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Nancy Pearl

Nancy Pearl's Reviews for 8/15/09

Jeremy Richards
08/15/2009

Sometimes, the world is so overwhelming that we can't contain it with simple descriptions. That's when we turn to fiction to evoke experiences bigger than ourselves. Today, Seattle–based writer and librarian Nancy Pearl shares two books that employ fiction to tackle serious issues — one steeped in a troubled local history, and one with a lighter tone that conjures a whole new universe. Nancy Pearl talks with KUOW's Jeremy Richards.

In 1986, at age 56, Chinese–American Henry Lee watches as modernization comes to the derelict and long abandoned Panama Hotel, long the gateway to Japantown in Seattle. As a new owner prepares to remodel the building, she discovers in the basement the belongings of 37 Japanese–American families, left behind when they were sent to spend the World War II years in the now–infamous internment camps. This discovery evokes in Henry memories of his own experiences of the war years, and especially of his first love, Japanese American Keiko Okabe, a fellow student at the private school he attended, whom he never saw again after she and her family were sent to the camps. What Ford does so nicely in "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet", his first novel, is give us a picture of the war years from the point of view of a Chinese–American boy, a young man whose non–English speaking father tries to deal with the strong and frightening anti–Japanese sentiment by making his son wear a button that says "I am Chinese," in the mostly futile hope that Henry can thereby escape the prevalent racism. Although I've read many novels that touched upon the discrimination against Japanese–Americans during WWII, Ford's book presents a point of view that I'd never encountered before. Ford does a fine job transitioning the reader between present and past; those sections set in the present day explore Henry's relationship with his own son, as well as his attempts to finally locate Keiko and put the past to rest. Ultimately, this is a book about memory and regret. It reminds us that the great events of history take place not only on the world stage, but also reverberate throughout the lives of individuals, even the young and innocent. Fans of David Guterson's "Snow Falling on Cedars" will definitely want to check this out. Ford based part of his book on real events: the Panama Hotel was remodeled, and the belongings of Japanese American were found, so a nice bonus for readers of this book who visit Seattle is that the Panama Hotel offers tours of the building, as well as great tea and coffee.

Whenever I feel the need for something light and humorous yet still complex and thoughtful enough to keep me reading, I turn and return to Terry Pratchett's "Discworld" novels. By my count, there are 32, not including his books for kids and teens. And of all the characters who inhabit Pratchett's imaginary universe — the witches, a talking suitcase, Death, Death's granddaughter Susan, the librarian at the Unseen University who's an orangutan, and various wizards — my favorites are the members of the Night Watch police force led by Sam Vimes. In "Feet of Clay," Sam and his cohorts, who include a werewolf, a zombie, a dwarf, and several lovable if minimally intelligent humans, have to try to stop a killer who leaves shards of what appears to be clay behind him. What I love about all of Pratchett's novels (and it's so evident in "Feet of Clay") is his brilliant imagination; how detailed and complex and real he's made Discworld. Who else could have thought of a Dwarf–Bread Museum, in which some of the items on exhibit are drop scones — a perfect weapon to throw at your enemy? For some reason, that just makes me chuckle. Pratchett is always writing about something serious under the surface of, or by means of, the humor he employs. So in "Feet of Clay," there are echoes of Isaac Asimov's "I, Robot," a history of golems, ideas about race relations (a topic that runs through many of the "Discworld" novels), personal responsibility, man's relationship to God, and so on. These days, what makes reading Pratchett's novels such a bittersweet experience is that his dazzling mind is being lost to early–onset Alzheimer's. When I learned that, I thought of how Iris Murdoch, another extremely intelligent writer, was felled by that dreadful disease.

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