither historical accuracy nor a good narrative. Lawrence Goldstone's novel The Astronomer is one such novel.

The Astronomer is set in the early days of the Reformation. Martin Luther is still alive and preaching in the German states. John Calvin is touring Europe making a name for himself and the ultra-corrupt Catholic Church under Pope Clement VII is ill-equipped to handle the burgeoning new heresies gaining popularity throughout Europe. Heady days indeed.

Amaury is the bastard son of the Duke of Savoy and a middling theology student at the College de Montaigu in Paris. He is more interested in the rapidly expanding field of science than the stifling study of scripture. This mildly-heretical behavior has not gone unnoticed by the school's faculty who recommend Amaury to the French Grand Inquisitor of France Mattieu Ory to spy on French Lutherans (they are not yet referred to as Protestants or Calvinists) as there are rumors that the Lutherans are in possession of a secret that will disprove Genesis itself (the (not so) secret information is Copernicus's heliocentric theory of the universe, if you are wondering. I fear that Gladstone was building a mystery here but it was so plainly obvious from the opening pages, much of the suspense was lost due to the transparency of said secret). Amaury has to decide between his dedication to the Church, his sympathies to the reformation and his love of scientific research.

What starts as a lumbering story that meanders all over the place ends up being an action film starring Nicholas Copernicus (no doubt played by a CGI enhanced Sean Connery).

While I don't really want to harp too much on Lawrence Goldstone since he has written far more books than I have, but I have some real problems with this book. First and foremost is the pace. Goldstone bogs the narrative down with loads of unnecessary descriptions of settings, clothing and weather as well as loads of unnecessary characters that have no emotional connection to the reader thus rendering them two-dimensional. The narrative seemed to slow to a crawl when it begged for a quick pace (i.e. the excruciatingly long overland trip from Paris to Nerac) and it would mysteriously speed up when attention to detail would have been appreciated (i.e. the riots in the streets of Paris).

Furthermore, story lines seemed to pop up out of nowhere, amble along for a while only to be discarded without sufficient closure. Characters appear as suddenly as they disappear and their motives are often opaque. Francois, the king of France is wholly unnecessary character who could have been replaced by a quick narrative update on the happenings in France. The secondary characters don't fair much better. At one point in the novel Amaury spends pages and pages trying acquire the necessary documentation from the cardinal to save his bookseller friend only to watch him burn at the stake for heresy over the course of a quarter page. All the while it is never really revealed why Amaury would risk his life for a bookseller friend.

And while I'm not adverse to a love interest, the fact that Amaury is able to bed not one but two decidedly un-medeival women (i.e. in possession of a full set of teeth, unblemished skin and uncommonly large vocabularies considering their stations in the social hierarchy) in the course of a few weeks seems implausible, even for someone like me who is fully prepared to suspend my disbelief. And not to labor the point, but the fact that Amaury doesn't trust a single person throughout the entire narrative but trusts both Vivienne and Helene unequivocally. The complete lack of sexual tension in this love triangle is simply icing on the proverbial turd.

Listen, Goldstone's not a terrible writer. I suspect he's got a good book out there, either in print or in the works. But The Astronomer is not it. This entire novel seems slapdash and careless, as if he ripped it off over a weekend or two between episodes of Game of Thrones. It fails spectacularly as both a piece of historical fiction and as compelling narrative. Tough break. And while I don't expect that every single narrative tangent must circle back to the main story line, but a few certainly must. And while this isn't the worst book I've ever read, if I have a hankering for historical fiction set in the medieval era I will stick with Bernard Cornwall and Ken Follett.

Cool cover, though.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

We Need To Talk About Kevin

We Need To Talk About Kevin
By Lionel Shriver

I've been putting this book off for years. No real reason why. I've wanted to read it for ages. But the imminent publication of Shriver's new novel The New Republic, and the prospect of reviewing it in May (stay tuned) gave me the needed motivation to finally pick this novel up. And I'm kicking myself for not doing so earlier.

We Need to Talk About Kevin reminded me, in a lot of ways of Bret Easton Ellis's classic novel American Psycho. As with American PsychoWe Need To Talk About Kevin is a meticulous study of modern American antipathy and sociopathy. But unlike American Psycho, which delves so deep into the antisocial behaviors of disturbed protagonist Patrick Bateman that it remains unclear whether the events described in the novel actually occur or simply remain imbedded in Bateman's disturbed mind, Shriver's narrative paints an all too real portrait of modern American psychosis. Shriver's writing is razor sharp (though sometimes overwrought and overdone) and many a salient point is made about how and why these shooting continue to occur.

What I think sets We Need to Talk About Kevin apart from Ellis's novel is the manner in which Shriver uses characterization to sharpen the focus rather than blur the lines of what goes on in the head of a killer (or potential killer). Where Ellis clouds the reader with disturbing imagery and demented ideas, Shriver imbues us with anecdotal evidence from the mother of the killer. And while we cannot take everything the narrator says at face value, certainly some of what she says has inherent value in deconstructing Kevin's mind. And with Eva Katchadourian, Kevin mother, Shriver has created a character every bit as nuanced as Patrick Bateman. And she's not even the killer.

Kevin is an angry kid. He's been angry since the day he was born, or so says his mother, Eva, the narrator of this story. We Need to Talk About Kevin is organized as a series of letters from Eva to her estranged husband, Franklin, two years after Kevin killed eight students, a teacher and a cafeteria worker. The novel is both shocking and insightful that addresses many of the overarching causes of such shootings, including anti-social behavior, dismissive parenting, over-parenting, neglect and middle-class malaise, among others.

In her letters, Eva examines her relationship with Franklin, their subsequent decision to have a child and the years leading up to their son's killing spree. However, Eva is the very definition of the "unreliable narrator." She is over-analytical, selfish, judgmental and completely lacking in self-pity (ironically, these are the same qualities that she professes to abhor about the "typical American"). On the one hand, these qualities provide the reader (and Franklin, presumably) with a stark, brutally honest account of what she thinks occurred it is not difficult to see where Kevin developed many of his character traits. As the old proverb goes: The apples doesn't fall far from the tree.

Naturally, Eva asks the inevitable questions: Why did he do it? and How much are her and Franklin to blame? Was Kevin born bad? Or was it that Eva? Was it that Franklin's bygone/never-was 1950s, Ward Cleaver version of fatherhood? Or was it simply that once Eva began to see a trend, she couldn't stop seeing it, in a sense concocting a personal conspiracy theory between herself, her husband and Kevin? 

We delve deep into the darkest places within Eva as she sorts through these difficult questions and despite her failures as a parent, we find ourselves deeply concerned for her well-being and sympathetic to her situation. Considering the way in which we tend to vilify the parents of school shooters so instantaneously via television news, it seems essential that someone would come along and deconstruct the proverbial post-game show from the perspective of the parents. And with all due respect to Shriver's characters it is Eva who shines in this novel. It is her honesty, her selfishness and her lack of empathy that make Eva one of the strongest, most fascinating characters in modern American literature.

While We Need to Talk About Kevin isn't going to answer all the questions, but of course, why should it? It is, however, taking its place alongside American Psycho as one of the great American novels of the past twenty years and is a novel worthy of great praise.