I actually finished not one but TWO books this week! The first was over a scrambler at Monty’s Blue Plate Diner on the East Side, and the second was during a two-and-a-half hour lie-down on my new gravity chair out on the sixth floor balcony after dance class. An hour of samba really does a number on the hip flexors.
The first book I finished was one that I picked up a while book at The Book Thing Baltimore (RIP) and have had on my shelf for who knows how long: Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford.
Written in 2009, this book takes place in Seattle, Washington, and flashes between the war era and the present day. Henry Chen, the main character, is a jazz-loving Chinese-American teenager in a time when Americans were suspicious of “the Japs,” – his traditional parents included. Through his job at the cafeteria of his upscale middle school, he meets Keiko Okabe, a Japanese-American, and predictably, red flags go up everywhere. Eventually, Keiko and her family get shipped out to an internment camp; first one at the state fairgrounds, then to Minidoka in Idaho, one of the major camps. Back in Seattle, Henry has to deal with not only his judgmental parents who want to send him to China for school and bullying from the other kids in his neighborhood. In the present day, Henry hears about a trove of Japanese suitcases discovered in the basement of the Panama Hotel (see title), and enlists his son Marty and Marty’s fiancee Samantha to help look for some clue to Keiko’s whereabouts, in the wake of the death of his own wife/Marty’s mother, Ethel.
I really enjoyed this book, despite the awkward title, which really doesn’t have too much to do with the book other than the fact that there is a hotel in it. I would definitely read more by Jamie Ford. The chemistry between Henry and Keiko was so natural, and I was cheering for them. The Okabes seemed like an awesome family, while the Chens, not so much. I don’t want to reveal too much of the book, but suffice it to say that the Henry/Marty/Samantha quest is kind of pointless (they don’t really know what they’re looking for) until the last quarter of the book. Japanese internment camps are something you don’t read about very often in literature, I think that this might have been the third book I’ve ever read on the subject, and only the second fiction work, if you count Farewell to Manzanar as a memoir/nonfiction. Probably my least favorite part came in the last few pages, when we found out what Henry’s father was responsible for, and on his deathbed, no less; again, trying not to spoil, but he did a great job of screwing things up for his son.
This book review is brought to you by the rice I just made, then threw away; it looked great but smelled terrible. Turns out it expired in March. Maybe I haven’t been reading the right things.