Thursday, October 4, 2012

Book Review: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

I am hosting this month's book club meeting at my office, featuring Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford. We don't meet for another couple of weeks, but I wanted to make sure I gave myself plenty of time to finish the book and come up with some good discussion questions. It turned out I didn't really need to be so cautious, since I finished the majority of the book in just about two days.

The book begins with Henry Lee, who comes upon a crowd gathered outside the Panama Hotel, once the gateway to Seattle's Japantown. It has been boarded up for decades, but now the new owner has made an incredible discovery: the belongings of Japanese families, left when they were rounded up and sent to internment camps during World War II.

Surfacing memories take Henry back to the 1940s when his young world is a jumble of confusion and excitement. Henry is Chinese, and his father is obsessed with the war in China and having Henry grow up American. While "scholarshipping" at the exclusive (and predominantly Caucasian) Rainier Elementary, Henry meets Keiko Okabe, a second generation Japanse American student. Amid the chaos of "the war years," Henry and Keiko forge a bond of friendship and innocent love that transcends the long-standing prejudices of their Old World ancestors. But when Keiko and her family are evacuated to the internment camps, she and Henry are left only with the hope that the war will end and that their promise to each other will be kept.

I really enjoyed the fact that this story took place in Seattle's International District, especially after recently reading Snow Falling on Cedars, which covered similar subject matter. The writing wasn't exceptionally brilliant, but it was fine and the characterization and storyline moved along relatively quickly. My favorite characters were Sheldon, a street jazz artist Henry befriends as a child, and Samantha, Henry's son's fiancée.

The book switches time frames between the 1940s and the present, when Henry is mourning the recent death of his wife and exploring his relationship with his adult son. I really liked how this back-and-forth created anticipation throughout the whole book. I think the author did a really great job exploring the history and attitudes of this time period, and I learned a lot about what Seattle was like back then. This would be a great book club read for any group.

I actually finished this book just in time, because on Wednesday night I had tickets with some co-workers to Book It Repertory Theatre's production of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.

Book-It is a non-profit theatre company dedicated to transforming great literature into great theatre through simple and sensitive production and to inspiring its audiences to read. The organization was founded 24 years ago as an artists’ collective, adapting short stories for performance and touring them throughout the Northwest. Today it has over 90 world-premiere adaptations of full-length novels to its credit, many of which have garnered rave reviews and gone on to subsequent productions all over the country.

This was my first time at Book It and it was a really fun experience! We grabbed dinner in Lower Queen Anne at Racha Noodles & Thai Cuisine (yum!) before walking over to the Seattle Center House Theatre for the show. We did feel a little out of place because we weren't dressed in '80s garb and headed to the Madonna concert, but we still had a great evening! The theatre is small, intimate, and simple. Because we were so close and the set was so minimal I could really focus on the characters and the story itself. It was a long play though (three hours) and I found myself dozing a bit during the second half (good think I already knew the story well). But I perked up toward the end and even teared up a bit during the final few minutes. It was a very well done show and I'd love to visit Book It again in the future.

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