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Homeward Bound

How to Be an American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway (Putnam, August 5, 2010)

“The person I used to be could have only made one choice; the grown up (me) might have made a different one.   That was how life was.   You only figured out the right thing after you were old.”

This is a finely told story of two persons and two cultures.   It may well appeal to those who loved Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford or The Commoner by John Burnham Schwartz.   The many fans of Lisa See are also likely to be drawn to it.

This is first, the story of Shoko, a young woman in Japan at the end of World War II who marries an American G.I. – one of the many occupiers of her island nation – and then moves with him to San Diego.   In the USA she finds great prosperity, but also some loneliness accompanied by discrimination.   Her transformation is assisted by a guidebook, printed in Japanese and English, labeled How to Be an American Housewife.

The character of Shoko is based on the author’s mother, Suiko O’Brien, who told Dilloway that “her life would make a great book.”   It does, and Suiko relied on a book that her American husband had given to her called The American Way of Housekeeping.

The second story is the tale of Shoko’s southern-California raised daughter, Sue, a character who might be reflective of some of the author’s own experiences growing up.   Sue is a divorced mother who perhaps does not properly appreciate her own mother until Shoko begins to experience serious health issues.   Shoko understands that her time on earth may be short and she wants nothing more than to visit her estranged brother Taro in a village in Japan, one not too far from Nagasaki.

As children Taro and Shoko were told that they shared the blood of the Emperor’s royal family.   When Shoko, attempting to live on her own as a young woman, begins to spend time with a lower-caste man, Taro sees this as bringing shame upon their family.   He vows to never forgive her, and Taro also hates the Americans who bombed his country; thus, Shoko’s marriage to an American (a “Charlie”) is another sign of Shoko’s betrayal to family and country.

Once its determined that the elderly Shoko needs a life-saving heart operation, she is set on convincing Sue to visit Japan in her stead.   She wants Sue to find Taro and deliver to him a request and a message.   This may be the final thing that Shoko asks of her daughter and Sue elects to honor her mother’s wishes.

On one level this is about persons of one culture trying to find acceptance and peace in another one, one that is initially alien (“San Diego had become a foreign nation…”).   This is true of a Japanese woman suddenly transported to the U.S. and of her daughter who, several decades later, finds herself in older parts of Japan.   Shoko eventually finds the peace to state, “I became an American…”   Sue makes a transformational journey to the Land of the Rising Sun with her own daughter and finds that she’s “homesick” for a place she’s never been to before.

On a second level, this is about the interest and spice that’s added to life when one accepts cultures, and the habits, traditions and foods of “the others.”   In the end, the differences between us add to our experiences rather than subtract from them.   Dilloway’s story is a much-needed tribute to multiculturalism.   It is a telling that is an extremely effective one precisely because it includes examples of the sad destruction brought about by hating and fearing those who are different from us.

And finally, this is a tale of forgiveness.   It is one thing for Taro to be asked to forget the mistakes he and his sister made while they were young; it may be another to ask him to forgive a nation whose planes shot at him and dropped bombs on his village during the 1940s.   Yet, because Shoko married an American serviceman the issues become joined in his mind and heart.

The best scene in How to Become an American Housewife is the one in which Sue’s Japanese relatives take her to visit the Peace Park in Nagasaki, ground zero for the dropping of the second atomic bomb.   When the bomb exploded over Nagasaki, Taro and Shoko were close enough in their nearby village to see the lights from the explosion and hear the sound.   As Sue walks through the park, she comes to understand the horror of war, the terror of how it ended, and the fact that nothing can change the past.

Dilloway’s characters come to understand, as we all must, that the pain of yesterday is no reason to destroy the present.   This debut novel is an impressive tribute to one woman, a mother, who lived a true and large life.   It is also a tribute to the best characteristics of people in two very different countries who, separately yet together, seek to find comfort within the noisy turbulence of life.

Well recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Homeward Bound

The Last Time I Saw You: A Novel by Elizabeth Berg

“So many people who go to reunions think that doing so can somehow change what happened to them.   That the person you’ve become might erase the person you were then.   But of course that doesn’t happen.   …It’s not that you can’t go home again; it’s that you never can leave.”

Elizabeth Berg, author of Home Safe and 17 other novels, has offered a perfect argument for skipping one’s next high school (and maybe college) reunion.   In The Last Time, Berg shows us that people never act the way you want them to, even on the most important of occasions.   And even sadder, we don’t act the way we want or intend to, especially when meeting representatives from our dimly-lit but well-remembered past.

For one thing, everybody tries too hard at these events.   They try to be happier, smarter, more charming or simply more relaxed within their own skins than they were decades earlier.   They rarely succeed.   One of the men in this story comes to understand that, “All of a sudden he feels sorry for everybody.   Here they all are, all these people, all these years later just…  what?   Trying, he guesses.   Just trying.”

One of the women isn’t quite sure how to react as she observes the goings on:  “It comes to her that all of the people in this room are dear to her.   As if they all just survived a plane crash or something.   All the drunks and the show-offs and the nice kids and the mean ones.   All the people she used to know and all the ones she never knew at all.   And herself, too.   She includes herself and her stingy little soul.”

Eventually, we get to see in Berg’s story that people – some people – get out of these events what they must get out of them.   They learn to either completely let go of the past or to simply grip it tighter.   What other choices are there?

“If only people were given the opportunity to behave differently at certain times of their lives!”

But this is more than a Peggy Sue Got Married story.   It is a story about men and women who get a second chance with their original crowd – a chance at reconnecting and either succeeding or failing in life.   The rich graduates worry that they didn’t spend enough time with their kids while they were growing up.   The poor graduates worry that they have no impressive titles or stories of times when they were important.   But this is not really their story…

It is primarily the story of Candy Sullivan, the once-and-still beautiful and popular girl at Whitley High School.   She has been diagnosed with one of the deadliest forms of cancer.   Candy has little time to waste but decides to attend the reunion to enjoy herself while she can.   She leaves her husband at home and flies off to the reunion, where people notice her vacant eyes.   They’re vacant because she’s pondering the question, “Is death an end or a beginning?”

Candy is who we are – or at least we identify with her because she acts like we think we would in her place.   Frightened yet emboldened, imprisoned in a disease state, facing death and yet somehow set free.   Scared and calm, ready for what’s to come.

“This diagnosis has been a kind of gift.   It’s making me look at things and see them.”

You will want to keep reading The Last Time I Saw You to find out what happens to Candy and her all-too-human classmates.   Author Berg surprises us by also making the case that you simply cannot afford to miss your next reunion.

Well done, Ms. Berg.   Life painted large and small all at once.

An advance review copy was received from Random House.   The Last Time I Saw You will be released on Tuesday, April 6, 2010.

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Tell The Truth

Tell No Lies by Julie Compton

There’s a lot of buzz going around about Julie Compton’s new novel Rescuing Olivia, which will be released next month.   So we decided to go back and read Compton’s first book, Tell No Lies, published in mid-2008.   Lies is an excellent, excellent criminal justice system and family drama set in St. Louis.   The main character, Jack Hilliard, is an assistant district attorney who’s happily married; his wife is an adjunct college professor and they have two boys.   Life appears to be good for the family except that Hilliard is unfulfilled.

Suddenly everything changes at once for Jack…  Earl, the District Attorney for the City of St. Louis decides to give up his office to earn some pre-retirement riches at a prominent private law firm.   Although Jack is designated by Earl to be his successor, Jack struggles with the decision to run for the office.   Doing so will mean that Jack will need to hide or obfuscate his personal anti-death penalty views at a time when the local public is seeking blood.

Both Jack and his understanding wife Claire realize that moving from being an ADA to being the DA will turn their lives upside down…  But this is a small tremor compared to the coming earthquake that will change the ground under Jack and Claire – leaving them virtually foundation-less.   For years Jack has had a huge crush (“Can you be in love with two women at the same time?”) on the exotic Jenny Dodson, a mixed-blood civil practice attorney who turns men’s heads whenever she moves.   Jenny, in return, loves Jack but isn’t sure she wants to participate in destroying his happy marriage and contented family.

Against his better interests, Jack decides to involve Jenny as an officer in his campaign for DA which means he’ll regularly be in her company.   Jack initially believes that he can control his feelings for Jenny, but then comes to see that she’s far more than a distraction.   Jack, in fact, may love her to destruction.   Jack eventually becomes the DA who may be Jenny’s only hope when she’s charged with the murder of one of her clients.   But she had an alibi the night of the murder – one that involves Jack.   Will Jack save his marriage or Jenny?

This fantastic set-up only gets better and better and the reader will rush to get through the book, even at the cost of some sleep.   There never seems to be a wrong note in the story, and the fact that some major public figures have recently made a mess of their lives only adds credibility to this morality tale.   As with Tiger Woods, Jack comes to find that his life “is on fire and on the evening news.”   (Thank you, Paul Simon.)

Jack Hilliard is a person well liked and loved, but he’s often told that his flaw is that he feels that he must get what he wants in life.   This is a story about the high price to be paid for getting what you want.   The devil must be paid.

Compton is a former federal agency trial attorney and the language of the criminal justice professionals in Lies comes off as true in tone.   This is more of a gritty Prince of the City than homogenized Law and Order.   Tell No Lies was such an impressive début for Compton that I am quite eager to get to Rescuing Olivia.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the author.  

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Coming Up Next…

A review of Tell No Lies by Julie Compton.

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American Tune

Independence Day

Independence Day: A Novel by Richard Ford (Vintage, $16.00, 464 pages)

“A sad fact, of course, about adult life is that you see the very things you’ll never adapt to on the horizon.”

“I’m the man who counsels abandonment of those precious things you remember but can no longer make hopeful use of.”

The genre of the suburban angst novel was likely created by John Updike’s 1960 novel Rabbit Run.   That was the story of Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom, a superb athlete and high school basketball star who finds that his life has peaked at the age of 26.   Angstrom’s solution was basically to run away from the obligations of adulthood and family.

Updike has certainly received a great deal of praise as one of the best American writers; although to me each of the three books in the Rabbit trilogy came off as flat and tired.   Updike’s genius may lie in the fact that this was precisely what he intended.

Richard Ford

Move ahead to the year 1995 and second-time author Richard Ford (The Sportswriter) moves the category along by leaps and bounds with the release of Independence Day.   Come the new year, this novel will be 20 years old but it reads as if it was written just last month.   Frank Bascombe, a divorced former newspaper sportswriter, is living in his ex-wife’s house attempting to get by as a realtor.   This at a time when there’s a significant (early 90’s) recession, rapidly falling real estate values and high unemployment levels.   Employment down, building down, rents low, cost to buy high:   “… dug in for the long night that becomes winter.”   Sound familiar?

Bascombe has decided that the best times in his life have – like his former spouse – left him behind.   “Why should you only get what you want?   Life’s never like that.”   So Bascombe simply resolves to get through, to keep living, during his self-titled Existence Period.

At first the reader – not knowing any better – accepts Frank Bascombe as a depressed 53-year-old man who thinks things like, “When you’re young, your opponent is the future. When you’re not young, your opponent’s the past and everything done in it…”.   But eventually we realize that Frank’s actually an optimist – “It’s my experience that when you don’t think you’re making progress that you’re probably making plenty.”

As we read this 451-page novel, we see that Bascombe is making progress in pushing the re-start button on his life.   He’s not a bad person, really, it’s just that he has his own way of looking at things – one of the small points on which his ex-wife and his troublesome girlfriend can agree on.   Like a writer, he looks at things and sees something different from real actual life.   “You might never have been quite as happy as you like to believe you were.”

Bascombe is often let down, unfortunately, by the other people in his life, like one of his post-divorce female partners:   “… she had very little facility for actually thinking about me and never in the time we knew each other asked me five questions about my children or my life before I met her.”   Yet we somehow sense that Frank will be blessed with the victory of what Bob Dylan called “simple survival.”

How good, exactly, is this piece of American literature?   In 1995, The New York Times included it in the year-end list of best books.   As 1996 began, Ford was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for Independence Day.   This Frank Bascombe novel (like John Updike’s Rabbit books) was part of a trilogy, but don’t worry about what came before or after.

Independence Day was Ford’s singular masterpiece, his van Gogh, his Sunflowers painting.   Or The Starry Night.

This is essential reading.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Independence Day 3

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Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life by Michael Greenberg

Beg, BorrowThe only living boy in New York…   These words by Paul Simon kept going through my head as I read Greenberg’s collection of 44 essays on life and living in the Big Apple.   Another title for this compilation might have been A Life in New York City.   To his credit, Greenberg does not try to convince the reader that everything in Manhattan and the boroughs is exciting; in fact, when writing about his daily commute he hopes that “(there’s) more to the monotony than I had expected.”

In theory this collection is supposed to focus on the tough work of trying to make a living as a writer.   That is a theme often returned to, but Greenberg nonetheless gives himself plenty of room in which to roam and create.   He has been, in fact, a successful writer most notably with last year’s release of the four-star non-fiction memoir Hurry Down Sunshine: A Father’s Story of Love and Madness.   But here we read about Greenberg, the free lancer, script doctor, ghost writer, writer-for-hire who uses his craft to distinguish his life from that of the typical career worker…  “I was willing to work harder than the next person to ensure that I didn’t have one.”  

Greenberg’s essays are a prime example of the writer as the detached, note-taking, chronicler and observer (He sought “work in which I could observe people, write, and get paid at the same time.”).   Reading Greenberg, I was reminded of the phrase used in the movie Elizabethtown – “We’re the substitute people.” – in which the main character finally learns that it’s best to enjoy life rather than watching others as they do so.   Yet Greenberg tells very true tales coincidentally parallel to this reader’s experiences.   Of working in a criminal courthouse, for example, he notes that “boredom was the permissible emotion”; the only permissible emotion.

The author also writes with humor and sophistication:  “When Tony Bennett crooned ‘Baby, Ain’t I Been Good to You?’ I could hear the tuxedo in his voice.”   How true, and the same was the case with Sinatra.

Is there any big message in this compilation?   Perhaps that everything counts, as Greenberg treats the lives of Wall Street movers and shakers and cab drivers and waiters and baristas equally.   Some gifted and talented writers are able to show us that everything in life is – in the words of The New York Observer – both “big and small in perfect proportion.”

Recommended!

Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life was released by Other Press on September 8, 2009. 

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   Thanks to Terrie at Other Press for the review copy.

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There’s a Wall in China… a Review of the Book Lucky Girl: A Memoir

They’ve got a wall in China/ It’s a thousand miles long/ To keep out the foreigners/ They made it strong/ And I’ve got a wall around me/ That you can’t see…   Paul Simon

I grew up with a cousin who was adopted.   lucky_girl_2He learned this fact in his early teens.   He became quite angry but also quickly managed to accept it.   I know that he completely loved his adopted parents and a huge part of him died when they did.

Growing up I used to wonder how my cousin would have reacted if he had learned who his birth parents – who we knew were not from the U.S. – were, or if they had sought to contact him.   This memoir, Lucky Girl, by Mei-Ling Hopgood provided the answers for me.   In this intriguing true story, Mei-Ling is born to parents in China who quickly give her up for adoption to a family in the state of Michigan, U.S.A.   After graduation from college, and during the first part of her career as a newspaper reporter, she discovers how to contact her birth parents and siblings.   They make clear that they very much wish to see her also, and the first of what would turn out to be multiple reunions is set.   Thus begins the new chapter in Mei-Ling’s life…

Mei-Ling must literally make a journey of thousands of miles to decipher the secrets of her birth family’s past, and to learn about the life she might have led.   Initially there’s much happiness but then the family facades give way to human weaknesses, cruelties and non-explainable behaviors.

Once Mei-Ling takes this trip to a past she never knew she first accepts it and then – somewhat blissfully – lets it go.  

Hopgood is a likeable narrator without an excess of ego; she freely expresses her foibles and failings.   Because we can identify with her, we feel her fears, her nervousness in certain situations, her disappointments in others.   She is, though, far from the most fluid or natural writer, and more than a few mixed tense sentences break the flow of thought.   Yet she manages to tell a very engaging – and very human-scale – story of meeting, accepting and defeating the ghosts of her past.   Because these are the ghosts that haunt every one of us, this is her personal story and our very own story.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   Reprinted courtesy of the Troy Bear blog.   This is a “bonus” review.

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Harmony: A Review of Rocket Man (the novel)

In June of 1995, Richard Ford released what one source called a “dull, jaded, satirical view of suburban life…”, a novel called Independence Day.   The New York Times’ overly serious review of Independence Day carried the weighty headline, “Afloat in the Turbulence of the American Dream.”

I loved Ford’s earlier (1986) novel, The Sportswriter, but I found Independence Day to be a bit too dry and slow of a read.   So when I saw that the novel Rocket Man also deals with suburban angst, I worried that it might be a long trek through its 377 pages.   This fear was groundless…

From the very first, I was hooked on this story by William (Bill) Elliot Hazelgrove and I made it straight through to page 370 before putting it down for the day.   Hazelgrove smartly starts the tale with some laugh-out-loud humor before settling into the more serious sections.   When it dawns on you that the story has become less amusing, it doesn’t matter – you just want to know what happens next.

I’m not a fan of book or movie reviews that give away the entire story, but a few things should be mentioned about the plot.   The lead character, Dale Hammer, is a former novelist – currently a mortgage broker – who has moved his family from the old, established, city of Oakland, Illinois to the “far west suburb” of Charleston, Illinois.   In one week his life goes from being on automatic pilot (“I feel the surprise of a man who occupies a life he is not familiar with.”) to one in which he faces multiple and substantive challenges.   His life, as Paul Simon, might have sung, is on fire and on the evening news.

The one positive in Hammer’s situation is that he’s been selected (or maybe simply volunteered) to be Rocket Man, the adult who supervises dozens and dozens of scouts on the day they meet in a public park to launch their working rockets.   Hammer is trained for the assignment by his predecessor Dale Heinrich, a man both highly intelligent and so strange that Hammer is unsure “whether to shake (his) hand or call for the boys in the while suits.”

Does Hammer meet and overcome the challenges in his life?   Does he, as a non-conformist, buckle down to succeed in his new role as the Rocket Man?

You’ll have to read the book yourself to find out, but for me the ending came together as smoothly as Elton John’s song Harmony.   I look forward to the next good read from Hazelgrove.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

rocket right

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