Saturday, October 23, 2010

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford - A Review

I posted a week or so ago about hearing Jamie Ford speak about writing Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. I promised to post a review after I read it, figuring it would be several weeks before I'd have time.

I have to regulate the fiction I read because I have no will power. Once hooked into the story, I let everything else slide until I'm finished with the book. Since I still have a day job, and if I want to keep up with my writing, I have to ration the amount of fiction reading I allow myself to do, or else I never get anything done.

However, Jamie Ford's book sat on my bedside stand tempting me, and I made a pact with myself that I could read it now, but only after I got my assigned daily list of tasks done each day. What a concept! I should have tried that years ago.

Not only that, but I think Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet--which I'll just call Hotel for the purpose of this blog--is better read that way, because it's a narrative that will stay with you, and you get to savor it, to think about each part in the intervals between .

This is the story of a young Chinese American boy, Henry Lee, on the cusp of adolescence just before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Henry attends a private school where the only other Oriental is a Japanese girl named Keiko. They become fast friends, and when Keiko's family is uprooted and sent to an internment camp, Henry must not only deal with his loss, but he also must deal with his father's attitude toward the Japanese in general and this girl in particular.

This book reminds me of a gold filagree brooch. Gold, because gold doesn't tarnish, and this story is as old as time. Filagree, because the strands for Henry, his father, and his son, Marty, all follow parallel lines as they wind around, echoing the aspirations, unspoken love, and cultural gulfs each father experiences as he deals with his son. And the ones each son experiences as he deals with his father.

Jamie Ford said that Hotel is a love story, and it is. But it's more than Henry and Keiko's story. Love is there in abundance, and we see it through the lens of Henry's young heart, mind and memory.

We see the deep bond of friendship between Henry and Sheldon, a jazz musician who busks on a corner in the international district of Seattle.

We see the love Henry's mom has for him as she strives to mitigate her husband's unbending rules for bringing up their son.

We see the love of Keiko's family for each other and for America, in spite of the raw deal America has given them.

We see the love of Ethel, the absent character who appears in the flesh only at the end of the story. I wonder about Ethel. I won't give anything away, but I wonder, was Henry was too innocent and naive? Was Ethel too biddable as a young Chinese woman? Or, was her appearance on the hotel steps perhaps her own little rebellion? If so, I like her more for it.

Hotel is a haunting story, beautifully written. As a writer, I'm blown away by the way it's plotted. Jamie Ford has done a masterful job of structuring the story to give you clues that you accept without even knowing the significance they will have as the story goes along. Like the everpresent I Am Chinese button Henry's father makes him wear as protection against the anti-Japanese phobia existing on the west coast right after Pearl Harbor. You realize it has implications far beyond that stated purpose. And the jazz theme. A whole essay could be written on that alone.

Each character is drawn with care--mostly with love, even though they might not be completely loveable. I would say that Chaz is the only one Henry doesn't remember with affection. I particularly liked the way Jamie Ford drew Mrs. Beatty, a minor character that we never even get on a first-name basis with but who has a knowing, pivotal role in the playing out of this love story. Bless her husky heart, she's a good woman.

I thank Jamie Ford for this bit of Seattle History. I live in Northwest Washington, and I'll never think about the Puyallup Fair Grounds in the same way again. Yes, there was bitter along with the sweet.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Finding Your Inner Matryoshka

Looking back on my progression as a writer, I can see that I've gone through several different stages. I've thought about it a lot, and I call the process the Matryoshka Syndrome, after the round Russian dolls that nest one inside the other. Each doll represents a stage.

Stage 1 is the Clueless Stage.

Here are some of the symptoms:

1. You write loooong letters but seldom mail them.

2. You love crossword puzzles, puns, clever dialog in movies.

3. You scribbled stories or poetry as a child.

4. You always have your nose in a book.

5. You carry on a mental narration of things you see and do.

6. You dream in narrative.

7. You're the one picked to write the Christmas Pageant or office skit.

Stage 2 really isn't a stage. It's more of an epiphany.

This is when it hits you: you're a writer.

It's like everything is divided into Before Writer (BW) and After Writer (AW)

My Stage 2 hit when my mother died. Before then, I thought all the little narratives I did during the day were because I was always composing a letter to her. My epiphany came as I was mentally looking for words to describe the pool of yellow blossoms under a palo verde tree. I came up with saffron shadow, but I also came up with the realization that I was a writer.

Stage 3 I call Rosy Closet Dweller.

You've discovered you're a writer, and even though you never use the word to describe yourself, you think you're good at it.

You churn out stories, but you're not ready to share with anyone.

It's kind of like a nestling bird. She knows she's going to fly someday, but first she has to grow the right kind of feathers. Only with the writer, in order to grow those feathers, she's got to leave the safety of her nest.

The closet writer has to leave her rosy closet.

Stage 4 is called First Sharing.

This stage is the most crucial in a writer's development. It's like presenting your baby to view, expecting everyone to find him beautiful, and they say to you, What an ugly baby. We're so sorry."

If criticism is too harsh or not balanced with praise and encouragement, the writer may never advance to the next stage. My writing group has a maxim that we follow in giving criticism: 2 positives before the first negative. For this stage, that maxim has to be observed.

This is the time when the emerging writer needs to discover that there's more to learn. She won't want to learn if her spirit is crushed by criticism that is beyond her capability to understand. If she makes it through this stage, she's ready to tackle Stage 5.

Stage 5 is the Apprenticeship.

Like a carpenter's apprentice, you've got to learn the skill before you can buld the forms that are constantly in your head.

The way to learn to write is by writing. This is the time to write and put it out there for people to criticize. But, the writer at this stage needs to choose her critics wisely. This is the time to find a supportive writing group, people you trust who will teach without trying to quash your unique voice.

A writing group is great for several reasons.

1. You're associating with people who understand what it's like to have to write.

2. It pushes you to write. Like Weight Watchers, if you have someone to report to, you're apt to be more productive.

3. You can set critiquing standards.

4. You'll be learning the craft by lessons and practice.

5. You'll grow more used to criticism, and criticism is what will make you a better writer. It's like a pruner's shears or a refiner's fire.

Stage 6 is the Armadillo Stage.
By this time, you've grown a thick skin, and you're ready for a Critique group. The same criteria that applied to your writers group should be applied to your critique group: you need to find a circle of people you can trust. But in this instance, they need to be people whose writing you admire.

In stage 6, when you share your work, you say:

Don't pull any punches, because I want this to be good.

Tell me when it's not working.

Tell me when a passage, no matter how brilliantly written, is superfluous.

Tell me when my characters are cardboard.

There aren't any hard and fast rules about critique groups. Here is mine. It consists of Tanya Mills, Terry Deighton, Ann Acton, Christine Thackeray and me.

We named ourselves Writeminded, and we wrote bylaws governing the number of members (5), frequency of meetings (weekly), who would be chair (we rotate, each taking a 2-month stint), how much each can offer per meeting (5 pages), and how long sessions will last (2 hours).

We meet each Thursday. On Tuesday, everyone emails that week's passage to the other members, so by Thursday we're all ready to discuss. With five people we only have time to read 3 submissions each time, but we critique all. We don't read our own work. The chair gives out the assignments ahead of time of who will read whom.

Though we're great friends, we don't do any visiting. This is work time. We get right to it, and when we're done, we each email the marked-up passages back to the author.

Two of my critique group are members of my writer'group. The other two I met at a writers' retreat. Tanya lives in Eastern Washington, Christine lives near the Oregon border, and Terry, Ann and I live near the Canadian border. However, distance isn't a barrier, because we meet by Skype.

We all have our strengths:

Tanya is great with dialogue and with paring away excess verbiage.

Terry is the grammarian. She not only knows what punctuation or usage to use, she knows why.

Ann is our emotion lady. If she doesn't feel it, she lets us know.

Christine sees the big picture. She sees themes and lets you know if you're straying from your theme or defaulting on your contract with the reader.

I think my strength is vocabulary--recognizing when a word isn't quite right for the context.

I remember that inner Matryoshka when one of my group says, "I don't buy that. You haven't offered motivation." I don't get offended. How can I when she's doing me a favor? If she doesn't buy it, the reader (or agent or publisher) isn't going to either.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Photo I Didn't Get of Jamie Ford and Me

Jamie Ford, New York Times bestselling author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, spoke in Stanwood, Washington yesterday, and I drove the 45 minutes to that small town way off the interstate to hear him.

I hadn’t any idea what to expect, but the ad in the newspaper—tiny and more than a week before the fact—announced the gathering to be on the third floor of the Norgaard Cultural Center, a century-old building that used to be an I O O F hall. I thought there might be thirty or forty people there.

My first clue I was wrong was when I couldn’t find a parking place in any of the parking lots within two blocks. I didn’t worry about finding my way to the Cultural Center, I just followed the two ladies discussing Jamie Ford’s book as they walked purposefully in a northerly direction.

After reaching the center, I climbed two sets of stairs and found Jamie in the lobby. He and I almost shared a podium at the Whitney Awards where he won Best General Fiction when Counting the Cost won in the romance category. I attended. He didn’t. Last night he explained that he was traveling at the time, and we chatted about that until it was time for him to speak.

By that time the room was so full that I had to carry my own chair in from a stack in the hall. There must have been 200 people—and remember, Stanwood is a small town. When Jamie asked how many had read his book, probably three quarters raised their hands. Wow! What would an author give to have that response?

Jamie gave a wonderful talk, full of humor and gentle good sense. He spoke of being drawn to love stories and used Casablanca as an example, saying that half of the story was played out off screen. He explained that the viewer wasn’t privy to the most intimate moments, but that absence only made the story more poignant and powerful because the viewer’s own experience and imagination filled in the blanks. I was thrilled to have this nationally acclaimed writer speak out for restraint in sexually explicit prose. Less is more, he said, and I agree.

The kicker of the evening was to find what had prompted this bestselling author to be in out-of-the-way Stanwood. Each year Stanwood Public Libraries hosts a community read. Books are nominated and a committee selects a book to be read by everyone in the community. Then they invite the author to come and speak, first at the high school and then at the cultural center. Jamie said he was impressed with the process-oriented questions asked by students. The community had lots of good questions, too.

All the way through, I was cursing my senior memory for forgetting my camera. A picture with me and Jamie Ford would be wonderful for my blog. But wait—I had my phone! I stood in a loooong line to have Jamie sign my book and asked if I could have our picture together. He graciously assented, and I had a lady behind me take our picture with my phone…and then I didn’t save it. Not only my memory, but my technical maladroitness betrayed me here. Ah well.

But it was a great evening. I wrote a few weeks ago about the state of flux the publishing world is in right now, with ebooks and self publishing on the rise, but last night only reinforced my conclusion that the story’s the thing. People will always welcome a well told story.

I haven’t read Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet yet, but luckily I’ve dealt with all my promised reads and have a clear slate to begin. I’m looking forward to it, and I’ll review it here when I’m finished.

Follow this blog! I'll soon be posting my review of Jamie Ford's book, and I'm going to post my healthy fried egg soon. You won't want to miss that gem. Plus, I'll be writing about the Northwest Writers Retreat.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Liz and the Limb Cast

I had never heard the term limb cast until the day before I found one. It all started when my husband, Derrill, and I sent for a DVD course on geology. Shortly after that, he bought a rock saw and began cutting rocks in two. After that, he got a polisher, and soon we decided we'd try rockhounding when we took our fall ramble to see our son in Nevada.

We loaded the 2quads on the pickup, hitched the trailer on behind, and headed out.

Nevada is a rockhounds' mecca, and we were wildly successful when we went looking for wonderstone and jasper around Fallon.

On our way back to Washington, we decided to stop in Central Oregon and spend a day there. But what to look for? That's when I read about limb casts in the guide book.

A limb cast is a particular type of agate. Agates are formed in volcanic voids. Water percolates into the void and silica dissolved in the water crystalizes into agate. Other trace minerals give agates their color. With limb casts, the void is created by a tree being covered with hot volcanic ash. The tree limb burns away, but the volcanic material around it forms a mold of what the limb used to look like. Agate forms inside the cavity, and aeons later, some rockhound finds the treasure.

So, flush with our success at the wonderstone site, we decided to go look for limb casts. The guidebook used discouraging words at some sites--it's been picked over, you might only find chips, etc.--but not at the site around Palina. That's where we headed.

I might mention that the time we picked to go to Nevada and Oregon, they were having record Indian summer temperatures. Derrill and I both are athritic, so walking for a long ways isn't an option. Add to the fact that we're used to walking at sea level and this is 4500 feet.

What I'm trying to say is that searching for limb casts on the hillsides around a ravine was tough, hot, going. I was carrying a rock pick and a spray bottle of water to wash off stones with, but mostly I used the spray bottle on myself to cool me off.

I found some small chips and a larger piece about 4" by 1/2". Derrill used a pick and shovel to mine the bank of the ravine and found nothing. By mid afternoon, we finally decided to pack it in and head back to town where the guidebook said we could see an agatized pinecone that was beautiful.

We loaded the quads and headed back on the very primitive road. Derrill stopped to check the tiedowns, and I looked down at the ground by the side of the road and saw something shiny peeking out of the dirt. Thinking it might be another chip, I got out and picked it up. Lo and behold, it was a limb cast. It was pink agate and weighed about 2 pounds.

As soon as we got back to the RV park I went on line to look up limb casts. I found out that pink limb casts are highly prized. Well, I'll tell you, I highly prize this one. Never mind that I found it while sitting comfortably in an air conditioned pickup. I had sweated and panted, stumbled and creaked for the five hours previous, and I smile every time I look at it.

I didn't take a picture of it, but you can see the marks of the bark on the outside of the pink agate.
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