Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Charlie and the Chocolate FactoryTitle:  Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Author:  Roald Dahl

Paperback:  176 pages

Published:  1964

ISBN:  0140328696

acquired:  I bought it at our St. Vincent DePaul thrift store.

Challenges:  Welsh Reading Challenge

“I stood there shouting, ‘Burp, you silly ass, burp, or you’ll never come down again!” -Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, page 112

For me, this was either my second or third reading of Roald Dahl‘s children’s classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  I remember reading it a few years ago with the kids, but I’m not sure if I read it by myself as a kid.  But whatever the number of reads, it is easy to say this book is fantastic fun… especially to read aloud with a child.  As Mags and I read it, we took breaks at the departure of each child to watch the particular scene from the Tim Burton’s movie adaptation (and occasionally from the Gene Wilder version, as well). 

Most people know the basic premise of the story:  Charlie Bucket and his family are very poor, barely having enough money for food, let alone candy.  Little Charlie gets one chocolate bar a year for his birthday, which is falls a few days after Willy Wonka, greatest candy-maker EVER, announces that he has placed a golden ticket in just FIVE of his candies, and these tickets will grant the winning child and up to two parents entry into his mysterious and fantastic factory, as well as a lifetime supply of chocolate.  Charlie and Grandpa Joe hold out hope that they have just as much chance to get a ticket as anyone, and when the first four tickets are found by beastly, spoiled, selfish children, they almost give up.  But then Charlie spots a dollar bill half buried in the snow, and rushes to buy a couple of Wonka’s Whipple Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delights, saving the rest of the money for his family, and finds the ticket in the second bar. 

Roald Dahl creates a world in which children aren’t safe, which I think appeals to kids because they DON’T feel safe.  In their particular position, they’re subject to the whims and fancies of the adults around them and have very little control over their lives.  Readers, particularly young readers, see these over-indulged children who get everything they want which, at first blush, is something most kids would love.  However, as the book progresses, we watch as each child suffers an accident which their own self-centeredness is a direct cause.  Violet rips the meal-in-a-gum from the drawer and chews it, ignoring Wonka’s warnings, and ends up a giant blueberry.  Veruca Salt refuses to take NO for an answer, in fact is inflamed by being told she can’t have one of Wonka’s squirrels, and goes in the nut room to claim one anyone, ending up tossed into the garbage chute by leader of the squirrels who judges her to be a “bad nut”.  In the end it is the considerate and well-behaved Charlie who is rewarded.  Even when Dahl shows the children leaving the factory in one piece, they are still not escaping unscathed, but instead will retain some scarring for the rest of their lives.  Violet, for instance, is still purple, while Mike Teavee has been over-stretched and is now very tall and thin, about whom Wonka makes an almost-callous remark that every basketball team in the country will want him.  I think Charlie and the Chocolate Factory could fit in the fable category, as it is a cautionary tale with a lesson.

The best part of this book, in my opinion, was cuddling up with Maggie, who is ten and won’t let me do this much longer.  She’s in her last semester of Elementary school and will, no doubt, be “too cool” to lay in bed, snuggling and being read to by her mom.  Part of the book was also read at the library, which drew attention from a few people, which gave Mags the chance to tell them about the book.  I will always have warm memories of this book, which was even good enough to draw my 15-year-old into the room for her favorite part, which is the quote I included.  For all these things, and for making me fee like a kid again while reading it, I give Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl 5 out of 5 candy stars :-)

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This book is my first book read for The Welsh Reading Challenge 2010.  Roald Dahl was born in Llandaff, Wales, which is part of the Cardiff cosmopolitan area.  Roald Dahl day is September 13th, his birthday, every year. Check out The Official Roald Dahl website where you can learn more about the author, his books and even play games.  Mags and I did the Wonkanator, a math game, and the “find the differences” game for a while this morning before she left for school, taking the book with her.

Of Bees and Mist by Erick Setiawan

Title:  Of Bees and Mist

Author:  Erick Setiawan

Paperback:  405 (Advaced Reader’s Edition)

Published:  August 2009

ISBN:  9781615233502

Acquired:  Received from Barnes & Noble’s First Look online book club

Challenges:  ARC Reading Challenge 2010, New Author Challenge 2010

“If you have something to say, then say it,” said Meridia.  “I know you’ve been talking to Mama behind my back.”

A smile slow and calculating parted the girl’s lips.  The liveliness in her eyes extended to her mouth, which now took on a delight almost to fiendish for her thirteen years.

“You’re wearing… the necklace Mama gave you.  You wear it three, four times a week.”… Malin’s laugh leapt up with contempt.  “You’re just like the rest of them.  So easily fooled.  When I first met you, I thought you had it in you to stick it to her….  Can’t you see how cheap that necklace is?  I wouldn’t be surprised if she fished it out of  a garbage bin.  And yet you wear it like it’s the most precious thing you own.”

“I wear it because I like it.  Mama was generous enough to give it to me.”

“Have you listened to yourself lately?  Every other sentence you say is ‘ Mama this and Mama that.’  It makes me sick to hear you go on!  Well, she’s not your mother and she never will be.  Why do you bend to her every wish?  Why does everyone?  If you only knew the things she says behind your back.”

 -Of Bees and Mist by Erick Setiawan, pages 128-129

Of Bees and Mist by Erick Setiawan is descibed on the back of the book as an adult fable, and I had to Google “fable” to understand how they could call it this, as my previous understanding of the term was “a short story told for the purpose to entertain an audience while teaching them a life lesson.”  You know, “Moral of the story is…”  But Of Bees and Mist is not a short story, and I’m not exactly sure if it’s got a moral. 

According to Google, there are two specific definitions of “fable” that can apply to this book:

A fable is a succinct story, in prose or verse, that features animals, plants, inanimate objects, or forces of nature which are anthropomorphized.

A story about mythical or supernatural beings or events.

In Of Bees and Mist, Setiawan tells the story of two families of strong matriarchs who are brought together by the marriage of Daniel and Meridia.  Eva, Daniel’s mother, is a larger-than-life personality with poise and charm and sweeps everyone up into the palm of her hand by her charisma.  Once in her grasp, however, she expects them to do her bidding and never argue or suffer the consequences.  She takes particular aim at her own husband, Elias, as well as her youngest daughter, Permony, of whom she has always seen as competition for her husband’s affection.  She continually nags, berates and cajoles them for differing reasons and effects.  With Elias, she peppers him with swarming bees at all hours, particularly at night when he’s trying to rest (she naps during the day so she can keep at him) until he breaks from exhaustion and flies off the handle.  As to Permony, Eva treats her as the whipping girl and gets out her frustration and irritation on the young girl.  When Meridia comes along and takes up Permony’s cause, expresses her own opinion and shows herself to be both beautiful and intelligent, Eva can’t stand it.  She levels her sights to destroy her new daughter-in-law.

The second mother in the equation is Ravenna, who has gained a reputation in their small town as not being quite right in the head.  A great deal of the time, Ravenna lives in her own world, mumbling her own private language to herself while constantly cooking for no one in particular.  She lives her life behind a veil of forgetfulness, hiding from a past no one will talk about.  However, occasionally she finds her way to the surface, and is a force to be reckoned with.  Her essence and spirit has lasting power and Meridia is able to sustain herself in between Ravenna’s moments of sanity.  Whereas Eva has a vile and evil presence that drives people to bitterness and contention, Ravenna has a soothing and calming effect, bringing peace with her and driving out Eva’s bees.  It is between these two women that the battle of Good versus Evil seems to play out.

Along with the bees that pour from Eva’s lips to attack those at whom she directs them, there are other supernatural elements.  There are the three different mists that are characters in their own right in the book.  The white mist that encases the house that Meridia grew up in which keeps it the temperature and hearts within the home cold.  The yellow mist that comes in the evenings to take Gabriel, Meridia’s father, away to his mistress’s house and the blue mist that brings him back in the mornings.  There is a ghost that inhabits the mirrors, as well as fireflies that visit, protect and guide Meridia, and roses and marigolds that seem to war for dominance over Eva’s lawn.  AND, there is Hannah, Meridia’s best friend from childhood, who returns for visits with her as an adult when times are hard for her.  No one ever sees Hannah, but I don’t think she’s Meridia’s imaginary friend.

The worst evil Eva commits is to make a deal with a man whom she knows is wicked to marry her daughter in order to profit monetarily from the match.  Worse yet, when her daughter confesses to discovering the man to be part beast (a pig-man), and to raping young girls in their basement, Eva sends her back to him.  Telling her daughter she doesn’t want a scandal surrounding her name.  For Eva, saving face and her pride are her most precious treasures.

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Honestly, Of Bees and Mist by Erick Setiawan is a complex story with many facets.  One of the things I found most amazing was that Setiawan hung so many guns on every room of a mansion in this book, and fired them all.  There are no strings left untied, everything was used.  Another thing I was impressed by reading Of Bees and Mist is the difference in storytelling between Western and Eastern cultural style.  This book really showed off the Oriental thought process of fluidity, connectivity and moments of experience, whereas in the Occidental custom, storytelling and philosophy is linear and cause-and-effect.  Because of this, Of Bees and Mist doesn’t follow the “this-then that-then that happened” but was more like friezes in the lives of the characters within, with the balance of their lives being weighed out in the end.

I may re-read this book later… I haven’t decided.  There were just so many aspects of the story that I think I’d could still get more out of it.  Overall, Of Bees and Mist by Erick Setiawan is a fantastic story that sweeps the reader along.  I was surprised how much time and pages went by as I read.  Though I’m not exactly sure why I’m not giving this a 5 out of 5, it’s still a great book, and so I’m giving it 4 1/2 out of 5 stars.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne

Title:  The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

Author:  John Boyne

Paperback:  215 pages

ISBN:  9780552773805

Book Challenges:  War Through the Generations World War II Reading Challenge

‘I’m Shmuel,’ said the little boy.

Bruno scrunched up his face, not sure that he had heard the little boy right.  ‘What did you say your name was?’ he asked.

‘Shmuel,’ said the little boy as if it was the most natural thing in the world.  ‘What did you say your name was?’

‘Bruno,’ said Bruno.

‘I’ve never heard of that name,’ said Shmuel.

‘And I’ve never heard of your name,’ said Bruno.  ‘Shmuel.’  He thought about it.  ‘Shmuel,’ he repeated.  ‘I like the way it sounds when I say it.  Shmuel.  It sounds like the wind blowing.’

‘Bruno,’ said Shmuel, nodding his head happily.  ‘Yes, I think I like your name too.  It sounds like someone who’s rubbing their arms to keep warm…  I’m nine,’ he said.  ‘My birthday is April the fifteenth nineteen thirty-four.’

Bruno’s eyes opened wide and his mouth made the shape of an O.  ‘I don’t believe it,’ he said… ‘my birthday is april the fifteenth too.  And I was born in nineteen thirty-four.  We were born on the same day… We’re like twins,’ said Bruno.

-The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne, pages 109-110

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne is a story of friendship told through the eyes of Bruno, the nine-year-old son of a concentration camp Commandant.  Uprooted from friends and the only home he’s ever known, Bruno hates his new home in “Out-With,” his mispronunciation of Auschwitz, and makes sure everyone knows it.  But one day, when he goes out exploring the area around his house, he meets a boy his own age on the other side of the fence where everyone wears striped pyjamas all day.  The two quickly become friends, and meet as often as possible at the same time and spot everyday from then on.

One of the things I like about this book is Boyne’s layered subtleties.  Bruno, the naive and sheltered innocent, passes along clues of his mother’s infidelity, drinking and depression, as well as the competition that goes on between Gretel, his twelve-turning-thirteen year-old sister, and his mother for the attention of the young Lieutenant Koltor.  Bruno witnesses but can’t quite grasp the difference between him and his family and the people on the other side of the fence, asking different people about it with varying degrees of failure to get a satisfactory answer.  His father tells him the others aren’t people -not really, not in the way we think of.  The Lieutenant calls them a derogatory name that is never passed along in the book.  Gretel comes the closest to answering him, failing only because she herself doesn’t understand it, either, telling him that the people on the other side were Jews and they were The Opposite, and The Opposite hate the Jews.

There are a few things that just got under my skin with this book, however.  For instance, if these people are German, then I assume they speak German in their thoughts as well as conversations with one another.  I found it mildly irritating that Bruno would think “Auschwitz” would sound like “Aus mit” (the direct translation “Out-with”).  Or that he would hear “Der Führer” and think people were calling Hitler “Das Wut”.  Also, there are a lot of repetition in the book.  Okay, I get it… Father’s office is “Out of bounds at all times with no exceptions.”  I got that the first time.  And I caught it on page 1 that Bruno had some stuff that belonged to him and were nobody else’s business.  Another thing I really wish Boyne had added to the book was how Bruno and Shmuel would have spent their birthday.  No doubt Bruno would have had a party with cake and a big dinner, but how would he have shared the special day with his “twin”?

Boyne’s storytelling in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is reminiscent of Scout’s recounting in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, though not as well-done nor is Bruno as developed as a character as Scout was.  In Boyne’s attempt to reach as broad an audience as possible, the story is a bit like thin gruel.  Everyone can digest it, but it hasn’t got very much flavor.  If you are looking for a good book that glimpses the lives of the people during Nazi Germany, I’d recommend The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.  The writing is magical, the storytelling point-of-view is unique, and the depth of even the tertiary characters are better than Bruno’s.

Still, I’m passing this book on to my kids.  I think it’s a good book to introduce young and reluctant readers to the subjects:  The Holocaust, racism, hate, friendship, loyalty, love.  I think 4th and 5th graders, particularly boys of that age, would enjoy this book the most.  For me, a mom with a children the same ages as Bruno and Gretel (not to mention the same relationship as the bickering siblings, as well), I found Bruno to be an exasperatingly annoying little whiner at times. 

I give The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne 3 out of 5 stars.  It’s an acceptable read, but for me, as forgettable as Bruno found his three best friends for life.   In a year, I doubt I’ll even remember their names.

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In 2008, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was made into a movie.  I’ll have to put it on the top of my Netflix Queue, it looks fairly good.  Maybe they’ll address the birthday issue for me in it.

Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron with Bret Witter

Title:  Dewey:  The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World

Author:  Vicki Myron with Bret Witter

Hardback:  277 pages

ISBN:9780446407410

That’s life.  We all go through the tractor blades ever now and then.  We all get bruised, and we all get cut.  Sometimes the blades cut deep.  The lucky ones come through with a few scratches, a little blood, but even that isn’t the most important thing.  The most important thing is having someone there to scoop you up, to hold you tight and to tell you everything is all right.

For years, I thought I had done that for Dewey.  I thought that was my story to tell.  And I had done that.  When Dewey was hurt, cold, and crying, I was there.  I held him.  I made sure everything was all right.

But that’s only a sliver of the truth.  The real truth is that for all those years, on the hard days, the good days, and all the unremembered days that make up the pages of the real book of our lives, Dewey was holding me.  He’s still holding me now.

-Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron with Bret Witter, page 271

*sniff I am not going to cry

Dewey Readmore Books was one of the luckiest felines in the world, but his life didn’t start out so hot.  In fact, it started out very cold, when he was dumped into the book drop box of the Spencer Public Library on the coldest night of the year.  When author and then assistant director of the library, Vicki Myron, and her co-worker Jean Hollis Clark found the eight-week-old shivering gray ball of fluff, his foot pads were frost-bitten.  It wasn’t until after giving him a warm bath, through which he purred non-stop, that they discovered he was actually orange, he had been so dirty.  After working through a bit of red tape and the cat charming the hearts of the library board, one member at a time, it was decided he would live there and become the Spencer Public Library cat.

Called Dewey after the inventor of the Dewey decimal system, used by libraries as a way to organized books effectively, it bacame official after allowing the town to vote on his name.  “Readmore” was added by the Children’s Department and “Books” gave his name an official and stately feel.  Not only was his name a reflection of his living arrangements, but turned out to be an auspicious challenge “Do we read more books?”  Spencer, Iowa answered yes, and library attendance rose dramatically.

Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World tells how this small cat, this extraordinary feline, came along just at the right time and helped provide the bridge between people, gave hope to those who were down, lent his ear to the lonely, and loved every single person, from infants to the handicapped to the elderly, and made each of them feel special.  He loved them through their hard times and, in the process, put Spencer, Iowa on the map of the world. 

I really enjoyed this book.  Funny story on it, though…  Originally, I bought a copy when it first came out.  I saw the bright-eyed kitty on the cover and was compelled to pick it up.  After reading the description and the first few pages, I was hooked and had to buy it.  Being from a midwestern small-town, and a farming community to boot, I could relate to the people and the feel of the story-telling.  The book sat on my TBR shelf for over a year.  Then last week I decided I wanted to read it.  After reading Homer’s Odyssey, I was in the mood to read another touching kitty book, but when I went to look for Dewey, he was no where to be found.  Poo!  And I so wanted to read it!  I gave up and decided to go to the next book on my short stack, but I couldn’t stop wanting to read Dewey.  So I went to my small-town library and checked out The Small-Town Library Cat.  After reading the book, I think this is all very Dewey… lol.

Besides being touching and heart-felt, Dewey is written from the heart of a librarian.  I love Myron’s description of how we picture a library:

When many people think of a library, they think of a Carnegie library.  These are the libraries of our childhood.  The quiet.  The high ceilings.  The central library desk, complete with matronly librarian (at least in our memories).  These libraries seemed designed to make children belive you could get lost in them, and nobody could ever find you, and it would be the most wonderful thing. -page 118

She also beautifully answers the fears many have that books are a dying genre, and libraries with them…

And when you walk into the library, you still notice the books:  shelf after shelf and row after row of books.  The covers may be more colorful, the art more expressive, and the type more contemporary, but in general the books look the same as they did in 1982, and 1962, and 1942.  And that’s not going to change.  Books have survived television, radio, talking pictures, circulars (early magazines), dailies (early newspapers), Punch and Judy shows, and Shakespeare’s plays.  They have survived World War II, the Hundred Years’ War, the Black Death, and the fall of the Roman Empire.  They even survived te Dark Ages, when almost no one could read and each book had to be copied by hand.  They aren’t going to be killed off by the Internet.  And neither is the library.  -pages 163-164

I could not help mentally drawing a comparison between Dewey and Homer’s Odyssey, the other cat book I read recently.  Is there a need for two cat books?  Doesn’t it get redundant?  I mean, both started out their lives being rejected and unwanted, and both found a niche in the hearts of almost everyone who met them.  So how are they different?  Well, both cats are unique individuals.  They had similarities, but where as Homer changed Gwen’s world, and those in her orbit to a lesser extent, Dewey’s life was much more public.  Gwen writes about how her life was blessed when she saw value in an eyeless kitten and decided to build her life around him, where as Vicki writes about how Dewey touched lives, gave hope and helped heal a community and beyond.  Both have very different and worth messages, and it makes me hug my own kitties and pause to think what they have done for us, as well.  Did I save them? or did they save me.

It’s not much of a spoiler to tell you that Dewey passed away.  The language of the book gives you that.  I only add that here because I know there are some people who want to know that before choosing to read a pet book.  He didn’t die a horrible, painful death or anything… honestly, Vicki’s own life stories made me run through more hankies than Dewey’s death.  What was more heart-tugging was how far-reaching the news of his passing was and what he meant to so many people from his own small-town and those far away from it. 

I give Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron 5 out of 5 stars.  I also recommend you check out Dewey’s website at http://www.deweyreadmorebooks.com/  There are videos there of the Dew himself, as well as other tid bits :-)

Find your place.  Be happy with what you have.  Treat everyone well.  Live a good life.  It isn’t about material things; it’s about love.  And you can never anticipate love. -page 270

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

Title:  The Namesake

Author:  Jhumpa Lahiri

Paperback:  291 pages

ISBN:  9780618485222

For being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realize, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy – a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts.  It is an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what had once been ordinary life, only to discover that that previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding.  Like pregnancy, being a foreigner, Ashima believes, is something that elicits the same curiosity from strangers, the same combination of pity and respect.

-The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, pages 49-50

My first experience with the Ganguli family happened two years ago when I brought the DVD copy of the movie home from the library.  I thought then that it was a beautiful and rich story, and was excited to find out it was also a book.  After a few months of picking it up and putting it back, I finally bought a paperback of it from Waldenbooks about a year or so ago, but it sat on the shelf since then… calling to me whenever I looked in the general area of the bookshelf where it sat.  And after reading Confessions of a Shopaholic, I decided it was time for something a little more lasting and meaningful, so I finally began the journey and story of Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli, and their children Gogol and Sonia.

When thinking about how to describe The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, the word that keeps coming to mind is “quiet”.  Lahiri slowly weaves a beautiful tapestry of the love and living and feelings of being an immigrant family.  The different customs and how the culture of the land in which you live can so overtake you and change you in ways you can’t even realize.  First and foremost, it is a love story:  The love of a man and wife, the love of parents for their children, the love for one’s family, and the love of one’s homeland.  It’s also a story of the journey we all must take of self-acceptance, and, after that, the acceptance of others.  Of course, the “Indian-ness” of it is also beautiful and intriguing.

One of the things I find fascinating from this book is the realization that all people everywhere share the burden of growing up, of culture, and of the hopes and expectations of their parents.  For the majority of us, we caring these burdens among our own people… fellow humans who share similar experiences in this and this helps us not feel so alone.  However, for those who have left their native lands, there can be a constant ache and isolation as they endure the struggles of life without the ability to lean on someone who can understand how they feel.  What’s more, the first generation born in another land are even more isolated, having one foot in the old and new country, they can neither relate to their parents who have no understanding of the way things are in their adopted homeland, nor can they fully relate to their peers who either don’t have any concept of their home life or they find it a curiosity.

Interestingly, after reading this book, it has made me take a second look and given me a deeper respect for Maggie’s dad, who left his own homeland of Vietnam more than ten years ago and has recently become a naturalized US citizen.  Not that I didn’t have respect for him before, but rather gained a bit more empathy for him.  It’s also given me another perspective with Maggie, who made a passing comment recently how she sometimes wishes she was either all Vietnamese or all white, as being both sometimes makes her feel outside of either culture.

For it’s quiet beauty and it’s lasting effect, I give The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri 4 and a 1/2 out of 5 stars.

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards

Title:  The Memory Keeper’s Daughter

Author:  Kim Edwards

Paperback:  401 pages

Date Published:  2006

Publisher:  Penguin Books

ISBN:  0143037145

The head crowned.  In three more pushes it emerged, and then the body slid into his waiting hands and the baby cried out, its blue skin pinking up.

It was a boy, red-faced and dark-haired, his eyes alert, suspicious of the lights and the cold bright slap of air.  The doctor tied the umbilical cord and cut it.  My son, he allowed himself to think.  My son.

“Where is the baby?” his wife asked, opening her eyes and pushing hair away from her flushed face.  “Is everything all right?”

“It’s a boy,” the doctor said, smiling down at her.  “We have a son.  You’ll see him as soon as he’s clean.  He’s absolutely perfect.”

His wife’s face, soft with relief and exhaustion, suddenly tightened with another contraction… he understood what was happening… “Nurse?” the doctor said, “I need you here.  Right now.”

…”Twins?” the nurse asked.

…This baby was smaller and came easily… “It’s a girl,” he said, and cradled her like a football… The blue eyes were cloudy, the hair jet black, but he barely noticed all of this.  What he was looking at were the unmistakable features, the eyes turned up as if with laughter, the epcantha fold across the lids, the flattened nose… A mongoloid.

-The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards, pages 15-16

When Norah Henry goes into labor during a blizzard (I know, very Lifetime Movie, right?), Dr. David Henry is forced to deliver their children himself.  There is only one other person present at the delivery, the office nurse, Caroline Gill.  When David realizes that his newborn daughter has Down’s Syndrome, he passes her to Caroline with the directions to a “home for the feeble-minded,” and the name of the person to talk to there.  His intentions are to tell his wife, who is passed out from the anaesthetic gas, about their daughter’s condition when she comes to, however, when the moment arrives, he lies to her and tells her the girl is dead and her body sent to be buried in the family cemetery on his partner’s farm.  In her grief, Norah plans and announces a memorial for the lost child, “Phoebe,” and informs David of all this after it’s been made public, sticking him fast to the story he told her of the baby’s death.

Caroline, after seeing the deplorable conditions of the place David has sent his daughter to be dumped off and after being informed that the person to whom she was to speak no longer works there, decides to keep Phoebe.  Caroline, now in her early 30s, has spent her whole life waiting for her life to begin, waiting to be someone and to make a difference, she takes Phoebe and moves to Pittsburgh to raise her as her own.

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards is the unfolding of the outcome of David’s decision.  It shows how this one secret, and really, much more that David has kept all his life, erects a wall between him and his family.  In his attempt to spare his wife and son the pain of having a daughter and sister who’s condition he believes will be a burden on them their entire life, he has only substituted one pain for another.  By the time he realizes his lie has caused more heartache than the truth ever could, his family has become individuals, islands unto themselves, lonely and feeling like they could never be good enough for the rest.

Because this book does a great job at recreating the sentiments of the time period toward special needs children, there are times when what’s being said is offensive.  My two older girls have special needs, and when the nurse in the Pittsburgh hospital asks Caroline if she really wants her to save Phoebe’s life, it rankled me as much as it did Caroline.  The book doesn’t crank out a happily ever after scenario, nor does it become an “Oh my God, yet another tragedy” soap opera, instead it presents a plausible, heart-felt outcome.

Things to keep in mind if you plan to read this book:  It is a real look at what life is like raising a child with special needs, and raising that child into adulthood.  It is a lifetime of events, and therefore can seem long, but it doesn’t drag.  Also, it does have heavy and sad moments, the character’s don’t do “the right thing” and there are no heroes… except maybe Paul and Phoebe, and even then maybe just Phoebe.

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards can help the reader have more compassion for caretakers of special needs children, as well as having a moral that the truth is always the better way to go, that the best of intentions is often the surest and straightest path to Hell.  I give it 4 out of 5 stars.

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P.S.  Do NOT watch the Lifetime movie of this.  It is officially the WORST book to movie EVER! EVER EVER EVER EVER EVERI give that POS movie NEGATIVE infinity out of 5 stars.  It made the characters appear flat and shallow, it changed parts of the story that didn’t need changed and it was just plain crap.  Anyone who says they didn’t like the book because the characters were shallow and selfish, I have to wonder if they really read the book or watched the movie.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

Title:  Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Author:  Jamie Ford

Hardbound:  290 pages

Date Published:  January 27, 2009

Publisher:  Ballantine Books (div of Random House)

ISBN:  9780345505330

At the next mess hall, lunch had finished.  Mrs. Beatty had him wash and wipe down trays while she coordinated with the kitchen manager on needed supplies and menu planning.  “Just hang out if you get done early,” she said.  “Don’t go wandering off unless you want to stay here for the rest of the war,”  Henry suspected that she wasn’t joking and nodded politely, finishing his work.

By all accounts, the mess hall was off-limits to the Japanese when it wasn’t mealtime.  Most were restricted to their chicken shacks, although he did see people occasionally slogging through the mud to and from the latrine.

When he was done, Henry sat on the back step and watched smoke billowing from the stovepipes fitted into the roofs of the makeshift homes – the collective smoky mist filled the wet, gray sky above the camp.  The smell of burning wood lingered in the air.

She’s here.  Somewhere.  Among how many people?  A thousand?  Five thousand?  Henry didn’t know.  He wanted to shout her name, or run door to door, but the guards in the towers didn’t look like they took their jobs lightly.  They stood watch for the protection of the internees – so he’d been told.  But if that were so, why were their guns pointed inside the camp?

It didn’t matter.  Henry felt better knowing he’d made it this far.  There were still a chance he’d find her.  Among the sad, shocked faces, maybe he’d find her smile again.  But it was getting dark.  Maybe it was too late.

-Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford, page 157

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford is a heart-touching tale of Henry Lee; the son of a prominent, traditional Chinese community leader who’s left his heart in the homeland; called “white devil” by his peers as he goes off to an all-white school on “scholarship” (translation – he does all the janitor work for the privilege of attending the school) where he’s bullied, heckled and harrassed on a constant basis as the only Asian student, that is, until Keiko, a Japanese-American girl, begins to “scholarship” with him; he is also father of Marty, with whom he struggles to communicate or even have much of a relationship after the death of Henry’s wife, Ethel, Marty’s mother.  As the story moves back and forth in time between 1986 to 1942, the reader is able to watch the unfolding of the young, innocent love Henry discovers he has for Keiko, a love that is forbidden, and could even get him disowned, by his traditionalist father, who sees Keiko as just a relative of those people invading and destroying his home.

Their love is undeterred by the war, even when all people of Japanese decent are rounded up and sent away to live in relocation centers (concentration camps) for the remainder of the war.  Henry promises he’ll wait for her, even until she’s an old woman… he promises to bring her  a cane if it takes that long.  However, being children, things are not always so easy or so lasting as young Henry finds out.

The discover of personal belongings left behind by residents of Nihonmachi (Japantown) in the basement of the Panama Hotel offers Henry the opportunity to open up and share with his son, and to heal the rift that had started between Henry and his own father, who made him the man and father he became, despite his desire to be different.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a quiet book, but deeply moving.  It explores racial issues of the 1940s, both those between Caucasians and Asians and blacks, but also between Chinese-Americans and Japanese-Americans, and between Issei (first generation Japanese immigrants) and Nissei (second generation Japanese-Americans).  The book addresses how traditional culture has had to give way to contemporary culture.  It also touches on the culture of jazz, and offers music as a unifying agent… something that all cultures can share and appreciate.

One of the things that I enjoyed about Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is that it inspires the reader to exploring history further, beyond the covers of the book.  It offers a vignette of American history and life, but it doesn’t preach or teach.  Ford could have very easily turned Hotel into a soap box and spoken out  against the unconstitutional suspension of the civil rights of American citizens by removing them from their homes, robbing them of their property and detaining them without just cause simply because of their genetic heritage.  This would have been a valid argument to have made, but Ford leaves the moral interpretation to the reader.  He could have turned it into a history lesson, but, instead, provides enough information for the reader to do his or her own homework.  Which I did.

And, I apparently found the same documentaries as Ford.  I recommend the following for better understanding of this book:

  • Time of Fear- a PBS documentary about the experiences of both the Japanese-Americans sent to relocation camps in Arkansas and their Caucasian and Black Arkansan neighbors.
  • Unfinished Business – The Japanese-American Internment Cases – while the civil rights movement didn’t really get going until the 60s, not every Japanese-American went along with the government’s unlawful treatment of it’s own citizens.  This documentary shows some of those attempts of civil disobedience.
  • Nanking- Performed by stars such as Woody Harrelson, Mariel Hemmingway, Jürgen Prochnow, Stephen Dorff, and Rosalind Chao, among others, this documentary dramatically tells the story of the Japanese Army’s invasion and occupation of Nanking, China.

All three of the videos will help you get a better understanding of the background of the book, but especially Nanking.  It will make all the difference in understanding where Henry’s dad is coming from and help you not to see him as a mean, bigoted, old man.

Well researched, but never feeling “studied,” Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford will allow you to step into the life and culture of another, and to see the world from a different angle, while still provide you with the entrancing escape for which most of us disappear between the covers of a book.  I give Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet 4 egg rolls and a fortune cookie(which, I guess, is 4 1/2 stars out of 5… lol)

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The following video is Jamie Ford talking about Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and what sparked his desire to tell the story.

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Don’t forget, I’m giving away my copy of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet! Leaving a comment here on the review post is your official entry, but check out The Giveaway Announcement for details on how to get bonus entries and when the contest ends!

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